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About Latvia » Ryga


Some facts: Riga is the capital of Latvia, is situated on the Baltic Sea coast on the mouth of River Daugava. Riga is the largest city in the Baltic States and serves as a major cultural, educational, political, financial, commercial and industrial center in the Baltic States. The population of Riga is 750 000 – Latvians 60%, Russians 29%, Belorussians 3,9%, Ukrainians 2,6%, Polish 2,5%, Lithuanians 1,4%, other 2,1%.
History: The archeological discoveries in the territory of Riga testify that a settlement existed there already in the 12th century. At the end of the 12th century, crusaders came here as well when the German merchants tried to widen and strengthen their area of activities along the eastern coast of the Baltic Sea. Bishop Albert in 1201 moved from Ikšķile to Riga, and after negotiations with the local Livs started to build a fortification near the Riga Lake. 1201 became the official year of the foundation of Riga. Already in 1202 the first colonists German landowners came here. Little by little Riga became an aggression base against the local Baltic tribes. In the 13th century trade boomed in Riga, and it became one of the main intermediaries between the West and the East. As a result of the Livonia war (1558-1583), after a little state of Livonia failed, Riga fell under the subordination of Poland. Later when Poland waged a war with Sweden (1600-1629), after fierce resistance Riga in 1621 fell under the Swedish rule and became an administrative center of its Baltic division. The 18th century started with the Northern War (1700-1721), in which Russia and Sweden struggled for supremacy in the Baltic Sea. As a result, in 1710 after long-term siege and plaque epidemic Riga fell under the rule of Russia. Industry rapidly grew in Riga during the second half of the 18th century. German guilds lost their monopoly position in manufacturing and trade. In the 19th century Riga became one of the main seaports of the Russian Empire and an important railway transport junction. 1915-1917 was the breaking point in the development of Riga when with the start of World War I it became at the front line of the war. About 200,000 workers and members of their families together with industrial enterprises were evacuated from Riga to the central part of Russia. By the end of World War I the possibility emerged to establish an independent Republic of Latvia, which through the complicated political situation, was proclaimed on 18 November 1918. Soviet tanks came to the streets of Riga on 17 June 1940. The Soviet Union occupied Latvia. Restoring Latvia’s sovereignty, Riga became the center of the Awakening Movement.
Town: Amazingly for a city which survived two world wars, the formerly walled section of the Latvian capital city which is known as “Old Rīga” has preserved a glorious range of old, older and very old buildings. From the magnificence of the Rīga Dome Cathedral, which dates back the 13th century, and the fantastic Gothic façade of St Peter’s Church, to the oldest residential buildings in the city – the so-called “Three Brothers”, to the small, decorative houses which surround Liv Square, to the newly rebuilt House of the Blackheads and the newly built City Hall, Old Rīga is truly a masterpiece of architecture and antiquity. In the 21st century, Old Rīga has adapted itself to the stream of tourists who pass through year-round, with cosy hotels, numerous eateries and a variety of attractions, but the ancient spirit of the city is never lost, particularly when the visitor wanders through some of the surprisingly narrow streets and alleyways which crisscross the old city. During the Middle Ages Rīga was a mighty seaport, the largest city in the Swedish Empire during the 17th century, a leading port for the Russian Empire in the 18th and 19th centuries, and a powerhouse centre for commerce and trade in the entire region. This status was facilitated by Rīga’s membership in the Medieval Hanseatic League, described one author as “not so much a league of cities as a league of merchant associations within the cities of Northern Germany and the Baltic.” The Hanseatic days are remembered in Old Rīga through the historical Great Guild and Small Guild, as well as the rebuilt House of the Blackheads – all of them artisans and craftsmen’s guilds in the booming city. Fans of architecture will marvel at the variety of style in the Dome Cathedral and the other sacral buildings of Old Rīga. Design buffs will gape at one of the greatest collections of Art Nouveau architecture and design in the entire world. Historians will focus on the ancient buildings and museums of the formerly walled Old City. Families will enjoy the Rīga Open-Air Ethnographic Museum, which features farms and other rural buildings which were brought to the park site lock, stock and barrel in the early part of the 20th century. The park is particularly active during the summer, when artisans demonstrate their craft. When the walls of Medieval Rīga came down in the mid-19th century, the city fathers had the outstanding idea of installing parks and gardens in the area which used to feature the ramparts. The result is one of the greenest city centres in all of Europe, with beautiful parks to wander and explore. Alongside the parks visitors will find some of the loveliest and most important buildings in the city. It might perhaps be a slight exaggeration to say that Rīga is another of those cities which never sleeps, but the idea is not far from the truth. Particularly in Old Rīga, but also in its surrounding area, there are countless restaurants, bars and nightclubs, featuring entertainments that will satisfy most any taste.
What to see: Dome Cathedral. The largest place of worship in the Baltics, measuring 187 x 43m, with walls two metres thick, Dome Cathedral also has one of the biggest organs in Europe (6,768 pipes!) which was such a marvel in its day that Franz Lizst composed a piece of music in its honour. The drop from Dome Square to the cathedral's base shows how the level of the city has risen in the 800 years since its foundations were laid on the site of a Livonian fishing village. Unfortunately, the massive structure is in desperate need of repairs, hence the steel beams and other supports you’ll see around columns and just below the ceiling.

