Tag Archives: Riga

European Capital of Culture 2014, Riga

Riga

First of all today we reacquainted ourselves with the fabulous Art Nouveau buildings that were all quite close to our hotel.  There had been a lot of restoration activity since we were last here and the pace of regeneration to repair years of neglect was very impressive.

The buildings looked different this time bathed in soft winter sunshine with snow on the roofs and when we had done enough neck craning to peer upwards towards the statues and friezes we left this part of the city and walked once again through the spacious parks towards the city centre.

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Tallinn Christmas Market

Tallinn Estonia Old Town

On account of the grey skies we wrapped up in an appropriate way to tackle the bleak weather and set off for the old town and we retraced our steps from the previous night and repeated our visits to the viewing platforms overlooking the Baltic and the islands.

With one of the most completely preserved medieval cities in Europe, the seacoast capital of Tallinn is a rare jewel in the north of Europe and a city fully worthy of being on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

It was once a medieval Hanseatic town and for long periods in history dominated by the Germans, the Swedes and the Russians and even today contains lots of influence from those days but as we walked we could tell that there was a uniqueness to the place, a bit like Riga but at only roughly half the size certainly very different.

Coffee Shop in Tallinn

Tallinn is a city with a long and proud tradition dating back to the medieval times and it was first recorded on a world map in 1154, although the first fortress was built on Toompea in 1050. In 1219, Valdemar II of Denmark conquered the city, but it was soon sold to the Hanseatic League in 1285.

After joining the League Tallinn enjoyed unprecedented prosperity because its position as a port, a link between mainland Europe and Russia, enabled it to grow rapidly in size and wealth and many of the City’s finest buildings were constructed during this period.  This lasted until the sixteenth century when Sweden moved in and claimed the city and during this time of Swedish rule more fortifications were added and the architecture took on the baroque style of the times.

Just like the previous evening we were confused about how to find our way to the centre of the city not least because where we were was an elevated spot with limited access to the streets of the old town.  We wandered about and corrected ourselves a couple of times before finally walking through a medieval entrance to the city and descending steps behind the city walls before finding ourselves finally at the Raekoja Plats, the Town Hall Square.

tallinn-christmas-market

Here, in the middle of the town we had reached our objective because since 2001, from December through to the end of the first week in January, Tallinn hosts a traditional Christmas market.  This is appropriate because (although this is disputed, especially in Northern Germany) the picturesque Town Hall Square is claimed to be the site of the world’s first Christmas tree, which formed part of a ritual begun in 1441, when unmarried merchants sang and danced with the town’s girls around a tree, which, when they had had enough fun and drink they then burned down. 

This would be a bit like any town in England on New Year’s Eve if the tree wasn’t taken down in advance during the afternoon.

Today the market is included in the Times newspaper top twenty European Christmas markets and here in the square there were more than fifty wooden huts and stalls where visitors and locals were being tempted by (traditional? well maybe) artisan products from all over Estonia.

Tallinn Christmas Market

Surrounding an enormous Christmas tree hung with lights and decorations, the vendors were selling a variety of original products including woolens, felted wool hats and slippers, buckwheat pillows, wooden bowls, wickerwork, elaborate quilts, ceramic and glassware, homemade candles, wreaths and other decorations.  Traditional Estonian holiday food was also on the menu such as sauerkraut and blood sausages, hot soups, stir-fries and other seasonal treats such as gingerbread, marzipan, various local honeys, cookies and, best of all, hot mulled wine poured from copious wooden barrels.

Christmas Past

We stopped for a coffee and paid over the odds in a restaurant on the edge of the square and then left and walked through the market towards the south side of town.  Here there were men and women dressed in medieval costume handing out lucky coins and trying to encourage us to dine in this or that particular restaurant.  Some of us thought there must be a twist involved and fearing an obligation refused to accept the coins for fear of ending up in the Estonian Navy, but Kim and I took a chance on a con and took ours and it was all completely innocent of course.

Actually it was approaching lunchtime and therefore, because of the nervousness of finding somewhere that Sue and Christine would approve of, a potential crisis time in a new country with unfamiliar cuisine. 

Without Micky the anxiety was all mine and weighed heavily because traditional Estonian Cuisine has developed over centuries with Germanic and Scandinavian influences and some of it is not for the faint hearted and certainly wouldn’t suit Sue’s delicate dining preferences.  For someone who turned her nose up at a plain fish salad in Portugal I was certain that she wouldn’t like sült, a sort of jellied meat dish made from pork bones, trotters and heads, or the marinated eel, Baltic sprats, sauerkraut stew or even the Christmas specialty of verivorst or blood sausage.

There was no real need to worry however because although Estonians speak fondly of their traditional food they are no more likely to eat it on a regular basis than in England we are to order pease pudding, jellied eels or brawn and the according to the menu boards displayed outside the pubs and restaurants had a good selection of acceptable offerings.

