The Latvian capital of Riga has some of the best-looking Art Nouveau buildings


A stunning view of the Great Kemeri Bog Boardwalk from the observation deck. — Photos: KOO WEE HON

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Riga, the capital of Latvia, is the largest city in the Baltic states in Europe, and the most vibrant and cosmopolitan.

Legend has it that Riga was built by a tall strong man carrying people across the Daugava River which flows through the city. One day, he carried a small child across the river, but the child got so heavy that when he reached the other side, he was totally exhausted and fell asleep with the child.

The next day, he woke up and found a huge chest of gold coins where the child had been. Years later, when the man died, the gold coins were used to build Riga.

This beautiful city has around 800 buildings that are in the Art Nouveau or Jugendstil style of architecture in the city centre and old town, which is a Unesco World Heritage Centre. Most of these buildings were built around the late 19th and early 20th centuries. My wife and I spent many hours just wandering around this “open air museum”.

The elaborate building facades, with carvings of either flowers or mythological creatures and figures, ornate doorways and windows, and artistic use of different hues and colours, mesmerised us. We would stand for long periods in front of the buildings soaking in their beauty.

Albert Street is particularly noted for its Art Nouveau architecture, while Jauniela is a charming street which was once featured in a Russian TV series on Sherlock Holmes, in which it was known as “Baker Street”. There is a hotel nearby called Sherlock Art Hotel and every year thousands of Russians head to the place to celebrate the world-famous character’s birthday.

The House Of Blackheads was completely rebuilt at the end of the 20th century, and has a fantastic and intricate facade. It was a guild for unmarried and foreign seamen back in the day, but now mainly serves as a tourist information centre, a museum and event space.

A stone’s throw away is one of Latvia’s most recognisable landmarks, the Dom Cathedral. Outside the cathedral you can find the Latvian version of the Town Musicians Of Bremen, a fairytale by Germany’s Brothers Grimm. The donkey, dog, cat and cockerel stand on top of each other and sing through an iron curtain. This signifies people singing through the communist curtain to drive them away – Latvia was part of the Soviet Union until 1991.

Somewhere at the top of this building are two infamous cats with their tails up.Somewhere at the top of this building are two infamous cats with their tails up.

Latvians love singing and hold major singing and music festivals annually. My wife and I unfortunately missed a major event by a few days but managed to catch a free concert at the Esplanade Park.

In the mountain-shaped National Library there are records of thousands of Latvian folk songs collected over many years. Actually, many of them were from the memory of the older generations.

If you’re up for more walking then head to the huge Bastejkalns Park where swans and boats glide on a canal that meanders through the place. Tree-lined walkways follow the canal and it is a respite from the hustle and bustle of the city.

In the middle of the park you will find the Freedom Monument symbolising statehood, unity, independence and freedom.

The Central Market, meanwhile, used to be hangars for Zeppelins. Today, the market has numerous shops selling local produce, clothing, flowers, and even amber.

The House of Blackheads has a fascinating facade. The House of Blackheads has a fascinating facade.

Fish is a staple in Riga so various types of fish – be it fresh, smoked, cured, pickled, or canned – are sold. There is also a wonderful fish restaurant located within the market with an extensive menu, that’s constantly packed with endless diners.

A popular illustration that’s linked to Riga is one of a black cat with its tail up. As the story goes, there was once a man who wanted to join an exclusive guild but was rejected. In anger, he built a building with two cats sitting on two domes with their backs towards the guild!

On our last day, we went to Kemeri National Park to check out the sulphur springs and the Great Kemeri Bog Boardwalk. Hiking to these places was delightful as there were wild strawberries and blueberries along the trails that we could pick and eat.

The 3.5km-long Great Kemeri Bog Boardwalk is built from wooden planks and surrounded by huge swaths of moss, trees, pools and even lakes. As you walk on this trail, you may just get a whiff of the sulphuric aroma of the bog.

There is an observation tower midway which offers stunning, sweeping views of the bog.

On the way back, we stopped by Jurmala, a popular beach resort.

It is a heady mixture of glitzy swanky bars, cafes, restaurants and beautiful wooden houses set among slender pine trees. The beach seems endless and the water cold and shallow. But it was so good to dip our feet in the water after our hike at Kemeri.

The views expressed are entirely the reader’s own.

Mythological figures adorn an Art Nouveau building.Mythological figures adorn an Art Nouveau building.

Riga's version of the Town Musicians Of Bremen, singing through the iron curtain for freedom from communism.Riga's version of the Town Musicians Of Bremen, singing through the iron curtain for freedom from communism.

Bastejkalns Park with its canal and lots of greenery.Bastejkalns Park with its canal and lots of greenery.

A varied selection of fish on sale at the Central Market.A varied selection of fish on sale at the Central Market.

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