A Living Illustration of Baltic History – Riga, Latvia

A Living Illustration of Baltic History – Riga, Latvia

Riga, the capital of Latvia, is a city few people outside of the Baltic States have heard of, in a country many can’t place on a map.

Riga-Daugava River.

The Old Town sits at the mouth of the Daugava River.

Yet the port city at the mouth of the Daugava River, half way down the Baltic coast, has been a critical center of trade between Northern and Eastern Europe since it was founded in 1201 by Albert, the bishop of Bremen, Germany, and his crusading knights. By the end of the 13th century, it had become a key port of the Hanseatic League, the German confederation of merchant guilds that grew to dominate Baltic maritime commerce for three centuries. Next came the Swedish kings, followed by Russian tsars. All left their imprint along the winding cobble streets of the Old Town.

The Hanseatic Heritage

The narrow streets and colorful squares of Riga’s Old Town are lined with architectural reminders of its Medieval-era Hanseatic prosperity.

Riga-Cathedral Baroque organ.

The pipe organ of the Riga cathedral retains its 16th century Baroque facade.

The Dome Cathedral – After its foundation stone was laid in 1211, it grew to become the central cathedral in the Baltic States. In addition to its religious functions, it also served as the main venue in the city for concerts, a dual function it retains to this day. Although some additional Gothic, Baroque and even Art Nouveau features were added over time, it is still considered the largest Medieval church in Baltic States.

Riga- St Peter nave.

The elegant Gothic nave features a soaring “palm tree”  vault.

Saint Peter’s Church– Only a few walls and pillars remain from its original 1209 construction. Rebuilt in the 15th century, the nave is a soaring Gothic masterpiece. But the most significant feature of St. Peter is its 123 meters (400 feet) octagonal spire, the tallest in the city and a prime example of 13th century Northern Gothic style. An elevator added during its latest renovation in 1967 takes visitors to the second gallery. At a height of 74 meters (240 feet) it offers a unique circular view over the entire city.

 

Riga-House of Blackheads

The House of the Blackheads.

The House of the Blackheads – It started as “the New House” in 1334, built as one of the elements of Riga’s Town Hall Square; hence its distinctive Dutch Renaissance stepped façade. It was intended as a gathering place for traders and shippers who oversaw the commerce links between the West and East that were the city’s economic lifeline. Soon, it also became a favorite meeting place for the young, unmarried traders (black heads), who turned it into the heart of the local social scene. Today’s visitors can experience the many faces of the House of the Blackheads, from its grand Assembly Hall, where the portraits of the Swedish and Russian royal families glare at each other across the floor, to its original 14th century basement storerooms.

From Romanesque to Art Nouveau

Riga-Old Town corner.

Centuries of architectural trends coexist in the Old Town.

By the 17th century, Riga has become the largest provincial town of Sweden. By the turn of the 20th century, it is an industrial powerhouse, the fourth city of the Russian Empire, topped only by Moscow, St. Petersburg and Warsaw. Throughout its development, it remains a modern city that keeps up with the trends in architecture and urban planning. From Romanesque to Gothic, Northern Baroque and Neoclassic to Art Nouveau, the city offers a unique legacy of the evolution of northern European architecture. Today, 800 years of successive styles harmoniously coexist in the Old Town.

Riga-Central Park.

The city’s old moat is now a park that separates the Old City from the Historic Center.

With the demolition of the medieval ramparts in 1865, the ancient moat becomes a picturesque canal snaking along a thin belt of parkland. Beyond it, Riga is free to expand, at a time when the Industrial Revolution is bringing unprecedented prosperity and a sudden population explosion to the city. Beyond the park, a new neighborhood comes to life, laid out in a modern grid pattern and subject only to a single restriction. No construction can exceed six stories or 21.3 meters (70 feet), thus ensuring a degree of urban homogeneity, even as streets quickly become lined with grand buildings in the exuberant new style that is turning heads throughout Europe.

 

The Art Nouveau Capital

Riga-Old Town Art Nouveau,

Old Town Art Nouveau building at 2 Smilsu Street (Architect Konstantīns Pēkšēns – 1902)

By the early 1900’s, with some 50 Art Nouveau buildings of note in its Old Town and more than 300 in the new neighborhood across the park, now the Historic Center, Riga boasts the highest concentration of Art Nouveau architecture in the world. Some of the most extravagant examples of the style can be found here, all the more stunning for their diversity.

Riga-Eisenstein 8 Alberta.

