Exploring the Baltic, Part 3: Riga: The Baltic’s Sweet Song
By Monique Burns
From the Polish capital of Warsaw, my explorations took me on a 2 ½-hour Air Baltic flight northeast to Riga, the tiny Latvian capital whose mighty gulf has been the envy of the Baltic for more than 800 years. Bombed by Nazis, then terrorized by the Soviets for five decades, Riga recently emerged as a 2014 European Capital of Culture, a stunning jewel box of a city with hundreds of restored Art Nouveau buildings, a reconstructed Old Town, a lush, tree-shaded canal, and superb restaurants showcasing the bounty of the sea and surrounding farmlands.
Steps from the ornate Latvian National Opera and the Central Station, I checked into the Opera Hotel & Spa, a cream-colored Art Nouveau building, built in 1886. The hotel has 112 spacious rooms, and a terrace-restaurant, Boulevard 33, overlooking Kronvalda Park. Through that leafy oasis, adorned with 104 species of foreign trees and shrubs, the Riga Canal flows to the Daugava River, then on to the huge, horseshoe-shaped Gulf of Riga and finally into the Baltic.
Not far from my hotel, on the outskirts of the Old Town, I lunched under the brick archways of Melnie Mūki, which is built on the ruins of an old cloister and whose name, appropriately enough, means “Black Monks.” Savoring superb locally sourced cuisine, including fresh-baked wheat and rye breads, velvety porcini-mushroom soup, slow-braised pork ribs in garlic, balsamic and cranberry sauce, and creamy panna cotta with wild berry sauce, was almost a transcendental experience.
Well-fortified, I strolled along the winding cobblestone streets of Riga’s Old Town, completely reconstructed, like Warsaw’s, after Nazi bombings. Among the notable buildings, dating from the 13th to 18th centuries, are the House of the Blackheads, an ornate brick-and-limestone structure originally built in the 14th century to house bachelor merchants, and the red-brick Dome Cathedral, where I sat mesmerized by a classical concert played on one of the world’s largest pipe organs, dedicated by Hungarian virtuoso Franz Liszt more than a century ago.
Not far away is the Art Museum Riga Bourse, a branch of the Latvian National Museum of Art. Housed in a 19th-century building modeled after a Renaissance-era Venetian palazzo, the collection includes Western European paintings from the 16th through 19th centuries, Oriental art, and European porcelain from the 18th through 20th centuries, including pieces from Germany’s famous Meissen Royal Porcelain Works.
At every step, Riga enchants. One sunny afternoon in Kronvalda Park, I boarded a long, flat-bottomed Art Nouveau canal boat, with old-fashioned upholstered cushions, burnished wood trim and picture windows, and lazily cruised the shady canal, home to sleek European beavers. As we emerged onto the broad Daugava River, the spires of four churches swam into view on the Right Bank—the Dome with its sturdy brick tower, St. Peter with its tiered spire, slender-steepled St. John and high-towered St. Jacob. On the Left Bank rose the glass-fronted “Castle of Light,” the new National Library of Latvia, a futuristic hill-shaped structure designed by architect Gunārs Birkerts.
From the reconstructed medieval buildings of Old Town on the Right Bank to the well-preserved 18th and 19th-century wood-frame buildings of the Pārdaugava area on the Left Bank, Riga’s architecture enthralls. But nothing can match the splendor of the city’s late 19th and early 20th-century Art Nouveau buildings. The largest collection in Europe, it includes more than 800 structures covering 40 percent of the center city, many concentrated along Alberta, Elizabetes and Streinieku streets. Riga’s version of northern Jugendstil, or National Romanticism, the pastel buildings with white trim feature sinuously curved lines, wrought-iron balconies, stylized animal, bird and flower motifs, and dramatic mythological figures.
Don’t miss the medusas in mid-scream on the cream-colored building at 4 Alberta iela or the elongated stone heads gracing the pale-blue facade of 10b Elizabetes iela. Both were designed by Mikhail Eisenstein, father of Sergei Eisenstein, who directed the landmark 1925 film “Battleship Potemkin.”
Mythological figures on Riga’s Art Nouveau buildings are not only decorative devices. Many spring from pre-Christian days when Baltic tribes worshipped various deities. Chief among them was Saule, goddess of the sun, whom farmers placated to ensure bountiful harvests. Today, see hundreds of decorative suns and sun-related artwork by Latvian artists, pore through scientific displays and even create your own sun sculpture at Saules Muzejs, the Sun Museum.
Riga is fast becoming a center of culinary arts, too. A cooking class and dinner with the chef of the Avalon Hotel restaurant began with a shopping expedition to the Central Market, across the street. There, in Europe’s largest market, five huge World War I hangars, which once housed the German kaiser’s dirigibles, are filled with the freshest foodstuffs from sea, river and farmlands, everything from fish and flowers to meats and cheeses, fruits and grains. You’ll also find amber from the Baltic, along with arts and crafts, there. After visiting the Central Market, it was no surprise that I had lunched so well at Melnie Mūki and at Valtera, or dined so sumptuously at Melnā Kaķa Mājas, the historic “Black Cat House” restaurant known for the two sculpted cats atop its twin towers.
