My Travel Map

My Travel Map

03 July 2015

Riga - Part 1: People and Culture

The Baltic States: Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia.  I've been wanting to travel to one or more of these three Northern European countries for a long time now.  With a trip to Moscow followed by a week in Helsinki, I had the perfect opportunity to take a few days to see two of them.  The early morning flight from Moscow to Riga was relatively short, which saved me a lot of time compared to the 17-hour overnight train.  I had very little idea of what I was getting into in the capital of Latvia, but fortunately, I got caught up on some Latvian history on the flight and sitting over my morning coffee at a little cafe by my hostel.  Latvia has an incredible and quite sad history and is a nation populated by a proud yet interestingly reserved people.  Frankly put, I loved Riga and met some amazing locals who fully enriched the experience.  I hope I can do this wonderful country, and especially its wonderful people, some justice with this post.

Riga is a stunningly beautiful city, the architecture of which will be the focal point of my next post.  This post however is focused on the history, culture, and people of the city.  In addition to its beauty, Riga is also a very cosmopolitan city despite its small size (the metro area has just over 1 million people).  The people of Riga have fully embraced the good life, and there are plenty of cafes and bistros with patio seats out on the cobbled streets, boutique shops selling all sorts of unique goods and bric-a-brac, thriving nightlife, and great restaurants and food options.

Riga was officially founded in 1201 by a German bishop.  There are still plenty of churches and cathedrals around town, which serve as great landmarks and add a very European touch to the skyline.  Over time, and due primarily to its position on the Daugava River that dumps into the Gulf of Riga on the Baltic Sea, Riga became a wealthy trading port.  Unfortunately, its prosperity and strategic location also made Riga (and Latvia) somewhat of a coveted city for neighboring tyrants and superpowers...

As I just mentioned, mercantilism held sway over Riga for much of its history.  This fact is still evident throughout the city in the grand guild houses scattered around the medieval center.  I'll have more on Riga's guilds and their buildings in the next post.

By European standards, Riga is actually somewhat of a new city as many of the buildings go.  The city suffered terribly during both World Wars, when it was shelled to rubble during fighting along the Eastern Front.  Many of the historic buildings are actually reconstructions of former versions.

Riga's Freedom Monument.  Paid for by public donations and erected in 1935, the monument towers over the surrounding city.  At the base reads Tevzemei un Brivibai: For Fatherland and Freedom.  The three stars held by a female Liberty at the top represent the three original Latvian cultural regions: Kurzeme, Vidzeme, and Latgale.  This monument holds a special place in the city, and for good reason: Latvia has been fought over and occupied by its larger neighbors multiple times throughout its history.  More on this below.

Despite a dark and sad past, contemporary Riga is a super pleasant place... it is easily one of the most pleasant and beautiful European cities that I've ever seen.  On its surface, the surface that most cruise ship day-trippers only ever see, it is a seemingly good example of modern European "fairytale land", that I've described before.  However, Riga's dark past still has haunting reminders scattered here and there around the city, popping up like some elusive wraith if you are only willing to pay some attention.  And once you start to talk to the people, you realize that they have not forgotten their past, nor will they anytime soon.  Despite the pleasant feel for most oblivious tourists, things are not all right and good for the average Latvian, who is still all too well aware and very sensitive of the geopolitical events unfolding around them.

One thing that is a must do in Riga is take a walk around the old city.  The medieval layout of Riga still exists in the city's historic center, and it is great fun just wandering around that labyrinth and taking in the lovely buildings and charming details.

I was lucky to get some nice sunny weather while wandering around the Old City.

Another popular attraction is the Central Market, a.k.a. the Russian market.  Being one who thoroughly enjoys walking around a good market, this was one of the first stops on my itinerary, and I was not disappointed.  The market is centered in these four hangar-like buildings, but it spills out onto the streets, stretching for several blocks around.

The market has a little bit of everything, clothing, flowers, random toys and trinkets, and of course... food.

