Thursday, June 09, 2011

Riga – 1 June 2011

Riga is a very relaxing place to have a short break. There are many interesting streets in the Old Town, all pedestrianised, and full of cafes and restaurants with al fresco dining.

To start the day, we walked north of the old town, to the other UNESCO area – the Art Nouveau precinct. Unlike similar cities in Germany, this area was not bombed in WWII, and has survived intact. The buildings in this area range from late 19th to early 20th centuries, showing the change in Art Nouveaux from ornate to severe stylised exteriors (but nowhere near as severe as the Soviet era architecture). It was great wandering around in the lovely sunshine, using a map supplied by the Tourist Office.

Before lunch in one of the many reasonably priced restaurants, we took a canal/river cruise in a lovely old varnished boat from 1915. We were the only customers in the front of the boat, and enjoyed the city from a 1915 classic.

After lunch, we visited the Museum of the Occupation, suitably housed in an depressing (presumably ex-Soviet) building. The stark exterior mimicked the stark facts of the comprehensive exhibition inside. The Latvian people had a very bad deal under the Soviets, with 1/3 of the population killed/relocated/lost in the early years. Then during the war, the Germans gave them an equally bad deal, until in 1946, the Soviets marched back in again and continued their earlier regime of repression. The Baltic countries seemed to come off worst after WWII.

Finally in 1991, the growing voice of the people had effect, and in the Prestroika era, Latvia was one of the many countries which finally gained their independence from the USSR. One fact that really registered, was a demonstration of 2 million people on 23 August 1989, who held hands from Tallinn to Riga and on to Vilnius. Having visited Tallinn in March, we can somewhat visualise the distance covered, it must have been amazing to take part, and just over a year later these people tasted freedom for the first time.

Leaving here to enjoy a drink in the lively square, seemed almost decadently Western. But times have changed, and this is what the move to democracy by the Latvian people 20 years ago was all about – freedom to live life without restrictions.

It was time to just wander again; exploring streets, alleyways, and many fascinating old buildings, before dinner. Given the Soviet theme so far, we went around the corner from the hotel to the Austrumu Robeza restaurant where our bourgeois and non-Aryan lifestyle was frowned upon by busts of Lenin, Stalin and Hitler. We enjoyed the irony of sitting in an ex-Eastern-bloc country enjoying a fabulous Russian three-course meal washed down by an excellent NZ Savignon Blanc delivered from Marlborough via a distributor in the US.

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