Monday, 4 July 2016

Riga: The Old Town

Town Hall Square

So here we are in Riga, capital of Latvia. Latvia is a small country (25,000 square miles - three times the size of Wales). It has a population of just over 2 million; Riga accounts for almost 700,000 of these..  Modern Latvia came into existence in 1918, having previously been part of the Russian empire. It was occupied by the Nazis during the Second World War and remained part of the Soviet Union from 1945 until 1991. There are still many ethnic Russians (27% of the population).

We started our walk in Rãtslaumskums (Town Hall Square). In many ways the two red brick houses in the photo above are symbolic of Riga. The house on the right, The House of the Blackheads was founded in 1344 as a guildhall and was later taken over by the Blackheads, a guild of unmarried foreign merchants (their name derives from their patron, St Maurice, a black, and black-haired, Roman legionnaire). Both it and the Schwab House next door (built in a complementary style in 1891) were devastated by bombing in 1941 and later demolished. They were reconstructed in 1999 in readiness for the city's 800th anniversary in 2001.

The original Town Hall was built in 1334, but the current one is a modern one behind a neo-classical facade.

Not far away is St Peter's church whose soaring spire can be seen from Town Hall Square. It dates from 1209, although the three Baroque portals were added in the 17th century.

Behind St Peter's is St John's, built in 1234 as the chapel of a monastery and later extended. The outside is fairly plain, but inside the nave has simply wonderful gothic web vaulting.

A few minor streets brought us to Lĩvu Square, where colourful buildings stood beyond a grassy area with delightful flower plantings.

To the right of them is the Small Guild Hall which represented Riga's German craftsmen. The current building dates from the late 19th century.

To its right is the Great Guild, appropriately enough in a bigger building. Although the Guild was established in the 13th century, the current building is from the mid-19th. It is now a concert hall.

We now headed towards the superb art deco Freedom Monument built in 1935 on a site where there was previously a statue of Peter the Great. It was designed by the sculptor Karlis Zale and is 42m high. The three stars represent the three cultural regions of Latvia and other elements represent four virtues: work, spiritual life, family and protecting the fatherland (not sure that would be my four!).

Our next stop was the Powder Tower and St Jacob's barracks. The barracks housed Swedish soldiers during a period of Swedish rule in the late 17th century, but the buildings are now all converted into restaurants. The Powder Tower once formed part of the city walls (along with 17 others) and was rebuilt also by the Swedes after they destroyed the original during a war of 1621. There is also a Swedish Gate nearby.

At the end of the Barracks we turned left passing the Parliament building and St Jacob's cathedral to turn into Maza Pils iela where there are three old houses known as the Three Brothers. A tour group listening to a pair of musicians prevented me getting a single clear shot of all three. Numbers 19 (apricot) and 21 (green) are from 17th and 18th century respectively. Number 17 (the partially visible white one) is the oldest stone-built house in the city and dates from the 15th century.

The musicians played Deutchland, Deutschland uber alles to the delight of the tour party, who turned out to be German.

We passed the former castle, now the Museum of the History of Latvia and reached the River Daugava, with the impressive Vansu Bridge off to the right. Unusually, there is only one suspension tower.

Our next stop was the Cathedral, founded 1211 but altered many times since.

We were lucky enough to arrive at the start of a wonderful short concert of organ music. The cathedral's most wonderful feature is a three story renaissance cloister with a cross-vaulted roof over the lowest level.

The cloister houses items from the History Museum, including the rather wonderful former weather vane.

Riga is justly famous for its art nouveau buildings and we will focus on this is other walks over the next few days.

Conditions: sunny and quite warm, but with rain forecast.

Distance: about 2.5 miles.

Rating: four and a half stars.

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