*** LATVIA 2011 - Weeks 8~9 ***
IN LATVIA 2011
Kurzeme and Cape Kolka, Sabile Wine Festival and Capital City
On a bright, sunny morning, we crossed the open border into our second host-country Latvia (Photo 1 - Crossing the Latvian border), and headed north along the empty stretch of coast road through featureless pine and birch forests. After a night's stay at Camping Verbelnieki set in the fringe of pines which line the dunes and endless beaches of the Baltic coast, we approached the outskirts of the port-city of Liepāja. We paused at a supermarket in a down-at-heel suburb for our first provisions stock-up in Latvia; faced with the unfamiliar language of a new country with many of the products labelled in Cyrillic, we had to learn afresh the Latvian for milk, bread and basic foodstuffs, as well as a new exchange rate for Latvian lats.
Our plan was not to visit the modern city-centre of Liepāja but the former Soviet sealed dock-city area of Karosta (meaning 'naval port') just to the north across the canal leading to the former dock-yards. Karosta had been constructed in 1890~1906 as a naval base for the Tsarist Russian Baltic fleet to counter the growing naval threat of imperial Germany This massive project created a fortified complex of dockyards inland from the open coast, protected from winter freezing over, enclosed by 2 kms long sea-walls and approached along a canal. A large Russian population developed in the garrison city, a fashionable Tsarist outpost with mansions and parkland. Despite the enormous cost of the fortified port's construction, with the outbreak of WW1 the Russians withdrew their fleet to safer waters at St Petersburg. Under the Soviets after 1945, Karosta became a restricted port-city within a city, inhabited by the Soviet navy and Russian ancillary workers and their families. It developed as a secret base for Soviet nuclear submarines during the Cold War, totally sealed from the outside world. As the base expanded, the former Tsarist-era buildings were soon outgrown and the parklands were filled during the 1960~70s with row upon row of hastily built apartment blocks housing the Russian workforce which served the naval dockyards and military installations. At its height, Karosta was home to over 20,000 Russian inhabitants. With the withdrawal of Soviet armed forces in 1994 after Latvian independence, 1000s of these Russian civilians were left stranded here, living in Karosta's increasingly unmaintained rows of apartment blocks. Most of these remaining Russian-speaking residents were non-citizens with alien-passports, considered neither Russian nor Latvian, and suburb of Karosta, isolated physically and culturally from the rest of Liepāja became a depressed slum area of decaying apartments, high unemployment, street crime and drug abuse. And set amid all this social squalor, the faded glory of the golden-domed Orthodox Cathedral of St Nicholas, built originally to serve the Tsarist naval garrison, still stands.
This curious phenomenon of Karosta we just had to see, although totally uncertain of what we should face. Driving slowly through the Saturday morning traffic, we passed the modern city of Liepāja following signs for Karosta through an uncertain area of semi-derelict dockland and gloomy, impoverished-looking apartments. Beyond this, we entered a deserted area of remaining Tsarist-era parklands and hesitantly edged forward along narrow concrete roadways to find the former naval prison now open as a museum. Amid an area of dereliction, we found the gaunt, forbidding redbrick building and spent the next hour learning from the guide about the prison's history as well as further insights into the social realities of transition to market economy with Latvian independence. With this as an introduction, we were even more curious to explore this paradoxical half-world of what remained of Karosta with its bizarre mix of decaying grandiose Tsarist-era mansions, parklands and boulevards, and even more decaying Soviet-era apartment blocks which housed the residual Russian-speaking civilian population abandoned here and now left with lives as derelict as the buildings they occupied.
