FolkestoneJack's Tracks

Atā Riga

Posted in Latvia, Riga by folkestonejack on September 25, 2016

Our time in Riga is up and it is time to say farewell. I have been really surprised by how much there is to see and do in the city, including much that we did not have time to see (such as the art nouveau buildings in the Mezaparks district and the open air museum) or which was closed during our stay (such as the House of Blackheads and Small Guild).

We have enjoyed everything that we were able to see and felt that we had the best balance of sights during our stay – it would be all too easy to have a trip focused on the dark history of Latvia that would be quite overpowering without some light relief.

The old copper weather vane from the Dom which topped the spire from 1595 until 1985

The old copper weather vane from the Dom which topped the spire from 1595 until 1985

It is not impossible that we will be back someday to pick up where we left off, perhaps tied in with trips to the cities of Liepāja and Jūrmala. However, I would also like to see Vilnius and some of Lithuania’s other cities too and that is probably next on our long wishlist!

It seems appropriate to finish my last post from Riga with a selection of the marvellous views available from the Academy of Sciences and the tower of St Peter’s Church.

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Eight unexpected delights of Riga

Posted in Latvia, Riga by folkestonejack on September 25, 2016

Our short trip to Riga has given us a great opportunity to sample the incredible flavours of Latvian cuisine and explore the centre of a beautiful city. It is fair to say that the trip delivered everything we hoped for and much more besides. Here are eight unexpected delights that are worthy of special mention.

1. Space monkey

To say that we were surprised to come across a giant monkey dressed in a space suit towering amongst the trees in Kronvalda Park would be quite an understatement!

As we soon discovered ‘Sam’ is a sculpture from the series ‘First Crew’ by Denis Prasolov. The sculpture is dedicated to the many animals used by the Soviet Union in space exploration during the 1950s-1960s, including the 42 animal piloted rockets launched by the Soviet Union during this time. Needless to say, most did not survive the experience.

Sam by Denis Prasolov

Sam by Denis Prasolov

The sculpture is currently on display in Riga as part of the Sculpture Quadrennial Riga 2016 festival which runs from 10th September to 28th October 2016. It was causing quite a stir in the park with children, joggers and tourists all stopping to take a look and grab a selfie. A local TV crew were on hand to interview passers by what they thought of the piece and I’d guess that bemused would best sum up their body language (my Latvian being non-existent!).

You can find out more about this piece in an interview with Denis Prasolov on Youtube.

2. The Latvian Railway Museum

I have been to quite a few railway museums around the world but few have delivered quite such an engaging experience as the Latvian Railway Museum.

The museum gallery is filled with interactive exhibits with push-buttons that trigger all sorts of surprises. Suitcases lift open to tell the story of their owners, models of station buildings reveal hidden features and a ticket office display generates faux edmondson-style tickets. Rather sweetly each model building featured a cat somewhere, whether sitting on the head of a ticket office clerk or about to sneak into an occupied toilet cubicle!

Engaging exhibits and interaction at the Latvian Railway History Museum in Riga

Engaging exhibits and interaction at the Latvian Railway History Museum in Riga

A separate display room tells the more conventional story of the development of the railways and there is a small display of locomotives outside, so there is room for the traditional elements of a railway museum alongside these engaging exhibits. However, the best bit of all would have to be the…

3. Latvian Railway Safety adverts

The most surprising and enjoyable attraction in the museum turned out to be a constantly looping playback of some truly inspired Latvian railway safety adverts that have been created using stop motion animation with clay models.

Simply inspired safety videos are screened at the National Railway Museum in Latvia

Simply inspired safety videos are screened at the National Railway Museum in Latvia

The most brilliant advert had a chap measuring up passengers before they attempted a risky crossing between wagons to get across the tracks. On the other platform an undertaker set to work building the right sized coffin and then beckoned passengers over! I was delighted to discover that many of these can be seen on youtube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sG__-RN8lLA

4. Bread pudding

The culinary highlight of our trip was a visit to Milda, a small restaurant that is a bit off the beaten track. The small team here serves up a wonderful mixture of tasty Latvian and Lithuanian dishes, but the star dish had to be the dessert.

