Latvia – Riga
Riga, the capital city of Latvia, lies at the center of the Baltic States, between Tallinn-Estonia and Vilnius-Lithuania. It has justifiably earned the reputation as a Baltic Beauty for its enchanting Old Town built on the edge of the River Daugava; its parks; its mesmerizing Art Nouveau architecture; and eclectic neighborhoods.
On day one, we donned our most comfortable walking shoes and meandered through the delightful maze of crooked, cobblestone streets of the Old Town. The early morning, late autumn sunshine kissed the spires and rooftops, church bells tolled, and the shadows lent depth to the colors and curves of the storybook architecture.
Old Town is small, and the best way to discover it is to just lose oneself in its web of lanes, preferably in the early morning before the tour buses arrive.
One is never too far from a lush garden or park in Riga. From Old Town, we walked through Kronvalda Park in search of the Art Nouveau district. The park is an oasis of serenity where towering shady trees flank pathways, rowboats drift along canals, fountains dance, and birds twitter as they flutter among the flowers.
We exited the park where Kalpaka Bulvaris and Elizabetes Streets meet. Elizabetes iela, Alberta iela, and Strelnieka iela are an outdoor showcase for some of the finest and largest collection of Art Nouveau architecture, which flourished in the early twentieth century between 1904 and 1916. One of the most prolific Art Nouveau architects was Mikhail Eisenstein – a Russian born Jewish architect who during the years 1901-1906 designed much of the best known Art Nouveau buildings of Riga.
We wandered the streets for hours, enthralled by the lavish facades and rooftops adorned with carvings, statues, turrets, elaborate molding, and cupolas crowning elegant turrets.
The Art Nouveau Museum at 12 Alberta iela/street, displays the interior of an apartment with its original furniture, tableware, and ornaments; an elegant, whimsical, spiral staircase, and a decorative façade.
At 11 Alberta Street, we happened upon Piebalgas Porcelana, the gallery of artist Janis Ronis, who creates stunning, paper-thin, original porcelain tableware and art objects. The art of porcelain making is very different from ceramics and demands special skills and techniques. Visitors are welcome to visit his factory by appointment and observe the process of porcelain making and decorating.
In need of nourishment, we popped into the unpretentious café and superb bakery at the entrance of Kronvalda Park on Kalpaka Boulevard to rest our weary feet and indulge in cappuccino and scrumptious pastries.
Old Town Riga has a large array of fine restaurants, bars, and casual dining.
Our all-time favorite for late lunches was the Central Market, a short walk from Old Town, adjacent to the bus station. This unique market is housed in five, First World War hangars built to house Zeppelin, German-made airships. Each hangar is now dedicated to different foods, fruits, and vegetables. There’s the fish market where we went crazy for the endless variety of the freshest fish, seafood, herrings, caviar, and smoked fish. Then there are the fresh and cured meats, the baked goods and cheeses, the fruits and vegetables, and the hangar that houses the mind-boggling variety of stalls that serve gourmet food all freshly prepared.
Across the river from the Central Market is the National Library. An ultra-modern architectural work of art.
A short walk from the Central Market is the Holocaust and Ghetto Museum, located near the original Jewish ghetto. Both the fences and gates are exact replicas of those built by the Germans during the Nazi occupation. The memorial wall placed along the recreated ghetto street lists the names of 70,000 Jews murdered by the Nazis.
Being sent to Riga meant certain death. It was the end of the line.
On a happier note, Riga’s Miera Street (Peace Street) Area, is a funky neighborhood, which is home to the Laima chocolate factory, bars, cafés, vintage clothing stores, and hand-crafted jewelry and trinkets produced by local artists.
Plan on spending at least two full days exploring Riga, then head to the gorgeous countryside.