Riga Castle (Rīga Pils), which houses the Museum of Latvian History and the Museum of Foreign Art.
St. Peter's Church.  First mentioned in ancient chronicles in 1209, St. Peter's was a Catholic church until 1523, when it turned Lutheran. Its wooden tower, the highest in Europe at that time, was destroyed several times. It first collapsed in 1666 and was rebuilt a year later. To see how long it would last, the builders hurled a glass from the top: the more pieces the vessel broke into, the greater the tower's longevity. Artillery fire destroyed the structure again in 1941. In 1973 it was finally rebuilt and the glass ritual was repeated, this time with smashing results.

St. John's Church. First mentioned in 1297 when it served as the chapel of a Dominican abbey, the monastery and church were closed during the Reformation in 1523 and served for a time as the city's armoury. It was taken over by the Lutherans in 1582. During the building's construction two monks were bricked into the southern wall and lived out their lives there, fed through the window grate.
The Powder Tower (Pulvertornis). Dating back to the beginning of the 14th century, only the rock foundations remained after it was destroyed by invading Swedish troops in 1621. It was rebuilt in 1650 with 2.5m thick walls to protect its valuable contents inside and was obviously successful, as nine Russian cannonballs are still embedded in its walls (cheeky masons). At the end of the 19th century a German student fraternity bought the building, but today it's part of the War Museum.

Three Brothers. The Three Brothers are the oldest stone residential buildings in the city and represent different stages in the architectural development of Riga, from medieval to Baroque. The oldest of the three is N°17 and dates back to the 15th century. The other two were built in the 17th and 18th centuries, respectively. Unfortunately, not much is known about the history of these abodes, including who owned them.

House of Blackheads. One of the architectural treasures of Riga, it was just recently rebuilt in honour of the city's 800th anniversary in 2001. Dating from 1344, it was destroyed in 1941. The politically incorrect Soviets completely pulled down the ruins in 1948, because it was considered to represent 'decadent' German architecture. A striking Gothic building with a Dutch Renaissance facade, it was used to house travelling, single members of the merchants' guild. Many of its fantastic riches accompanied Baltic-Germans who repatriated to Germany in the late 1930s. The building is now open to the public. Admission: 1.50Ls.

Open Air Ethnographic Museum. Farmsteads, windmills, fishing villages, churches and other historic structures have been moved here and preserved for posterity. Watch craftsmen perform various tasks or try some Latvian cuisine and drink in the tavern.
Accommodation: Finding a place to stay in Riga takes some planning. There seem to be two very distinct options. Abundant luxury hotels pamper business travellers and abuse company's expense accounts, while sparse, often inconvenient budget housing builds character in backpackers. Those who don't identify with either extreme and long for affordable and central beds will need to book ahead in the high season. Unless noted, prices include breakfast and 5% VAT.