We edged forward between former Tsarist mansions converted to accommodate the expanding civilian work force in the 1960s and the hastily thrown-up, now decaying 1970s apartment blocks. Then rounding a corner there ahead along a tree-lined parkland boulevard were the gilded onion-domes and mosaic façade of the Orthodox Cathedral - what a sight: you might have imagined you were standing in a grand Russian city rather than the decaying remains of a Soviet naval base. Built for the original Tsarist garrison, the cathedral had been converted during the Soviet years to a social centre, a gilded domed drinking hall for naval ratings. The reconverted Orthodox cathedral now serves the residual Russian civilian population. With Sheila wearing a headscarf for decency's sake in an Orthodox church, we took a look inside at the surviving icons; most had been removed to Mother-Russian before WW1. We walked across to the nearby apartment blocks where old babushkas stood chatting by the dustbins as on any housing estate, but all of this had an even more chilling air. Despite the squalid environment and almost tangible poverty, there were BMWs parked among the older cars; what sort of mafia controlled life in this deprived neighbourhood, we wondered. Feeling uncomfortably conspicuous, we wondered around taking our photos as youngsters eyed us suspiciously. The frustrations of life in this curiously stranded Russian half-world found expression in Cyrillic graffiti daubed on the walls of apartments (Photo 2 - Soviet-era apartment blocks at Karosta with Cyrillic graffiti), and other residents walked resignedly by carrying their bags of shopping. And rounding another corner, there again was the cathedral, faded glory amid squalid decay (Photo 3 - Karosta Russian Orthodox Cathedral amid decaying apartments). The semi-derelict Tsarist mansions still used as residences, just a short bus ride away from a modern bustling Latvian city, somehow symbolised the paradox of Karosta's historic rise and decline, and the almost insoluble social problems of non-integration remaining here for the Latvian authorities to cope with.
Inland from Liepāja, we drove on to the delightful provincial town of Kuldīga, getting our first experience of Latvian secondary roads which in this region of Kurzeme were surprisingly well-surfaced, doubtless thanks to EU infrastructure investment. Thanks to the navigability of the Vernta River on which the town stands, Kuldīga was an important medieval trading centre and even more remarkably a member of the Hanseatic League. After Kurzeme's early 18th century absorption into the Russian Empire, Kuldīga's significance declined into the quiet rural backwater it is today. But its medieval wealth has left a fine heritage of beautiful wooden buildings which now adorn the old centre (Photo 4 - Watermill on River Ventna, one of Kuldīga's attractive buildings). Being only an hour's drive from Rīga, Kuldīga is a popular Latvian day-out, and most visitors make for the town's main feature, the Ventna Waterfalls. Although only 2m high, this magnificent 250m sweep of tumbling water curves across the width of the river in an elegant S-bend (Photo 5 - Waterfalls spanning the River Ventna at Kuldīga). We joined the many other visitors to photograph Kuldīga's pride and joy. At a café afterwards, we got into conversation with a Latvian family from Rīga and learnt more pessimistic details of the economic realities of life in contemporary Latvia, now that the euphoria of independence has long since given way to the stringencies of today's world: EU membership has brought improvements to infrastructure but job-creating investment increasingly comes from Russian sources.
We moved on to Ventspils, staying at Piejūras Camping which is set amid pine trees along the Baltic beaches just south of the city. Despite being a large seaside campsite busy with holiday-makers, we were received by the young staff with smiling courtesy and helpfulness - city-plans, bus and supermarket details. The #22 bus took us into the city and, compared with other Latvian towns seen so far, Ventspils had an affluent and almost genteel air, and we set off towards the harbour-side old centre. Set on the wide estuary-mouth of the once navigable River Ventna, Ventspils had long been one of the central Baltic's main port-cities, a 15~16th century member of the Hanseatic League of course, and a Soviet naval base in the mid-20th century. But it was as an oil terminal that Ventspils earned its prosperity; its port was the principal terminal for the Baltic oil-transit business, with tankers, mainly Russian, unloading crude oil into Ventspil's storage tanks for onward shipment by rail to refineries across Europe. But this major source of prosperity came to a sudden end in 2003 when Russian oil producers began shipping their bulk crude oil elsewhere. The accompanying run-down in trade for the once busy docks meant that the former gritty industrial port-city had to re-invent itself as a tourist-friendly holiday centre. Cleaning up its act in this way has transformed Ventspils into Latvia's premier holiday resort, bringing an alternative source of revenue just in time as the docks and shipping industry went into decline. The 2 banks of the wide River Ventna now reflect this dual aspect of Ventspil's character: the stark industrial landscape of dockland cranes, chutes, oil tanks, warehouses and railway sidings dominates the northern side, with the port still busy. Ferries from Scandinavia and Lübeck still dock at Ventspils and a modern container port covers a huge area to the east. The river's southern bank has the cobbled pavements and flowers beds of the old centre with its almost twee tourist-friendly waterfront, and further south all the tourist attractions and line of pine-fringed white sand Baltic beaches.
