5 September 2012


Whilst en route to the EAA conference in Helsinki, I had a short holiday around the Baltic. After a day in Copenhagen, I flew to Riga for three days in that fascinating and beautiful city.

Lying on the River Daugava, Riga was founded early in the thirteenth century, and became a member of the Hanseatic League in 1282. For three hundred years its role in this trading bloc ensured relative prosperity and stability. Many of the buildings in the Old Town relate to this period, including the city walls, the churches, and some merchants' houses and warehouses - as well as the impressive buildings of the 'Blackheads' guild.

'The Three Brothers' - a row of merchants houses; the one on the right dates to the fifteenth century, the others are later.

However the decline of the Hanseatic League from the early sixteenth century made for a more difficult period. After a period as a self-governing city under the Holy Roman Empire and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, it became part of the Swedish Empire in 1621. Nevertheless Riga retained a great deal of autonomy, and resisted Russian advances - including a prolonged seige during the mid-1600s - until the early eighteenth century.

 A group of late medieval houses in the square alongside St. Peter's Church.

My first day was spent exploring the cobbled streets and squares of the Old Town, which is actually very compact. Although the Old Town is the most 'touristy' part of Riga, there are still quite a few quiet places away from the main sights.

Unrestored post-Hanseatic warehouses within the Old Town walls.

After another Russian seige in 1709-10, Riga became part of the Russian empire. During this period it grew into an impressive industrial city and major port, with a mixed and vibrant population and culture. The town expanded beyond its medieval core, with grid-plan suburban areas being laid out in the 1760s and in 1815. This latter rebuilding took place after a disastrous fire in 1812, apparently started by Russian troops in a pre-emptive 'scorched earth' tactic anticipating an attack by Napoleon (it never came, he attacked Vilnius instead).

Astonishingly, large chunks of these nineteenth century suburbs - largely built in timber - have survived, and some of my second day was spent exploring these.

This abandoned landscape of houses from the first rebuilding is just to the north of the city centre - although it is not clear for how much longer it will survive.

Perhaps even more remarkable was the suburb of Maskavas Forštate, to the south and east of the city centre. Another grid-planned suburb aligned along Maskavas Street, this was the home to the city's Jewish population for most of the nineteenth century and some of the twentieth.

Many of the buildings here are derelict, or only partly occupied, and there were virtually no cars or people around. With grass growing up through the cobbles, and hordes of feral cats, there was a slightly unreal 'wild west' atmosphere to the place. The whole area had an air of faded grandeur - and again the future of these buildings seems to be quite perilous... I saw a number that had been burnt out and others more likely to collapse.

The sunset of the Russian empire in the early twentieth century was a period of great prosperity for Riga, and was accompanied by a greater self-confidence and emerging 'national awakening'. Perhaps the most impressive legacy of this period was a whole suburb of Art Nouveau apartment buildings, to the north and west of the city centre.

These included some very impressive examples (such as the one below) designed by Mikhail Eisenstein - father of the film director of 'Battleship Potemkin' fame.

The rise of Latvian nationalism in the latter part of the nineteenth century came to a head during the Russian revolution. The Germans took Riga in 1917, and acquired Latvia by treaty early the following year; however that treaty was revoked under the Armistice, and so Latvia was able to declare independence - which it did on 18th November 1918.

This independence was short-lived, but saw many changes to the city. This included the extension of the railway network, and the addition of a new central market in the 1920s - built using five former Zeppelin hangers. These still survive today and make a quite marvellous market complex.

Former Zeppelin hangars at the city market.

The Russians invaded in 1940, and the country came under German occupation between 1941 and 1944. During this period the suburb of Maskavas Forštate became the Jewish ghetto. The Russians recaptured Riga in October 1944 and the long period of Soviet occupation began, which ended in 1991.

Hammer and sickle motif surviving on the river embankment (most have been removed). The main railway bridge and the Soviet-era 'Academy of Sciences' are in the background.

The revival of Latvia in the last twenty years after independence has been astonishing. Happily Riga has preserved much of its historic character and has - on the whole - remembered all of the different aspects of its often turbulent history.

I didn't spend much time in museums, but the Museum of Occupation is interesting, and the National History Museum (pictured below) is very informative about the broad sweep of Latvian history (if a little old fashioned). Finally it is worth mentioning the Hotel Justus where I stayed - right in the city centre, full of character with excellent and friendly service (and a chauffeur-driven Mercedes greeted me at the airport).

On Sunday morning I left by Lux Express (a long-distance bus) for Estonia, and the very different Hanseatic city of Tallin... the subject of a future post.

More photographs of Riga can be found on my Flickr page.

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