Art Nouveau District building at 8 Alberta Street (Architect Mikhail Eisenstein – 1903)

Alberta iela is the Art Nouveau epicenter of Riga, with every building along the 250-meter (850 foot) long residential street a unique representation of the style, created by the leading architects of the time (Mikhail Eisenstein, Konstantīns Pēkšēns and Eižens Laube). In a era when over-the-top design is just the beginning, Eisenstein, who has five buildings to his credit on Alberta alone, still manages to stand out with his monumental facades teaming with crowned godheads, Egyptian and Zoroastrian symbols, Greek goddesses, nests of slithering snakes and hybrid peacock-griffin creatures. The street, and indeed the entire neighborhood, is so rich in mythical and symbolic details that it deserves several visits to absorb.

Europe’s Largest Market

Riga-Central Market

Located in five former Zeppelin hangars, the Riga Central Market is considered the largest in Europe.

Just south of the city’s canal, wedged between the railroad tracks of the central train station and the Daugava River, five First World War German Zeppelin hangars were converted in the 1920’s into the city’s central market. The cavernous halls hold a sprawling complex of stalls overflowing with smoked fish, charcuteries, fresh vegetables, brightly decorated cakes and every imaginable foodstuff, as well as tiny makeshift bars and fried fish shacks. In one of the halls, clothing merchants hawk everything from local felt slippers and multicolored hand-knit sweaters to garish polyester fashion that looks like a throw back to 1960’s USSR and Russian heavy metal band T-shirts. The experience is as “traditional Riga” as you can get.

The Old Town stretches along the Daugava River.

Good to Know

  • Getting there – By air. Riga International Airport, with direct flights from most European capitals and major cities, is located 10 kilometers southwest of the city. There is a minibus shuttle (Airport Express) every 30 minutes with fixed stops at several hotels near the airport and in the old town (cost is €5 pp at the time of this writing). However, several taxi companies operate from the airport to the centre of the city for a fixed, pre-paid price of €15 if pre-booked online or via your hotel (otherwise, metered rates apply if paid to the driver.) Service to the Old Town takes 20 minutes. In general, regular taxi can be expensive if the meter is used and a fixed price is not negotiated. By Bus and train – There are international bus and train connections between Riga and most major cities in the other Baltic States (Estonia and Lithuania), as well as a few cities in Russia and Belarus.  Ferry – Tallink operates a daily ferry service between Stockholm and Riga. The journey takes 17 hours.
  • Getting around – The Old Town and Art Nouveau District are rather compact and best explored on foot. The Old Town is paved with rounded cobblestone streets that may be hard to walk on if you are not wearing appropriate shoes. Outside of the Old Town, most streets are paved with asphalt.
  • Staying – There is an abundance of short-term lodging options throughout the city center, ranging from efficiency apartments to boutique and international chains hotel. On this recent stay, I chose the Konventa Seta Hotel, Kalēju iela 9/11, Centra rajons, Rīga, LV-1050for its ideal location in a quiet enclave in the heart of the Old Town. Housed in a former convent that is designated as a historic monument, the property consists of seven buildings around interior courtyards. It has been fully renovated with  modern amenities, and decorated in the functional, minimalist décor that is typical of Northern European hotels. The very reasonable room-rate included a generous buffet breakfast and reliable Wi-Fi throughout the property. The front desk staff spoke proficient English and was unfailingly helpful and pleasant. Contact: tel. +371 60008700, e-mail: konventaseta@rixwell.com-mail
  • Visiting – The Dome Cathedral, Doma laukums 1, Riga, LV 1050, is open every day from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm. Contact: e-mail doms@doms.lv. St. Peter’s Church, Reformācijas laukums 1, Rīga, LV-1050 is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm and Sunday from 12:00 noon to 6:00 pm. Closed on Monday. Contact : email liena.bogatirevica@riga.lv. The House of the BlackheadsRātslaukums 7, Riga, VL 1050 is open Tuesday through Sunday from 11:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Closed on Monday. The Central Market is open Monday through Saturday from 8:00 am to 6:00 pm and Sunday from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm.
  • Eating –The restaurant scene in Riga has come a long way since Latvia’s independence from the USSR in 1990. While you can still find plenty of eateries offering local dishes based on the traditional local staples: fish, pork, potatoes and cabbage, there is now a full range of new options available from international fast food to regional pubs and refined, chef-driven restaurants serving imaginative dishes using locally sourced seasonal products. The best one I came across during this recent stay was the Domini Canes, Skārņu iela 18/20, Centra rajons, Rīga, LV-1050, coincidentally located a two-minute walk from my hotel, on the small square facing the historic St. Peter’s church. It seems I am not the only one to delight in their succulent garlic butter sautéed sea scallops with mashed swedes (rutabaga) or their slow-roased lamb shank with red-wine poached beets and carrot-caraway purée. Reservations are a must every day for dinner. Open every day from 10:00 am to 11:00 pm. Contact: tel. +371 22 314 122. Another delightful place I stumbled onto is Parunasim kafe’teeka,  Mazā Pils iela 4, Centra rajons, Rīga, LV-1050. From this backstreet of the Old Town, let the blackboard arrow guide you to the courtyard entrance of this cozy coffee shop. The old-fashion pastry case is filled with home baked goodies that are a perfect foil for the best cappuccino and hot chocolate in town. There is also a courtyard terrace in the summer. Contact: tel.+371 25 663 533.
  • UNESCO designation – Riga’s Old Town, Art Nouveau District and Central Market were designated UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997.