And here we were, walking towards the waterfront and docks which were to be the focus of our visit as the origins of Ventspil's traditional industry and source of its wealth. Small cargo boats were moored along the waterfront (Photo 6 - Freighter moored along the waterfront at Ventspils docks) but our attention was drawn to the ranks of dockyard cranes, loading chutes and railway sidings filled with hopper-wagons lining the dockyards on the far side and running for some 2kms along the length of the wide river (Photo 7 - Cranes lining the dockyards at the port of Ventspils). The best way to get a real impression of the scale of Ventspil's still busy dockland and oil terminal is to take the Hercogs-Jēkabs ferry boat excursion around the harbour. For remarkably good value of 1 lat (0.40 lat for seniors), the boat takes you up the river past the container port and huge stacks of cut timber awaiting loading, back along the far bank past ranks of dockyard cranes to the outer harbour and oil terminal, and out to the harbour mouth where the Baltic swell rocks the boat even within the confines of the breakwaters. This boat trip around the harbour gave an intimate and fascinating view of the still busy working docks, Ventspils Baltic Coal Terminal, and oil storage tanks with jetties running out into the harbour with now only a few tankers moored there. This was certainly one of the trip's highlights.
The following morning, we re-stocked with provisions at Ventspils' delightful market (Tirgus laukjams), before turning north on the now well-surfaced but lonely coast road running through the pine forests of the Kolka Peninsula. The Baltic shoreline was less than 1km away but totally unseen through the dense forest. During the long years of Soviet occupation, this entire Kolka coastal strip had been a closed military security border-zone. In the early 1980s, hidden away in these dense pine forests the Soviet military had built 3 huge radio telescopes at a secret location at Irbene. The sole purpose of the radio telescopes had been electronic eavesdropping on Western satellite communications. When the Soviet military pulled out in 1994 after Latvian independence, the smallest of the 3 dishes was dismantled and removed, but the larger 16m and 32m diameter dishes were too big and were left although badly damaged. The parabolic dishes were taken over by the Latvian Academy of Science, and after several years of restoration work, the radio telescopes are now used by the Ventspils International Radio Astronomy Centre (VIRAC) for astrophysical research.
We had made contact with VIRAC and tentatively arranged to visit the radio telescope; again it's not everyday you get the chance to see a former Soviet espionage radio telescope. Driving along the forest clad Kolka road, it was only with difficulty that we located the narrow ex-military concrete side road leading into the forest to the hidden radio telescope. It was totally unsigned and as secret-seeming as if the Soviets were still in occupation. Passing the now totally derelict former barrack blocks which once had housed Red Army units guarding the secret installation, we eventually rounded a bend and ahead, in the centre of a concrete area surrounded by rusting barbed wire was the gigantic 32m wide parabolic dish of the radio telescope weighing 600 tonnes and towering above us on its 25m high concrete and steel pedestal. (Photo 8 - Former Soviet military radio telescope at Irbene). All around us was the natural desolation of pine forests and sand dunes, with this technical monster set here in isolation, built to spy on the West. The place seemed deserted but we eventually made contact with a lady-technician; despite her only speaking German and Russian, we managed to establish our credentials and the arrangement for our visit, and spent the next hour clambering up the steep stairways of the dish's superstructure and scrambling along walkways lined with thick cabling to examine the steering mechanism which angled the dish and turned it on its axis (Photo 9 - Clambering aloft on the radio telescope support structure). It all had a totally surrealistic 2001 Space Odyssey feel, clambering higher and higher into radio telescope's upper interior and finally scrambling up a vertical steel ladder to peer into the aluminium-plated interior of the parabolic dish. We gathered that when the radio telescope was inactive as today, the dish was parked in a vertical position, but when operational, it was lowered to a more shallow angle. But so many of our 100s of questions about the Soviet usage frustratingly went unanswered due to the language barrier: Sheila's German is good, but technical, military, espionage and astrophysical vocabulary were more of a challenge! On return to ground level, we asked if we could see the radio telescope's control room; oh no, that was entirely forbidden, she answered. But when pressed, she led us down a corridor and opened a small room filled with control panels still bearing their Russian markings. Her initial reluctance changed to enthusiasm as she encouraged us to take the control box for the dishes angular and rotational settings, again totally surrealistic (Photo 10 - Control panel of the Irbene former Soviet military radio telescope). This had been a doubly unique experience, not just having the chance to see a radio telescope but also a former instrument of Soviet military espionage. Despite the language difficulties, we had also learnt much about the Soviet occupation and current issues in Latvia with the large numbers of residual Russian-speaking non-citizens and their resistance to integration.