On display at so many of the stalls were the local bounty of the Latvian farmlands.  I took some time to gorge myself on some deliciously fresh berries, apricots, and peaches.  I also washed it down with some authentic kvass, a fermented rye bread drink, poured right from an oak cask.

Inside the stalls are a huge butchers market, a huge fish market, more produce, and some random but delicious food stalls.

One nice thing about the market is that it was very busy with locals... though I was surprised to find myself hearing primarily Russian being spoken.  I even found it was best for me to inquire in Russian, which is unusual since Latvian is the country's most widely spoken language and most Latvians also speak very good English.  This had me wondering right away why the market was so Russian dominant.

The spreads were just awesome though... my mouth still waters over some of the products on sale there.

I loved this presentation too, with salmon heads holding their tails in their mouths sitting over a tub of all the spare trimmings and other bits that are just oh so good for flavoring a fish soup or stew.

Then there were the honey stalls with all their beeswax sculptures, candles, and other products.

The market is huge and well worth seeking out for a wander through if you ever find yourself a tourist in Riga.  Definitely come with an empty stomach and eat your way through it too!

However, I found out later that many ethnic Latvians don't actually go to the big market, and it has to do with all that Russian I heard being spoken there.  You see, most Latvians aren't big fans of Russians in Riga.  The reasons for this are complex, having to do with a lot of 20th century history that has bled over into modern geopolitical tensions.

This statue is one of those stark reminders of Latvia's past.  The statue is from the Soviet era and commemorates the Latvian Red Riflemen... the Latvian Riflemen were a unit of the Russian and then Soviet armies.  They were elite, some even serving as Lenin's personal bodyguards.  I'm sure there is some Latvian pride in having an elite fighting force formed from your nation's finest.  However, the issue is that they were formed under Russian occupation.  Supposedly, this statue is quite controversial in Riga, as it is symbolic of these conflicting ideals.  It definitely is reminiscent of Soviet style, and there is just something oddly menacing about the way the imposing figures are looking in all directions, as if they want to remind you that the guards are always watching, which of course is great from a national defense standpoint but not so much at all when living under a brutal secret police.  I have to admit that I'm happy that Riga has left the statue standing.  It is a powerful reminder of history and a true relic of a different and important era in human history.  Though I also understand some Latvians resentment of the statue, as it represents so much that haunts them from the Russian/Soviet occupations.

Standing across the old market square (not to be confused with the big "new" market described above) from the Red Riflemen statue is this dark, ominous block of a building, which strikes a stark contrast to the beautiful buildings all around it.  Latvians remember their history, and the location of the Latvian Occupation Museum stands as testament to that.  Seriously, this museum sits at the heart of their capital city, putting it right at the heart of the nation as well, a nation that will never forget what and how they have suffered.

Poland, Sweden, Russia, the Soviet Union, and Nazi Germany have all forcefully taken and subsequently occupied Latvia throughout the past 500 years.  So it's no real surprise that Latvians take occupation seriously and consider the most recent sets of occupation, which lasted over 50 years during the 20th century, as a still festering sore from their nation's history.  The museum itself is powerful, though it only focuses on the most recent of occupations, those under the Soviets and Nazis since 1940.  The building itself is an old Soviet bunker, and it was left standing as yet another reminder of the darker times in Latvia's past.  Within, you will find a detailed and graphic accounting of the occupations, from the systematic eradication of "undesirables" under the Nazis to a true state of fear under Soviet rule with their dreaded and brutally over-effective secret police.  Really the only thing remotely near a bright side of the whole place are the parts about the Latvian resistance.  Especially since members suffered terribly whenever they were caught, the resistance to occupation speaks wonders about the strength, pride, and resilience of Latvian people.  At its height, the resistance formed a national partisan movement 10s of thousands of people strong, and it remained active fighting and dying for Latvian freedom for over half a century.