Forget everything you know about a typical British bread pudding, this Latvian dish was a beautifully flavoured rye bread pudding with dried fruit, spices and honey served in a jar with cream sprinkled with cinnamon on top. Our waiter gave us a short history lesson to explain its origins as he delivered it, making it even more special. Simply wow!

5. Looking down on a low-rise city

The viewing platforms at the Academy of Sciences and up the tower of St Peter’s church offer a terrific view across the city. The lack of tall buildings in the city centre means that you get a sweeping view across the entirety of the city centre.

It’s a great way to appreciate the mix of architectural styles in the city from the art nouveau apartment blocks in the city centre to the art deco market buildings on the banks of Daugava (if they look like hangars that’s because they started life as Zeppelin hangars!). It is worth noting the red brick warehouses of the hip Spikeri Quarter which are a good example of the changing story of the city.

There were also a few surprises from our high vantage points, including some intriguing views of buildings hidden from everyday sight (such as the building with a wooden spire seemingly ringed by apartment blocks illustrated in the photograph below) and delapidated pockets of the city resisting gentrification (or perhaps, awaiting their imminent demise).

A 'hidden' building is visible from the tight viewing platform at St Peter's church

A ‘hidden’ building is visible from the tight viewing platform at St Peter’s church

The view from St Peter’s is rather more cramped than the platform at the top of the Academy of Sciences, but it does allow you to better appreciate how the stalinist high rise punctures the relatively low profile of the city.

6. A mountainous library

It is lovely to visit a city and see investment in a national library. It’s just any building either, the library is housed in a beautiful modern building with a mountainous profile that is known as the Castle of Light. The building opened to the public in August 2014 and it houses the entire collection of 6 million items under one roof.

National Library of Latvia

National Library of Latvia

Walking into the cavernous entrance hall on a wet and gloomy day I was immediately struck by the brightly illuminated window onto thousands of books. A lovely sight. Sadly, our itinerary permitted us only the briefest of stops but I gather they offer tours around the building if you book in advance. Even from a brief look it was clear that this is a special building.

7. The Riga Cat

There are many stories and legends to encounter on a trip to Riga, but one you can be guaranteed to hear is the tale of the cat house. This is the story of a tradesman who was refused membership of the Great Guild in Riga. In retaliation he placed a sculpture of a cat with a raised tail on his rooftop turned towards the guild. After the guild relented he turned the cat to face the guild. I suspect this strategy wouldn’t get you very far today!

Not the Riga cat I was expecting...

Not the Riga cat I was expecting…

Anyway, the Riga Cat appears on every souvenir imaginable from bells to fridge magnets. However, the prize for the most bizarre re-creation of the Riga cat must go to the rather scary full size cat standing outside one tourist shop. This looks like one cat you wouldn’t want to pick a fight with!

8. Riga’s quirky aviation museum

On our journey home we made a stop off at the Riga Airmuseum, located just 6 minutes on foot from the terminal building. It is only open at the weekends, from 10am to 4pm, and to get access you have to ring a buzzer so that the owner can let you in. The modest cost of entry (7 euros per person) makes a difference here as the museum receives no funding from the state.

Riga Aviation Museum

Riga Aviation Museum

Inside, a fascinating collection of former Soviet military aircraft awaits which includes fighters (Sukhoi Su-7U, Sukhoi Su-7BKL, MiG-15UTI, Mig-21BIS, MiG-21US, MiG-23MF, MiG-23M, MiG-25RBS and MiG-29UB) and helicopters (Mil Mi-1, Mil Mi-2, Mil Mi-4, Mil Mi-6, Mil Mi-8T, Mil Mi-24). The pride of the collection is a Tupolev Tu-22M1 bomber which sits outside the museum compound, on the territory of the airport, and is sadly not easily viewed.

The impressive collection grew out of the aircraft acquired by the Young Pilots’ Club (established in 1956). The young aviation engineer who handled the organisation of the growing collection is still at the museum today as its permanent director, overseeing its transition to a private museum in 1997. It is said to be the largest collection of Soviet aircraft outside the Commonwealth of Independent States.