Christmas market

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Other Market stories:

La Rochelle

Pula, Croatia

Alghero, Sardinia

Palermo, Sicily

Ljubljana, Slovenia

Varvakios Agora, Athens

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Festival Days – St John Nepomuk

St John Nepomuk

March 20th is the festival day of St John Nepomuk.  I saw him once when visiting the village of Škofja Loka in Slovenia.

On the way to the village we crossed a six hundred year old stone bridge across the Selška Sora and in the middle is a statue of St John Nepomuk who is supposed to be the bringer of good luck.  Well the sort of luck that old St John brings I can happily do without.  The man, who built the bridge, a certain bishop Leopold, fell off it shortly after completion and he drowned in the river below.  Where was St John on that particular day I wondered?

Actually I found this statue a bit surprising because poor old John Nepomuk didn’t seem to have a great deal of luck himself in his lifetime as he was a Jesuit priest who was tortured and killed by King Wenceslas in 1393 and his body was thrown into the river Vltava in Prague.

Because of his aquatic final resting place he is regarded as a protector from floods but he must have been off duty in August 2003 when the city endured its worst deluge for two hundred years and forty thousand people were evacuated and the cost of repairing the damage ran into billions.  Where was St John on that particular day I wondered?

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Weekly Photo Challenge: Victory

Palace of Culture Warsaw

Victory of Democracy

At two hundred and thirty-one metres high the Warsaw Palace of Culture and Science is one of the most notorious examples of Soviet Realist architecture of the 1950s and you can’t miss it because it is the tallest building in Poland and the eighth highest in the European Union.  It was commissioned by Josef Stalin as a gift from the people of the Soviet Union and was supposed to be symbolic of the victory of communism over capitalism.

Next to it are the gleaming structures of the modern business quarter of Warsaw which represent the victory of democracy over tyranny, of free market over central planning, of capitalism over communism.

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Wales, Rainy Days and Mondays

To be fair to Wales and to set the record straight, it isn’t the only place that we have visited where it has rained a lot…

Sigulda LatviaIceland Traditional HouseHaugesund Sailors NorwayFolegandros RainStreet Cleaners Alghero Sardinia

COMPETITION!

Ten points for each country that you can identify in the pictures!

1  S*******

2  L*****

3  I****

4  S****

5  I******

6  S****

7  M******

8  N*****

9  G*****

10 S*******

 

Weekly Photo Challenge: Blur

Tallinn Christmas Market

Here, in the middle of the town we had reached our objective because since 2001, from December through to the end of the first week in January, Tallinn hosts a traditional Christmas market.

This is appropriate because (although this is disputed, especially in Northern Germany) the picturesque Town Hall Square is claimed to be the site of the world’s first Christmas tree, which formed part of a ritual begun in 1441, when unmarried merchants sang and danced with the town’s girls around a tree, which, when they had had enough fun and drink they then burned down.  This would be a bit like any town in England on New Year’s Eve if the tree wasn’t taken down in advance during the afternoon as a sensible anti-vandalism precaution.

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Cities of Eastern Europe – Riga

Walking Tour of Riga

We drove back to the city to rendezvous with our Latvian guide for the afternoon who was going to take us on a walking tour of the city.  We had no idea when we started the tour that this experience was designed as a severe endurance test based on the welcome to the Soviet Army initiation week for new recruits.

She was a lovely woman, and rightfully very proud of her city but she hadn’t fully made the transition out of the ‘do as you are told’ communist era and she pushed us through the city at a punishing pace, even at one time refusing a perfectly reasonable request to stop for a just a brief moment to purchase cold drinks and telling us off for buying postcards from a street trader.

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Warsaw, The Palace of Culture and Science

Palace of Culture Warsaw

There was a happy return to glorious sunshine this morning so we took breakfast early and stepped out to complete our sightseeing.  However, although the sun was out there was a stiff breeze and it was quite cool so once outside the door we turned straight round and went back in to get our hats and scarves.

It was the sort of blue sky that you could feel fairly confident that it would be there all day but just in case we went first to the Palace of Culture and Science with a plan to visit the viewing platform almost at the top.

On the ground floor the Museum of Technology wasn’t open and I sensed that Kim wasn’t desperately disappointed by that.  In fact Kim generally likes Monday sightseeing in Europe because as a general rule most of the museums are closed for the day.

At two hundred and thirty-one metres high the Warsaw Palace of Culture and Science is one of the most notorious examples of Soviet Realist architecture of the 1950s and you can’t miss it because it is the tallest building in Poland and the eighth highest in the European Union.  It was commissioned by Josef Stalin as a gift from the people of the Soviet Union.  What a great gift!

