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  • Writer's pictureMay Ha Li

Regaling Tales of Riga

Five whole days in Latvia and three of them in Riga! We couldn't contain our excitement! A lot of thought and research had gone into deciding which places we would visit and whether it was feasible to book ourselves on tours.


But first, allow me to give you a brief introduction to Riga, the capital of Latvia. Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia make up the Baltic States (or Sisters, as they are often called).  Riga is the largest city in these three countries combined and home to one-third of Latvia’s population. The city stands on the Gulf of Riga, at the mouth of the Daugava River.


Our apartment on Blaumana Iela 28 was old but very spacious. It was located centrally and ticked all the boxes when we looked up suitable accommodation on booking.com. Besides, we only paid about AUD 112 for four nights, which was a pretty good price. My friend Simon, his mother Vera, and I had separate rooms. We were in the upper end of the city, about a 15-minute walk away from the Old Town of Riga or Vecriga. Our street was very busy, thanks to the shops and restaurants on the ground floor and residential apartments on the upper levels.


Day 1: Tuesday 4 June 2019

As we were walking from our apartment to St. Peter’s Church, we saw the Freedom Monument. Unveiled in 1935, this 42-meter high monument symbolised the freedom, independence and sovereignty of Latvia. It was also to honour the soldiers killed during the Latvian War of Independence (1918 – 1920). The motto “For the Fatherland and Freedom” was inscribed on the granite base of the sculpture. A 19-meter column made of travertine (limestone) protruded from the base upwards to the sky. Right on top of it was the copper figure of Liberty with her hands raised high in the air holding three golden stars representing Latvia’s historical regions of Kurzeme, Vidzeme and Latgale.  





The next historical point we passed was the Swedish Gate (Zviedru Varti), built in 1698 after the end of the Polish-Swedish War. Riga’s medieval city walls used to have eight gates, but this is the only one that remains. It was named thus to commemorate Sweden’s occupation of Riga between 1621 and 1710, a period reckoned by some as Riga's Golden Age. The apartment above the Gate was the residence of the city’s executioner (bende), who would place a red rose on the window ledge on the morning of an execution. Today there are many apartments built into the Swedish Gate.



Perhaps the cutest, must-see site in Riga is the sculpture of the Town Musicians of Bremen created by German artist Krista Baumgaertel. The original sculpture was in the German town of Bremen, Riga's sister city. It was based on a fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm


A donkey, a dog, a cat and a cockerel, all way past their usefulness to their owners, were soon to be killed. They decided to run away to the town of Bremen to become street musicians and earn a living. However, they never made it to Bremen as they chanced upon a house where three thieves were having a feast and celebrating their loot. The animals stood one on top of the other (from largest to smallest) and made an awful noise to drive the thieves away. Then they lived there happily ever after.



On Skarnu Street in Riga, the sculpture of the Town Musicians of Bremen had a difference - it was created with a political subtext inspired by Mikhail Gorbachev’s Perestroika. The sculpture was presented to Riga in 1990 by its sister city Bremen. The animal pyramid was not staring through a window at the robbers’ feast. Instead, it was peering through two parted rods, the significance being that they were peering through the Iron Curtain, with both trepidation and longing for a brave, new capitalist world! There were countless tourists taking photos with the Bremen Musicians and touching them for good luck.



Having amused ourselves with the antics of the four animals, we moved on to another ‘animalistic’ icon, aptly named The Cat House (Kaku Nams). It was a large five-storey medieval building in Art Nouveau yellow with two copper cats placed on the two turrets at the opposite ends of the roof. Both cats had arched backs and raised tails pointing towards the house of the Great Guild. The wealthy tradesman who built this house had apparently been refused membership of the Tradesmen’s Guild of Riga, so out of spite, he placed two angry-looking cats on the turrets of the rooftops and pointed their tails towards the Great Guild. 



The next stop was the bustling, cheerful Livonian Square (Livu Laukums), which was nearby. It featured many outdoor cafés, and colourful flower beds designed like waves to remind us of the lost Riga River, which once flowed through here. Riga was obviously named after this river. 


For lunch, we picked a fine dining restaurant called Muusu. We read a recommendation for it in the Baltic Airways magazine during our flight to Riga last night. We got ourselves a table outside. Our entrée was a dish of exotic black squid ink ravioli. It was four fairly large parcels filled with zander. Served together with it were two prawns and they were all floating in some mild curry sauce. I didn't expect to find curry in Latvia! My main was a duck breast with fried beetroot puree, black salsify (a root vegetable) and leeks drizzled with a vanilla-cherry broth sauce. Simon and Vera shared venison with oven-baked onions, wheat grains, wild mushroom pie, wild berry puree and Madeira sage broth sauce.



