12 May 2013

Hands on Latvia: Riga

Like my "Hands on Scotland" series (see alphabetical sidebar of topics on right), this four-part series is on recent travels in the country of Latvia. Specific key family points. Not intended to be a travelogue ... more like setting the scene; providing a few memory triggers; atmosphere leading to the warm personal embraces. Information overload is still upon me.
This is the iconic view of part of the Old Town from the tower of St. Peter's Church, on an overcast and chilly day.
Who said the past is a foreign country? It is indeed, as all dedicated family historians know. In this case, the research had been pushed about as far as it could go—although, admittedly, some vital details of the past are still missing. The travel venture was primarily geared to the present and to meeting with live family relatives. That in itself was a foreign country—geography, language, and culture. Mission accomplished, glad to say, a pastiche of past, present, and future.
Typical side street

"Big Christopher" protects the city from a glass box on the Daugava river bank
Riga. The entire Old Town (VECRĪGA) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I love that designation every time I see it in my travels. Here: walking the cobblestone footsteps of former ancestral unknowns, absorbing the sights, sounds, customs, stories, and let's not forget the food! Vecrīga is not a large area, very walkable in its 800-year-old footprint. This was my second visit to the city, with more time now to explore side streets, inspect "public art," poke at street markets, and linger on café terraces.

Riga will be the European Capital of Culture in 2014. The city is renowned continent-wide for its examples of Art Nouveau architecture as well as cultural institutions. On the down side: preparation for the 2014 event meant temporary closures of some museums. On the plus side: we were ahead of the general tourist season and shared the city mainly with spring-happy locals.

Most striking are the streets of restored mediaeval building facades that survived centuries of war and destruction, even during the bleak Soviet occupation. Times are not sufficiently prosperous yet to restore many interiors to the same degree. Churches often burned down from fire and were painstakingly rebuilt to original specifications, some more than once. Inside St Peter's, neglected stone monuments sadly need attention.  

The entrance to our hotel faced this odd conjunction of buildings!
Our hotel (Hotel Justus) was chosen for its offbeat charm, abutting a wall of the Dom cathedral complex. Each room was differently shaped and furnished. The decor was a mixture of heavy and whimsy (OK, so I'm no furniture expert):
Part of the lobby/bar

One of my goals was the Latvia War Museum located partly in the ancient Powder Tower (Pulvertornis) but disappointingly it yielded no information about the resistance fighters of the 1905 Revolution—what I needed was one of the closed museums!

We were not into the Latvian Black Balsam liquor yet!

The family history highlight in Riga was dinner at a delightful restaurant with the Linde cousins, descendants of our mutual Freibergs ancestors. What a thrill to meet and jabber excitedly after years of email contact! I say "jabber" because we relied heavily on Madara and Ieva, fluently bilingual, to translate for us and their mother Jolanta. The questions and answers were flying as we got to know each other. We almost forgot to eat. 

And we finalized our plan for a day trip to the family farm!

For Facebook friends, many more photos to be seen there :-)

[First of three Hands On Latvia]
© 2013 Brenda Dougall Merriman

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