Riga is… beautiful. Beautiful in that sun-dappled, super-clean, pedestrian-friendly, pavement café, people sunning themselves in the green flowered parks by the canal explicitly European way. Little squares filled with cafes and people selling ornate traditional mittens. A flower market that’s open 24 hours. Snow peas and strawberries sold from little stands in the park.
In the Old Town, a brass trio plays for the passing people. A group of Eastern European tourists starts to sing loudly with the band, dance on the cobbles. The trio takes a break and group keeps singing, laughing.
The Alberta iela is a stunning block of Art Nouveau buildings, coral and blue and green and cream, luscious. One facade, glorious with ornate wreathed and Grecian figures and scrolls, was a youth hostel under Soviet occupation. It houses the Stockholm School of Economics now.
The Art Nouveau Museum is a painstaking recreation of a beautiful apartment from the 1920s. Women in flowered hats re-enact civilized discourse. Upstairs is a less well funded preservation of the apartment of painter Janis Rozentals, his wife the singer Ellis Forssell, and the writer Rudolfs Blumanis. The top floor painting studio reaches high for light.
Latvia weathered WWI, the 20s, the world economic collapse. And then it became a pawn in the tug for occupation of Europe between Hitler and Stalin, and after the war was squashed under Soviet rule until 1991.
It’s hard to feel those decades of oppression walking around the lovely, leafy, cobbled, art Nouveau’d centre of town. All the cliches about the spirit of a people bounce around my head, but I think what I’m surprised by is the joy of this city. Architectural joy, hipster bike-riding joy, old woman basking in the sun on a bench in the park joy. A giant monkey in a spacesuit, with Laika Come Home scrawled in graffiti behind it. All that is the Europe of the imagination, complete with nutty rye bread with little blue flowers baked into the top.
(Excuse the wonky photos — WordPress for ipad not so good with the photo layouts)