Riga Notes

Jonathan Knott Darby Sawchuk May 2015

LATVIA’S CAPITAL SPIRES WITH ITS BEAUTIES MAKING OTHER WELL-KNOWN EUROPEAN CITIES JEALOUS.

An ethereal hum slowly emerges from the silence in the darkened room. The guitarist gradually builds up a texture using the dials on his electronic mixing board. The sound grows, enveloping the room, and I feel like I’m losing a sense of time and place.

If you came to Riga five years ago, you couldn’t have seen this experimental performance, because the venue, Kaņepes Kulturās Centrs (KKC), didn’t exist. It opened in 2010, when an old music school was restored into a live music venue and café. And it’s by no means the only new project that’s sprung up recently. Across Riga, in buildings and spaces that were previously empty or run-down, you’ll now find tea shops, art galleries and cycle cafés. These new ventures give the city a vibrant and youthful energy, revealing a completely different side to it.

Visitors to Riga now have the best of old and new. You can still visit historic attractions like the central market (built in five former aircraft hangars), the pretty old town with its churches and medieval guild houses, the opera house and the peaceful parks in the city center. But there’s also Spīķeri, an old docks area with a chamber orchestra, a delicatessen and a contemporary art center, and Miera Iela, a bohemian street of cafés and boutiques.

THE MEETING POINT OF CIVILISATIONS
Riga has come under many influences since it was founded in 1201. There are reminders of this history in the old town. Some of the most memorable buildings are the quirky "three brothers" set of adjacent houses, the ornate House of the Blackheads (home to a medieval guild) and St Peter’s Church, with its copper steeple. 

I walk out of the old town, crossing the old city moat, to the Art Nouveau district just to the north. I’m greeted by a striking constellation of curved lines, elaborate swirls and gargoyle faces.

Back on the edge of the old town, I pass the Laima clock, which dates back to the 1920s. The clock looks best after dark with its glowing yellow light. Just behind the clock is another Riga landmark – the inspiring freedom monument. 

Having worked up an appetite, I cross a bridge over the broad river Daugava to Fazenda, a restaurant serving modern European food. With its wicker chairs and checked tablecloths, it’s an oasis of homeliness in an up-and-coming area. There are plenty more laid-back food and drink options in the city. Staying south of the river, there’s Māja restaurant in Kalnciema Kvartāls – a courtyard of restored wooden houses. Or head back north of the city center to Miera Iela, where you can refuel in quirky cafés in between browsing the street’s independent boutiques. Creative energy is putting a contemporary spin on Riga's rich history.

MUST SEE
Old town: Don’t miss the city cathedral – or the Cat House, with two cat sculptures on its roof. 

Kalnciema Kvartāls: Just off a busy road, this pleasant courtyard of restored wooden houses is a welcoming space, with venues including shops and restaurants. There’s a weekly market and concerts and film screenings in the summer.

 

Art Nouveau buildings: Many of Riga’s best Art Nouveau buildings are on Alberta Iela, Elizabetes Iela and Antonijas Iela in what is known as Riga’s ‘quiet center’. The philosopher Isaiah Berlin lived at No. 2, Alberta as a child.