JOHN’S JOURNEYS:   The  Baltic buffer-states.II

John Burke continues into Latvia


Restored in Riga’s main square          © JOHN BURKE

My first article on the Baltic trio covered northerly Estonia whose capital, Tallinn, faces the Gulf of Finland.  More buses from there go into Latvia than those from Tartu, but from where it takes only four hours going south-west through rolling wooded country to Riga.


This is the capital of a country  which is slightly smaller than Ireland or Tasmania, but about the same size as West Virginia.  Once called Livonia, it is a flat land with swamps and woods along the 130-mile eastern border with Russia, while the slightly longer west coast features five picturesque or interesting fishing villages: Liepaja, Pavilosta, Jurkaine, Ventspils and Kolka which is on a cape at the entrance to the Gulf of Riga.


The capital itself  near the mouth of the Daugava River became an obvious mart, so it too traded freely within the mediaeval Hansa.   Fortifications on the east bank overlook the old town that is best viewed from the 404-foot tower of St Peter’s, a Lutheran church that blends Gothic, Baroque and Rococo styles.


Cathedral with castle beyond          © JOHN BURKE

The other landmark is the Protestant cathedral, the largest place of worship in the Baltic states, and there are three other ancient churches.   Also within ten minutes’ walk of each other are the Arsenal and the red-brick Powder Tower, in which nine Russian cannon-balls are embedded, as well as three museums inside the castle that was rebuilt several times, and extended by invading Swedes in 1641.  Despite a fire in 2013, it remains the presidential residence.


The main square, graced by a statue of St Roland, is surrounded by rebuilt masterpieces.  They include the baroque town hall and Gothic guild-houses as well as the House of the Blackheads that was bachelor accomodation for foreign traders and shippers.  Set in the cobbles is a plaque to commemorate the world’s first Christmas Tree that Hanseatic merchants are said to have decorated in 1510.


Halfway through Yuletide          © JOHN BURKE

Riga is largely pedestrianised between the river and the semi-circular canal that runs through Esplanade Park.  Its main feature is the Lovers’ Bridge whose railings are festooned with padlocks, engraved with the names of newly weds.  Sights outside the central district include changing of the guard at the soaring, granite Freedom Monument of 1935 that the Soviet invaders allowed to stand after protests.


Instead, they erected a monument of red granite to the Latvian Riflemen who had defected to the Bolsheviks in 1917.  It stands outside a Soviet monstrosity that has, appropriately, been turned into the sinister Museum of Occupation,  covering both the  Nazi and Communist periods.   Exhibits include the Latvian-designed miniature Minox camera used for spying (also in the museum of photography), and documents showing how this small land was ravaged and ransacked.   Some  57,000 Latvians were deported to the USSR in two waves, but the slaughter of 35,000 Jews is commemorated at two other sites.


As in a Soviet labour-camp          © JOHN BURKE    

Other reminders of the past include the Russian Theatre and Orthodox cathedral;   one-quarter of the  2½ million Letts are descended from families that came in with the Red Army, and that includes every other Rigan.   Dating from the tsarist era, however, is the Art Nouveau that accounts for one-third of buildings in the city-centre; the one at Alberta 12 is a dedicated museum.


Then there is Europe’s oldest market which, for over a century, has been housed in old hangars for Zeppelin air-ships. The famous Finnish department store, Stockmann, has a branch in the city-centre, and you might as well buy your LB vodka or Riga Balsam there.  The latter is 45% proof, and comes in a small ceramic bottle as brown as the tangy liquid inside, being composed of some 24 ingredients including 17 herbs.


Laima’s famous chocolates, made since 1870, can be purchased at the company’s museum as well as in its chain of shops, and it is also advertised on the Laima Clock, a pillar that has become Rigans’ most convenient  rendezvous.  Old Riga is the place to go for shops and stalls with souvenirs led by amber, but always beware of fakes and pickpockets.


Spread out in a lakeside pine forest just half an hour’s ride from Riga are 118 ancient rural structures similar to the collection in Estonia.  The most prominent construction is the lofty Usma Church which has no nails in the timber.  My guide was from a local travel agency, Patricia Ltd, run by Mike Johnson, an American who has commercial clients.


Buildings from all four provinces          © JOHN BURKE

Going westward, it takes half that time to reach Jurmala whose 20 miles of white sands make it a far bigger resort than the Estonian ones at Parnu and Haapsalu.  It is also more popular than Klaipeda (named Memel when German), a key port awarded to Lithuania in 1918.    This slightly larger neighbour will be the subject of my final article on the Baltic states.