TAKING A SLIDE OF THE STALIN’S BIRTHDAY CAKE
The building of the Latvian Academy of Science, the first skyscraper in Latvia, was built by workers and the rural population of other Soviet Republics as present to the Latvian people but it also was a symbol of domination and Latvia’s lack of independence. It is a reminder of the communist era, and it is contemptuously known as the “Stalin’s birthday cake”
In Stalin’s idea of a modern Soviet city, skyscrapers were a must to compete with the major US cities. Given the strong similitude, Stalin himself decided to differentiate “its” buildings with a distinctive staggered shape in their structures. This cake-like shape has resulted in many people referring to his skyscrapers as Stalin´s cakes.
The Latvian Academy of Sciences was inspired by the Seven Sister - a group of seven skyscrapers with similar characteristics scattered throughout Moscu, always of monumental dimensions. One of them is the 5thtallest building in Europe -.
The 21-storey edifice of Riga was built after War Word II, between 1951 and 1961. A large reinforced concrete structure decorated with several hammers and sickle symbols as well as Latvian folk ornaments and motif.
The intention is to reach the 15th floor by lift, 6 € paid-access, to continue up the next two floors towards the terrace located on the 17th floor. A walk inside the building takes you back to the 80s, since the decoration, the atmosphere, the furniture, even the lighting, seems to have been brought to a standstill in this period.
Stepping out onto the “Panorama Riga” observation deck, the view is absolutely breathtaking. A large circular terrace offering unparalleled 360° panoramic views of Riga: The Daugava river, the TV tower, the old town, the modern area.It is the perfect occasion to admire the towers of the church and to guess whether they are Orthodox or catholic just by the shape of their domes.
From this very spot are visible the World War I Zeppelin hangars that have now been converted in one of the markets of the city.A motley sight not to be missed on our palate, since we are taking a piece of Stalin´s cake with us.
AN EXQUISITE PALATE
Riga’s cuisine is actually influenced by Russian, German, and Polish gastronomy.Pork meats accompanied by potatoes and seasonal agricultural ingredients are a regular dietary staple. What cannot be missed to fight the cold are the stews and soups, mainly beetroot ones.Located by the sea fishes, cooked in any possible way, is a must.
What is probably the most typical, however, are the piragi or pirags, which surprisingly are not from Latvia, of controversial origin, some claim to be Russian, ... to sum up, of uncertain origin. Whatever, it has become one of the pillars of Latvian’s cuisine.
They are made of flaky butter dough and egg usually filled with chopped bacon and onion, which are later cooked by either frying or baking them.
Depending on whether they are to be served as an alternative to lunch, as a breakfast, or simply as a snack, they may come in various shapes and sizes.The fillings can also vary, it can be made with ground meat, fish, cabbage, cheese, mushrooms, or anything you possibly can think of.It is very popular, it for this reason that there are as many recipes as there are families, as each family prepares it to their own taste.There is also a variation for the more glutinous, sweet piragies filled with jam or red berries.In times of food hardship, flour was often replaced by potatoes.
It is one of the fundamental dishes on the Latvian diet since it is suitable for any time of the year. Historically, Latvians serve piragi to celebrations, mainly to celebrate both Jani (St. John) and the feast of the winter solstice, the so-called Christmas, the two most important festivities of the year.
So important is this specialty that even Christmas carols mention it since one of the most popular Christmas songs mentions it:
"Christmas has come, in a decorated sleigh
Oh poor pirags, both ends burnt".
The pirags can be found anywhere, including restaurant, street food stalls, and markets, which means that you cannot leave Riga without trying them, are everywhere!!!
A BALSAMIC ZEPPELIN
One of the places that you cannot miss if you like markets, is of course Riga Central Market. It is built within the structure of five World War I Zeppelin hangars, giving a huge space for the more than 3,000 vendors and making the market the largest in Europe. It has even been included in the Unesco World Heritage Site list.Its location is perfect, commercially speaking, as it is located on the banks of the Daugava River, and close to the city´s coach and train stations. Furthermore, it only takes about 15 minutes to walk there from the city centre.
It is possible to find a great variety of products in the market. All of them fresh, and the majority of them locally sourced. The five hangarsare divided in relation to the products that are sold within. We can find all kinds of fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as aromatic herbs. On top of that, we may also find the famous sauerkraut, which is a staple food in Latvia. It is commonly used as garnish, meatballs, and soups.
