Rîga, August 21, 2005 - Sunday

Trip Start Aug 12, 2005
Trip End Aug 27, 2005

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Where I stayed
"Viktorija" hotel

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Sunday, November 2, 2008

Sunday seemed to me a good day to go to the zoo. Whoever knows me, they also know that it's one of the things I do in every town I visit, if possible. Much as all those zoos commonly look like each other and everywhere, without exception, main attraction are the likes of lions, elephants, tigers and bears, and monkey cages, of course, and even if for that reason they are probably the least locally flavoured of all places of interest, I still go there all the time. After all, if someone looks for McDonald's regardless of whether in London or Lagos, or Starbucks in Brisbane or Beijing, why wouldn't I look for the zoo in Santiago or Seoul? Or Rīga in this case?
According to my estimate off the relatively precise city map in the "Lonely Planet" guide, it would be like some seven kilometres to the zoo. Looking from my hotel, of course. I decided it was not too far to cover it on foot. On a day like today it would be a shame to use some means of transport unless really necessary. At least in one direction. So I decided to hoof it there, and by the time I started thinking of return, I would see what mood I would be in.
I went up to Brīvības iela. I had already been there and that part of Rīga was now familiar to me. I passed by the Alexandr Nevsky Church again, true to the form took one or two more pictures, and then turned aside into a street called Miera iela which was going to get me closer to my first destination today. It was obviously not one of major streets and following it, I was visibly moving away from the downtown. But it didn't mean that for this I noticed any shortage of Orthodox churches. Quite on the contrary.
The first one I came across was a pretty, newly painted, yellow church with a cemetery at its side. According to what I could find out about it, its name was Debesbrauksanas pareizticīgo baznīca, which would in translation go like Ascension Orthodox Church, allegedly built in 1867. And that was all I knew about it. Now, how much it was true in the first place, or whose ascension it celebrated, I had no way of knowing. Maybe Mary's. In any case, this church remained an utter unknown for me.
Just a bit farther off there was another church, also Orthodox, and this one was allegedly, and even more unintelligibly, called Vissvētās dievmātes patvēruma pareizticīgo baznīca, which was something like Our Lady's Sanctuary. Contrary to the previous one, or for that matter almost every other Orthodox one I had seen, this one had no lively coloured façade, but at the face of it rather gave out an impression of an edifice whose financial sources had suddenly dried up during construction. So the façade seemed to wait for some better times. However, on the second look I came to a conclusion that there was a certain charm after all in this building whose walls, with their colour and bricks, at first looked as if having flown in right off the drawing table of the spiritual father of those infamous Stalinka residential blocks. And I think I realised then that that particular façade would never be executed.
Then I moved on. Houses grew smaller and came ever wider apart, and Miera iela at one point simply turned into Gaujas iela. Let me now not name all the streets I went. I eventually just found myself in one called Kokneses prospects, which got me to the zoo.
As expected, even before the entrance gate I saw a bunch of parents and children, as well as two or three ponies docilely standing around, waiting for some mother or father to decide to give his kid fifteen minutes of the Wild West and cowboy life. As that was not why I was visiting zoos, I passed the whole thing by, bought my ticket and got in.
What to say about the Rīga zoo? In many ways, or maybe in almost every way, it was just another zoo, like almost any other you can visit in Europe. On the other hand, precisely that was its appeal since I mostly got what I had come for. A lot of greenery, a decent number of cages with animals, none of them a species I'd never seen before, and on this hot and sunny weekend a crowd of people. But what I had not seen in others were again tantalisingly attractive Latvian ladies. There were plenty of them, and it was summer, the hot August day. And that basically meant I again had an opportunity to see a disproportionately high number of ladies who would easily make the heads of my half of humankind spin out of control anywhere. So I had every reason not to hurry out of the zoo.
And that's how it was. Only some four hours later I decided it was time to resume my exploration of Rīga. After all, that's what I was there. As I walked around the zoo at a pretty leisurely pace, had frequent rests and on the whole took it pretty easy, it seemed to me that it wouldn't require an exceptional courage to head back downtown on foot again. And what were really seven or eight more kilometres? I would only have a better sleep. The same way I had come from, some two hours later I found myself at the end - or at the beginning, depending which end you look from - Brīvības iela and at the entrance to the Old Town. The Freedom Monument was rising before me.
It is a symbol of freedom for the Latvian people and a sight to watch there is the changing of the guards of honour every hour on the hour. However, the last change takes place at six in the afternoon and I missed it exactly by seven minutes. In fact, at six there is no change. The guards just leave. But that too is a ceremony. Anyway, it passed without me.