All of the exhibits, along with some civilian aircraft, are rather quirkily displayed along with various pieces of airport equipment and signs. It has a delightful kind of junkyard charm about it and we enjoyed stumbling round and coming across surprising sights like the second MiG-29UB prototype and the ginger cats who seemed very comfortable in the shade of a Soviet helicopter!

Cemeteries of Riga

Posted in Latvia, Riga by folkestonejack on September 24, 2016

On the first full day of our short stay we took the number 11 tram out of the city centre and visited four of Riga’s cemeteries. All were fascinating for different reasons.

One of the derelict tombs in the Great Cemetery

One of the derelict tombs in the Great Cemetery

The first, the former Great Cemetery of Riga, is in a state of dereliction with family tombs crumbling in the overgrown grounds. It’s a sad place to wander as you get a strong sense of how magnificent the grounds must have been from their establishment in 1773 until 1945, holding many of the great and good from Latvian society. In the Soviet era many of the graves and headstones were removed. Later, an effort was made to transform the cemetery into a park, causing more damage.

Over the past decade there have been many calls for the park to be properly restored which the current landowners (the Latvian Evangelical Lutheran Church) are said to have resisted, explaining that the graves were the responsibility of their families. Any restoration of the historically significant tombs in the cemetery has largely been the work of local volunteers.

A report in Neatkarīgā Rīta Avīze from 24th May 2016 under the headline Lielie kapi nīkuļo, gaidot īsto saimnieku (Great Cemetery languishing, waiting for the right owner) indicates that the City of Riga is ready to offer the Latvian Evangelical Lutheran Church another plot of land in exchange for the Great Cemetery. I don’t know if this has progressed any further, but if an agreement can be reached between the two parties this could help remove the barriers to restoration. It has to be said that the estimates for the full restoration of the site are daunting, but this would be a step in the right direction.

The second cemetery on our list was Pokrov Cemetery, just across the road, which is owned and maintained by the Shelter of Our Most Holy Lady Church (Latvian Orthodox Church). There are a number of interesting monuments here, though our main focus was the Soviet memorial (as described in the last post).

Guardians at the entrance of the Cemetery of the Brethren

Guardians at the entrance of the Cemetery of the Brethren

The third was the beautifully maintained Riga Brethren Cemetery (Brāļu Kapi) which is often referred to as the Brothers’ Cemetery. The memorial complex here honours the thousands of Latvian soldiers who fell in the First World War and in the fight for freedom that followed.

After passing between the two pairs of grieving horsemen that guard the entrance you follow a tree lined path to an eternal flame and the heroes terrace. From here you can get a view across the graves to the sculptural composition of Mother Latvia with her fallen sons, though it is difficult to get a sense of the scale of the cemetery until you head down the steps and start walking towards her.

The Cemetery of the Brethren with a view towards Mother Latvia

The Cemetery of the Brethren with a view towards Mother Latvia

Finally, we visited the surrounding Forest Cemetery (Rīgas Meža kapi). The cemetery was established in 1910 and holds impressive memorial for many prominent figures from Latvian history including the poet Jānis Pliekšāns (Rainis) and the first Latvian Foreign Minister Zigfrīds Anna Meierovics. There are many striking graves to be seen on a wander down the forest paths.

The Forest Cemtery also includes a burial ground surrounded by white crosses where those killed under the Soviet regime of 1940-41 were buried. During the second period of Soviet occupation the site was levelled and new graves created to erase its past history. Today, the white crosses mark out the burial ground once again with the addition of a monument listing the names of those who lost their lives in 1940-41.

White crosses in the Forest Cemetery

White crosses and monument in the Forest Cemetery

It’s an interesting cemetery to visit and one that is clearly complicated by the developments of the Soviet era. Besides the attempted destruction of the white crosses burial plot there were other deliberate attempts to obscure history here (quite literally in the case of the First President of Latvia, Jānis Čakste, when the sightlines towards his memorial were blocked by a monument to Vilis Lācis, the Chairman of the Council of Ministers of the Latvian SSR).

