07.01.2020 - 07.01.2020 35 °C
For over 12 months John had been insisting that we were going to Riga in Lithuania he revealed sheepishly just before we left Estonia that in fact Riga was in Latvia not Lithuania, a fact I could have checked for myself if I had bothered to look it up.
'Patience' (our in car GPS) had us well in hand by now so with only a few mis-directions we made it in good time and found ourselves right in the very centre of Riga's narrow cobblestone lanes. We are staying right in the centre of the 'Old Town' a significant attraction and just like Tallinn it is a mecca for tourists, so you may be backing up to take the perfect streetscape only to back into a German or Chinese tourist doing exactly the same in the opposite direction.
Our Air B&B is in a building that was first built in 1905 but which was subsequently 'gutted' during WW2 and then converted into apartments. It is very hot at the moment and as there is no air-conditioning we have the windows open to try and get a cool breeze in the evening, but we are right in the middle of "party town" so the celebrations go on well into the morning as we struggle to sleep. Yes you heard right we are not taking part in the party time. Frequently the soundtrack is punctuated by the sound of another tourist coming along with their 'wheely' suitcase which sounds, to all intents, like a furious tap-dancer outside our bedroom window.
Riga and Latvia share much of the same history as Tallinn and Estonia and they too are emerging from the oppression of Soviet rule over the last 28 years. They along with Lithuania make up the Baltic states and whilst similar in so many ways each country retains its individuality.
Wandering around the "Old Town we continue to come across wonderful little gems which are displayed proudly. We visited the Guild Hall a sombre building with a self important air which was the respectable base for all the crafts and trades which had come to prominence during the
1400 & 1500's. They set high standards for members and for themselves and made provision to support widows and invalids.
Museums are still big in Latvia so we made a day of it. Morning was the Jewish quarter with powerfully symbolic displays, confronting images and sensitively told personal stories. Before the war 40,000 Jews lived in Riga (slightly more than 10% of the pop.) when Germany invaded in 1940 (initially the Latvians interpreted this as liberation from the Soviet rule!!!!) Things soon changed and the Jews were subjected to all the same indignities that occurred throughout Europe. In their ghetto the Jews organised themselves in order to sustain themselves for a long imprisonment but within weeks they were taken to the nearby forest and shot into pre-dug pits (liquidated) . The space they vacated in the ghetto was quickly filled by Jews from all over Europe. They were brought in in cattle trucks awaiting the same fate as the Riga Jews. By 1944 when the Soviets again "liberated" Latvia almost none of the original Jewish pop. were alive and 1,000's of Jews from other parts of Europe had joined them .
Just to ensure that we weren't feeling bad enough we visited the Museum of the occupation in the afternoon which covered the grim period of Soviet rule from 1944 to 1990. Latvia too experienced the same tragedy of the deportations, many for no other reason than they were the educated, writers, artists or cultured. Whole families would be sent, with men in one carriage and women and children in other carriages. Old people reminisced about the pain and grief of seeing the carriages that their fathers were in being uncoupled and sent along a different track.
The food shortages were intolerable. Every time I have eaten a bowl of soup since I feel guilty, remembering the account by one lady of watching her mother trying to make soup out of flour and water. It is important that these stories continue to be heard.
The following day we visited an ethnographic village just out of Riga which had begun in 1927, it is set by a lake in a large wooded area and displays dwellings collected from all over Latvia, from 1700 up until 1925 which have been brought together and set up as villages. Very hot day but such a peaceful place with the wind blowing through the trees. It was fascinating to see all the different techniques that had been used in building these places and different designs for fences as well. Very enjoyable.
So many more great things in Riga, the Blackheads House, the Powder Tower(that is gun not face) and a great display of international bears, a gift to Riga on its 100th birthday from Germany. We also explored the house of a merchant from the 1700's, the freedom monument, erected in 1937 to commemorate their hard won independence in 1918. Unfortunately they lost that independence a mere 2 years later in 1939, first to USSR then to Nazi Germany and again to USSR until 1991, but it has remained a potent symbol through all that time.