Though Riga looks and feels like a fairytale kingdom, from World War II until the early 1990s, its citizens suffered mightily owing to its strategic position on the Baltic. The Nazis repeatedly bombed the city and killed virtually every Jewish citizen, and the Communists interrogated, tortured and killed hundreds of thousands of other citizens. Just east of the Old Town, on a guided tour of the new KGB Museum, the city’s former KGB headquarters, you’ll see interrogation rooms with bare bulbs hanging from the ceilings, dank cells crammed with narrow steel beds, an exercise pen topped with barbed wire and the cellar where Rigans were tortured. Evil emanates from the very walls, and you’ll emerge wide-eyed but wiser.
Fortunately, Riga’s tale had a happy ending. In Latvia, a country whose artistic repertoire includes three million folk songs, it’s traditional to celebrate special occasions with song and even to greet friends on the street by singing a few bars. When the sweet, gentle Rigans, and their fellow Latvians, finally drove out the Soviets they did it by singing folk songs. Some Soviet-bloc countries organized protest marches; others, street battles. But the cultural capital of Riga staged what’s known as the “Singing Revolution.”
IF YOU GO
Air Baltic has frequent flights between Warsaw, Poland, and Riga, Latvia, as well as flights throughout Europe. Log on to www.airbaltic.com.
Riga Card offers free public transport, plus discounts on museum admissions, shops, bars, restaurants and entertainment. Visit http://rigacard.lv/en.
Riga has many fine hotels, but here are two four-star choices:
Opera Hotel & Spa, Raina bulvāris 33, (371) 67-06-34-00, Riga, LV-1051 Latvia. Centrally located with well-appointed rooms, a spa, and a terrace-restaurant overlooking Kronvalda Park and the Riga Canal. www.operahotel.lv
Hotel Avalon, 13. Janvāra iela 19, (371) 67-16-07-51, Riga, LV-1050, Latvia. Across from the Central Market, this hotel offers 111 rooms, a restaurant and bar, and cooking classes. www.hotelavalon.eu
For innovative, locally sourced cuisine that Riga is becoming famous for, try:
Melnie Mūki, Jāna sēta 1, (371) 672-15-006 or (371) 29-97-97-29, Riga, LV-1050, Latvia. Steps from the center of Old Town, enjoy the best of Riga’s fresh cuisine in a warm, yet minimalist, setting of bare-brick walls and archways. www.melniemuki.lv
Melnā Kaķa Mājas, Meistaru iela 10/12, (371) 67-22-54-36, Riga, 1010, Latvia. In the historic Black Cat House, with its dark burnished woodwork, sample traditional Latvian fare with innovative flair. www.melnaiskakis.lv
Valtera, Miesnieku iela 8, (371) 29-52-92-00, Riga, LV-1050, Latvia. From pork with apples and rowanberries to rabbit with quinces and cauliflower, the finest foods served in simple dining rooms adorned with blond wooden tables, white chairs and contemporary art. www.valterarestorans.lv/en
Cruise Riga’s link to the Baltic Sea:
Riga By Canal, (371) 25-91-15-23, firstname.lastname@example.org. From lush Kronvalda Park, hop aboard Art Nouveau canal boats, both real and replica, and cruise leaf-shaded Riga Canal into the broad Daugava River, lined with new and centuries-old landmarks. www.rigabycanal.lv/en
Don’t miss these sights:
Art Museum Riga Bourse, Doma laukums 6, (371) 67-357-534, Riga, LV-1050, Latvia. A short walk from the Dome Cathedral, see European and Oriental masterpieces in a 19th-century Venetian Renaissance-style palazzo. www.lnmm.lv/en/mmrb
Saules Muzejs,Vaļņu iela 30, (371) 67-22-55-87, Riga, LV-1050. Artwork and scientific displays grace this modern museum dedicated to the sun. www.saulesmuzejs.lv/en
Riga Central Market, Nēgu iela 7, (371) 67-22-99-85, Riga, LV-1050, Latvia. Europe’s largest, with fresh foods of every variety, plus arts and crafts, in huge World War I hangars that once housed the German kaiser’s blimps. www.rct.lv/en
KGB Museum, Brīvības iela 61, (371) 202-58-881. Riga, LV-1010, Latvia. Opened in 2014, the city’s former KGB headquarters where Communists interrogated, confined and tortured Riga’s citizens. www.riga2014.org/KGB
For more information on Riga, Latvia, visit www.liveriga.com and www.latvia.travel. For more on the Baltic Sea Region, visit http://onebsr.eu/tourists/one-bsr-destination-guide.