Escape Riga old town

We used to bring hats for all those Aussies showing up in slippers and jeans jackets…

The Yellow Free Tour of Riga is about to start, and as we are waiting for more people to join our guide, Agnes, is explaining why she is carrying an old yellow suitcase. It is 12 o’ clock on a Sunday and we are a group of about 15 people standing in the freezing February wind outside St. Peter’s Church. Luckily evereybody seems to have dressed according to the weather, because they had to stop bringing hats as they just kept dissapearing after the tours.

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The Riga Free Tour leaves from St. Peter’s Church every day at 12:00, except on 25 December and 1 January. It is just to meet up and look for a yellow suitcase. The tour takes about 2,5 hours, starts in the old town but soon leaves for the Moscow district and is a great way to see something else than the main sights and get a local’s perspective of the city’s story. Just remember; nothing in life is free. The guides expects tips at the end of the tour.

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If you already have had some time to explore Riga on your own, chances are you have noticed a statue very similare to one well-known in Bremen, Germany; the four town musicians from Grimm’s story about the Donkey, the Dog, the Cat and the Rooster. Bremen is Riga’s sister city, and the monument was given as a gift to Riga in 1990 with a political subtext. It is a humorous approach to earlier political stereotypes and Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika.

It is also just another example of tourists ruining a monument by rubbing it. It is a modern monument, and the story about good luck if you rub the animals noses has no local roots…

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Continuing towards the Moscow district our first stop is Spikeri, some renovated, old warehouses used for temporary exhibitions nowadays. It used to be a place for up and coming artists and a lively place to visit, before it became famous and the rent rised.

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Next stop is the Central Market, built in old zeppelin hangars and opened in 1930 and widely used for everyday shopping by the Rigan’s. From stalls outside you can get everything from clothes to mobile covers, and the main halls are separated into sections for meat, fish, vegetables and fruit and milk and bakery products.

We ditched the meat hall, in case there were any vegans or vegetarians in the group, but walked through the rest of the hangars. This is definitely one of the must things to see while in Riga!

Today a museum well worth visiting, is a small area in the Moscow district where most of Riga’s Jews were relocated to in October 1941. You can read the names of 10.000 people who lost their lives here on the memorial wall.

The majority of these people were killed in two mass shooting in a forest nearby on 30 November and 8 December the same year. Later Jews from the rest of Latvia, Germany and other contries were relocated and forced to live in the ghetto. A dark time in Riga and the world’s history…

Just around the corner from the ghetto museum, you find some of Riga’s last wooden buildings. Originally Riga was a city of wooden architecture, due to but after several big city fires throughout the years wood was not allowed in the city centre anymore. On the outskirts of town on the other hand, houses should be made of wood to secure the centre. That way the city people could see the fire when they were under attack and get ready for either defence or excape.

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Today there are only a few wooden buildings left, and most of them look like they are about to fall down. They are, however, an important part of the Riga’s history and are protected as cultural heritage. Organisations have started to renovate them during the last few years, but it takes time and money.

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The area is called the Moscow district because of its large Russian population and goes back as far as the 14th century. In the 1990’s the district was ruled by the Russian mafia, and a guide would not even think about bringing a group of tourists in. Riga still has a large Russian population, about 200.000 people, who faced quite a lot of discrimination after Latvia’s independence in 1991. Luckily, Agnes could tell us, things are getting better now, and the younger generations are tired of ethnicity conflicts.

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Or the Latvian Academy of Sciences if you like. This majestic building and Riga’s first sky scraper, is a great example of Stalinist architecture and Socialist Classism. The work on the Academy of Sciences was started after World War II and was supposed to be a birthday present for Stalin, whom unfortunately died before it was finished.

The academy is open for public, and if you go up you get a great view of the city from one of the observation decks.

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It is early February, light snow is drizzling from the sky and the wind just seems to get colder… We stop at the railway station for some hot chocolate to heat up on our way back to the city centre. Back on the streets we realize that five Belgian girls have left the group, and I am glad I am covered up in layers of wool, hat, scarf, parka and wool gloves underneath my mittens to always protect my hands from the cold. When visiting the baltics during winter it’s better to be warm than fashionable…

Centrs is a district known for it’s art nouveau architecture. We do not go all the way to the most spectacular areas, but got to see some grand buildings. Originally these houses were divided into large apartments for the wealthier, which during the Soviet area they were turned into shared housing for several families. One apartment could accommodate several families with a bed room each.

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Our tour ended by the Freedom Monument. A 42-meters tall monument honouring the soldiers killed during the Latvian war of independence (1918-1920) unveiled in 1935. It shows a liberty statue holding three golden stars, one star for each of the three Latvian regions.

Following the Soviet occupation from 1940 it was debated whether they should tear down the monument or keep it. They decided to keep it to avoid a mass conflict, but daring to put flowers in front of it during the next 70 years was widely known to be a “free ticket to Gulag”. KGB’s main office in Riga had panorama views to the monument and would arrest everyone that tried. It is know just as much a monument for the freedom movement in the 1980’s as for the war of independence.