Location, location, location!

Riga Old Town

From the Middle Ages to the Future – Toulouse, La Ville Rose

From the Middle Ages to the Future – Toulouse, La Ville Rose

Sometime in the 2nd century BCE, the Romans marched into Toulouse, or Tolosa as it was then called. Recognizing the strategic potential of the long-established trading hub between the Mediterranean, the Atlantic and the Pyrenees, they set out to turn it into a major military outpost. To compensate for the area’s shortage of building stone, they turned to the abundant iron-rich clay of the Garonne River basin, which they baked into red bricks. La Ville Rose (the pink city) was born.

A Medieval Building Boom

Toulouse - cloister.

Several Romanesque brick cloisters remain in the city center.

Since bricks are easily repurposed, little remains of the antique city. By the turn of the first millennium A.D., as the local population finally emerged from the centuries of Dark Ages that followed the fall of the Roman Empire, a second building boom ensued. Roman bricks found their way into the walls of Medieval monasteries, churches and mansions that still stand today along the tangle of streets of the historic city center.

Toulouse -St Sernin bell tower.

The bell tower of Saint Sernin is a famed city landmark.

The Basilique Saint Sernin is a magnificent illustration of this early architectural recycling. The only remainder of the once sprawling abbey of the same name, it is considered one of the largest and finest examples of early Romanesque churches in Europe. Consecrated in 1096, it became an important stopover for pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostella in Northern Spain. Its elegant octagonal bell tower topped by a graceful spear remains a landmark of the city. The wide ambulatory (walkway) that encircles the nave and main altar is lined with chapels where white marble saints stare down from alcoves in the pink brick walls.

Toulouse - Jacobins palm tree.

The “palm tree” vault of the Couvent des Jacobins.

The nearby Couvent des Jacobins is another remarkable monastic building. Built in the 13th century, this former convent for Dominican friars (called Jacobins in France in reference to the location of their first convent, located Rue St. Jacques in Paris) is a jewel of Southern Gothic art. Its now deconsecrated church is unique for its “palm tree” ribbed vault soaring from a central colonnade, 28 meters (92 feet) above the ground. The adjoining cloister with its verdant central garden remains an island of tranquility in the heart of the city.

Toulouse - Augustins

The Musée des Augustins holds a rich collection of Romanesque capitals and Gothic sculptures.

No tour of the great religious complexes of Toulouse is complete without a visit to the Musée des Augustins. The expansive gothic monastery, built in 14th century for Augustine monks, became one of France’s oldest museums in 1975, when it was secularized during the French revolution. As well as an eclectic collection of paintings and sculptures ranging from the early Middle Ages to the start of the 20th century, it houses a wealth Romanesque capitals and Gothic sculptures stunningly displayed in a contemporary setting designed by American artist Jorge Pardo. A stop by its vast cloister and its astonishing colony of gargoyles is also a must.

The Hotel d’Assezat

Toulouse - Assezat

the Hotel d’Assézat remains the greatest Renaissance palace in the city,

The elaborate stonework of interior courtyards is a constant reminders of the city’s Renaissance grandor.

The religious communities were not the only architects of La Ville Rose. Although the fortunes of Toulouse ebbed and flowed through centuries of political and religious conflicts, the city managed to remain one the most important trading centers in France.

