Text: Claire Lessiau
Photographs: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen
Sandwiched by Estonia to the north and Lithuania to the south, Latvia is often assimilated to its neighbouring Baltic states, mistakenly. At the crossroads of east and west, and close to Scandinavia, Latvia is still building its identity and its capital Riga is an off-the-beaten path gem waiting to be discovered.
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1. World’s first Christmas tree?
There is something about small-ish countries being very adamant about their achievements. When it comes to Christmas trees, two Baltic states are in the forefront: if the first Christmas tree appeared in Tallinn in Estonia, it is in Riga, in 1515, that the first decorated Christmas tree was recorded.
2. European Union’s tallest TV tower… a few days a year!
The 1989 Riga Radio and TV Tower culminates at 368 meters (1,207 ft). This is the exact same height as the Berlin Television Tower in Germany that was completed in 1969. Both towers compete for the title of the tallest tower in the European Union. However, during heat waves, as the metallic tower expands, Riga beats the concrete German tower by roughly 3 centimetres (2 inches)!
3. Upcycled Zeppelin halls
When Germany lost World War I, it faced economic collapse because of the compensations it had to pay. The German government started selling as many of its infrastructures as it could. In 1915, Germans had built military bases in western Latvia to house Zeppelins, and Riga bought a couple of these gigantic Zeppelin halls after the war and rebuilt them where today’s central market stands. The two Zeppelin hangars were originally four times as high and twice as long: they were rebuilt by Latvians as five market halls. The light military metal constructions were reinforced with concrete and art nouveau motifs were added. In the 1930’s, one of world’s largest, most modern and hygienic markets opened in Riga.
Over the years, supplies from independent farmers, then kolkhoz farms (the Soviet collective farms) and more recently local, but also foreign goods have been sold, following the political evolutions of Latvia.
Today, the Riga Central Market is still a local’s favourite that has kept its soul, unlike many market halls in European capitals that have become tourist traps. Plus, this is your best bet to explore the “Latvian cuisine” (see fact #5)!
4. Every hundred to two hundred years, Riga was conquered by another nation.
An excellent trading location by the seaside and along the river, Riga was founded by the Germans from Lübeck and Bremen. The last pagans of Europe were then living as tribes, worshiping nature, and the Germans brought Christianity during their Baltic crusades of 1201. They then ruled for 200 years with the Hanseatic league before Poland and Lithuania took over as a Catholic union. In the 1600s, the Swedes conquered and stayed for a century. In 1710, the tsar Peter the Great started ruling and Latvia was part of the Russian empire until 1914. In 1918, it declared its independence. It did not last for long as in 1940, the Soviets took over until 1990, but for the 1941-1944 Nazi Germany period. In 1990, Latvia became independent at last.
5. Latvian food does not really exist.
As a consequence, and despite what a few touristy restaurants claim: there is no Latvian gastronomy but Russian and German cuisines made from local and seasonal food.
With 55% of the country covered in forest, many stalls of the market hall where the people of Riga love to do their groceries are covered in forest mushrooms in the fall and forest berries in the spring. Seafood is also a big part of the Latvian diet as it has been fished for hundreds of years in its many rivers or along the coast of the Baltic Sea. The local delicacy of smoked vendance is a must-try.
6. The suburbs were built to be burnt.
With so many conquests, a law was passed making it mandatory to build in wood in the suburbs while the Old Town was made of stones and protected by bastions and ramparts. This way, the wooden suburbs could be torched down, preventing attacking armies from taking shelter.
A perfect example of this law is the Lutheran Church of Jesus, southeast of the Old Town. It looks like a regular stone church but is all made of wood!
7. 2 symbols are illegal in Latvia.
Since 2014, it has been illegal to display publicly the Nazi Swastika cross and the Soviet hammer and sickle in Latvia, as well as associated symbols (Nazi or Soviet informs…). After the brief occupation by Nazi Germany and the double occupation by the Soviet Union, the recent history is still quite present in the now independent Baltic State. Actually, Soviet symbols used to be displayed until quite recently during demonstrations by the large Russian ethnic minority of Latvia.
However, the hammer and sickle can be seen clearly on the 1961 Latvian Academy of Sciences, a perfect example of Stalinist architecture in the Maskavas Vorstadt suburb.
8. It is not easy to go from one of the capitals of the Baltic States to another by train.
As part of the Russian Empire for several centuries, the train connections built through the Baltic States aimed at linking them to the motherland, Russia. Hence, today, it is easy to hop on a train in Riga to Minsk, Moscow or Saint Petersburg, but quite difficult to reach nearby Tallinn or Vilnius!
European funds are currently used to connect these countries together as well as to the European train system and should ease transport in the future.
9. The Hollywood of the Soviet block
During the Soviet period, movies were thriving. However, these movies had to be shot within the Soviet Union, even if the stories took place somewhere else.
With its many foreign influences, Riga’s varied architecture turned the city into the hotspot of the empire to shoot films.
If every wave of conquest left its mark on the Latvian capital, the Russian tsar Peter the Great had an even deeper impact: in the early 1700s, he studied the western world to modernize his empire and appointed westerners to rule Riga as mayors turning it into an architectural jewel.
One of the most successful Soviet TV shows was the 1979 Sherlock Holmes, shot in the heart of Riga.
10. Look for roosters & crosses
When Protestants took over rather violently, it was decided to add a rooster on top of Lutheran churches and a cross above Catholic churches to help believers find the appropriate parish. Catholics were driven out of the Old Town, and gained a parish, Saint Jacob, back only after the independence in the twentieth century.
11. Baltic languages
Latvians were basically peasants until the early 1800s and cities were populated mostly by Germans. With hardly any access to formal education, Latvians evolved in a language bubble. A national awakening took place in the 1800’s and Latvian started to become a proper written language, boosted by the development of the university. A Balto-Slavic language, Latvian is close to Lithuanian, but different enough to not be mutually intelligible. Estonian on the other hand is radically different and closer to Finnish.
In a nutshell: just like with language, the Baltic countries should not be considered as a bulk as each is unique with its own specificities and absolutely worth visiting!
- To explore Riga in style, your best bet is the perfectly located classic and elegant locally-owned Grand Poet Hotel with its extensive Hedonic Spa and incredible breakfast, overlooking the lovely Bastion Hill Park, connecting the historical Grand Poet to the Old Town.
- To discover the city, join Riga Free Tours for interesting and diverse walking tours by knowledgeable and passionate locals.
- Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area (short tutorial)!
For more in the Baltic States: