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Old Town    Elsewhere in Riga    Getaways

Old Town

As a center of commerce in the Middle Ages, there was lot more money floating around Riga than in Tallinn or Vilnius. It shows. The merchant houses, guilds and churches have that extra touch of class and wealth. Two or three hundred years ago there was pressure for Burghers and Barons to keep up with the Joneses, so to speak. And, in this town, they had the money to do it. Efforts by the rich to outdo one another left old city Riga a rich legacy of buildings, courtyards and squares.
A good place to start any tour is atop the spire of St. Peter’s Church (J-3), Skarnu 19; tel. 735-6699. Open:10-17; closed Mon. The church was destroyed during World War II. The result is a 13th century church with a somewhat botched Soviet renovation job. The main reason for coming here is the viewing platform around the spire; you can walk 360 degrees around the tower to see the whole of Riga laid out before you. This is a perfect way to get your bearings straight before you actually start pounding the cobble-stoned streets.
From St. Peter’s, you can head north to another landmark—the Dome Cathedral (H-2). This bloated, red-brick cathedral is one of the largest and most distinctive houses of worship in the region. Begun in the 13th century by Latvia’s Teutonic conquerors, the Dome Cathedral is an impressive testament to centuries of German domination. It has gone through one reconstruction after another and is now a curious mishmash of Romanesque, Gothic, Baroque and other styles. The church walls are crammed with plaques celebrating the glories of Latvia’s medieval rulers. Among the distinguished Crusaders buried in crypts here is Bishop Albrecht, a key figure in subduing the local heathens in the early 1200s. Scores of other notable citizens from the past are also buried here, including most of Latvia’s archbishops and architects. After the 16th century Reformation, plots inside the church were simply sold to the highest bidder. The Dome is also renowned for its gigantic church organ, complete with 6,768 pipes. It’s the fourth largest organ in the world.
Just a few minutes northeast of the Dome Cathedral is the famous House of Cats (H-2), on Meistaru. This is the building with cat sculptures perched on the top of its roof. The sculptor of the pair of felines fell to his death in the course of putting them in place. But that isn’t the only intrigue surrounding these figures. The owner of the house had commissioned the cats after his membership in the Big Guild across the street was rejected. Initially, they were positioned with their rear-ends facing the guild and with their tails straight up. Taking this as the insult it was intended to be, guild members sued in court to have the animals shifted into a less offensive posture. They won the case.
Good examples of medieval dwellings are the Three Brothers (H-1), on Maza pils 17, 19 and 21, in the northwest corner of the old city. No. 17 was built in the 1400s; it’s the oldest stone house in Latvia. No. 19 is an architecture museum.
Another good museum is the Museum of War, inside the Powder Tower (H-2), at Smilzu 20; tel. 722-8147. Open:10-18. It’s a somewhat overbearing, historically confused exhibition. But this actually makes the place all the more interesting. Many exhibits were first set up during Soviet rule to celebrate the supposed military superiority of communist states. Since then, something much closer to the truth has been superimposed over the Soviet propaganda—though the Latvians also sometimes fudge historical events a bit in their favor. The museum includes an array of weapons used by and against Latvians over the last 700 years—armor, muskets, shells and more. There’s also a fine exhibit on World War I—a war in which Latvian territory featured prominently. Most exhibit labels are in Latvian, but special guides can be arranged.
No trip to Riga is complete without visiting the Freedom Monument (C-4), at the beginning of Brivibas street. It has come to symbolize Riga itself in the way the Eiffel Tower has come to symbolize Paris. Built in the thirties to commemorate Latvian independence, it’s a puzzle why the Soviets didn’t tear down Milda when they took over in 1940. It was designed by one of Latvia’s most renowned sculptors and even the Sovs may not have wanted to risk the natives’ wrath by tearing it down. During the Soviet era, a running joke was that the monument was a travel agency, because anyone who dared place flowers at its base got a free, one-way ticket to faraway Siberia.

