Driving due south, we took off from Tallinn, Estonia toward Riga, Latvia. It was an easy drive of less than 320 Km or ~ 200 miles on a mostly 2-lane highway in very good condition. The landscape along the way varied from farmland
to coastal woodlands,
interspersed with the occasional Baltic Sea beach.
After a pleasant drive, our Airbnb host welcomed us in Riga and helped with the slightly convoluted parking arrangements of his building complex. He also introduced the workings of his apartment situated in a conveniently located neighborhood of Riga on the edge of the famed Art Nouveau quarters of the city. As soon as we were settled, we left for a walk around our new locality. It seemed we had landed just around the corner of embassy-row as we counted quite a number of diplomatic missions, as well as financial institutions and doctor’s offices.
As we walked along, turning here and there without design, we unexpectantly come upon the Museum of Art Nouveau Design.
The Rigas Jugendstils Centers is the only museum in the Baltic region dedicated to the distinctive building and decorating style of the late 19th century into the early 20th century. The name “Style of Youth” goes back to a German design magazine called Jugend, youth. Originally, it was a new way of interior design based on contours found in nature until architects translated the designs into their building work. Among others, of course, Antoni Gaudí who transferred Barcelona into an Art Nouveau Heaven with his unique Catalan Modernism style.
But nevermind the cute museum with its Lord-of-the-Rings elfin tower, the building across the street from the museum was the real eye-catching stunner. It was impeccably restored and maintained with an overwhelming richness of carved stone applications.
In Riga, as in fact across the entire circum-Baltic-Sea region, dwellings were traditionally constructed of wood. In Helsinki, there are neighborhoods with beautifully kept, colorful wooden houses. My Finnish blogger friend Matti posted lovely pictures of the wooden houses in the Puu-Vallila district you can see HERE. Both in Tallinn and in Riga, though, we only came across wooden structures in varying degrees of neglect. There may very well be cheerful wooden houses here also, but sadly we haven’t seen any.
The first chore of the next morning was grocery shopping in a large supermarket nearby. We didn’t buy any prickly-pear juice, but it did look rather incongruous here in the far North.
Being self-sufficient is a big part of either Home Exchanging or staying in Airbnbs. We research carefully and pick places close to shopping and public transportation, even when we travel to our destination by car. When we arrive, we usually park the car and don’t touch the ignition fob again until it’s time to move on. Using public transportation is definitely the best way to move around in European cities. Regarding grocery shopping, there is a funny detail I’d like to tell you. Back in Finland, we had stocked up on supplies including a big jar of mayonnaise. Being the cheapskate that I am, I packed up the container in our polka-dotted insulation bag
and dragged it from place to place through three Baltic countries, Germany and Belgium, all the way home to France. It was, after all, cucumber-mayo, one can’t buy it anywhere but Finland!
Our next objective was a tram ride to Riga’s Old Town to check out the medieval roots of the Latvian capital. Although Old Town was within walking distance through a nice park, we thought it might be prudent to take a tram there since we planned to spend most of the day exploring the area.
Besides, a trip on public transport allows glimpses of new sights all around town, like this river view, for example.
Without much ado, we arrived at our destination on the far side of the old city center. Hmm, not such an inviting vista, in my opinion. The gigantic red granite sculpture in front of the Technical University is the Latvian Riflemen Monument.
The Latvian riflemen were battalions attached to the Russian Imperial Army to defend against a feared invasion by the German Imperial Army during The Great War whilst Latvia was part of tsarist Russia. Latvian Riflemen’s history is quite intriguing and detailed. In summary, they soon split into bolshevik Red Riflemen and White Riflemen who favored an independent Latvia. The monument was created during the 50-year illegal Soviet military occupation and annexation of Latvia to specifically honor Red Riflemen. Since independence, the monument has been rededicated to all Latvian Riflemen. Just up the street, thankfully, the environment became much less Soviet-Brutalism in style.
The Riga Museum of Foreign Art [on the right] started life as the Riga Stock Exchange, inaugurated in 1856 with great fanfare and Tsar Alexander II in attendance, hence its contemporary name Art Museum Riga Bourse.
After a while, we needed a break, so we popped in at the Grand Palace Hotel for a cup of tea in their comfortable yet stylish bar.
Across the street from the hotel, I saw this commemorative plaque in honor of a guy who knew his germs and the havoc they cause. Well done, Doctor!
After tea, we walked past the Our Lady of Sorrow Catholic Church, where we came upon Riga Castle, currently the Presidential Residence and a museum as well.
Departing from the castle area and walking past Maria Magdalen Catholic Church, we tried to find the famed Trīs brāļi, the Three Brothers. These three were advertised as the oldest extant dwellings in Riga. It didn’t take long to track them down nestled between taller and younger houses in the Little Castle Street.
In the narrow street with car and foot traffic, the brothers were difficult to catch at their best advantage. Back home, on our dining table, I finally captured their aura 😎
Neighboring the ancient triplets, we admired a number of other quite elderly houses.
