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Sunday, August 14, 2016

The Newest Berger Adventure Begins .... in Latvia

For some strange reason, a gremlin has caused some of the photos below to be totally wacky. Will see what can be done before we post more!

The summer vacation may be over but the newest Berger adventure began a couple of days ago when we left Denver for the long haul flights to Riga, Latvia via Reykjavik and Oslo. Great to be on the road again even if it meant we were rather wiped when we checked into our hostel in Riga last night close to 7pm local time, i.e. 9 hours ahead of Denver time. Steven joked that he was glad he was able to eat some 'comfort food' on Saturday night for dinner and again for breakfast i.e. McDonald's, as the hostel is directly above that fine dining establishment!  

Our private room at Riga Hostel.
I am sure many of you are probably wondering why we chose to begin our trip in Riga of all places. For us, it made sense as we wanted to complete the circle we began in 2013 when we visited our first Baltic nation, Estonia. We will be going on from here to discover two cities in the only other Baltic country, Lithuania. Plus, we've long had a fascination in, and interest with, the Eastern European bloc of nations and, after the next month or so, we'll have visited most of those.

Riga is the largest and most cosmopolitan city in the Baltic states and has been designated as an UNESCO World Heritage Site for its medieval churches, guild halls, lovely if a tad treacherous cobblestones streets and its ornately decorated Art Nouveau buildings. Now you know why we came here!

We wandered around most of the Old Town by ourselves in the morning. 

The Cat House, above and below,was named for the 2 felines perched on top of its towers. Local lore has it that the owner of the building was engaged in quite a dispute with the powerful Great Guild across the street. To show what he thought of them, he turned the cats around so that thueir backsides faced his foes. When the dispute was settled, the cats were returned to their original postions.

Had to make a detour when I saw the store selling handmade Latvian woolen items like the ones above and below. Many of you probably know I love to knit in my spare time, i.e. normally en route to volunteering with Steven.. Discovered so many lovely knitted and linen items today but I refrained from buying any of them, at least so far!

In the narrow lanes of the Old Town, we saw this attractive group of  buildings known as The Three Brothers. These are the oldest homes in the city and date back to the 15th century. These merchants' homes show how families lived in the lower floors while leaving the upper areas for storage. Lots of the architecture in the Old Town looked centuries old but we learned that it is actually only reconstruction as the city was heavily bombed by the Germans who took the city from the Russians in 1941.

Nearby was the red brick St. James' Cathoilic Church that began as a Lutheran church in 1522 until it was handed over to the Catholics 60 years later when Polish King Bathory took the city for a brief spell. Mass was being celebrated so we only saw the entrance area below. By the way, Riga was founded in 1201 by Bishop Albert from Bremen, Germany, who was sent by the pope with 23 vessels and more than 1500 armed crusaders  to spread Christianity in the pagan Baltic states.

Was dumbstuck when I noticed Christmas decorations going up on this tree in one of the city's many downtown parks. Here it is only August too!

We always enjoy taking part in a city's Free Walking Tour so we joined Riga's one at noon which began in front of St. Peter’s Church. The first church here was made of wood in 1209 by the town’s craftsmen. It was rebuilt in stone two centuries later but the tower was still made of wood when Peter the Great climbed to the top and helped put out a fire there in 1721 when it was struck by lightning.

Musical education is entirely free in Latvia so a huge amount of the citizens take advantage of enrolling in the free courses at every level. About 50% of all Latvian schoolchildren participate in school choirs and lots go on to become professional singers. The sculture above is dedicated to a famous Latvian who made it his life's goal to collect native folksongs. He was responsible for collecting 200,000 of them and they are now part of the country's cultural identity.

The rallying point for the nation of less than 2 million population is the Freedom Monument above and below. Designed in 1935 during Latvia's first independence, the elegant lady, known locally as Milda, holds aloft three golden stars representing the three regions of Latvia, An honor guard keeps watch over Milda while Latvians lay flowers at ther feet, an act that once held the prospect of a one way ticket to Siberia. When Latvia was under Russian rule, the Soviets maintained the view the figure symbolized Mother Russia who was holding up the three Baltic states!

