Wednesday, December 20 – Wednesday, December 26, 2018
Hopefully I haven’t lost you in my Baltic history. because the medieval beauty of the two capital cities we explored–Riga in Latvia and Tallinn in Estonia–offer a respite from the reality of today’s world.
And, for anyone interested below are some quirky factoids about Latvia from a November 27 article a British newspaper, THE DAILY TELEGRAPH:
- a tailor who emigrated from Riga, Jākobs Jufess, co-patented the first pair of Levis with Levi Strauss in 1872…
- Latvian Uljana Semjonova (6′ 11″) became the first, non-American woman inducted into the NBA Hall of Fame…
- the country offers one of the world’s fastest Internet speeds (average 13.8 MB/s vs. USA’s 11.9)…
- and for any crossword fanatics, it’s capital is one of the 14 in the world spelled with four letters*
*FYI: Max just fact-checked this fact only to discover there are three more 4-letter capitals…
Okay, back to our trip… :)
During our ride from the airport to our hotel in Riga’s Old Town we passed all the trimmings you’d expect in a 2018 city: large shopping mall, four-lane highways, and concrete-and-steel construction. Yet, once we wound our way through cobblestone streets framed by medieval buildings, time slid backwards. Within 20 minutes we had stashed our bags and headed out to begin our exploration of this city.
With snow on the ground and more falling every day, we knew we’d found exactly what we had searched for: a new destination decorated with the holiday spirit. Known for its Christmas Markets we soon found one we would frequent often (notice the apples embedded in frozen ice in the sculpture) …
enjoying the festive stalls and, of course, market fare with the obligatory gluewein.
The Daugava River borders the west side of the Old Town, and a prior fortress moat the east. Art Nouveau buildings are to the north with the bus and train stations to the south. We learned via a visit to the Riga Museum of History and Navigation (an excellent timeline of Riga beginning with the prehistoric era) how trade dominated the early economy.
The German Hanseatic League used this as a prime trading center and established permanent roots. The leaders of the city came from these German traders who formed the Great Guild. Eventually a lesser guild came into being composed of craftsmen – lesser because trade was deemed more important than crafts. The Riga’s history museum showcased a few of these crafts and the production, a bone comb being one example.
The museum was chock-a-block full of artifacts, some fascinating, some not so much. But, one I found interesting was a mechanical drummer
which also offered a photo-op using my favorite poser.
One of the most impressive buildings in the Old Town is the Blackheads House on the Town Square. The brotherhood of the Blackheads originated in the 1300s as a group of single guys who worked in the banquet catering industry. So, partying heartily was a natural for this society of unmarried, wealthy merchants. The name comes from Saint Maurice, a black African, Roman commander martyred over his refusal to kill Christians. Germans comprised the majority of the membership (evidence of their dominance of Baltic trading) and their exuberant parties enticed even Royals to partake of the festivities.
In the mid1400s, the Blackheads first rented this 14th century structure pictured below, then purchased it in the mid-1700s. Destroyed during WWII, it was rebuilt 1995-99. We missed seeing the interior but gazed in awe at the frothy pink facade.
Tallinn, which we visited after Riga, also features a Blackheads house. It’s the only remaining Renaissance structure in that city. And, it’s in Tallinn where the first mention of raising a Christmas tree occurred, in 1441. Riga, who claims they raised it first, has it documented in 1510. Whoever began the tradition, Riga’s setting provided a splendid backdrop for the Winter Solstice celebration we joined on the 21st.
A blazing fire,
and posing pagans reinforced our decision to spend the Christmas season in these two post-Soviet countries.
One of the refreshing aspects of this holiday was the fantastical mix of paganism with Christianity. Not surprising since the Baltic countries are some of the least religious ones in the world, ranking #3 for Estonia, #8 for Latvia, and #10 for Lithuania out of 150 (‘The Future of World Religions: Population Growth Projections, 2010-2050′ and published by the Pew Research Center 2015). This also may account for the very few creches we spotted during our entire visit (none in Riga and just one or two in Tallinn).
We continued celebrating a pagan Winter Solstice by dining at Folkklubs Ala pagrabs (or cellar, situated in a medieval wine cellar), which offered more music and dance
along with typical meat-and-potatoes dishes and a huge variety of beer, wine and liquors…
We did try the notorious Black Balsam liquor. Our waitress said of the three varieties, the best is the black current. What I swallowed was akin to sickly sweet cough syrup but Max thought it quite tasty.
Often our day began with a tour of a site and ended with strolling the streets. And, if we look cold in the photos, it was frigid. At one point I whined to Max that I felt and looked like a puffball where he quickly responded but ‘you’re my puffball’. Not quite the reassurance I was looking for. He definitely has a way with words…
In spite of the cold we managed to cover the Old Town (fairly small) and part of the surrounding area. Equipped with a tourist map, which we referenced frequently,
we followed a self-guiding tour through the narrowest street…
past the three brothers house reflecting three centuries’ of architecture (from R to L, 1490, 1646, and the 1700s) and the oldest residence in Riga still standing…
stopping at a pagan sculpture, probably some god’s head that if you painted it orange, added a toupee, and squinted the eyes it could be someone else’s head…
Close by was the so-called Cat House (c. 1909) whose owner originally had the tail facing the Great Guild House, which was a symbolic raising of a middle finger, I believe.
Christmas markets dotted squares and parks,
and during our walks we posed for more portraits.
Wanting to explore further, we bought tickets to a hop-on-hop-off bus, which took us by the National Library of Latvia, called Castle of Light, located on the opposite side of the river from the Old Town.
I wish we’d been here when it opened in January 2014. We’d have joined the 14,000 people who mimicked the 1989 Baltic Way and symbolically moved 2,000 books 1.2 Km from the old library to the new along a human chain.
To celebrate the Christmas spirit we attended a Nutcracker performance at the National Opera and Ballet
where we played musical chairs to give mothers and their children better seats.
We even rented opera glasses that were more decorative than functional.
It was a lovely performance in spite of not featuring one of Riga’s native sons, Mikhail Baryshnikov.
The Central Market, housed in WW I zeppelin hangers, seemed worth exploring.
It was fascinating to see the range (and expense) of caviar,
yet, after walking past aisles of fishy-smelling stalls
and raw meat featuring a pigs head
we both wanted to exit pretty quickly.
Fortunately, Riga’s restaurants offer other options. And, we enjoyed a range of medieval fare
including Max’s bowl of gray peas, an ancient traditional dish which you’re suppose to eat at Christmas so no tears will be shed in the New Year.
But, we both preferred a more traditional fare for Christmas Eve dinner: a hamburger.
Christmas Day we trekked to the modern cinema just across the train tracks to see a recommended movie: ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. And, what great entertainment that was!
A wine bar served as our Christmas dinner where you could sample a range of wines with the swipe of a pre-loaded card. And, the food, primarily served as tapas, was filling, too :)
So, now you’ve gotten a taste of our Christmas in Riga. We highly recommend it. And, if you do go, don’t forget to grab a spoonful of gray peas. They’re not bad (says Lynnie who sampled two solitary peas while Max finished his entire dish – editor)
Next, New Year’s in Tallinn!