Beauty on the Baltic: Riga puts on a pretty face as European Capital of Culture 2014
From its UNESCO World Heritage-listed Old Town, a labyrinth of gorgeous Art Nouveau architecture, to the numerous waterside cafes that overlook the mighty Daugava River, Riga is one of northern Europe's most interesting and surprising cities. The capital of Latvia is a symphony of spires, steeples and whimsically ornate buildings - the legacy of an eventful 800 year history that has seen ownership of the city pass from Sweden to Germany to Russia and, finally, to Latvia itself.
Today Riga is a city where centuries meet, where architectural grandeur juxtaposes Soviet practicality, where enclaves of wooden houses sit among a growing number of contemporary buildings that embody the newfound confidence of the Baltic States. And what better time to visit: Riga not only joined the European Union in January, adopting the Euro as its currency, it is also European Capital of Culture for 2014, playing host to a number of cultural events, exhibitions and performances throughout the year.
Riga's Old Town (Vecrīga) is the city's heart, not to mention the pride of every Latvian. With its historic buildings, spacious squares, hospitable hangouts and Kafkaesque streets, it's the perfect place to meander, shop, dine and revel in the cultured atmosphere.
Visitors can easily orient themselves in the Old Town by first climbing the tower of St. Peter's Church, which offers a spectacular panoramic view of Riga. From here it's a short walk to the Dome Cathedral and surrounding square, with outdoor seating and some of the finest cafes and restaurants in the city. Further west lies the historic Swedish Gate and remains of Riga's original city wall, as well as more impressive medieval architecture. On the bank of the Daugava River, close to the Powder Tower and Museum of War, stands the re-built Riga Castle, home of the Latvian President and also the National History Museum of Latvia.
Riga was an important economic centre in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, when the suburbs surrounding the medieval town were developed, first with wooden buildings, and then in iconic Art Nouveau style. The latter is typified by curved lines, asymmetrical composition and irregular contours, with many decorative motifs derived from nature, ancient history and mythology.
The construction of Art Nouveau buildings in Riga city coincided with a period of unprecedented prosperity and urban expansion, with more than one hundred imposing stone buildings erected in the city over the course of a few years at the turn of the twentieth century. Today Riga boasts Europe's finest collection of Art Nouveau buildings, and many companies offer dedicated tours.
Housed in five old German Zeppelin hangars, including elements of the Neoclassical and Art Deco architectural styles, Riga Central Market (Rīgas Centrāltirgus) is one of Europe's largest markets. It is inscribed on UNESCO's World Heritage Site list, together with the Old Town. The market is open daily, with a flower market at night.
The market makes a great place to become better acquainted with Latvian produce and cuisine, with stalls offering a cornucopia of vegetables, dairy products, meat, fish, baked goods and groceries, as well as manufactured products and souvenirs.
With a variety of influences, traditional Latvian cuisine is based on fresh, seasonal ingredients, with fish and meat dishes both common. Most recipes are relatively simple, although Riga boasts a growing range of restaurants offering progressive, high-end menus. One of these is Vincents, headed up by Latvia's most famous chef, Mārtinš Rītinš, while the restaurants in the Hotel Bergs and Gallery Park Hotel also win rave reviews.
One of the most traditional Latvian dishes is black peas with bacon (zirņi ar speķi), a warming dish that is popular during the winter. A lot more tasty than it sounds, the dish features boiled peas with small snippets of smoked or unsmoked bacon, onion and salt.
Much of Riga is beautifully illuminated at night. The Skyline Bar, which sits on the top floor of the Radisson Hotel, offers patrons spectacular views over the city, not to mention some great cocktails. Vanšu Bridge (shown below), which spans the Daugava, is also lit up at night.
The Laima Clock, situated in front of Riga's Freedom Monument, is another of the city's iconic structures. It was erected by politicians in 1924 to ensure people arrived for work on time. For decades it has advertised Laima chocolates (Latvia's biggest candy producer), and is a popular meeting point for local residents. Many sweet romances have supposedly started here.
Today Riga is still home to around 4000 wooden buildings, of which the oldest date back to the eighteenth century. Take a stroll over the Vanšu Bridge to the left bank of the Daugava River to explore the Kalnciema Quarter's unique collection of grand wooden homes. This whole area is known as Pardaugava, or "over the Daugava".
The 700,000 residents of Riga are in the most part hospitable and helpful, and generally friendly and open toward visitors. While the official language is Latvian, Riga is a bilingual city, with Latvian and Russian spoken by most. English is also widely spoken by younger people and those working in the tourism industry.
Football in Riga
FK Ventspils is a popular and successful Latvian club based in the city of Ventspils.
Skonto FC, based in Riga, is a powerhouse of Latvian football but is a relatively new club, having been founded in 1991.
The Latvian top division (the Virsliga) runs from March-November due to the harsh winters.
Since Latvia gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, the national team has once qualified for a major tournament, the 2004 European Championships in Portugal. The Latvian national team plays home grounds at the stadium of FC Skonto in the capital, Riga.
© Daniel Allen & Soccerphile.com