I was very excited to see a cocktail on the menu with Latvia’s infamous Black Balsam liqueur in it. Black Balsam, on its own, has close to 50% alcoholic content and a very overpowering herbal taste that can send shockwaves to your tastebuds. It might feel a bit like drinking an alcoholic wasabi! In my Klavis Riga cocktail, however, it was mixed with a sour rhubarb liqueur, pomegranate extract and apple juice, thus reducing its impact. It was overall a very satisfying lunch, giving us a glimpse of creative, modern Latvian cuisine.



Then we headed to the Town Hall Square, where Riga’s most iconic building can be found: the House of the Blackheads (Melngalvju Nams)! Despite its politically incorrect name, it was anything but black. It consisted of two huge brick-orange and white buildings, which were very pretty and majestic. The façade was elaborately decorated with numerous sculptures, different coats of arms and paintings. This treasured building was first erected in 1344 as a meeting place for the Brotherhood of the Blackheads, which was a guild comprising all the unmarried, wealthy merchants, artisans, craftsmen, shipowners, and foreign traders in Riga. Their chosen patron saint was St. Maurice, traditionally depicted as an African soldier in a knight’s armour. Although he was African, he was a Christian Commander of the Legion of Thebes in the Roman army during the rule of Emperor Diocletian (284 – 305). He died as a martyr because he refused to kill fellow Christians.  



After entering holy matrimony, the bachelor members of this Brotherhood were promoted to the Great Guild and became part of Riga’s patrician elite, serving as councillors and respected figures of the city’s community. The Blackheads were well-known for the festivities they organised, not only for themselves but also for the whole city. 


We booked a tour of the House of the Blackheads for €6 per adult. It was a fascinating museum that displayed how this elite group of traders used to live. On the upper level, we saw the grand reception halls and ballrooms that welcomed royalty and presidents and hosted classical music concerts, theatre performances and operas with famous stars. On the lower level, we saw the offices, cabinets and workspace of the President of Latvia. The House of the Blackheads was the Presidential Residence from 2012 to 2016, while his permanent location in Riga Castle underwent renovation. 



The historical cellar was the only original part of the building that survived World War II.  We could see wall fragments, floors and wooden stairs that stood the test of time, some dating back to the 14th century. This is where we learned about the hypocaust, a heating system used before tiled stoves came along. Rocks were heated in a chamber in the cellar to produce hot air. The chimney released the smoke but the hot air was retained by closing the chimney hatch. A system of floor canals, wall tubes and hatches was then used to control the temperature and air flow to various rooms. It was quite a sophisticated and complicated system! 


Next, we were off to Riga’s famous Central Market. Its construction began in the 1920s. When it opened in 1930, it was believed to be Europe's largest and most technologically advanced market. This extraordinary market was constructed by reusing old German military Zeppelin aeroplane hangars left behind by the German army. They were so huge that only their top portions were used to create the frame for the market pavilions. Each pavilion sells specific categories of products: meat, fish and seafood, dairy, and grocery and vegetables. There was also a huge outdoor area with stalls that sold fruits and flowers. Due to its unique and creative architecture, it was included in the UNESCO World Heritage List, along with the Vecriga, in 1998.




After visiting the market, we walked back to the Old Town via the Daugava River. On the way, we saw the Railway Bridge, which connected the two sides of Riga. It was over 600 feet long and marked by five huge metal arches.


As we walked along the Daugava River, two monuments caught my eye. The first one was named the 1905 Bloody Sunday Monument. On 9th January 1905, the Proletarians rose against the aristocracy in St. Petersburg to demand change and better working conditions. This led to many of them being killed by the Tsar’s soldiers. 


The second monument was called the Latvian Riflemen. It was a huge, bulky, unmissable red granite monument with two figures holding rifles and standing back to back. It was constructed in 1970 in the typical Brutalist style of Soviet statues. It was originally dedicated to the Latvian Red Riflemen, who fought with the Bolsheviks.  However, there were also Latvian Riflemen who defended the country against the Germans during World War I, as well as the White Riflemen, who were anti-communist. While some Latvians found this monument repugnant and wanted it torn down when Latvia achieved independence in 1991, others thought it was still a tribute to the Latvians who fought against the Germans. The monument was retained and renamed: in 2002, its previous inscription “For the Latvian Red Riflemen” was changed to “For the Latvian Riflemen”.