While around the corner larger, more patrician buildings came into play. This route brought us straight back to Cathedral Square.
The writing in the mural instructs to ignore anyone who says “don’t do it”, while the truck announces that they live to deliver – in Norwegian. That’s Europe, a merger of cultures and languages. We were meanwhile searching for the quickest way to the House of the Blackheads, yep, you read that correctly. We chose a narrow lane next to the Lutheran cathedral, first chatting with a local, then passing an armadillo. Riga is such a funky place!
The lane continued between some very handsome houses.
Passing the alleyway below, I recognized the Town Hall tower. Town Hall is across the square from the Blackheads, so I turned in assuming a shortcut. But it revealed itself as a dead end with strong psychedelic overtones. The bars on an upstairs window were a bit disconcerting. Wouldn’t one prefer to have bars downstairs?! Maybe something or somebody had to be kept in …
After our hasty retreat, we encountered a couple of waitpersons outside the quite famous medieval-themed restaurant Rozengrals, which means something like the Grail of the Roses. It is alleged that this location, not surprisingly in Rose Street, was first mentioned in 1293 as a vinarium civitatis rigensis, the wine cellar for the festivities of the Riga town council members. Apparently, the premises have since been updated with A/C.
Upon entering Town Hall Square, we immediately noticed a large red brick building with fancy white trim.
Taking another couple of steps and looking left, a further building was revealed. This elegant cream-colored house really caught my eye with its simplicity. The gable showed the Greater Coat of Arms of Riga with a renovation date of 1735. I believe, there used to be a monastery there.
The building date of 1999 identified this house as one of the historical buildings surrounding Town Hall Square which were destroyed by Nazi bombings in June of 1941. Fifty years later, after the Declaration of the Republic of Latvia, the Latvians put an enormous amount of care, not to mention money, in the rebuilding of their heritage. As opposed to the Soviets who never did anything to improve the lives of the citizens in their occupied nations. I was in East Berlin multiple times and also in Hungary during the 70s. I saw the decay of infrastructure and bombed neighborhoods still crumbling nearly 30 years after the war. In central Budapest, the Soviets had subdivided formerly grand apartments into housing units for families. Each unit consisted of one or two rooms and either a kitchen or a bathroom. Meaning that each unit had one room with plumbing. Some apartments could only be entered by passing through another family’s quarters. There were never any repairs, nor any upkeep of the buildings themselves. So when you visit formerly Soviet-occupied countries today and you admire their lovingly restored patrimony, remember, it was all done by patriots during a scant thirty years since their independence! End of rant.
City Hall sits across the square from the House of the Blackheads.
Blackheads were, and to some extent still are, members of one of the most powerful merchant guilds operating in the Baltic region. Like other guilds, the House of the Blackheads was a military-style trade union founded during the 14th century in the Baltic region to protect their members’ trade of goods on sea and land between Novgorod, the harbors around the Baltic Sea and the North Sea coast. The Blackheads considered themselves to be Christian soldiers charged with the defense of their Faith and the unobstructed flow of earthly goods. Their rank and file were unmarried traders, seamen, journeymen of different crafts, and often also teachers and musicians. These young men were supervised and guided by guild elders in all aspects of their work and social lives, which in turn were governed by a set of rules approved by a succession of rulers in charge of the different locations of Blackhead Houses, like Riga or Tallinn. The Blackheads also provided armed protection for the people within the walls of their towns by guarding the gates and patrolling the streets at night time. In addition to the Holy Mother of God, the Blackhead guild selected Saint Maurice to be their main patron saint. St. Maurice [250 – 287 CE] was an Egyptian soldier who became the Commander of the Theban Legion in the Roman army. As a devout Christian, he refused orders by Roman Emperor Maximian to slaughter Christian civilians and to bow to the Roman pantheon. Together with his Christian legionnaires, he was martyred for his faith. St. Maurice was adopted by the German Holy Roman Emperors as their patron saint as early as the 9th century.
We began our tour of the House of the Blackheads in the basement of the building which contained remaining portions of the original foundation walls. A timeline showing the historical development of the brotherhood was quite instructional in understanding the political and commercial importance of the House.