All four of the cemeteries we visited reflect the complex history of the country and have suffered over the decades, but that is true of so much that we have already seen in Riga. They were well worth taking a look at during our visit and could easily be combined with a trip out to the art nouveau buildings of the Mezaparks district (something that we didn’t have time for on our tight itinerary) for something a little lighter.

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Sights of Soviet Riga

Posted in Latvia, Riga by folkestonejack on September 24, 2016

A trip to Riga is inevitably suffused with the collective memory of the country’s past suffering under Soviet occupation which is all too clearly set out on a tour of the Corner House, a KGB Prison, or on a visit to the Museum of Occupation (currently in temporary residence at Raiņa bulvāris 7 whilst their main site is re-developed). However, alongside these sights are some beautiful monuments that you can’t help but admire as an outsider, divorced from any political message that they might have.

On this visit we saw a little of each and began to appreciate just how uneasily these two sides of Soviet Riga sit together in today’s free and independent city. Today, around 25% of Latvia’s population are ethnically Russian, in part due to the deliberate movement of peoples within the Soviet Union. Quite clearly, there are no easy decisions when it comes to debating these symbols of the recent past.

1. The monument to the Latvian riflemen
This striking, angular monument to the Latvian Red Riflemen was constructed as a tribute to the Latvian soldiers who transferred their allegiance from the Tsar to the Bolsheviks in 1917 and played an important role in the Russian Civil War. Since Latvia obtained her freedom the monument has been re-designated as a monument to all Latvian riflemen, be they white or red, for their defence of Latvia from German forces between 1915 and 1920.

The monument to the Latvian riflemen

The monument to the Latvian riflemen

The monument resulted from an open competition announced by the Latvian SSR Council of Ministers in 1965. No outright winner was agreed from the 34 entries but two second place prizes were awarded and it was eventually decided that the design by sculptor Valdis Alberg (1922-84) should be constructed. The completion of the project was scheduled for 1970 but pushed back after a fire caused by industrial equipment broke out in the workshop in the February of that year, damaging the red granite sculptures.

The monument was finally unveiled in 1971 and some pictures of the opening ceremony can be seen on the website of the Latvian National Archives at http://www.archiv.org.lv/lspiemineklis/sak5.php. The most significant difference to the presentation of the monument today is the alteration of the legend, from ‘For the Latvian Red Riflemen’ to ‘Latvian Riflemen 1915-1920’.

2. The Latvian Academy of Sciences

The 108 metre tall tower of the Latvian Academy of Sciences was the first skyscraper to be built in Latvia and was originally intended to be a statement of the success of the socialist system. It follows a style of Stalinist architecture that will be familiar to anyone who has been to Moscow or Warsaw. Although the star that once topped the building has long gone you can still see the communist symbol of the hammer and sickle on the facade along with sheaves of wheat.

The Latvian Academy of Sciences

The Latvian Academy of Sciences

The building opened in 1959, before works were fully complete, but it would never see use as a hotel for collective farm workers as originally planned. Instead, it became home to the Academy of Sciences and that connection lasts to the present day.

The 17th floor holds an outdoor viewing gallery that can be visited for 5 Euros per person (on our visit we paid the money to the security guard on duty and he pointed out a printed set of instructions telling us to reach the top). It offers a splendid view with plenty of space (unlike the cramped gallery at the top of St Peter’s church) and helpful explanations of the sights you can see from the top.

3. The Museum of Occupation

Latvia’s painful history of occupation is explained in great detail in the disturbing but most necessary exhibition, starting with the first Soviet occupation of 1940-1941 and culminating in the second Soviet occupation of 1944-1991, with the horrors of Nazi occupation inbetween.

The museum is, inevitably, a catalogue of one horror after another. However, amongst this the most powerful and poignant indictment of the occupiers came from the recorded testimonies of Latvians who had been deported to Siberia as children. Their tales of upheaval, starvation and death stayed with me long after we had returned to the fresh air.

4. Pokrov Cemetery

Pokrov Cemetery is the location of a red army burial site that contains the graves of 215 Soviet soldiers killed during the liberation of Riga headed by a striking monument of a golden soldier carrying the Soviet flag onward. A full list of the soldiers buried is available (in Russian) at http://www.russkije.lv/ru/pub/read/pokrovskoe-cemetry/pokrov-voina2.html. When we stopped by fresh flowers had been placed on the monument and the grounds looked to be well cared for.

