Life in Riga, Latvia
Riga is the capital of the Republic of Latvia and the geographical centre of the Baltic States, as well as its largest city. Founded in 1201, Riga covers a territory of 307 square km, and numbers some 815,000 inhabitants, a quarter of Latvia's population.
Riga's rich culture and varied lifestyle has origins in the peoples of its past; Latvians, Russians, Byelorussians, Ukrainians and other nationalities have all influenced the city's passage through time.
The city is situated on both banks of the river Daugava near the Gulf of Riga. The Daugava separates the city into two distinct areas: on the right bank of the river is the oldest part of the city – Vecriga (Old Riga), which is surrounded by a ring of boulevards.
The left bank is occupied by the more modern Pardaugava district. One need only walk around the town to become acquainted with the city's past and rich cultural diversity, merged into a modern, cosmopolitan Riga with a variety of cafes, bars, and restaurants - the right places to go to understand the Latvian lifestyle.
Beyond the Old Town, the city extends west to the sea and north to extensive countryside. Riga itself boasts 700 parks, gardens and squares, parkways and woodlands covering more than 52 sq. km. A 15-minute drive to the north of the city will take you to an expanse of beautiful countryside, popular for pick-nicking and a wide range of outdoor activity.
For centuries Riga has been a strategic centre linking eastern and western countries. Always coveted by stronger neighbours, the city’s history forms a rich tapestry of wars, sieges, blockades and armistices.
The city’s birth in the 11th and 12th centuries is a chronicle of intrigue, and a brief chronology highlights some notable periods in the city’s evolution since the 13th century, when the Daugava became an important trading route. Riga’s first permanent settlements appeared on the banks of the small Riga River.
The Letts, who were Indo-European Balts, arrived around BC 2500 and gradually assimilated the Finno-Ugric Livs who had settled since 6000 BC. In ancient times, trade links (involving amber) existed with the Mediterranean world. By the 9th Century AD, trade routes and trade centres had developed with the river Daugava as an important link in the route from the Baltic Sea Region to the Black Sea.
In 1201, German crusaders brought Christianity and were followed by traders, and a land owning class. Folklore has it that in the Spring of 1200, the then Pope declared a crusade against the Livonia peoples.
Bishop Albert, a representative, arrived with knights and a battalion of 23 ships, negotiating with the local elders and chiefs throughout the Summer. how in the Autumn, chiefs from other regions arrived as guests of the bishop. When the feast was at its peak, the bishop secretly ordered all outer walls and windows to be closed.
He then declared to all those invited that they were his captives and unless they yielded to his will would be shackled and exiled. The bishop demanded that all land near the Riga settlements be given to him and his people. On receiving a promise from all chiefs, he set them free, but took with him thirty of their sons as hostages back to Germany.
Riga began to expand soon after. Ports, cities and agriculture were developed. In 1282, Riga joined the Hanseatic League; and in the decades that followed, seven more Latvian towns joined the League. In the following centuries, Swedes, Poles and Russians have been present in Latvia or in parts of its territory. With the Great Northern War of 1700-1721 between Sweden and Russia, Tsar Peter gained control of the Eastern Baltic.
Throughout these centuries, agriculture, trade and as of the 19th century also industry developed, making Latvia, and especially Riga, at times a prosperous territory.
Nature and culture – especially music and songs – are very important in the life of Latvians. The country has had several composers who took their inspiration from folk music. Also literature has been flourishing. Works of painters and sculptors, including contemporary artists, can be admired and bought in the many galleries of Riga. In the early Nineteen hundreds, many Art-Nouveau buildings were erected in Riga. Today most of them can still be admired, some of them beautifully restored.
Theatre, Dance and Opera are well-established in Riga. Theatre dates back to the 13th century and today the city continues to explore this art in six main theatres. Riga’s ballet school was third in importance after the Kirov and Bolshoi, guaranteeing world-class performances at a number of venues throughout the city and beyond.
