Tag Archives: Baltic States

On This Day – The Pearl Of The Baltic

Still no prospect of travel unfortunately so I continue to look back. On 6th March 2006 I was in the city of Riga, the capital of Latvia…

In the 2000s I lived and worked, in south Lincolnshire where in recent years large numbers of migrant workers from Eastern Europe had moved into the area to work on the farms and in the food processing factories and I had been interested to understand what motivated them to do this. I concluded that this could only be satisfactorily achieved by visiting their country to appreciate what drove them to move away and travel to England to carry out backbreaking work picking cabbages in cold fenland fields.

We arrived mid morning and after checking in to the hotel went to the streets looking for lunch and we came across a pub/restaurant called The Lido.

I had expected the choice of food in Latvia to be somewhat limited so this place was a real eye-opener. The service areas were set out with a gut-busting selection of high quality food, every type of meat imaginable of course but also vegetables and salads, dips and sauces all presented in a mouth watering way and with eyes bigger than bellies there was, to be honest, far too much food choice for hungry people with empty stomachs. It was delicious food and excellent beer but we couldn’t linger too long because with short winter days we had lots to see.

First of all today we walked around the Art Nouveau district where previously grand buildings that had fallen into disrepair during the communist era were once more being restored to former glory. Art Nouveau was an international architectural style that flourished in Europe between 1880 and 1914 and was an elaborate statement of bourgeois wealth and influence and a rejection of aristocratic stoic classicism that had previously dominated.

This period happily coincided with a time of growth and prosperity in Riga and it has over eight hundred fine examples of Art Nouveau buildings across the city. They are the legacy of Latvian Romanticism which was the classical era of Latvian culture that made Riga one of the European centres of Art Nouveau along with Vienna and St Petersburg.

When I saw them I was completely astounded by the beauty of these very fine buildings. Their ornate facades and intricate decoration were perfectly framed against the blue sky and they looked spectacular. Between the two world wars Riga was a vibrant and grand city, before first the Germans and then the Russians did their worst, it was known as the ‘Pearl of the Baltic’ and visitors referred to it as ‘the Paris of the North’.

Next on the itinerary was the Russian Orthodox Cathedral, which had also been recently restored from a grimy communist grey to a resplendent sandstone yellow under black domes with gleaming crosses. The renovated brickwork was clean and sharp with red brick stripes and elaborate white columns soaring into the blue sky above. The communists had closed the cathedral as a place of worship and had converted the building into a planetarium but the place was surely more heavenly than ever now that it had been returned to its intended purpose.

The interior was bright and cheerful, was adorned with shining icons and smelled of incense and to one side there was a service of some kind attended by a standing congregation who were in a very solemn mood. We discovered that it was a funeral service because there was corpse laid out in a casket but I wasn’t tall enough to see over the shoulders of the congregation and I though it rude to intrude to close to the front because of a macabre interest. The service was attended by nuns in black robes and pointy hats who looked like extras from the Lord of the Rings and was led by a priest in a lavish scarlet and gold robe.

We resumed our walk through the city and made for the old Jewish Quarter called Little Russia, which took us through the market on the way. This area of the city was interesting for consisting of buildings constructed of timber that are fighting a losing rearguard action against decay and neglect and caught in a catch twenty-two situation, too expensive to repair and restore and too culturally important to be demolished.

Adjacent to this area was the Academy of Sciences building, a gift from Comrade Stalin, constructed by the communists in the style of the Empire State Building and although impressive in its appearance was seriously ill conceived in respect of location.

As the afternoon slipped away we made our way to the Skyline bar for the sunset, which the guidebooks described as not to be missed. We walked back through the market, this time through the old zeppelin hangers that had been converted into a huge indoor market with an impressive array of produce.

The Skyline Bar is a great place to relax in the early evening after a day sightseeing and a good spot for watching the sunset. At the bar we found a grandstand seat by the window and settled down for the sunset that we estimated to be due at quarter past four. We got that wrong and had to wait until five o’clock but there was a pleasing atmosphere in the bar and we watched the last puddles of sunshine laying on the rooftops of the city until the sun quickly dipped below the horizon and it went dark.