What next? We had already seen quite a lot of Old Riga!  We wanted to revel in the fine arts, so off we went to the Latvian National Opera and Ballet Theatre to see what was on offer. As with all regal opera houses in Europe, Riga had a stately, Neo-Classical one. A characteristic feature of this Opera House was its unmistakable iconic columns that adorned the first level of the building. It was refurbished in the early 1990s and a new annex with 300 seats was added to it.


We were in luck!  Don Pasquale was currently being staged and we got ourselves three tickets for Thursday. The tickets were €35 each.


As the Opera House was located in Vermanes Park and Garden, which was quite near our apartment, we took a stroll around the garden. Opened to the public in 1817, it was the oldest public garden in Riga. This park was pretty large, covering an area of five hectares. Actually, the best way to see Vermanes Park was to pay for a boat ride through the canal that circumnavigated the park. Someone recommended this to us but we didn’t get around to doing it. It was a serene, tranquil park punctuated by statues of famous Latvian personalities and interesting sculptures. 



We walked home to drop off our purchases from the Central Market. We rested for a bit and then walked back to the Old Town for dinner. Since we had an expensive lunch, we settled for a very cheap dinner at this quaint little Russian restaurant called Pelmeni


It was a self-service restaurant specialising in dumplings with all sorts of fillings. We tried all of them. They were good! We found that the boiled dumplings were surprisingly better than the fried ones. I also ordered a ham and potato soup. The side serving on offer, which looked like ratatouille, was hot! Yes, chilli hot! I wasn’t expecting it to be that hot!  There were also sauces like horse radish and adjika (a spicy garlicky Georgian sauce) as condiments. Guess how prices were determined for most of the food. They were weighed!!! You pay according to how many grams you order!  Although it was a no-frills eating place, the interior was built to resemble a toadstool.  That was actually quite cute!  It was a pretty famous restaurant here. I saw it promoted by a YouTuber traveller when he was visiting Latvia.


Vecriga was bustling with life at night. There were just so many tourists! There were also many bars with American-themed décor, bands and music. Presumably, they get quite a lot of American tourists there. We dropped into Black Magic Café after dinner as Simon wanted to buy some gourmet chocolates. It was another famous tourist shop if you wanted fancy chocolates. Huge chocolate eggs covered with an intricate white lace design were displayed in the window. They were very pretty.



However, we also saw the grittier and sadder side of Riga. There were old, homeless men loitering on the streets of Old Town. We also witnessed a pretty upsetting incident.  An old, bent, beggar woman walked into Black Magic Café holding some wilted lettuce. She was trying to sell them to the people in the café. One of the staff gave her some money and took her out of the café. The staff member also got her a trishaw driver to take her home, but the poor old lady had great difficulty climbing onto to the trishaw because of her weak knees. 


Despite Riga being a very ‘westernised’ capitalistic Eastern European city, it still had pockets of poverty, especially among its elderly citizenry.


Day 2: Wednesday 5 June 2019

We spent the next day in Sigulda and returned to Riga two hours before sunset.  We decided to venture to the parts of Riga Old Town that we didn’t have time to explore yesterday and to get photos of the House of the Black Heads without yesterday's glaring midday sun.


We made our way to the far end of Vecriga to look for an extremely famous monument - the Three Brothers. However, we passed by a very cute sculpture of a huge armadillo designed by a Liene Mackus !  It was at a children’s playground. 



The Three Brothers is actually three houses (supposedly built by the descendants of the same family) that form the oldest dwelling complex in Riga. It represents a striking timeline of architectural trends because each house was built in a different century, signifying the developing construction of residential houses.

The Oldest Brother (white) was built around 1490, a time when Riga established close links with Dutch merchants for manufacturing and trade. The exterior of this building was characterised by crow-stepped gables (like steps leading up to a triangular roof) and Gothic decorations with a few early Renaissance details. It was among the oldest dwellings in ALL of Riga. The house had only one big room where manufacturing work, trade and everyday life took place. There was an attic used for storage. 


The Middle Brother (pastel yellow), built in 1646, was the richest of the three. It was one of the most typical but also one of the most modern dwellings of the 17th century. The architectural style of this brother showed influences from Dutch Mannerism (or Late Renaissance). You can see the inscription “Soli deo Gloria” (Glory to God alone! ) above its entrance. In contrast to the Oldest Brother, this one had a spacious room with large windows above the ground floor hall. There were also special residential premises in the yard side of this building.   


The Youngest Brother (pastel green) was the narrowest and the smallest of the three brothers. It was built in the second half of the 17th century in Baroque style. It had apartments on each floor, plus a very interesting façade element, which was that of a mask. It was meant to protect its inhabitants from evil spirits.


Do not miss this gem when you are in Riga.


