There was a young lady from Riga
Who smiled as she rode on a tiger
They returned from the ride
With the lady inside
And the smile on the face of the tiger.
We haven’t seen a tiger yet, but after being in Russia for the past 19 days, the city of Riga seems much more comfortable to us. It’s hard to describe why. Perhaps it’s the lack of an obvious police and military presence in the streets. Maybe it’s a lack of austere soviet archtecture or people, cars and shops that just look more affluent. This city just feels more open and vibrant.
We arrived here in the mid afternoon after flying out from the small and very unspectacular St Petersburg airport. Our flight lasted for 1 1/2 hours. It didn’t seem to be very scary to me but the woman on the other side of the aisle prayed and crossed herself three times as we took off, although only twice again as we landed. Once we arrived in Riga, it only took about 25 minutes to reach the city by taxi, at a relatively inexpensive price of 8 Lats ($A 20).
We are staying at the Metropole Hotel whlch is a charming place – full of old European style and character from the 1930s. From our quick walk around the area near the hotel before dinner, we found that we were on the edge of the old city and there were many interesting streets to explore. We had an outstanding steak for dinner with friendly and attentive staff and topped it off with a bottle of New Zealand wine.
We really only have one full day here, so with the help of the Lonely Planet, we ventured out on a walking tour of the old town. The moat along the old city wall still snakes through a very pleasant area of parkland, although the walls were demolished a long time ago. The only remaining tower is now incorporated into the Latvian War Memorial.
We had an interesting day pottering around the streets, looking at the old buildings and taking a lift to the top of the steeple of the cathedral. We passed by the old castle where the President now lives and watched the honour guard at the Freedom Memorial marching with crossed arms as they held their weapons upright.
One of the obvious differences between Latvia and Russia, is that in Russia, most of the memorials are to soldiers, generals and military victories. Here in Riga, they appear to be musicians, poets and families. Instead of celebrating victory over others, the Latvians seem to celebrate their independence and freedom from others.
The most interesting, and sombre, place that we visited was in an ugly blockhouse style building in a square near the town hall. It was ‘The Musuem of Occupation’ and it had a very informative (and no holds barred) display of the occupation of Latvia by both the Germans and the Soviets, following about 20 years of democratic independence from 1918. Both regimes appear to have been harsh and oppressive, just lasting for different lengths of time. There were terrible stories of people having their property taken from them, disappearing, being imprisoned and / or executed. The poor people who copped the worst were the Jews. Under the Germans, they were sent to concentration camps and under Russian rule, they were sent to the gulags. Very few returned.
Latvia became independent again in 1991 when the Soviet empire first began to collapse. Riga has a world heritage recognition for its old city, but it in danger of losing this recognition because it keeps erecting new buildings in the city. They are all very aesthetic, just not in keeping with the original ones.
From here, we are off to Hanover via Copenhagen.