We took the bus Thursday from Vilnius to Riga (the capital of Latvia). The weather looked threatening when we set off at noon, and during sections of the four-and-a-half-hour ride, rain smashed down hard on our vehicle. When I checked the weather on my phone I found this:
I was horrified; rain would be disastrous in Riga, which is most renowned for its architecture, much of it created about 120-130 years ago in a flamboyant style known as Art Nouveau. Topping my To Do list there was a self-guided walking tour to see that.
After checking into our hotel and targeting a dinner spot, we found the streets wet, but nothing was coming out of the sky, a situation that persisted throughout the evening.
The next morning, as clouds flirted with sunny blue patches overhead, we dashed out early to squeeze in our touring before more bad weather descended. I can now confirm that the city’s reputation is well-deserved. I’d never heard of Art Nouveau before, but it’s worth going out of your way to see it. The movement apparently sprang from the pages of a Munich magazine that promoted the idea of a youthful new building style, one that embraced, even glorified, wild levels of ornamentation. Bustling, energetic Rigan architects took the idea and ran with it. Today the city counts something like 750 examples, more than anywhere else in Europe. Here’s a peak at what we stopped and gawked at:
After our architectural prowl, it didn’t rain as we cut across one of the city’s beautiful parks……and meandered through the twisting streets of the medieval old city……a compact area crammed with ancient churches and more Art Nouveau treats and a stirring monument to Freedom that somehow survived the decades of repressive post-war Soviet rule.
By mid-afternoon, rain seemed so unlikely we caught a little boat that putted down the wide Daugava River and up the canal winding through the center of the old city.
We walked home that night from our Russian dinner (at a restaurant called Uncle Vanya’s), without once opening our umbrellas. Along the way, a demonstration supporting the Ukrainians also was undeterred by any threat of rain.
Saturday morning the forecast on my phone still looked bad, but the skies were clear enough to embolden us to head for a grim former Soviet tower that’s today topped with an observation deck.From it we drank in excellent views of this oh-so-flat part of the world. Near the tower we could see the former World War I zeppelin hangers that have been turned into a huge central market — our next stop.
The only disappointment of our entire stay in Riga came after lunch, caused not by weather but by my underestimating the appetite here for insight into the recent bad old days. Riga has at least three museums (probably more) dedicated to the Soviet and Nazi occupations and the heroic resistance to and eventual victory over them. The one I most wanted to visit is known as the Corner House — former headquarters of the various incarnations of brutal police enforcers.
Inside, we were able to visit a room filled with posters documenting the reign of terror directed and carried out from this building: arrests, interrogations, torture, executions. But the 1 pm guided tour of the cells where the KGB carried out the darkest parts of all this was sold out, and we didn’t feel like standing around for two hours to wait for the next one.
Instead Steve and I walked back to our hotel for a break before our final sightseeing outing of the day: a small museum devoted to explaining more about the Art Nouveau movement. By 4 pm, when we set out for that, it was finally raining! But just a little, and the museum was only a few blocks away.
Housed in the private home of the man who designed more Art Nouveau wonders than anyone (Konstantins Peksens), it was great fun to visit, filled with both technological breakthroughs (a flush toilet! a refrigerator!) and objects of beauty.
I’m writing this now on the bus to Tallinn, capital of Estonia, our third and final formerly Soviet Baltic country. My phone says it may be raining some on Tallinn. I’m not too worried.