From there we went to Castle or Pils Square and saw Riga Castle. Located on the banks of the Daugava River, the castle was founded in 1330 but had fortress walls and spacious annexes added to it over the years. It wasn’t a spectacular castle, but the Latvian government has been using it as its residence since 1938, so it must be functional! Today it is the official residence of the President of Latvia. Another part of Riga Castle was the Powder Tower. It was an imposing round tower with a height of 25.6 meters, a diameter of 14.3 meters, and walls that were 3 meters thick! It obtained its name in the 17th century when gunpowder was stored there. There used to be 11 canons placed inside the tower as well as a prison and a torture chamber.  It has since become the Latvian War Museum.



Our tour of Riga Old Town ended with us setting foot on Dome Square, where the Dome Cathedral was located.  This was the largest square in all of Riga's Old Town. Dome Cathedral’s official name was Riga Cathedral. It was commonly called the Dome Cathedral because the word ‘dome’ came from the German word ‘Dom’, which meant ‘cathedral’.  It is one of the most recognisable landmarks of Latvia, seen in countless tourist brochures. It is also famous for its weather vane. 


My memories of the Dome Cathedral were the tower catching the setting sun as it was around 8.30 pm.


Day 3: Thursday 6 June 2019

We spent the day at Jurmala and returned to Riga by train. We went back to the apartment and freshened up for Don Pasquale at the Latvian National Opera and Ballet Theatre. Unfortunately, it rained a bit, so we took shelter in shops to avoid getting too wet.


The interior of the Opera House was certainly very impressive and ornate, like most opera houses in Europe. It was pretty much a full house on this particular night.


The opera was a comedy. We were impressed by the singers, especially the lady playing Norina, followed by the young man playing Ernesto. In a nutshell, Don Pasquale is an old man who disapproves of his nephew’s relationship with Norina. To get his approval, the characters in the story go through this whole scheme of getting Norina to pretend to be a young girl from a convent and marry the old man, and subsequently obtain a ‘divorce’ so that she can eventually marry the nephew. The most striking feature of modern-day operas was the use of technology. Props were used minimally and graphics flashed onto the stage to form the backdrop where the characters were.  



It was quite late by the time the opera finished, so we headed to Pelmeni to eat more dumplings as a late dinner. 


The next day, we left Riga, drove to Liepaja in a hired car and spent two nights there.


I would certainly recommend that you visit Riga.  It has undoubtedly come a long way from its Communist days. With EU funds pouring in, it seems to be a pretty rich and progressive country now. And yes, it uses the Euro as its currency. Most Rigans in the service and hospitality industry speak English. Menus and signs are in English too, which was a relief. The traffic in Riga is not aggressive and public places are very clean. And Riga Old Town is charming as, so take a trip there! 



About the Author


May Ha is a Malaysian-Chinese who grew up in Malacca and Petaling Jaya, Malaysia. She has been a teacher all her life - In Malaysia, she taught ‘A’ Level Sociology; in Melbourne, where she migrated at the turn of the century, she teaches English to adult migrants. Up until 2011, she had travelled to only a handful of countries, mainly in South-East Asia, Australia, New Zealand, the US and Canada.  Opportunities to see the world were minimal back then as she had to take care of her elderly parents and could never take long holidays away from home.

 

When her beloved mother passed, she decided to work as a Casual Relief Teacher only so she could go on holiday whenever and for however long she wanted without needing any approval from her employers.  

 

May was 47 and still a European virgin. She had dreamt of visiting all those exotic and beautiful places in Europe that she always thought were out of her reach, but not for long!

 

The very first European city that she set foot in was neither Paris nor London, nor Milan, nor Venice. It was Helsinki! Her regular travel partner Simon, who often went to conferences worldwide, had a conference there and she tagged along. She was so excited that she was finally going to her dream continent! Although it was mid-March, 2011, and spring in the Nordic country, it was still terribly cold for her, but she saw snow for the first time and caught snowflakes with her tongue! That memorable trip also took her to Tallinn, St. Petersburg and Stockholm.

 

From then on, there was absolutely no looking back! To date, she has visited 40 countries!

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3 Comments


Arna Romancz
Arna Romancz
May 24

Wonderful overview of Riga May. I really like your photos not only of significant landmarks but also of food as well!

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Guest
May 24
Replying to

You know me. Food must always be meticulously documented.

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Guest
May 24

What an engaging narration of Riga in May’s inimitable style. One more interesting place to add to my bucket list. Do add some more of your trips to this blog - thanks May Ha Li 👌

Anita Mathew

24/05/2024

7:36pm

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