During the 16th and 17th centuries, its prosperous merchants commissioned stately residences. The most opulent of them is the Hotel d’Assézat, a grand Renaissance palace built in 1555 for its namesake Pierre d’Assézat. Like most of Toulouse’s private mansions, it features a tall brick tower jutting from the roof, apparently the ultimate status symbol at the time. Today, the fairytale pink palace houses the prestigious private art collection of the Bemberg Foundation. Five centuries of breathtaking paintings from Canaletto, Caravaggio, Brueghel and Bosch to Toulouse-Lautrec (a native son of nearby Albi), Cezanne, Monet, Matisse and Picasso are exhibited in its intimate salons. One room is dedicated to one of the finest selections anywhere of works by Pierre Bonnard.

Dozens of these grand homes survive throughout the old town, though few are open to the public. However, their ornate facades and interior courtyards decorated with elaborate stonework and sculptures remind the passer-by of the wealth that once flowed through the city.

Le Capitole

Toulouse-Capitole1.

The Place du Capitole is surrounded by renowned brasseries and cafés.

Nothing embodies the evolution of Toulouse better than the Capitole, the heart of the city since the 12th century. When its Capitouls (governing magistrates) embarked on the construction of the original building in 1190, their intention was to provide a seat of government for a province that was growing in prosperity and influence. Little did they know they were setting in motion a 500-year architectural evolution that would change the face of their city and ultimately establish its reputation as one of the most beautiful in France. The current building reflects its successive transformations. The oldest remaining parts are the 16th century Donjon (the Keep, also known as the Archives Tower), and the 117th century Henry IV cloistered courtyard. The dramatic 135 meter (440 foot) long façade of today’s Capitole is an 18th century Neoclassical masterpiece that dominates the entire east side of its eponymous square. In addition to its municipal functions, it houses the reputed Théâtre du Capitole Opera Company and the Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse.

In front of it, the sprawling Place du Capitole is now a pedestrian area surrounded by renowned brasseries and cafés, and a favorite meeting point for locals and visitors alike.

Toulouse-Capitole2

The 18th century Neoclassical facade of th Capitole dominates the square.

 

The Space City

Toulouse-Cite Espace

La Cité de l’Espace is located a short bus ride east of the city.

For all its glorious architectural past, Toulouse is resolutely turned to the future. It all began in 1917, when the French government located its first major aeronautic firm here. It subsequently developed into one of the main aerospace centers in Europe. Inaugurated in 1997, La Cité de l’Espace is an interactive center of scientific culture focused on spatial exploration and astronomy. Here you can see the famous Ariane 5 rocket, and take a tour of the original MIR space station used for training astronauts in the days of the Soviet Union. And for hands-on visitors, various virtual reality simulators offer the opportunity to experience what it might feel like to travel through space to Mars.

 

Good to Know

  • Getting there – By air – Located 8 kilometers (5 miles) west of the city centre, the Blagnac Airport has daily flights from Paris and other large French cities, as well as major European hubs. From the airport, the T2 Tramway line: Airport – Arènes – Palais de Justice, connects with the metro service at Arènes (line A) and Palais de Justice (line B) stations every 15 minutes.Additionally, a shuttle bus from the airport to several points in the center of the city operates every 20 minutes from 5:30 am to midnight. By train –There are multiple daily train connections between Paris (5 to 7 hours), Bordeaux (2 hours), Marseille (4 hours) and Barcelona, (7 hours) and Toulouse’s Matabiau central train station. By road – a network of major highways connects Toulouse with Paris, Bordeaux, Marseille and Barcelona.
  • Getting around – Although Toulouse is the fourth largest city in France, its historic center is relatively small and easily walkable. Should you get tired of walking, a free electric shuttle circles the city center every 10 minutes from 9:00 am to 7:00 pm everyday except Sunday. There are no designated stops. If you spot one of the small, white “tisséo” busses, just wave it down.
  • Visiting –Located in the Donjon, at the back of the Capitole, the Toulouse Tourist Office is open from 9:30 am to 6:00 pm Tuesday through Saturday and 10:00 am to 6:00 pm Sunday and Monday. The Couvent des Jacobins, 1 Place des Jacobins, 31000 Toulouse, is open 10:00 am to 6:00 pm, Tuesday through Sunday.  The  Musée des Augustins (or Musée des Beaux Arts), 21 rue de Metz, 31000 Toulouse, is open Wednesday through Monday from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm, and closed on Tuesday. The Hôtel Hassezat, George Bemberg Foundation, Place d’Assezat, 31000 Toulouse, is open Tuesday through Sunday, 10:00 am to 12:30 pm and 13:30 to 6:00 pm, and closed on Monday. La Cité de l’Espace, Avenue Jean Gonord, 31506 Toulouse, is open daily at 10:00 am. Tel. +33 (0) 5 67 22 23 24.

Location, location, location!

Toulouse