Other Old Town Sights

House of Black-heads and the Town Hall: (I-2) The 14th century guild house and Town Hall, on Melngalvju nams, have miraculously risen from the ashes of war. These buildings and the cobblestone square around them were destroyed in a 1941 bombing raid. Their restoration virtually from scratch began only in 1995. The area is already attracting crowds, even though finishing touches to the buildings and their surroundings are still being made. Currently, the black, boxy Occupation Museum sits awkwardly right up against the ornate House of Blackheads; the city wants to move the museum and dynamite this ungodly looking shoebox in which it’s located, but some Latvians say it’s a sacred building in its own right and should stay put. Adding to the historical schizophrenia is that a monument to the famed Latvian Riflemen is just a few meters away, as are a number of unsightly Soviet-built office complexes.

Riga Castle: (H-1) Now home to Latvia’s president, this old city castle was built by German knights in 1330. On several occasions the ruling Germans had to barricade themselves inside as disenchanted townsfolk tried to storm the castle. You can get the best look at it from the Vansu Bridge, spanning the mighty Daugava River (C-2).

St. Saviour’s Church: (H-1) A little piece of Britain in Latvia. This Gothic-styled church, built in 1857, was constructed on ten meters of gravel brought from Britain by English merchants. The church, at Anglikanu 2a, belongs to the Church of England. English-language services every Sunday.

Swedish Gate: (G-2) An old-city gate built by ruling Swedes in 1698; it’s the only gate still standing. Sadly, most of Riga’s old-city wall was torn down in the 1800s to improve the flow of traffic in the economically booming city. Nearby is the Powder Tower, the only one of 18 original towers still standing. See the Russian cannonballs that stuck in the tower (G/H-3) during attacks in the 16-17th centuries.

Mentzendorff’s House: (I-2) A 17th century house on Gricinieku 18. Open during the day, it gives visitors a good sense of how Riga’s rich and famous lived 300 years ago.

Elsewhere in Riga

Architecture: Riga is an architectural enthusiast's dream. The bombing of Germany during World War II devastated much of Europe's best Art Nouveau architecture, or Jugendstil. This means Riga has, in some ways, been carrying the torch for Art Nouveau lovers in Europe. But it's not just Art Nouveau: in Riga, there are also fine examples of Nordic Gothic, Classical Symbolism, Constructivism and more. But it's Jugendstil that leaves its imprint everywhere; around 40 percent of Riga center is in some way, form or shape Jugendstil. Some of the most acclaimed buildings in this style are on Elizabetes and Alberta streets. Buildings by architect Mikhail Eisenstein (father of director Sergei Eisenstein) are at Elizabetes 10a and 10b (C-4). Others are at Alberta 2, 2a, 4, 8 and 13 (J-4). There's also a wonderfully eclectic, fun-loving building just around the corner, on Strelnieku.

Bastion Hill memorials: (G-3) Five memorial stones in a central Riga park-a chilling reminder of Soviet crackdowns on Riga in 1991, when five people were killed. Some of the victims were hit by stray bullets as Soviet troops stormed an Interior Ministry building nearby. There's also a museum devoted to the events of that fateful day, located at Kramu 4 (I-2).

Circus: (D-4) Merkela 4, tel. 721-3279. Riga's circus is the only one in the Baltics. The stars of the show are bears, horses, cats and dogs. Open from October to April.

Open Air Museum: (I-3) Brivibas 440, on the outskirts of Riga; tel. 799-4515. Open:10-17. Founded in 1924, this open-air museum is one of the oldest in Europe. The idea was to recreate 18th and 19th century life in Latvia. On display is traditional, full-scale village architecture. Smiths, potters and beekeepers practice their ancient trades before your eyes. On the shore of Lake Jugla, the museum spans some 100 hectares. 

Motor Museum: S. Eizensteina 6, tel. 709-7170. Open:10-18; Mon. 10-15. From the old city, it's an 8 km drive out on Brivibas, then turn right and go 2 km.; it's the boxy, grayish-silver building on the right. You can also take bus No. 21 from Brìvìbas. Bliss for car lovers, this museum may be a bit of a bore for everybody else. Includes antique cars made in the USSR and Latvia. There are also American and European gems, including pre-war Mercedes, a 1942 Harley-Davidson and early-model Fords. The highlight is the display of cars used by Soviet dictators, including Stalin's iron-plated Tchaika and the dramatically crumpled limousine Leonid Brezhnev rammed into a truck in 1980 while joyriding the streets of Moscow.