With the ghosts of decades and decades of occupation still haunting the nation, national pride is strong in Latvia.  The deep red and white flag flies high all over the city, as does the European Union flag.  After being forced into the Soviet Union, the Latvians seem quite satisfied with a Union that they actual chose to be in.  Though it is sad how few actually trust that the EU and even NATO will offer Latvia any protection in the event of Russian aggression or invasion.  Being an idealist, I like to think differently, especially from NATO, however when you look at history (like Poland 1939 for example), treaties are so easily forgotten when full-blown war is the only other option.

I was very lucky on this trip, and I managed to make friends with a group of Riga locals.  We ended up drinking and talking until well after 4am.  From them, I gained some very interesting insights on some general characteristics of Latvian people... many are strong and proud yet very reserved.  Quite interestingly, one thing that came up repeatedly was a fear of spies; with all of my questions (especially about what people thought about the Russian/Ukrainian conflict), I was asked multiple times: "Are you sure you are not a spy?"  They explained that this question and general lack of trust in strangers stems from decades of living in a police state, first under the Soviets, then the Nazis, then under an even more brutal and oppressive Soviet regime.  Imagine worrying that if you say something "wrong" in public, anything that might make you sound like you disapprove of the Soviet system or the Communist Party or like you are part of the resistance or sowing dissent, you might be overheard by a government informant or undercover member of the secret police.  If you were overheard by such a person, it wouldn't be long before you actually disappeared; either to be tortured in some secret police headquarters basement or worse, sent to a Siberian gulag or just outright executed.   So, when asked about Ukraine and finally convinced that I was not a spy, the general consensus was that Latvians were fearful of the latest round of Russian aggression (both in Georgia in 2008 and now in Ukraine).  Considering the fact that over 1/4 of the population in Latvia is ethnic Russian, the "excuse" that Putin kept giving about protecting ethnic Russians in Eastern Ukraine just struck too close to home for Latvians.  However, one of the guys hanging out with us actually was ethnic Russian.  He was hanging out with a group of ethnic Latvians, and they were all quite obviously great friends.  When asked about all that, he said proudly that he associated himself first as Latvian and only Russian by descent; he claimed he would fight proudly as a Latvian against any Russian invasion.  I hope most of the rest of the Russian-Latvians are like him.  Being from a nation of immigrants, I think it is easier for me to think this way, and I respect that things like this can be more complicated in Old World Europe.

Anyway, back to happier things: the bars and nightlife in Riga were fun... very, very fun.  It is a thriving and energizing scene, with bars that don't seem to ever close, late night cafes and beer patios spilling out onto the streets, bumping music and pulsating dance floors, and tons of vibrant young people enjoying it all.  Riga is an epic city to party in.

The cafe and street pub scene is also great in Riga; I highly recommend seeking this street out over by the Swedish Gate (pictured here).  Turn 180 deg from how this pic was taken and you see a whole lineup of cafe tables and seats setup right down the street.  It's a perfect place for taking in a morning tea or afternoon beer or wine while watching the mix of tourists and locals go by.

Riga also has plenty of nice, unique little galleries and boutique shops.  The art tends to be very warm and cozy and organic... like something a hobbit would like.

Like so many great cities, there is an overall appreciation for finer touches of class and charm.

Another reminder of the past... the Lada was a popular Soviet car.  This one was in remarkably good shape, and I love the color... so very not-Soviet!  The row of flowers against the old wall was also very nice.

This statue was outside of one of the big cathedrals in the Old City.  They definitely have a sense of humor.

And of course... food.  The food I ate in Riga was just awesome, with everything being obviously very fresh, local, and seasonal.  This trout dish was my favorite by far though... it was perfectly cooked and felt so incredibly healthy.  The veggies were bursting with flavor as was the tomato and herb garnish.  And the local beer was malty and delicious.

I loved Riga, and I'll do my best to get back there again.  But this isn't over yet... my next post is on Riga's amazing architecture.

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