Last December I made my first trip to the Baltic nations, spending a week in Vilnius, Lithuania, a charming and quirky city that only whetted my appetite to know more about this complicated part of the world. This fall I’m taking a few days before I start language training (German again, Berlin again) to visit Riga, Latvia, the capital of the next country north on your way to Santa.
As you can see from the shot above, Riga (the small red dot) is on a river (the Deugava) that leads to the Gulf of Riga and thence the Baltic Sea. That alone should clue you in that most of what has happened to the region and the city over its history was directly or indirectly a result of its maritime placement and prospects. But before we get too carried away with that story…here’s a map of Riga itself:
No, you are not at the airport (the green circle). The little green “i” for information on the right side of the river is basically smack dab in the middle of the Old Town or Vecrīga, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that used to be surrounded by walls. The blue stream lies roughly where the city ended before it expanded in the 19th century. Here’s a painting of the city skyline from a few hundreds back (sadly the red tower is no longer extent):
As mentioned above, from the earliest times to the Vikings and the plague and guild wars and endless political occupations through to today, the lives of the city and its inhabitants have been shaped by the competing maritime interests of the major and minor powers in the neighborhood. So as is my want, I started my visit with some museum visits to get me clued into the main chronology, but I’ll only hit you with the highlights.
Known for producing amber (like Poland and Lithuania), wood, woolens, and linens, the most interesting thing for me about the early Livonian history (pre-Christian; up to about the 12th century) was the emphasis on women’s shawls and jewelry (beads and bangles), which were important ways to demonstrate tribe, caste, and status. Here’s a shot of what it took to look good and stay warm in the long dark damp winters:
One big surprise resulting from the next stop, the Museum of History of Riga and Navigation, was learning that that the very first decorated Christmas tree is alleged to have come from Latvia around the year 1500 when some children had fun decorating a Yule log before it has the chance to be dragged into the house. the glass bauble shown below is alleged to be one of the first actual ornaments, having hung on the actual tree:
The history of commerce and trade that makes up the background of Riga’s life story has both positive and negative sides of course. Woe be unto him, for example, who tried to profit unfairly in the Middle Ages! Below is the shot of hands (yeck) of people who tried to forge (mint) their own money and got caught:
During the period when coin money was for some arcane political reason outlawed, (maybe too many forgers?) people turned to hunks and chunks of silver. The shot below looks oddly reminiscent of contemporary jewelry I saw for sale in Copenhagen during the 1980’s:
In the 16th-18th centuries, Riga and its surroundings fell under rotating occupations of Poland-Lithania, Sweden, and Russia (everyone wants a rich harbor town). Lutheranism gained prominence over Catholicism due to the large number of German inhabitants who ran the powerful guilds. But in the countryside, pagan traditions continued alongside the church and apparently are still evident today. The resulting ancient folk art features symbols that seem almost rune-like to me. Here is a shot of a 19th century living room grouping using those old historic motifs in the service of Art Nouveau furnishings:
Well, this brings us up to the start of the 20th century, when sadly the screws started to tighten on this lovely little spot (not that it was a bed of roses before, by any means), so we’ll stop there for today’s history lesson. But for just a tiny bit of “You can’t escape your past, Carla,” here’s a picture of what greeted me on my walk back to the hotel:
…so as an antidote I defiantly went to the most Latvian restaurant I could find for dinner and enjoyed a lovely fish soup and one of the excellent local brews. (So there.) More to come.