The Monument of freedom was officially unveiled on November 18, 1935, the seventeenth anniversary of the foundation of the independent Republic, appropriately deposing a Peter the Great Statue on its very spot. On its very top there is a bronze female statue, Milda, as called by the locals, symbolising the freedom and duly facing west. The Russians had got one back during the Soviet occupation, forbidding it flat for people to gather in any capacity around there. And not only that. Probably to drive firmly home the point as to where the direction of freedom is, block or two away they erected a Lenin Statue appropriately facing east. Of course, the lady Milda survived and today enjoys the respect and reverence of Latvians again, whereas comrade Lenin ended up on the junkyard of history. And on a literal one, too.
Freedom Monument in a way marked the entrance to the Old Town, but also the entrance to a neatly arranged, well kept and lush green, undulating park. It was Bastejkalns or Bastion Hill Park in translation, today only the distant remains of what once used to represent the fortifications of Rīga. Besides, it was so meticulously arranged, and converted to a green surface to such an extent that someone who doesn't know Rīga ever had a need to defend itself in such a manner had no way of guessing it by just what they could see.
The first building I noticed there was the one that was allegedly the first public edifice built in the park. The one in question was the National Opera House, or Nacionala opera in Latvian, a neo-baroque building erected in the second half of the 19th century. Other than that, Bastejkalns Park itself is divided by the winding Pilsētas kanāls, i.e. city canal, and on this warm, late summer afternoon many people were in this place, in the green and by the water. Some were sitting on wooden benches, many strolled up and down the winding paths through the park, some were paddling on the water surface in shallow plastic boats dodging - or maybe chasing? - ducks and other water fowl, and all in all everyone found their own fun and entertainment on this Sunday. As for me, I neither chased ducks nor drank beer in one of the open-air cafés. My activities boiled down to taking pictures as I went.
In that fashion, my feet brought me to the Powder Tower, or Pulvertornis, as the locals call it. It's the only tower that remains from the original city walls, the only one still standing of the eighteen once built, and today it houses Latvian War Museum. Not the biggest fan of wars and arms in this world, it was not in the back of my mind to go in. The fact that in the past it had changed all sorts of masks, from a gunpowder store to a torture chamber and prison, didn't exactly help change my opinion. Not even the fact that students occasionally held parties there mellowed my stance. A photo or two from the outside was the most I was prepared to set aside for it.
From there I started going down the Smilsu iela towards Doma laukums, the main Old Town square. Before that, in the Mazā Pils street, I skirted the oldest existing residential building in Rīga, built all the way back at the end of the 15th century. Together with its two neighbours, comparable youngsters, since they were bit some time later, I was seeing so-called "Three brothers", belonging among the most famous medieval dwelling homes in Rīga.
And from there, it was only a few steps to the Doma laukums or Cathedral square where, naturally, there was the Dome Cathedral, i.e. Doma baznīca, the largest church in the Baltics. The construction kick-off of St. Mary's Cathedral or Rīga Dome and Monastery for Rīga's Order of Monks, took place in 1211, as Rīga's Archbishop's Chapel. The whole thing was more or less finished by 1270. After that, throughout the history, as was the case with all similar edifices, it was modified several times. There were destructions and constructions, fires and rebuildings. In 1884 "E. F. Walker & Co.", the German organ manufacturer constructed the celebrated Dome organ, which at that time was the largest organ in the entire world. Now it's not any more, but it still retains a large portion of its former glory.
Like a lot of other cities in this area, Rīga too tried hard to become a member of the Hanseatic League. In a certain way it was almost like the European Union of our time as back then the Hansa was a synonym for economic and political stability. Twelve years after the completion of the cathedral Rīga made it. However, nothing in this world lasts forever, so neither did Hansa. As its influence dwindled, Rīga gradually became the object of foreign military, political, religious and economic aspirations and there was no shortage of those who eyed it with greed. So in 1522 reformation arrived in Rīga, which basically sent the archbishops packing. As a direct consequence of new religious correctness, a venerated statue of the Virgin Mary in the Cathedral was denounced as a witch in 1524, and true to the form, given a trial by water in the Daugava River. Every normal and educated person knew even then that innocent women, and probably the statues of innocent women, as well - or innocent female statues? - sank and never saw the light of the day again. As was appropriate, too. Only witches swam. The statue floated and so it was clear as a day to everyone that it was a witch. Therefore it was duly burnt in short order.
After such colourful episodes from the history, when the Soviets arrived, they mercifully concluded that the cathedral needed a break and tenderly prohibited every service for more than thirty years. Only in 1988 did the church activities get back on track.