All three countries in the Baltic region and their neighbor to the North, Finland, are looking back over a violent history since the early Middle Ages. Lithuania traditionally had a closer kinship with Poland, so its history diverges to some degree. But all four countries with their convenient seaports and natural resources were exploited by their more aggressive and powerful neighbors for centuries, namely Sweden, Denmark, and Poland but a variety of Russian Principalities tried for a foothold as well, assaulting Estonia alone more than 13 times over a span of 150 years in the 11th and 12th centuries. And then came the Germans. Catholic Popes and the German Holy Roman Emperor promoted the Christianisation of the pagan North with calls for crusades, while the Hanseatic League, an association of merchant guilds and market towns wanted to stabilize the safety of their trade routes along the Baltic coast and beyond. Money and benedictions, it works every time. Through the 13th century, the Northern Crusades forcefully converted the indigenous populations of Livonia, an area roughly encompassing modern Estonia and Latvia, turning it into Terra Mariana, St. Mary’s Land. The crusaders were largely soldier-monks in the style of the Knights Templars and soldier-merchants organized into guilds, like the German Blackhead Brethren. The earliest mention of the Brotherhood as defenders of Reval [Tallinn] as a Christian possession against pagan Estonian “aggression” is associated with the last concerted indigenous uprising of Eesti tribes between 1343 – 45. The pagans slaughtered their German lords and Christian monks and missionaries en masse but in the end, the Baltic natives were overwhelmed on their own soil by the superior weaponry of the monk armies and they remained under Christian German dominion for another 600 years until Hitler sold them to Stalin in 1939. By that time, the former foreigners and invaders had long since become an integral part of Livonian culture, attributing to and enriching local history. Estonia and Latvia had become their homeland, even though German was still the language of the elite, similar to the preference of Swedish in Finland. After the Rippentrop/Molotov Pact, however, Hitler ordered all ethnic Germans to come back home into the Reich. Within a few months, almost a half-a-million of Volksdeutsche [ethnic Germans] were ripped from their ancestral homes in Estonia and Latvia and forcefully re-settled in temporary camps in Poland. To make room for them, Polish Jews were swiftly moved from their homes into strictly controlled ghettos. Leave it to the dictators!
During the excavations necessary for the rebuilding of the House of the Blackheads, a number of original artifacts could be identified, among them the two following pieces from ca. 1620.
We actually got lost in the maze of cellars, but eventually found the exit stairs leading into an entirely different Blackhead world, a world of stunning opulence and elegance. After the Great Northern War at the beginning of the 18th century, armed conflicts became less frequent and the trade aspects of the guilds, including the Blackheads, became more preponderant, obviously, quite successfully.
Returning to the square, we greeted the Riga Bear,
and learned about a very old Christmas tree tradition,
… then we walked on, with one last glance back toward the House of the Blackheads.
And on we walked, here and there, everywhere, past the new, the old, and the very old.
The magic of the Black Balsam Bitter and chocolate, a bewitching pair! The black herbal tincture from Riga has been around for something like 260 years. It may be the oldest bitter known to man!
Clubbing and shopping opportunities were everywhere. From Prada to the NewYorker all age-groups and wallet sizes were covered!
Looking at the rather dirty but otherwise elegantly understated Art Nouveau corner building with an Italian restaurant at street level … did you notice yet another witch in the second-floor window?
Not a witch, after all! Instead, we discovered the Three Sisters agency promoting everything and everyone in the performing arts. Three Sisters stands for Theater, Music, and Art. Knowing the name, one can easily see the two faces in profile framing the central face.
By the time we reached the 14th-century Pulvertornis [Ammunitions tower, Pulverturm] of the Latvian War Museum, we were desperate to rest our sore feet and strained backs.
Luckily, behind the museum, in the former Jacob’s Barracks in Torna street, we discovered a whole string of restaurants like beads in a necklace. Among them this pretty, Latvian-themed rustic tavern. However, steep staircases and wooden benches couldn’t provide the comfort our aged bodies needed.
We chose instead to settle in the cushy chairs of the restaurant of the three chefs next door.
The 3 PAVĀRU RESTORĀNS where ‘the good must grow’ or „Tam labam būs augt” as the chefs declare, who are dedicated to using the freshest ingredients Latvian farmers can provide. The kitchen wasn’t open yet when we came in, but we were welcomed to sit and have drinks. After we had ordered, our waiter who might actually have been one of the chefs, came back to our table. To our great surprise, without saying a word, he began to drizzle sauces all over the butcher paper placemats with extravagant gestures.
This delightful dramatic interlude concluded with his explanation of the ingredients of the colorful sauces which we were eager to mop up with pieces of bread after his presentation. This was vastly more entertaining than having plain old peanuts with our drinks. It was also a lovely gesture toward guests who weren’t even staying for dinner, and it left us with a warm memory of our time in Riga.
Leaving the war museum and the three chefs behind, we walked between Jacob’s Barracks and a rebuild section of the former Riga Wall extending from the Powder Tower to the Swedish Gate running parallel to the barracks. This is part of the defense wall that used to surround the entire town.
The Swedish Gate was built in 1698 while Riga was still a Swedish possession to connected the barracks with the center of Riga proper. It is the only remaining of eight gates in the former defense wall. Previous to the Riga Wall, the medieval ramparts of Riga had a semi-circular fortification right where we find the Swedish Gate now. It was called the Jürgen Tower, first mentioned in 1350. Part of the Jürgen Tower’s foundation was later used to build the houses along Torna street close to the Swedish Tower, among them the house of the Architectural Foundation in Nº11 which in turn was rebuilt in 1926 to its current appearance you see in my picture above. Panta rhei!
And for us, it was high time to walk home through the tranquil park.