Occupation Museum: (B-3) Strelnieku laukums 1, tel. 721-2715. Open:11-17; closed Mon. History in Latvia, as in the other Baltics, can be a can of worms. This museum makes a good attempt at shedding light on the tragic, sometimes complicated history of Latvia in the 20th century. There's nothing frivolous about this museum: this is a place to ponder the horrors of mass deportations and murder during the German and Soviet occupations. Ironically, this museum-dedicated in large part to debunking the myth of the Soviet workers' paradise-sits just behind a monument to the Latvian Riflemen, the revolutionaries who played a central role in ushering the whole Soviet era in. Among the exhibits here is a replica of a barracks in a Stalinist prison camp and objects confiscated from Latvian Jews before their execution. The exhibitions here are sometimes disturbing. But knowing this history is certainly a key to understanding Latvia. www.occupationmuseum.lv 
       A related museum is the Jewish Museum at Skolas 6 (C-4), which chronicles pre-war Jewish life in Latvia. There were 80,000 Jews here before 1940; most were killed during the Nazi occupation, 1941-1944. On sale at the museum is Fragments of the Jewish History of Riga, which provides details of old Jewish neighborhoods in the capital, plus maps. The only synagogue left in Riga is at Peitavas 6-8 (J-3).

Riga Zoo: Meza prospekts 1, tel. 751-8669; in Mezaparks. Open:10-18. Anyone who assumes a zoo established under the Soviets can’t be any good assumes wrong. The Riga Zoo is remarkable, distinctively set in a pine-tree forest. This is a staggeringly varied zoo, with all your standard zoo fare (polars bears and the like), plus some extremely well thought through centers, like one for insects. It’s also a good place to see animals you’re not likely to see at Western zoos—like Tibetan wild donkeys. The zoo and the surrounding Forest Park are favorite strolling grounds for area residents. www.rigazoo.lv 

The Mezaparka area has one of the largest collections of Jugendstil residential houses in the world, part of the first garden city urban development in Europe, conceived by Riga city planners at the turn of the century.

Getaways

Sigulda: The Sigulda region, some 50 km east of Riga, with its lakes and dramatic hillscape, is known as the Switzerland of Latvia. The area is a paradise for hikers; great trails in the valleys of Gauja National Park. The Latvian bobsled team trains here. Other great sites: the ruins of Sigulda Castle, the Sigulda Manor, and the Sigulda Church. If you're a castle buff, there are several ruins and restored castles within walking distance of one another. The best among them is the Turaida Castle. Don't forget to ask someone in Sigulda about the legend of the Turaida Rose. www.sigulda.lv 

Jurmala: A great place in summer, where Rigans come to play on the lovely beaches. Nicknamed the Baltic Riviera, Jurmala is just 20 km from Riga and easily accessible by car, special taxis and train. For more details on Jurmala, try the Tourist Information Center at Jomas 42, tel. 776-4493.
British travel writer E.C. Davies described Jurmala in the 1930s. His description still holds true today: "Take a sky of softest blue; spread beneath it twelve miles of fine, white, pebble-free sands; and a laughing blue-green sea flecked with lazy, sun-kissed waves. Back it with a wide belt of scented, aromatic pinewoods, their boles flushed pink in the strong light of the north, their dark green crowns casting checkered patterns upon their carpet of last year's warm brown needles. Then scatter among the forest trees a lovely little colony of villas, painted in delicate pinks, greens, yellow and blues, and here you have the recipe from which the Baltic Riviera, Jurmala, is compounded." www.jurmala.lv 

Rundales Pils: What's a 18th century Italian palace doing on an open Baltic plain? It's worth coming here to find out. The palace, 60 km south of Riga and 12 km west of Bauska, was designed by Francesco Bartolomeo Rastrelli-who did the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg.