Soviet War Memorial at Pokrov Cemetery

Soviet War Memorial at Pokrov Cemetery

The cemetery has undergone substantial restoration in the past decade and its condition today is quite a contrast to the rather battered Great Cemetery that lies across the road with its semi-derelict family tombs. A second monument stands as a memorial to the Russian soldiers who died during the First World War, whilst a burial plot in the Great Cemtery is the last resting place of 433 German prisoners of war who died in 1945.

5. Victory Memorial to the Soviet Army

The Victory Memorial is the largest and perhaps the most contentious of the Soviet monuments in Riga, comprised of a 79 metre tall star-topped obelisk and two sculptural compositions (one of Mother Russia and the other of three red army soldiers) set in an extensive park and surrounded by water. It was originally commissioned to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of the liberation of Riga in 1984, but was eventually opened on 5th November 1985.

Victory Memorial to the Soviet Army

Victory Memorial to the Soviet Army

The monument arouses strong passions on both sides – it still attracts a substantial gathering of veterans and supporters on Victory Day (May 9th) whilst Latvian nationalists have led a campaign to have the monument dismantled. More than one attempt has been made to blow up the monument.

One man has documented the story of the monument in great detail on his website from the competition to design the monument to the opening ceremony. It includes some fascinating construction photographs and reminiscences from those involved in its creation.

6. The Corner House

The most harrowing of the Soviet sites we visited in Riga has to be the ‘Corner House’ at Brīvības iela 61 which was formerly the KGB Headquarters in the city. We took a 90 minute long guided tour of the building, taking in an interrogation room, two floors of unrenovated cells, kitchen, the sub-divided exercise grounds and prison yard. The tour finishes with the sobering sight of the room where executions took place.

Spy hole from one of the prison cells in the lower-level of the prison

Spy hole from one of the prison cells in the lower-level of the prison

Our guide gave us an insight into the terror of being picked up, the hopelessness of protesting your innocence and the families who struggled to discover the fate of their loved ones. As we explored the site we discovered the compact nature of the cell blocks, but it was simply impossible to imagine the site straining with the vast numbers that we were told had been held here in conditions of incredible heat.

One of the most impressive aspects of the tour was that it drew upon the testimony of ordinary Latvians who have visited the site and given accounts of their experiences, whilst also helpling the museum understand how the arrangement of the site had changed over the decades and help answer the mysteries of the site (such as why keys were concreted into the walls of the exercise grounds).

The light was fading as we left the corner house, somewhat shattered by the previous ninety minutes but glad we had visited despite the grim nature of the place. Some things must not be forgotten.

7. Latvian National Museum of Art

A small mention must be made of the collection of the Latvian National Museum of Art which includes some interesting works of socio-realist art. These include some terrific paintings of rowers, welders and asphalt spreaders (the first time I can ever recall seeing this depicted in a painting). However, my favourite would have to be the large painting titled ‘The proletariat carrying the sun’

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Wanders through an art nouveau cityscape

Posted in Latvia, Riga by folkestonejack on September 23, 2016

One of the most fortunate coincidences in timing saw a construction boom in Riga at the height of the art nouveau movement, leading to a concentration of art nouveau buildings that UNESCO declared to be quite unparalleled anywhere in the world. On the merits of these buildings the city centre was listed as a world heritage site in 1997.

A small detail from the facade of an art nouveau apartment block on Ģertrūdes iela

A small detail from the facade of an art nouveau apartment block on Ģertrūdes iela

In statistical terms this concentration of over 800 art nouveau delights translates to an astonishing 40% of the buildings in the city centre, but it is hard to visualise this until you start wandering the streets and see art nouveau buildings at every turn. It is only then that I began to appreciate how magnificent a city dominated by such buildings can be.

It can be hard work walking the streets looking at these buildings, for you soon discover that you have to keep your eyes trained to the skies or risk missing the most incredible detail. A good example is the building at Kaļķu iela 12/14 (Paul Mandelstam, 1907) which has a deceptively simple facade, but look up and you will see a trio of stone crows peeking out from identical art nouveau nests!