You can’t say that the communists are always inefficient because construction began in 1952 and was completed in 1955 in a total of two years and sixty-six days, although to put that into context the Empire State Building in New York is 65% higher and was completed in less than half that time – one year and forty-five days.  Five thousand Russian builders were moved to Warsaw for the construction project which used forty million bricks and the completed building has almost three thousand, three hundred rooms.  Most of these are offices so visitors are entirely restricted to the ground floor and a maze of marble corridors.

It might have been free to go to the top on Sunday, I’ll never know, but it cost twenty Zlotys each today, that’s about £4, so nothing really to complain about.  We made our way to the lift and waited and soon the doors opened and we stepped inside.  It was gloriously old fashioned and sat on a stool in the corner was the lift operator whose only job was to close the doors and press the button for the thirtieth floor.

This has surely got to be one of the worst jobs in the World, sat in a windowless box and taking people backwards and forwards all day.  I bet it takes some mental preparation in the morning before setting out to work.  We went up in complete silence, it didn’t seem appropriate to attempt conversation, I can’t imagine what you could say that she hadn’t heard a million times before.  She had a severe demeanour which said ‘don’t bother me’  and being stuck in the lift with her if it broke down would have been a hundred times worse than when I was stranded in an elevator with a turtle!

It was a fast lift, it took less than twenty seconds to get to the top so if the attendant is working flat out that is about one hundred and eighty times an hour or one thousand four hundred and forty times for a full eight hour day.  I imagine that when she gets home at night and someone asks how the day went then the only appropriate response is “oh, you know, up and down”.

It was cold on that observation platform I can tell you as we wandered around the edge and looked over the city.  Not a beautiful city I have to say and from this position it was easy to see how the modern city was reconstructed with the long straight boulevards flanked with communist style buildings and structures.  Despite the brutality of the architecture it is however easy to look out and simply admire the post war determination of the people of Poland to rebuild the broken city.

A lot of people in Warsaw don’t especially like Stalin’s gift but it looks set to stay.  This is unlike a previous Russian building gift that was built in the city centre during a previous period of Russian occupation.

Warsaw Alexander Nevsky Cathedral 1

It is said that the Russian Orthodox Alexander Nevsky* Cathedral, completed in 1914, was the grandest building that ever stood in Warsaw.  Constructed of Finnish granite and clad in finest Russian marble it had five gold plated domes, and a seventy metre high bell tower.  By all accounts, inside the cathedral proved even more dazzling and copper and oak doors led to a lavish interior exhibiting oil paintings and icons, mosaic panels decorated the cavernous structure and the entire building was heavily adorned with precious stones.

Despite its grandeur it was not a popular building and when Poland gained temporary independence in 1918 the decision was quickly made to demolish it and in 1922 the tower was dismantled and between 1924 and 1926 fifteen thousand detonations were set off to reduce it to rubble – I suppose it saved the Nazis a job twenty years later!

The Russians built quite a lot of these things as gifts and whilst we clearly unable to visit the lost cathedral here in Warsaw we have previously visited the similarly named Alexander Nevsky Cathedral (there is also one in Sofia) when we visited Tallinn in Estonia but the best was the restored Cathedral in Riga which I imagine may have looked very similar to this one.

Riga Orthodox Church

* Alexander Nevsky was a thirteenth century Russian military and religious hero.

In 2005 the Russia TV Channel ran a poll to identify the Greatest Russian.  The competition was plagued with controversy and not unsurprisingly for a Russian election accusations of vote rigging and irregular block voting but at the end of it Alexander Nevsky emerged as the outright winner.  But it was a very odd result with Pyotr Stolypin ( a staunch monarchist prime minister of the last days of the Romanovs) coming second and Josef Stalin who is estimated to be responsible for the deaths of as many as sixty million people coming third!  At about the same time German TV ran a similar poll but votes for Adolf Hitler were not allowed.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Cover Art

Riga Art Nouveau

Art Nouveau was an international architectural style that flourished for only  a relatively brief period in Europe between 1880 and 1914.  It was an elaborate statement of increasing bourgeois wealth and influence and a rejection of the aristocratic stoic classicism that had previously dominated.

This period happily coincided with a time of growth and prosperity in Riga, which by 1900 had become the third largest city in the Russian Empire after Moscow and St. Petersburg and it has over eight hundred fine examples of Art Nouveau buildings across the city.  These 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.

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Weekly Photo Challenge: Signs

Getting off of the train was another interesting experience because there was no platform in any sort of fashion that we would recognise and it was necessary to leave the train down steep steps that stopped about fifty centimetres from the tarmac and involved a final jump that only the most able bodied would ever be able to manage.

There were no signs of measures to address disability discrimination here I can tell you.

In fact, on account of the lack of engineering refinements on board, the whole railway journey experience seemed fraught with danger and this was well illustrated by a sign on the heavy metal doors that seemed to indicate that male passengers in particular should be careful not to trap delicate bits of their anatomy in between the closing doors as this could be very, very painful indeed. And to emphasise this the letters can be rearranged into that well-known warning ‘tite bals nastie’.

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