Cesis: Cesis (pop. 21,000) is considered quintessentially Latvian. Some 75 km north of Riga, it's home to the 700-year-old St. John's Church, burial place of many prominent German crusaders. There is also the 13th century Cesis Castle, as well as the famous Cesis brewery. The Latvian flag came from here, and Cesis was site of a decisive battle that drove German forces out of Latvia during its independence war (1918-20). www.cesis.lv 

Bauska: Bauska (pop. 11,700) is known for the Bauska Castle. The Holy Spirit Church is also here. Bauska is only 70 km south of Riga, near the Lithuanian border; also a good starting point for exploring Pilsrundale Palace. www.bauska.lv 

Daugavpils: Many Latvians would probably want to wish Daugavpils away. Latvia's second city (pop. 125,000), Daugavpils represents what most Latvians fear most: lifeless architecture, former Soviet military barracks converted into pensioners' dormitories, and very little Latvian heard anywhere. Located about 170 km east of Riga near the Russian border, the population of this city was nearly emptied by Soviet deportations, to be replaced by workers brought in from Russia. There are a few notable sites in town, like the Catholic St. Peter's church; Daugavpils is in the heart of the largely-Catholic Latgale province. It's also home to a few beautiful Russian Orthodox churches, as well as an imposing fortress-considered by Latvians as a symbol of Russian, and later Soviet, domination. www.daugavpils.lv 

Jelgava: Latvia's fourth city, Jelgava (pop. 75,000) has seen its better days. It was once capital of the Duchy of Courland and its schools educated three of Latvia's five presidents. These days it is a manufacturing town without much glitter. It is home to the Jelgava Palace, designed by Francesco Rastrelli-the same guy who designed the palace at Pilsrundale. Jelgava Palace is the resting place of many Dukes of Courland. St. Anne's Church, built in 1619, has an inspiring altar painting by Janis Rozentals. www.jelgava.lv 

Jekabpils: A small city on the Daugava, Jekabpils (pop. 31,000) boasts some of the best-preserved old houses in the region-many from as far back as the 17th century. The Krustpils castle is a major attraction, as are the many preserved churches. Jekabpils is located on the Riga-Daugavpils highway, about 120 km east of Riga. www.jekabpils.lv 

Koknese: While Soviet industrial policies devasted much of the area along the Daugava River, the ruins of Koknese castle survived. The castle, built in the 13th century and destroyed in the Great Northern War in the 1700s, is surrounded on three sides by water thanks to Soviet attempts to use the Daugava to generate electricity. The castle is fabled to be home of Laimdota, the true love of Latvian epic hero Lacplesis. Koknese is on the Riga-Daugavpils highway, 80 km east of Riga. www.koknese.lv 

Kolka Cape: Kolka Cape is the tip of Latvia, where the Baltic Sea meets the Gulf of Riga. The area is home to the last of the Livs, a Finno-Ugric people who dominated the area before the arrival of Baltic tribes and Germanic crusaders. By law, commercial developments are illegal in many of the small Liv villages here, a probably futile effort to preserve the Liv way of life. The Liv town of Mazirbe has a museum devoted to the Liv people.

Lielvarde: Lielvarde is the supposed location of the final battle between Lacplesis and his arch-nemesis, the Black Knight. The author of the legend, Andrejs Pumpurs, did much of his writing here, next to the Daugava River-which explains the Pumpurs Museum in Lielvarde (pop. 6,500). There are also several castle mounds in the area. It's along the Riga-Daugavpils highway; about 40 km from Riga.

Salaspils: Salaspils, about 20 kilometers from Riga, was where Nazis murdered some 100,000 people, including most of Latvia's Jewish community. There are moving memorials here to the massacre.

Ventspils: This city is the busiest port along the Baltic Sea and, one could argue, is the lifeblood of the Latvian economy. Ventspils (pop. 44,200) is also the main transit point for Russian oil exports. Up close, the city is very interesting, and even includes an old town. There's also Ventspils Castle and the Maritime Museum. Tourism info at Tirgus 7, tel. 362-2263. www.ventspils.lv 

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