After a night's camp at the remote settlement of Miķeļtornis set amid the coastal pine forests, we spent the following day exploring the once thriving fishing villages of the Kolka coastline. This group of villages set along the coast of Northern Kurzeme leading to Cape Kolka had been occupied by the last surviving members of the Livs, a Finno-Ugric people closely related to the Estonians, who had settled along the Baltic coast several millennia before the later migration of the Latvian tribes. The fact that the crusading German Knights adopted the title of Livonian Order suggests that the Livs were still in the majority during medieval times. Gradual assimilation with the Latvians meant that by the 19th century, the isolated fishing villages of North Kurzeme were the only part of Latvia where the distinctive Liv language and culture still survived. During the Soviet era, the entire coastline was sealed off as a military security zone and access to the sea was banned; denial of the Livs' traditional means of living, fishing and farming, meant abandonment of villages, move of younger Livs to the cities and further decline of the Liv culture. Only a small number of Liv speakers remain, and the language has almost passed from being a living, spoken tongue to one of academic curiosity.
A narrow dirt road had once been the only access to the line of North Kurzeme coastal villages, but now thanks to EU infrastructure investment, a new tarmac road runs along the Kolka peninsula. We turned off along a dirt road leading down to the coast to find the site of the former Liv village of Jaunciems. In the early 1950s, the Soviet authorities had evicted the entire population from their farms 'for security reasons' in this military border zone, and the fields of Jaunciems were planted with pine trees to prevent re-occupation. In a clearing where the village of Jaunciems had once stood, nothing now remained except the tall 60 years old pines, where once families had farmed and fished along the Baltic coastline (Photo 11 - Former Liv fishing village of Jaunciems cleared by Soviets in 1950s and planted with pines). Our plan today was to turn off to each of the surviving Liv fishing villages in turn - Sīkrags, Mazirbe, Korags, Pītrags, Saunags - and to finish up at Vaide where we should camp that night. Sīkrags had once been a thriving port, and in Soviet times was the only point along the coast where access to the sea was allowed for fishing, and a small fish-processing plant was built there. Today only a few scattered farms remain of the former settlement with others converted now to holiday homes (Photo 12 - Semi-derelict wooden buildings at Liv fishing village of Sīkrags). Down at the deserted beach, the only trace of the fishing industry were posts draped with the remains of nets (Photo 13 - Sparkling sea along Baltic coastline at Sīkrags). The next village of Mazirbe once been a thriving township and important centre of Liv culture. The Soviets had fortified the entire coastline as the USSR's western frontier with artillery batteries, floodlights and guard posts. The village had declined because of restricted access to the sea and all that remained of the former fishing fleet were the redundant boats rotting in the boat graveyard behind the beach (Photo 14 - Boat graveyard at Mazirbe from 1960s Soviet coastal closure), a morbid epitaph to a once vibrant community. The little shop did a brisk trade with the summer visitors but how long would it survive? We turned inland where the road gained height curving up the escarpment of Kurzeme's pre-glacial coastline where the ancient Ice Sea had washed up against this former shore now some 6kms inland. Slītere lighthouse now stands prominently atop the escarpment of the ancient cliff top some 75m above the post-glacial forest-covered coastal plain.