A vast menagerie of animals and creatures has been captured in stone. We had great fun spotting these, especially the more unusual choices such as pelicans and peacocks. On more than one occasion our paths took us back past buildings we had already seen, only to notice creatures lurking on the facades that we had missed on the first look.

The centrepiece at Alberta iela 8 (Mihails Eizenšteins, 1903)

The centrepiece at Alberta iela 8 (Mihails Eizenšteins, 1903)

The most eclectic, dazzling and ornate examples of art nouveau that we encountered were to be found on Alberta iela and Elizabetes iela where Mihails Eizenšteins (1867—1921) had clearly taken things a step further than any of his contemporaries.

In the neighbourhood of the ‘silent city’ you can also visit the Art Nouveau Museum and get a glimpse of the apartment where architect Konstantīns Pēkšēns (1859-1928) lived until 1907 (he was responsible for designing around 250 buildings in Riga). Another apartment, the home and workshop of artist Janis Rozentāls, has been turned into a museum and can be visited on the fifth floor during peak tourist season.

The staircase inside Alberta iela 12 (home to the art nouveau museum)

The staircase inside Alberta iela 12 (home to the art nouveau museum)

Inevitably, the quantity of art nouveau buildings creates quite a challenge for the city. Many of the art nouveau wonders in Riga had fallen into bad shape during the Soviet era with the blocks sub-divided into smaller communal units and no commercial incentive on offer to restore and renovate. For this reason, we found it reassuring to see art nouveau blocks undergoing renovation during our visit. I hope that as much attention is paid to preserving the art nouveau details to be found inside as the museum showed that this can be as magnificent as the facades.

Although our wanders were relatively casual the Riga Art Nouveau information centre has suggested walking routes that would allow you to get the most out of the clusters of the most beautiful buildings. You can find details of these trails on their website or by purchasing their modestly priced and beautifully illustrated booklets from the museum.

I feel that we only struck the tip of the art nouveau iceberg on our short stay in Riga and could happily go back to see the buildings to be found in other parts of the city and the equally extraordinary buildings to be found on the coast at Jurmala…

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Riga for the weekend

Posted in Latvia, Riga by folkestonejack on September 22, 2016

There are some cities in the world that you only have to mention and a series of iconic images start flashing through your head. Riga is not one of those and all the better for that – I like a degree of surprise on my adventures! That is not to say that I didn’t start the trip with some preconceptions, but as it happened these were completely wrong…

The Nativity of Christ Cathedral, Riga

The Nativity of Christ Cathedral, Riga

Our short break to Riga saw us arrive mid-afternoon on one of the last warm and sunny days before the chill of autumn set in. It didn’t feel as though we had been in the air that long, but the two hour time difference meant that we would only have a short day of sightseeing ahead of us. By the time we had made the short bus ride into town and checked in to our hotel just a couple of hours of daylight were left.

I had ignorantly assumed that this city would bear the familiar hallmarks of many former Soviet state and see an urban landscape dominated by massive communist apartment blocks, so I was very pleasantly surprised to find myself standing in the centre of a beautiful city that is one third nade up of art-nouveau buildings.

The high concentration of art nouveau architecture is thanks to a construction boom that happened to occur when the movement was at its zenith. It makes Riga an unusual and strikingly different capital to any that I have seen before, with surprises lurking at every turn of the corner in the old town.

Alongside the art nouveau delights there are some lovely churches, cathedrals and medieval buildings. Inevitably there are some Stalinist constructions, such as the high-rise Academy of Sciences, but none of these diminish the beauty of the city centre.

Our first wanders took us into the old town, around the freedom monument and down to the House of Blackheads (currently closed to visitors) before we looped back towards our hotel (the Mercure Riga Centre) near the railway station.

A little later we ventured back out to find the hidden wonder that is Milda, a small restaurant tucked away in a quiet spot that you reach by crossing a car park surrounded by office blocks! It’s a small family restaurant that specialises in Latvian and Lithuanian cuisine, serving up some of the tastiest dishes we have tried anywhere. It was a great place to round off our first day.

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