Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Riga (Latvia)

Art Nouveau
Latvia? Again, I had no preconceptions. Actually, this is not quite true, as I was drawn to Riga by its Art Nouveau architecture. Brussels is full of the stuff, as is Prague, but it’s only in Riga that you can see street after street of the stuff.
Walked from the bus station to our Art Nouveau Hotel, the Clarion Collection Valdemars. The owners had to flee the Germans to Sweden but had their property returned in 1991. It’s not the finest piece of Art Nouveau in Riga but it’s great to be staying here.
An architectural walk is a great way to see a city as it takes you to places you may not have considered. So it was with these walks. Riga is a hugely under-rated city. You soon recognise the asymmetries, huge doorways, odd-shaped towers on roofs, vertical lines and ornamentation. We literally spent two days looking at this stuff and got nowhere near exhausting its riches. Turn any corner and there’s more. Why so much of the stuff? Well, it was decided to relax the laws on building in stone outside of the old city at the same time as trade was booming and the Art Nouveau movement was sweeping Europe, at the turn of the century. It was a movement that allowed artists to draw in local and national cultural motifs, as well as experiment in form, as well as decoration. Apart from Glasgow, we have nothing like this in the UK.
Perpendicular
First thing to spot is the ‘perpendicular’ movement, with strong lines that rise vertically across several floors.
New Romantic
The ‘new romantic’ movement, leans more towards national motifs, steep roofs, rustic stone effects and so on.
Sex scams
There’s a very large Russian population here and one consequence is the Russian mafia activities in its bars and nightspots. The guidebooks and web are full of warnings about predictable scams. Guess what, single man gets approached by two girls, they seem nice but he ends up being vastly overcharged for drinks and then beaten for his pin number. As the free local guide says, If you don’t look like Brad Pitt and girls approach you in the street, assume the worst. As a couple this is hardly a problem and went drinking in the old town, watched Jazz one evening and a great soul singer the next.
Zeppelin market
This is a must as you get a double dividend, great industrial, historic architecture – five huge German Zeppelin hangers from the First World War and a view of what the Latvians eat. One hanger had fish, huge stalls of salmon, eels and every other imaginable cold water species. The next had fruit and veg, much driven here from southern Russia. Another is meat as the local cuisine is well… meat.
Walked back from here along the canal than winds its way through the centre of the city.
Museum of the Occupation

A specially built, and rather brutal block of a building, houses a harrowing account of the liquidation by the Germans of Latvian Jews. It was brutal, marched out of town to the forest and shot at the side of specially dug pits. There is also the pairing of fascism with communism, and an account of the brutal occupation by Soviet Russia until its independence in 1991. I’m not sure about calling these places ‘Museums’, as they’re much more than this. This is the recent past and there are people in this town who witnessed all of this, many lived through the Soviet era. It’s something htat needs to be experienced, not exposition.

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