We camped that night at another of the former Liv coastal villages, Vaide, now a much reduced settlement of scattered wooden houses. We were aware of camping being allowed at the Purzviedi 'Antler Museum', a collection of elk antlers gathered from coastal forests over the years by a forest ranger. We followed the dirt road through the woods, eventually reaching a clearing behind the Purzviedi house. A large and flat grassy camping area surrounded by pine woods offered an idyllic place to camp. The warden welcomed us saying in German that we were his first visitors from Großbritannien, and charged us 6 lats for a night's camp. A path through the coastal pines led down to the Baltic sea shore, a totally deserted beach stretching for miles in both directions, backed by dunes - perfect Baltic peace. That evening as the sun set behind the pines, the warden invited us to help ourselves to chopped wood for a camp fire in one of the stone hearth-circles scattered around the campsite, a perfect end to a day of exploration and learning, and wonderfully welcoming camp spot in such a delightfully remote setting (Photo 15 - Evening campfire at the hospitable Purzviedi Camping).
The following day we reached Cape Kolka, the horn-shaped sandy spit which forms the northernmost tip of the Latvian coastline where in stormy weather, the opposing tides from the Baltic and the Bay of Rīga coincide to create upward-surging waves of spray; it is one of the few places on earth where sunrise and sunset occur over the same stretch of water. A totally restricted and heavily fortified border zone during Soviet times, the beaches of Cape Kolka are now one of the most popular tourist destinations in Latvia. Walking out to the tip of the sandspit cape at this ultimate point of Latvia, we peered out across the Irbe Straits in an attempt to see the Estonian island of Saaremaa on the distant horizon where we should stand in 3 weeks. The fine sand of the shore was lined with grasses and the natural 'sculptures' of pine tree carcasses lying at jagged angles, debris from winter storm damage (Photo 16 - Cape Kolka, the northernmost tip of the Latvian coastline). We camped that night at Purciems just south of Kolka village at a delightful spot amid pine trees in the landscaped gardens of the enterprising family who ran the village shop, beach car park, guest house and campsite, and enjoyed another campfire, very much a Baltic tradition, with the smell of wood smoke lingering over the campsite.
In pouring rain the next day, we drove inland from the coast through the dismal town of Tolsi to Sabile, a large village which enjoys the reputation of being the world's most northerly location at which vines are cultivated. The Arbava river valley is pleasantly hilly compared with the rest of flat, pine-forested Latvia, and the original vines had been planted here at Sabile in the 17th century by a local German aristocrat, Count Jakob of Courland, in the hope of producing wine locally to reduce his cost of foreign imports. Inevitably at this extreme northerly latitude, the vine growing came to nothing and the vineyard fell into disuse. The tradition however was revived in 1936 under Latvia's first period of independence researching hardier varieties of grape and small quantities of wine were produced. Local enthusiasts again revived wine production in 1989, and now on the last weekend of July, Sabile holds its annual Wine Festival, more an occasion of village fun-days than a celebration of its vintage, and our reason for visiting Sabile this weekend.
We found a place to camp at the hill-top former manor house outside the village which now houses the Pedvāle open-air modern sculpture museum. It's the only time we have camped among random chunks of granite posing pretentiously under the name of artwork; but each to his/her own, and it was convenient to walk down to the village for the Wine Festival on a sunny Saturday morning. The village truly was en fête with bunting strung across the streets, the square filled with stalls, and a lively fun-packed atmosphere. The highlight of the day were the troupes of traditional dancers in Latvian national costume, who twirled, romped and stomped their way through their dance routines in the square in a very entertaining performance (Photo 17 - Traditional Latvian dancing at Sabile Wine Festival). The focus of Sabile's vine growing renown is a small south-facing hillock just off the main village street, the Wine Hill ( Sabiles Vīnakalns). Visitors to the festival were able today able to climb up along the vine terraces across the steep hillside. The crop was small and the ripening grapes still had some way to go in the short Baltic summer; it was really only a token cultivation at such a northerly latitude, but our photos of the grapes show that, however small the yield, Sabile truly is home to the world's most northerly vineyard (Photo 18 - Vines on the Wine Hill at Sabile ). Back up in camp that evening, we opened a bottle of Sabile's light, slightly sweet red wine, maybe not a prize-winning brew but certainly creditable for a product of this northerly latitude. We had received a helpful response to our email enquiry about the Sabile Wine Festival from Inese Himiča, Secretary of the Sabile local authority, and although we were not able to meet her personally, we should record our gratitude for such a splendid day of festival fun.