The Latvian National Opera, The Latvia Philharmonic Orchestra, several large concert halls, the many art galleries, and an emerging film industry further enhance and represent cultural life in Riga. There are more than 40 different museums in Riga, including the Museum of the History of Riga and Navigation, Latvian Museum of Nature, State Museum of Fine Arts, Museum of Decorative Applied Arts, and the Ethnographic Open-Air Museum of Latvia.
An important role in the cultural life of Riga is assigned to amateur groups and artists. Today there are around 303 amateur performing and arts groups, 84 choirs, 43 folk dance groups, 5 brass bands, 30 arts and crafts studios, 14 amateur drama groups, 14 instrumental ensembles, 5 photography and film studios with a total number of 8,500 participants.
Riga is also rightly proud of its well preserved authentic folklore and craftsmanship traditions as well as the rapidly d eveloping avant-garde and modern art movement.
Every year Riga hosts large international cultural festivals, the largest of which is the National Song and Folk dance festival that is held every 4 years and assembles about 30,000 participants, attracting visitors from around the world.
Old Riga with its labyrinth of cobble-stoned streets is a real life open-air museum containing more than 150 architectural monuments. In December 1997 the Historic Centre of Riga was included in the prestigious World Heritage List. The World Heritage Committee declared its medieval and later urban fabric of outstanding universal value by virtue of the quality and quantity of its Art Nouveau/Jugenstill architecture, unparalleled elsewhere in the world, and its 19th century architecture in wood.
The inclusion of the Historic Centre of Riga in the UNESCO World Heritage List is testament to its universal value as a preserved element important to the understanding of mankind. 2001 marked the 800th anniversary of Riga City, and the occasion was commemorated by visits to newly restored buildings, and extensive open-air festivals, introducing a new period of enrichment to the city’s modern culture.
Sightseeing in Riga quickly becomes a relaxing pastime. Just walking the cobbled streets in the Old Town is enough to slow the pace, leaving all the time in the world to enjoy the visible signs of the city’s historical passage.
Riga’s key attractions are all the more remarkable for having survived the devastation wrought on other cities during World War II. Of particular interest is the Freedom Monument, the tallest of its kind in Europe. Built in 1935, it survived the communist era as a source of humour, regarded as a travel agent offering a one-way ticket to Siberia.
Now renovated, it has become a popular meeting place for the city’s youth. The city is also home to Europe’s most comprehensive examples of Jugendstil German-style Art Nouveau architecture. A wander through the New Town will be rewarded with sights of this highly suggestive and ornate style, most evident along Elizabetes iela.
The market is a must-see for those wanting to rub shoulders with the locals. The Centraltirgus, as its known, lies under five cavernous zeppelin hangars. As with most markets, a wary eye is advised.
St. Peter’s church is the geographical heart of the city, and its wooden steeple, once the highest in Europe, is an ideal place to get a panoramic view of the Old Town and surrounding areas.
A few steps from St. Peter’s is the House of Blackheads, once a Hanseatic seat. Behind St. Peter’s can be found the city’s oldest stone building still in use.
Once the church of St.George, it now houses the Museum of Applied Arts. The church’s rear entrance leads into a maze of streets and courts which spill into Livu Square, home to a concert hall. Walking on to Dome Square, UNESCO’s decision to designate the Old Town as a world heritage site becomes understandable.
Dome Cathedral itself dates back to 1211, a century older than Riga Castle, a little further down the road, and currently the residence of the country’s President. Walking back along Small Castle Street, three buildings curiously called Three Brothers illustrate architecture of the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries.
A few streets further on, and through a gate, carved through a dwelling house to celebrate Swedish occupation in 1698, lies the longest building in the city, Jacob’s Barracks, and the oldest remains of Riga’s medieval fortifications. At the end of the fortifications lies the Gunpowder Tower, presently the Museum of War.
From here its well worth walking across tram tracks and on up to the top of Bastion Hill, a hilly park which offers the best view of Freedom Monument, considered the heart of Latvia.