Riga, Latvia, is one of the finest cities in Europe and a largely undiscovered destination among travelers. During two weeks in the Baltic countries, Ruth and I ran into only a couple of Brits on business and no Americans. We spent most of our Baltic time in Riga and left wishing for even more.
Riga’s Central Market fills four ex-dirigible hangars and spills out into surrounding streets. It’s so ethnically interesting that I failed to take notes for fear I’d miss something as we wandered around looking at purely Latvian food, drink, and wares.
Riga’s art museums are as good as any in the world. There’s a degree of sameness in subject and execution to Latvian art, but this country’s distinct character and the genuine competence of its artists are abundantly displayed in the Latvian National Museum of Art where the man in the gift shop told me that Janis Rozentals and Vilhelms Purvitis, both unfamiliar to me, were the 2 most famous Latvian artists. When I mentioned the only Latvian painter I knew, Marcus Rothkowitz, the name drew a blank stare as did the artist’s American name–Mark Rothko. Perhaps he had never heard of him because Rothko came to the US from Daugavpils at the age of 10.
Old Town Riga is a compact, walkable neighborhood of still-used churches, cobblestones, buildings from many eras, and a joy to wander. We saw evidence everywhere, not just in Old Town, that Latvians are preserving their heritage–the Orthodox Cathedral’s gold domes are being restored, Old Town’s Bourse has just opened as an art museum, Riga’s Doma, the largest place of worship in the 3 Baltic nations, is covered with scaffolding, and Sigulda’s castles are being restored.
Old Town’s upscale, exceptional Hotel Neiburgs and its reasonably priced street corner restaurant are in an Art Nouveau building, which is not unusual in Riga. There are 800 of these, mostly in a ring around Old Town. It’s a miracle that so many Art Nouveau gems have survived. Konstantins Peksens was the architect of 200 of them, and his apartment has just been re-furnished in the period and turned into a fine museum where Günta, who has family in Seattle, gave Ruth an Art Nouveau chapeau to wear during our tour.
I’ve written about Riga’s 2 most unusual museums (the Kremlin’s car collection and the unforgettable,no matter how hard I try, Paul Stradin) in previous blogs. Others worth visiting display the history of photography in Latvia, its unique decorative arts (leather book covers, amber jewelry, etc.), and the National History Museum just upstairs from the Presidential Office on a castle site.
We learned from Zane in a visitor info office that a Tater Festival was scheduled for the upcoming Sunday at the Latvian Ethnographic Open-air Museum. The Museum proved to be a vast expanse of forest and hill on a huge lake. Buildings from all over Latvia, including its oldest church and many thatched homes and barns, have been moved here. The festival, full name Martin’s Day and Potato Festival, was a bit like our Thanksgiving mixed with Halloween. “The participants play folk games, dance and sing to ward off evil spirits,” says What to do in Riga?.
Then there’s the Opera House, a branch of Helsinki’s legendary Stockmann’s Department Store, The House of Blackheads, an abundance of well-tended parks. Riga is both sensational and inexhaustible.