Nestled away in Northeastern Europe, Latvia is perhaps an underappreciated country in the travelling community. However, this Baltic State has a lot to boast about, of which I only managed to glimpse a little of in the three days I spent roaming the cobbled streets of the Old Town, staring up at the remarkably decorative buildings and observing the traditional and much-hyped Song and Dance Festival that happened to be going on whilst I was there.
The overused phrase ‘a picture speaks a thousand words’ definitely rings true when it comes to describing travel adventures; hence the start of my travel photojournal series… First up on the list is my rundown of Riga – the unassuming capital of Latvia.
The Freedom Monument sits in the middle of Riga, near the border of the old and new parts of the city, and is also central to the history and identity development of the whole country. Erected in 1935 to commemorate soldiers killed in the Latvian War of Independence (1918-1920), this minimal yet impressive structure remains standing today despite several efforts by various groups to have it taken down. During Soviet occupation, there was an attempt to alter its meaning: it was claimed that the three stars represented the three Baltic States (Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia) being held up by Mother Russia. However, Latvian citizens kept alive the national importance of the monument and made it the site of several important protests.
Old Town (Vecrīga)
When a city has an old town, that is normally the best place to be – in terms of culture, history, photography, vibe… Riga is no exception to this. Compared to other cobbled old towns I’ve visited, I don’t think Riga tops the list but what it slightly lacks in vibe it makes up for in impressive buildings. There are so many spires and domes crammed into such a small space it’s definitely a sight to behold.
For a great view over the city, I climbed to the top of St. Peter’s Church and looked back down at the terracotta-peppermint-rose palette of colours splashed across the houses below.
Latvian Song and Dance Festival
When travelling, the unplanned moments can often turn out to be the best or most memorable. Whilst I was in Riga, the unexpected hit us in the form of thousands of people bursting out of the parks and filling the streets with music and togetherness: it was the last weekend of the Latvian Song and Dance Festival. One of the largest amateur choral events in the world, with 30,000 participants, Riga came alive with traditional folk songs.
Although I started to find the music a little repetitive, probably because I couldn’t understand the lyrics, the sight of all the performers in traditional clothes and spectators politely watching on with a subdued manner that felt worlds away from the mosh pits of music festivals I’m used to, was a great cultural insight.
Nativity of Christ Orthodox Cathedral
Just off the Esplanade, a grand grassy square where a big part of the Song and Dance Festival was taking place, this cathedral stands gold-topped and proud. Having withstood the Soviet era, in which it was turned into a restaurant, it now serves the community in the way it was built for and welcomes visitors to look around inside.
Art Nouveau Architecture
Riga is famous for its tripping-over-your-own-feet buildings; you’re so busy looking left, right, up, around, anywhere but the pavement in front of you and suddenly everyone is a high falls risk. It’s kind of worth it though, I mean look at that decoration. It’s like a wedding cake expert designed all the buildings. This architecture can be spotted across many parts of the city, but two streets which really do not disappoint are Alberta Iela and Elizabetes Iela in the Central District.
Lots (and Lots) of Parks
One of my favourite things about Riga was the abundance of green space right in the centre of the city. Bastejkalna Park was the most beautiful in my opinion: slicing a line between the Old Town and the more modern parts of the city, and itself sliced down the middle by a beautiful canal pinpricked with rainbow-friendly fountains.
Beach Trip to Jūrmala
On our last day in Riga, we managed to squeeze in a 30-minute train ride to nearby Jūrmala, a touristy area with beaches and overpriced bars. I think there’s a lot more there than we managed to see during our little excursion but I enjoyed the little we did see.
Sakta Flower Market
This flower market in the centre of Riga is famous for being open 24 hours a day, and apparently Latvians are known for gifting each other flowers on all occasions. There’s definitely a wonderfully diverse and colourful selection of plants to choose from at Sakta.
Latvian Academy of Sciences
This is a slightly cheaper way to get a view looking down over Riga than St. Peter’s Church. And it’s a pretty good feast for the eyes from the outside looking up too. Known colloquially as ‘Stalin’s birthday cake’, it was built in the 1950s and resembles the kinds of buildings that went up around the Soviet Union at the time. At 108 metres, it was the first skyscraper to be built in Latvia and remained the tallest building in the country until the 2000s.
The streets in the surrounding area have a more rundown feel than the rest of the city and definitely gave me a taste of a different side to Riga. During the Nazi occupation, this area was turned into a Jewish ghetto; this is commemorated with several memorials dotted around the area.
At first Riga may seem like a subdued place of subdued people; and whilst I think tranquility plays a big role in the running of this city, I think the liveliness reflected in the festivities and the colours splashed on the petals of the flowers and walls of the houses paint a different story. Latvia is neck-deep in a history of struggle to define itself against other definitions of what it ‘should’ be, yet through all of this I still came away with a sense of the pride Latvians rightly have of their own culture and independence.
What became equally as tangible during my three days in the capital was my desire to go back and experience the lush forests and vibrant sweep of fields that the Latvian countryside has to offer; just exploring the city, regardless of its intricacies and quirks, does not paint a full picture of this modest yet beautiful country.
Have you visited Latvia? If not, would you like to?
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