A stork family was nesting on the chimney of Pedvāle manor house where we were camped, and watching their antics provided great entertainment over breakfast. The 2 young birds were now almost fully grown but still learning to fly. Perched precariously on the edge of the nest, they flapped their wings not quite daring to launch into flight. The parent birds soared around with bill-clattering encouragement. All through North Poland and Lithuania for the past 2 months, we had watched this year's young storks growing from small birds sat in the bottom of nests right through now to almost fully grown and learning to fly, ready for their forthcoming long-haul migratory flight to Africa in a month's time. When the storks do leave, we shall miss their company.
Our journey from Kurzeme to Latvia's capital city, Rīga, meant navigating our way through a tangle of urban motorways and intolerantly speeding city traffic, thankful to turn off onto Ķipsala island in the River Daugava to Rīga City Camping. This welcoming and well-appointed campsite at a permanent setting behind exhibition halls is just a 30 minute walk across the Daugava bridge into Rīga's compact old town. There were no storks for company tonight; just urban industrial background noise. How we longed for the peace of rural isolation again.
Rīga was founded in 1201 as a fortified settlement on the Daugava River from which Germanic crusading knights could subdue the Latvian and Liv tribes. The port-city flourished as a trading centre and joined the Hanseatic League, with Protestantism being welcomed by its mercantile citizens. In 1621 Rīga was conquered by the Swedes and became their main base for occupying the Baltics. In 1709, Peter the Great captured the city and although Rīga was absorbed into the Tsarist Empire, it remained German in culture. Latvian peasants flocked to the city although denied any civil rights. During the 19th century, Rīga became a developing industrial city with large numbers of Russian workers brought in, and subject to a deliberate policy of Russification by the Tsarist authorities. Latvian however were provoked into an assertion of their national identity and with the collapse of both Germany and Russia in 1918, Latvian independence was proclaimed in November 1919 after a short struggle with the Bolsheviks, with Rīga enjoying an atmosphere of belle époque during the 1920s. In WW2 the city was occupied by the Soviets from 1940~41, then by the Germans until 1944, during which time Rīga's sizeable Jewish population was confined within ghettoes and murdered in the surrounding forests. The Soviets drove out the German in 1944 and continued to occupy Latvia until 1990. The drive for Latvian independence was initially resisted by Gorbachev who sent in troops. 5 civilians were killed before the military was finally withdrawn and Latvian independence proclaimed in 1991, a free republic again governed by the parliamentary Saeima. Nowadays with EU/NATO membership attracting large amounts of foreign investment, Rīga has become something of a boom city, but underlying this are still the ethnic tensions between Latvians and the large numbers of remaining Russian-speaking non-citizens.
We had arranged in advance to visit the Latvian parliament, the Saeima (meaning gathering or assembly), and the following morning we crossed the Daugava bridge to keep our parliamentary appointment, finding the buff-coloured neo-Renaissance Saeima building tucked away behind St Jakob's church. Built in the mid-19th century originally for the Livonian Knighthood, the building was adopted for parliamentary usage in 1922 under the first Latvian Republic. During WW2 the SS used the premises and all the works of art were either trashed or removed to Germany, lost for ever. During the Soviet occupation, the Supreme Council of the Moscow controlled puppet Latvian Soviet régime took over the building with its plenary chamber redesigned to the present amphitheatre shape. In January 1990 as Soviet troops resisted the independence movement, 1000s of Latvian demonstrators manned barricades around the parliament, and a small pyramidical monument on the pavement outside the Saeima recalls this protest. High in a niche above the Saeima's official entrance, the statue of the legendary Latvian hero Lačplēsis (the Bear-Slayer) was formally restored in 2007, the original having been destroyed by the Soviets in the early 1950s. We stood outside the parliament to photograph the building, with the Latvian flag flying over the main entrance and a policeman standing guard outside (Photo 19 - The Latvian Parliament building, the Saeima).