From the Doma laukums you could also see the St.Jacob's Cathedral or Sv Jēkaba katedrāle. St.Jacob's is today the seat of the Rīga's Archbishop and in terms of age goes all the way back to the time when Dome Cathedral was constructed. Its first neighbour is Latvian Parliament, but for some reason I didn't feel like going there. Instead, for a while I lingered on and around the Doma laukums, took pictures of it and surrounding Art Nouveau - or Jugendstil - buildings, and then headed towards the 11. Novembra krastmala street and the Daugava river.
Art Nouveau is architectural and artistic style that spread rapidly throughout Europe and North America at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, seeking to explore new approach both in architecture and visual arts. It emerged in response to previous styles, which required following particular historical patterns. In contrast, Art Nouveau stressed a complete creative freedom, an expressive flight of fantasy with a tendency to show all utilitarian construction elements as artistic value. It was probably one of the shortest-lived stylistic movements which saw its end with the onset of the World War I. However, it nevertheless left behind extraordinarily colourful architectural examples, and nowhere more so than in Rīga. By extension, the UNESCO guys decided that here it was at its finest in Europe and so the whole thing made it to the World Cultural Heritage list.
Having a walk along the Daugava bank down the 11. Novembra krastmala, I soon arrived at the Latviesu strēlnieku laukums or the Latvian Riflemen Square in translation, where, appropriately, Latvian Riflemen Statue was. Those Riflemen were a local division from the WWI era in the Imperial Army, and a substantial portion of them fought for the Bolsheviks in the Russian Civil War, and in Latvia before the Latvia-USSR peace treaty. After Latvia had been annexed in the 1940s, they received their square and a monument.
And all that was now an entrance to the Rātslaukums or Town Hall Square. One of the most picturesque sights in town, for me this was the most impressive spot in Rīga. All in red and white, and awash with golden glow of late summer day less than an hour away from the sunset, this was where the Brothers' Grimm fairy tales would probably feel most at home. And this was where my feet felt at their most reluctant to move on.
Probably the most impressive building on the square, a real gem there, was the ornate House of Blackheads, first mentioned by sources in 1334 as the New House of the merchants of the Large Guild and the unmarried merchants, so-called Brotherhood of Blackheads, who later, in 1713, purchased the building and became its proprietors. The guys - young, unmarried merchants and ship captains in the Hansa cities of the day - obviously enjoyed a nice standing and played an important role in the society so their House was an important centre for public life. Even bigwigs like Russian tsars took part in events organised by the Blackheads and made sure not to miss a bash there if they were around.
The posh House of Blackheads was reconstructed and expanded a number of times throughout the history, but it took severe beating during World War II when it was destroyed in 1941. Then the Soviet comrades later added some of their own blasting, blowing up the burned out walls for the good measure. But when Latvia regained independence, one of the first restorations they decided to grapple with was that of the House of Blackheads. And so now there it was again. In its full glory.
In the middle of the square and in front of the Blackheads, there was the Statue of Roland, a swashbuckling medieval defender of the accused, complete with sword, shield and armour. The old Roland was facing Town Hall, which was in fact a new arrival among all those old or at least reconstructed monuments, built only in this century. But they must have made sure it didn't stand out in any wrong way from its surroundings. In the eyes of a common tourist like me, it fit there just fine.
However, for all of its appeal and magnetic power over me, Rātslaukums isn't exactly the largest square in the world and no matter how much you may like it, you can stay there only for so long. So after a while I had to move on. Already from the square one could see the steeple of St.Peter's church, i.e. Sv Pētera baznīca, in the neighbouring Skārņu iela street. Hence it was a logical choice as to where to go next.
St.Peter's Cathedral used to be the main cathedral during the Middle Ages for the inhabitants of Rīga. It was mentioned for the first time in 1209. Same as the rest of the pack, it too was rebuilt and enlarged several times throughout the past, probably for every time it was damaged or destroyed. Last face-lift it underwent was in 1984, the year of the most recent restoration completion. Now there is an elevator built in the tower, which takes you up for the city panorama.
But I didn't go up. Instead, I moved on to its lesser down-the-street neighbour, the St.John's church, or Sv Jāņa baznīca for the locals. Another venerable elder from the end of the 13th century, St.John's was a Dominican monastery and a church named after John the Baptist. I pootled around some more, and then the sun approached its setting. It had been another long day. A lot of sunshine, a lot of distance covered on foot, it was time for me to wrap it up. So I gradually headed towards the hotel, first stopping by once more along the way in my regular Internet café, then in the Stockmann supermarket, and then I called it a day.
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