We were amazed to find out from our guide that 45% of Latvians speak Russian as their first language, the same percentage who speaks Latvian as their first language. The remaining ten percent of the people speak NO Latvian. Knowing the Russian language is the first requirement on all job applications in Riga, our guide said. Employability without it is nil. Russian sentiments still run so strongly among so many Latvians that fireworks are routinely set off at 11pm local time on New Year's Eve, as that is midnight in Moscow.

Our guide told us about the Baltic Way, something that was new to us. In 1989, there was a massive protest against Russia in which there was a 600 km long chain of people from Tallin, Estonia to Riga and onto Vilnius, Lithuania where we're going in a few days. Two million people formed a human chain which was an insane number of people when you consider the 6 million population of the Baltic states, the fact that 30-35% of the people were ethnic Russians AND about 2 million people were either too young or too old to participate. 

The population of Latvia is now less than 2 million which is down one half million due to economic migration and low birthrate.

Black Balsam, the Latvian national drink is made of vodka and herbs and spices. Our tour guide said it was definitely an aquired taste; most tourists heartily dislike it, he said, as it reminds them of drinking cough syrup! Think I'll pass on trying it. 

Ratslaukums Square with the House of Blackheads on the right.

The recently rebuilt historic Town Hall is the seat of local government and located in one of the city's many squares. Directly across it is The House of Blackheads which was heavily damaged during WW 11. The remains were destroyed by the Soviets after the war but the Dutch Renaissance house was rebuilt with private donations and opened in time for the city's 800th anniversary in 2001. The brotherhood organized the city's social life in the 13th century and the house became a meeting house for bachelor merchants arriving from abroad. One of the community's patron saints was St. Mauritius, who was black and gave the brotherhood its name.

The House of Blackheads, located in one of the city's many squares, was heavily damaged during WW 11. The remains were destroyed by the Soviets aftewr the war but the Dutch Renaissance house was rebuilt with private donations and opened in time for the city's 800th anniversary in 2001. The brotherhood organized the city's social life in the 13th century and the house became a meeting house for bachelor merchants arriving from abroad. (Where was The Bachelor tv show way back then?!) One of the community's patron saints was St. Mauritius, who was black and gave the brotherhood its name.

In Riflemen Square was this red granite Monument to the Latvian Riflemen  which was very controversial as it was dedicated to the riflemen who joined the Bolsheviks after the revolution. In a time of repidly changing fortunes, the Latvian Riflemen split, some remaining true to the tsar, others joining the Latvian freedom fighters and still others swearing allegiance to the Reds. Some of the last gained respect as Lenin's bodyguards and infamy as the executioners of Romanov family in 1918.

In Cathedral Square, the focal point of the Old Town with Riga Cathedral in the background. The 6,786-pipe organ, which was completed in 1884, was then one of the world's largest. The tsar himself donated money to the cause and Franz List composed music for its inauguration. Lina: notice the lovely grey scarf I'm wearing here that you gave me after your dear mum passed?

Religion during the Soviet era was, to put it mildly, not a priority as it was banned. So how did all these magnificent churches survive during the 50 year Soviet rule until Latvia became an independent nation in January of 1991? The churches were all 'repurposed' and all religious paintings, etc were removed. Instead the churches became completely secular; some were concert halls, one became a planetarium, another a disco and one even a toilet! What a travesty.

More photos of the Riga Cathedral:

The Cathedral's Cloister Gardens has hundreds of pieces of local history including tombstones, the origianl Dome cockerel, above, and a large stone head, thought to be an ancient pagan idol.

Another day has dawned here in Riga so we are leaving to discover more of the city. Wishing each of you well from across the pond until the next post.


  1. *Love all the stained glass!!
    *FREE musical education? What a glorious idea.
    *Nothing says "I'm mad at you" quite like having a cat bum staring you in the face. Classic!

  2. That was funny but sad about the Christmas tree. Miss you both

  3. Gloria and I have some Latvian friends; but I admit to learning more about Latvia from you than I ever did from them. Your trip looks as busy and as interesting as ever.

    Paul and Gloria


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