We were greeted at the Saeima by Gunta Gaigala who had arranged the visit for us. She led us up to a large committee room which was lined with photos of official Saeima events and told us of the recent and unexpected announcement of the dissolution of parliament by the Latvian President. The current Saeima had been a contentious one with the governing party having only small majority, resulting in much petty bickering. One of the MPs had been accused of a criminal offence but pleaded parliamentary privilege to immunity from prosecution, and was supported by fellow MPs. Public outcry followed and the newly elected President supported the view that MPs could not be seen to be above the law, and under his constitutional powers, dissolved parliament. A general election would be held in September. The 100 members of the Saeima are elected by proportional representation for a 4 year term. Meetings of the parliament are chaired by the Speaker who is elected by MPs who also elect the President of the Republic by secret ballot. Gunta led us through into the Saeima plenary chamber, where each of the MPs' seats is equipped with electronic voting system with results displayed openly on a screen (Photo 20 - The Plenary Chamber of the Latvian Parliament). During our visit, we again had the chance for frank discussion with Gunta about the thorny issue of the non-integration of Latvia's Russian-speakers and their status as non-citizens. There were still tensions which occasionally resulted in violent clashes within the city. We also discussed the issue of unemployment and Russian investment in the Latvian economy. Through our web site, we record our gratitude not only for the privileged opportunity to visit the Saeima but also for candid discussion about current social, political and economic issues facing Latvia.
We walked through Kronswalds Park to the city's main commercial and shopping area with its boulevards and apartment buildings which developed in the late 19th/early 20th centuries as Rīga expanded with industrialisation. Many of the buildings are embellished with florid Art Nouveau façades, some designed by the Rīga architect Mikhail Eisenstein. We walked around the network of streets around Alberta and Elizabetes iela, gazing up at the magnificently restored Art Nouveau façades and gables, some with neo-Egyptian motifs, and another of Eisenstein's outrageous designs creations, a blue-faced apartment block topped with 2 enormous female profiles (Photo 21 - Art Nouveau façade by Mikhail Eisenstein).
A few blocks away just off Valdemāra iela, we found the Museum of Latvian Jews which with a huge collection of documents and photographs assembled by 2 Rīga Holocaust survivors, tells the compelling story of the city's Jewish community. Pre-war this had made up 11% of the population, the second largest ethnic group after the Latvians themselves. Jews had fought in the 1918~20 Latvian War of Independence and had played a prominent part in Rīga's social and political life in the inter-war years. But all of this was snuffed out in 1941, when the city's Jews were herded into ghettoes then systematically marched out into the surrounding forests to be shot. Although unassuming, the museum's displays made gruelling viewing.
In the broad boulevard of Brīvības iela, the modernistic Freedom Monument (Brīvības piemineklis) erected in 1935 stands as a triumphalist symbol of Latvian independence. The base of the monument includes Latvian heroic figures and is inscribed with the words Tevzemei im Brīvībai (For Fatherland and Freedom). The 50m high slender column is topped with a stylised female figure known affectionately as Milda, the most popular pre-war Latvian girl's name, who holds aloft 3 golden stars symbolising the Latvian regions of Kurzeme, Vidzeme and Latgale (Photo 22 - Rīga's Freedom Monument with the figure of 'Milda'). It is ironic that the Soviets never attempted to demolish this rallying point for Latvian nationalistic sentiment which in 1987 was the scene of the first pro-independence demonstrations.
