If you prefer to watch the video, click here
A word of warning, Riga can be a pain in the neck. At eye level, the city is attractive enough but, to really appreciate its beauty, trust me, you will spend a lot of time with your head tilted back! With the highest concentration of Art Nouveau buildings anywhere in Europe, Riga is a top draw for anyone with an interest in architecture.
I joined a 4 day Riga Art Nouveau themed tour operated by Art & History tour specialists, Travel Editions. We travelled in March, leaving the UK with hints of Spring and landing in to Riga where the sea, yes, the sea was still in part frozen. The daytime temperature hovered around 0-2c plummeting at night to -6c. Bracing to say the least but, by a stroke of good fortune, for our weekend stay at least, the skies were a brilliant blue, setting the stunning architecture off to perfection.
On the first evening at our base for the weekend, the 4 star Hotel Monika, our group of 19 gathered for the first of two lectures by Art Nouveau specialist Mike Hope. Some in the group clearly had considerable knowledge about the period already. Others, like me, were simply there to learn. The lectures provided the all important context and gave us our first hint that what we were about to see represents one of the most creative periods of 20th century architecture. Latvian Art Nouveau it transpires is anything but conformist and can be loosely broken down in to 5 different styles – our challenge was, by the end of the weekend, to be able to identify which was which. Spoiler alert – it’s complicated!
Out and about we were treated to two days in Mike’s company, pounding the cobbled streets and examining a good number of the 800 or so Art Nouveau buildings in the city. Alberta and Elizabetes streets (street = iela on maps) have the highest concentration of examples but they are spread out over a much wider area including many examples mixed in among the medieval buildings of the Old Town. Having an expert decide your route and point out all the detail makes all the difference – anyone would appreciate the beauty of the buildings but its the stories behind them and their architects that provide the real fascination.
As well as the escorted element of the tour we also had free time to explore the old town, warm up over the odd hot chocolate (or two) and visit some of the city’s museums and art and craft collections. My personal highlight was a visit to the Central Market.
Its Europe’s largest indoor market, housed in five former Zeppelin hangars. Open 7 days a week, it’s where everyone shops and is buzzing with life – tourists are tolerated but really this is authentic Rigan life which is what makes it so fascinating. We wandered through from the vast meat hall, in to the cheese and dairy goods, on past artful displays of fruit and vegetables, piles of multi-coloured pickled cabbage and gherkins and finally in to the fish hall, with its dazzling array of gold skinned smoked fish, the day’s catch (so fresh some of it still moved), glistening bright orange cod’s roe and bouquets of dried fish. This is where you find the characters – largely unsmiling (as is generally the Latvian way) – just going about their business, the lady selling fish dressed in a fur coat, the guy gutting fish with scary precision, the vendors with a penchant for bright red hair dye. I could have spent the whole day in there.
Riga has plenty of good value restaurants taking full advantage of the abundant local produce. The best meal we had though was actually in the market, in a little cafe wedged between the fruit and veg and fish halls, opposite a bakery. Working from a basic looking kitchen they served up wonderful fresh fish platters, grilled salmon and what has to be the best cod and chips in town.
Having taken in Riga at street level, there are a couple of places to know about for top views. You can take a lift up in the Dome of the cathedral (9 euros pp) and from there you get wonderful open views of the Old Town and across the Daugava river. If you prefer your views with a side order of cocktails – the Skyline Bar on the 26th floor of the Radisson on Elizabetes Street is the place to be. Floor to ceiling windows on both sides provide a full panorama of the city. Especially if your neck is feeling a little sore, it’s a relief to finally look down rather than up!
Cathy travelled as a guest of Travel Editions.
Travel Editions offer 3 night escorted Art Nouveau in Riga tours in March and November. Starting from £979pp the tour includes lectures and guided tours with accommodation at the Hotel Monika. Breakfast and one dinner at the hotel are included with a second evening meal at a local restaurant. The third evening is free to dine out locally.