In 2019 we had a trip booked to two Baltic capitals but had to cancel at the last minute.
We decided to rebook for 2020, following exactly the same itinerary that we had planned before flying Air Baltic, staying in central AirBNBs and taking a train between the two cities.
All worked like clockwork, the flights were great, the apartments outstanding, the trains on time and both cities were as good as I remembered them from previous visits.
The weather was an unseasonal six degrees with weak sunshine. If we had gone the previous year it would have been minus twenty degrees with heavy snow!
Latvia’s compact capital has some great museums (in particular the Jewish Ghetto and Occupation varieties) and fabulous architecture.
We started our first full day with a free Old Town walking tour, setting off at ten from outside St Stephen’s Church.
Our guide was enthusiastic, witty and knowledgeable, having fairly recently finished her history degree.
She started with a potted history of Latvia. 400 years of German rule, then Russian occupation, independence between WWI & 2, briefly Nazi rule, followed by immersion into the Soviet Union and finally full independence in 1991.
Despite Latvia being one of the least religious countries in Europe there were plenty of churches to admire as we wandered the cobbled streets.
We learned of the conditions under the various occupiers, including the history of the odd House of Blackheads building, named after an African missionary named Mauritius who refused to execute pagan locals who themselves refused to convert to Christianity.
He paid the ultimate price for this disloyalty to the ruling Germans and was later canonised for his suffering and martyrdom.
We also viewed and learned about the Dome Cathedral, Cats House, Parliament, Main Square and lots more. Well worth the non-obligatory donation at the end.
Later we wandered on our own to see the Orthodox Cathedral, Powder Tower & Freedom Tower and were also lucky to witness a gorgeous sunset over the River Daugava, just down past the castle.
Riga Jugendstil District
As in my previous solo visit in 2017, Mrs Wilbur, our friend Chris & I wandered the Jugendstil/Art Nouveau District where over 100 buildings of the flamboyant genre, most popular between 1890 & 1910, are situated. In an added bonus the Art Nouveau Museum was open, unlike on my trip three years prior.
There were some fabulously ornate buildings with colourful gables, vivid patterns and artistic plasterwork. Many were festooned with statues of animals & humans complete with various expressions.
The most impressive street is called Alberta Iela with a succession of houses on both sides of the street being particularly lavish.
Just around the corner of this street stands the the ex-apartment of architect Konstantinos Pēkšēns, whose basement and ground floor have been turned into the Jugendstil Museum.
Built in 1903, the rooms are laid out with furnishings and equipment as they would have been a hundred or so years ago, together with a couple of rooms dedicated to telling the history of the architectural movement and the house & owner himself.
The €5 entrance fee was well worth it.
The Occupation Museum of Latvia
Temporarily housed (well, for the past nine years and counting!) in the former US Embassy building, the small museum tells the story of the 20th Century struggles against the oppressive Nazi & Soviet regimes.
A series of films shows how Latvians were forced into labour and even to fight during WWII in the name of their uninvited hosts.
It touches on the Holocaust & Jewish Ghetto, but that is explained in detail at its own museum that we unfortunately did not manage to get to (CLOSED ON SATURDAYS). We read and heard that it is excellent.
The Occupation museum is free to enter. One day it will move back to much bigger premises next to the House of Blackheads that are undergoing seemingly endless renovation.
Its temporary home is also in a district with some wonderful architecture.
Riga Central Market
On Saturday morning we decided to take a train to the Baltic Coast region of Jaumeri, but first of all stopped off at the Central Market which stands adjacent to the back entrance of the main railway station.
I love markets and Riga’s is extra special being housed in five former zeppelin hangars that utilised the framework of the WWI buildings to turn them into the market , a conversion that was completed in 1930 and now covers 72,300 square metres.
Zeppelins have always fascinated me. Helium powered aircraft carrying dozens of passengers and also used militarily by the Germans in WWI, what could possibly go wrong?
Invented by the splendidly named Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin in the late 19th to early 20th Century, they became the transAtlantic transport of choice for the wealthy. The aircraft were first flown commercially in 1910 and came complete with fully stocked library, a grand piano and separate sit down bar.
The Hindenburg disaster of 1937 ended the fun of course, making the giant hangars that housed them obsolete.
The enterprising Latvians decided to turn the disused hangars into the central market in 1922, with building taking around seven years.
Far more sanitised than many markets I have ventured to, they are the usual riot of aromas & colours, especially my favourite seafood section.
We also perused the dairy, fruit & veg and spices/delicatessen units that are now all connected by covered walkway.
The fifth standalone hangar houses the meat which Mrs Wilbur & I gave a wide berth to.
Coming next, part two, Baltic train journeys.