Up in the Baltic region, on the banks of the Daugava River, lies one the greatest architectural treasures in Europe – Riga, Latvia’s long-enduring capital. Over its tumultuous existence Riga knew many times of glory and prosperity. But, as it happened in many other European cities, the destruction of the Second World War followed by the Soviet occupation left the city in a dismal state. After the collapse of the Soviet Union when Latvia regained its independence, Riga went through an extensive transformation. Its historic buildings and monuments have been rebuilt and the beautiful Old Town Riga was brought back to its initial splendor, becoming an UNESCO Heritage Site.
The Old Town Riga is made of a series of open squares linked by charming cobbled streets.One of the most beautiful ones is the Town Hall Square, home to the Town Hall building on the north side and the dramatic façade of the House of the Blackheads on the opposite side. In the center of the square is the statue of Roland, a Frankish military leader who became the a symbol of justice and freedom in many European countries. The sandstone statue in the square is a copy of the original that was removed by the Soviets in 1945.
In 1510 the world’s first decorated Christmas tree was erected in the Riga Town Hall Square by members of the Brotherhood of Blackheads
Iconic Buildings in Old Town Riga
Located in the Town Hall Square is one of Riga’s most beloved landmarks, the House of Blackheads. The building was erected in 1344 and was embellished and expanded in the 16th, 17th and 19th centuries. The opulent façade features the various architectural styles of the respective periods. The House of Blackheads was initially intended as a venue for meetings and banquets held by various public organizations. In 1713 the building was bought by a guild of unmarried German merchants who called themselves The Brotherhood of Blackheads, hence its current name. Sadly, the House of Blackheads was completely destroyed by bombs during the Second World War. But on the gates of the original building there was an inscription that read: “Should I ever crumble to dust, rebuild my walls you must.” So sure enough, after Latvia regained its independence, an exact replica of the house was erected based on the original blueprints. Since 2012 the House of the Blackheads has been used as the presidential residence while Riga Castle is being renovated. As of July 2016 the House of Blackheads still remains closed to public.
Also in the Town Hall Square, opposite to the House of Blackheads, is the Town Hall, a three-storied building with a tower and a clock. The original building built in the 17th century in neoclassical style was also destroyed in World War II and rebuilt in 2003. The façade is decorated with the emblem of the city and has a statue of Themis, a Greek goddess of divine law and order.
A beautiful example of medieval baroque architecture are the three buildings in a terrace-like format on Mazã Pils iela, called the Three Brothers, which today are home to the Latvian Museum of Architecture.The white one on the right is Riga’s oldest building, erected in 1490.
One of Riga’s most popular buildings is The Cat House – a testament to the desire of one man to take revenge on his enemies. The Cat House is a beautiful yellow art nouveau building located on the corner of Meistaru and Amatu ilea which has two black statues of cats high up on its roof. The story says that long ago the wealthy merchant who owned this house was refused membership in the Great Guild situated just across the street from it. Their reason was that he was Latvian and membership was reserved for German merchants only.
To take revenge, the merchant placed on his roof the statues of the two angry looking cats with their tails up and positioned them so that their backsides facet the Great Guild building. You can only imagine the reaction of the members of the Guild. A long court battle followed and in the end the merchant won. After being accepted as a member of the Guild he agreed to turn the cats with their face toward the building.
One of the centrepieces of the Old Town is Riga Dome Cathedral, that functions as a Lutheran church and one of Riga’s organ music centers. The cathedral that survived centuries of warfare and transformations has a mix of styles. It was initially shaped as a cross and then changed into Gothic style. Later, a monastery was added to the Cathedral’s southern wall. The cathedral’s first tower was destroyed by fire and then a new tower was constructed (around 1600s).
Another Old Town landmark is St. Peter’s Church, built in 1209. This is one the oldest and most valuable monuments of medieval architecture in the Baltic States which served as the main place of worship for the citizens of Riga for a long time. The 123 meters high church tower was added during the second half of the 17th century. The observation deck at the top of the tower which can be accessed by an elevator offers a great view of the entire city.
St. James’s Cathedral, or the Cathedral Basilica of St. James, is the Roman Catholic cathedral of Riga. The church building was dedicated in 1225.
Riga’s medieval city walls had eight gates that gave access to the city. Today only one of those gates remains – the Swedish Gate– built in 1698 under the Swedish occupation of the city. One of the legends tells of how a Latvian girl who fell in love with a Swedish soldier on duty near the Swedish Gate (which was considered illegal and immoral) was sealed within the City Walls by the gate as warning to others. Apparently, visitors of the wall at midnight can still hear the unhappy girl whispering “I love him.”
Statues and Monuments in Old Town Riga
Every city has a famous statues and monuments. One of the two most beloved ones in Riga is statue of The Musicians of Bremen, behind St. Peter’s Church, which tells the story of this recently independent nation. In the Brothers Grimm fairytale, The Bremen Town Musicians –a donkey, a dog, a cat and a rooster– all rejected by their owners, set out for Bremen to become musicians. On the way, tired and famished, they came across a cottage. Looking inside the window they saw a table table laid with fine food and drink but the cottage was occupied by a band of robbers. Planning to scare the robbers away and eat their food, the musicians hopped on each others shoulders, looked inside and made such a loud noise that the thieves run for their lives, not knowing what the strange sound was.
The statue is kind of a political statement inspired by Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika. Rather than peeping through a cottage window, the musicians seem to be peeping through the Iron Curtain on a world as unreachable to them as the scene in the fairy tale.The statue is a copy of a similar one in Bremen and was a gift from the City of Bremen to the City of Riga in 1990. Monuments are big in the Baltics and the gigantic Freedom Monument located right next to the Old Town is no exception. The 42.7 meter high monument represents a woman at the top of an obelisk –affectionately called ‘Milda by the locals– holding three stars in her hands. The stars symbolize the three reigions of Latvia: Courland, Loveland and Lettgallen. The 13 sculptures and bas-reliefs at the bottom of the monument are depicting Latvian history and culture. Erected in 1935 as a memorial for those who fell in Latvia’s struggle for independence, the monument was funded entirely by donations from local residents.
Interestingly enough, during the Russian occupation the Freedom Monument was not removed, although it was a symbol of independent Latvia. The Soviets knew how sacred and symbolic this monument was for the people of Latvia and feared serious protests. However, there was a tacit understanding that the Freedom Monument was never to be filmed, photographed or talked about in the newspapers. The foreign visitors were usuallt told that the monument depicted Mother Russia holding three stars representing the three Baltic Republics.
The second largest square in Riga is Livu Square, located close to the edge of the Old Town. Flanked by the Russian Drama Theater, the Latvian Symphony Orchestra, the medieval Great Guild, and a row of colorful buildings turned restaurants, the square features an eclectic mix of old and new. Architecturally, it is absolutely lovely, perhaps the nicest of all the squares in the Old City of Riga. The centre of the square displays beautiful green areas with flower arrangements.
Seeing Riga’s Old Town today it’s hard to imagine it during the Soviet times; when the streets were dismal; when the gray buildings were crumbling; when the House of the Blackheads was just a pile of rubble. Fortunately, enough of the city’s architectural treasures have survived the many struggles and takeovers so that the Old Town can be rebuilt.