Rīga's old town is enclosed by the delightful City Park where paths wind around the grassy knoll of Bastejkalns (Bastion Hill). Here amid the peaceful pro-independence demonstrations of 20 January 1991, 5 civilians were shot dead by Soviet dreaded OMON special force snipers from the nearby Latvian Ministry of the Interior building. Stone memorials mark the spots around the knoll where the victims fell. We paid our respects then walked back to Livi laukums, another pleasant open square filled with street cafés and lined with the restored attractive buildings of Rīga's Germanic trade guilds and the quirky Art Nouveau Black Cat building which takes its name from the feline features decorating its turrets. After our first successful day in the capital city, we plodded across the Daugava bridge back to City Camping on Ķipsala island, pausing to admire the view of the spires of the old town and the bulky outline of Rīga's Castle, now the presidential palace, lit by the afternoon sun across on the far embankment of the wide river (Photo 23 - Rīga Castle (Presidential Palace) and spires of Old Town from River Daugava bridge).
On our second day in Rīga, we re-crossed the river and reached the small park outside the presidential palace just in time to see the noon changing of the guards (Photo 24 -Changing the guards at Rīga's Presidential Palace). Pils iela (Castle St) led through to Rīga's Cathedral Square (Doma laukums), its sunny open space filled with street cafés, but overshadowed by the gloomy bulk of the Cathedral (Photo 25 - Rīga's Cathedral Square, Doma laukums). The narrow streets and shady little squares behind the Cathedral are lined with ornately Art Nouveau buildings, and lead to the Museum of the Barricades. This unassuming museum staffed by volunteers is dedicated to keeping alive the events of January 1991 when Soviet security troops tried forcibly to crush the Latvian independence movement. 1000s of Latvian civilians crowded into Rīga's old town, building barricades to protect the parliament and camping out in Cathedral Square. Tensions between the non-violent demonstrators and troops erupted into violence and 5 Latvians were shot. The museum displays memorabilia from 1991 and news reel film tracing the course of events leading to the establishment of Latvian freedom from Soviet occupation, and although little known, is thoroughly worthy of a visit. More on the tourist trail is the square lined with the painstakingly restored House of the Blackheads. This late Gothic building with monumental stepped gable façade decorated with ornate windows and statue-filled niches was the HQ and boozing club of one of Rīga's Germanic mercantile guilds, taking its bizarre name from their patron saint, the North African St Maurice (Photo 26 - House of the Blackheads and St Peter's Church). Just behind this square, a squat box-like structure from the Soviet era now houses the Museum of Latvia's Occupation. Funded by donation from Latvians living abroad, the museum was set up in 1993 to document the horrors inflicted on Latvia by 2 totalitarian and equally barbaric régimes - the Soviet occupation of 1940~41 and 1945~91, and German occupation of 1941~44. Using displays of documents, photos, audio-visual recordings and personal belongings, the museum charts the horrors of mass deportations, forced labour, extermination of Jewish population, forcible Russification and attempted eradication of Latvian cultural identity, and inward migration of huge numbers of Russians, the impact of which still has consequences for modern day independent Latvia. This disturbingly uncomfortable museum should be compulsory viewing for those with 'forgive and forget' sentiments. Behind the museum stands a further echo of past Soviet culture in the form of a trio of bizarre great-coat clad statues commemorating the Latvian Riflemen. One of the last examples of ideological statuary left in the city (all the Lenins have long since been confined to the bin), this small square had been a natural gathering point for the pro-communist, anti-independence red flag waving rallies by the Russian-speaking population in 1991.
So compact is Rīga's old town that it takes only a few minutes to walk across past the bus and railway stations to another of the city's notable venues, the Central Markets, housed in 5 huge curved pavilions which originally were WW1 zeppelin hangars built by the Germans at Liepāja and re-erected here in the 1920s (Photo 27 - Rīga's Central Markets). Each of the pavilions houses a different produce market and despite being late in the afternoon, these were still crowded with shoppers. Towering over the Blackheads' House is the elegant 3-tiered spire of St Peter's Church, totally destroyed in WW2 but since restored to its 13th century glory. A lift takes visitors up to the spire's balcony for splendid views over the city, particularly the panorama of the old town backed by the river Daugava (Photo 28 - Rooftops of Rīga's Old Town from St Peter's Church).