Another Baltic nation free of Soviet oppression offers tourists an awesome architectural treasury, including Art Nouveau.
Done London, Paris, Rome—the legendary capitals—and ready to see the “other” Europe, where Americans have yet to clog the streets? Heck, where you can’t even read the street signs? Me, too!
I headed for the Baltics, eager to stoke my senses on Medieval cities untouched as yet by Starbucks, plus piney countrysides where farmers cleave their land the way their granddads did, and wild swans drift among the waters.
First stop, Tallinn, capital of Estonia (see Lavender, June 30), a corner of real estate coveted for centuries by neighboring nations, eager to establish claim to this vital crossroad—thus, conquered most recently by Tsarist Russians, then Nazis, then Soviet Commies, and the first nation to free itself from Iron Curtain oppression in the early ’90s. Latvia followed suit, inspiring a similar, if not quite so percolating, renaissance. So I, too, continued south along the sea to Riga, its capital aside the Daulaga River.
In fact, the first thing a visitor might do is cross that river to the left bank to capture one of Riga’s most alluring assets: its skyline view. The slender, Gothic church spires that pierce the sky serve as punctuation marks accenting the Old Town’s 800-year history, now preserved as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
While Tallinn erected its worship houses of somber stone, here, they’re all built of bricks—a homey, down-to-business effect that inspires more familiarity than awe.
Amble into the Dome Cathedral of 1211, the largest Medieval church in the Baltics, anchoring the town’s main square, to encounter an antifancy, Lutheran interior, offset by a majestic organ, once the largest in Europe (free concerts almost daily).
Inside St. John’s, begun in 1234 when the city was a mere three decades old, a bit more grandeur, aimed to rally folks to Catholic glories. Didn’t work. Come the Reformation, it was rented out as a stable. Today, it’s fitted with more than former glory, including stained glass of blinding beauty and another mammoth organ.
Make your way to St. Peter’s, another foursquare brick facade supporting a patina-softened copper spire. A twist of steps transports you to the pinnacle, to gain a 360-view of the city spread below: over there, the obelisk-like Freedom Monument, an inspiring symbol to this nation, constantly suppressed by superpowers. (In fact, the Soviets forbade gatherings around it, not to mention the floral tributes that flourish today.) Spy the two hotels known as headquarters of the hated KGB police. Ooh, there’s the Opera House, where tonight’s bill is Puccini. That ugly one was dubbed Stalin’s Wedding Cake.
And those lumps that look like airplane hangars? Well, that’s what they were—zeppelin hangars, actually, now housing the city’s vibrant Central Market. It’s five hangars’ worth of yummy eats: one for fish; one for meat; one for fruits and veggies; another for cheese; and finally, a pastry mecca—all overseen by babushkas who gladly offer samples. Try the sauerkraut juice, a popular hangover cure, or the birch sap, which tastes a bit like Sprite.
Riga’s architectural treasury extends well beyond bricks and hangars: It’s revered as a treasury of Art Nouveau. Along Alberta Street, each deliciously gorgeous facade vies with its neighbor—Amazonian stone women upholding curvy balconies, pillars dripping sculpted flora, windows winking under flowing plaster eyebrows. Here, the Art Nouveau Museum, poster child for the stylish movement, is actually the former apartment of an up-and-comer whose svelte furnishings are still in place to ogle, from stunning stained glass windows to divine divans. Back in the town center is more Art Nouveau everywhere you cast your eye.
There are also the Three Brothers, a trio of 15th-Century mansions with Dutch-style step roofs; the dainty brick House of the Blackheads, a guild house from the Middle Ages; and shadowing it, a grim box of Soviet design, now housing, ironically, the Occupations Museum. The latter remembers, through photographs and news accounts, events like the Year of Terror, 1941, when 8,000 were arrested; the Terror of Cheka, with torture, prison, and 15,000 deportations, also in 1941; the Holocaust, the KGB, and its gulags; and the National Reawakening, a happy ending to the sad tale.
Backstreets flaunt the charming wooden cottages of the middle class of 200 years ago. Once-grimy warehouses have been converted to artists’ strongholds in the reclaimed Spikerei Creative Quarter. Even my hotel, the Gutenbergs, held relics of the past, including a what-the-heck-is-this-doing-here mill wheel dominating my fourth-floor garret. Climb to the open-air rooftop café for dinner, with a view of all those church spires (I counted 15) glinting in the summer sunset, while dining on dilled salmon, and eavesdropping on the Russian Mafia (my guess) at the next table.
Or head back to Cathedral Square with its sea of umbrella tables, or the nearby Blue Cow tavern for a heaven-sent meal of Latvian comfort food—first, borscht, silky with sour cream, or a pleasantly biting sorrel soup, then farm-raised chicken (or choose pork hocks with sauerkraut, or stewed rabbit).
To live the life, visit www.LiveRiga.com.
Biggest gay bar in Riga, with bar, restaurant, dance floor
Cosmo bar and club
Centrum Gay Hotel is across the street from XXL and a gay sauna, in the Art Nouveau District