It is possible to spot locals ordering a glass of sauerkraut juice, which is said to contain plenty of antioxidants and to be good for the digestive system.Hangars containing fish and meat: where we have a huge variety of these products of the best quality. Dairy products coming directly from the farms, including all kinds of cheese normally covered in herbs and spices.Bread is another staple in the Latvian diet, as it is said that each Latvian person consumes an average of 50 kg of rye bread each year.
In one of the hangars, we find an area dedicated to drinks, specially wines and liqueurs. Of all the liqueurs sold here one stand outs the most, the Riga Black Balsam which dates back to the XVIII century. It was born as an attempt to create a remedy for common colds. It is made of flowers, plants, egg yolks, juices, roots, and berries, all of them mixed with vodka and left to macerate in oak barrels. It is a black sour liqueur with a sweet aftertaste. The balsam is bottled in characteristic handcrafted ceramic bottles, making them a perfectsouvenirto take back from this country.
The legend has it that Empress Katarina the Great of Russia got sick during a visit to Latvia and she was cured after drinking the Riga Black Balsam. What started as medicine became Latvia´s national drink. It can be drunk by itself, with ice, or be mixed with other types of drinks, both cold or warm, and even be mixed with ice cream. Nowadays, it is also used to make cakes in most Gourmetcuisines. But be careful!! This drink is 45% alcohol so... Be careful with it!!
An exceptional purchase to bring back to our countries to cure any digestive or winter ills.
TRANSFORMING INTO THECHRISTMAS TREE
The Christmas tree is something essential during the Christmas festivities in all continents, beyond culture or even religion. In the Baltic countries, it is inconceivable to have a Christmas without a Christmas tree. The most traditional way to get one is of course going to the forest and cut one down by yourself. Even though, in the last decades, they are normally purchased with their roots to plant them again later or even conserve them for the next year.
There is a strong debate in North Europe over the origin of the Christmas tree. Even though it is a Germanic tradition associated with the Protestant Church from the XVI century, Latvian claims that it was in Riga where the first Christmas tree was decorated, in December 1,510. The exact place is Ratslaukums, in other words, the town hall square. One must go on a short “treasure hunt” through the square to find an octagonal plate on the ground that marks the exact location.The story has it that during a cold night by the year 1,510, a member of the Brotherhood of the Blackheads of Latvia had drunk a little too much. He decided to go find a tree and he decorated it with flowers. Furthermore, as a small gift to the brotherhood, he included a lit candle on the top of the tree. It was a “wink” to the moonlight.It seems that there are many believers of this event, so many that even to this date a Christmas tree is placed in the same place as the “Blackheads” did all those years ago.
However, Estonia also argues that the first Christmas tree was decorated in their square. But the tradition actually comes from the Celts, and it is a pagan tradition. Since it was them the first ones to decorate oaks with fruits and candles during the winter solstices, as an attempt to revive the tree and ensuring the return of the sun and vegetation.
Christianity adopted and transformed that pagan tradition and substituted the oak for the fir tree since the fir tree is a tree of peace, that represents eternal life as its leaves are always green and it always seems to be pointing towards heaven.
Be that as it may, one cannot go to Riga without having taken a picture in the same place as the first Christmas tree in Latvia.
THE HIDDEN ONIONS
Probably no one will tell you about the Holy Trinity Church. It is one of the Orthodox churches found in Riga from the end of the XIX century.
Small in its construction, but worth a visit. Normally tourists don´t cross the river during the visit to the city. Because of that and because it is 20 minutes’ walk from the centre, nobody will tell you about it, but it is worth getting to know it.It is a small church located in a residential area, surrounded by simple buildings of pale colours, which makes it all that more charming. Its intense red façade is accentuated in between all the buildings around it, standing out the characteristic “onion-shaped” domes from Orthodox temples since the XVI century. The meaning of these domes is the representation of the flames from the lit candles that illuminate the interior of the temples.What catches our attention is the strong blue from the domes, which represents the 9 levels of the celestial hierarchy. The number of domes in this type of churches also has its symbology. One dome symbolises Christ, two, the two natures of the Son of God, three, the Holy Trinity, five, Christ and the four evangelists, seven, the sacraments and nine the celestial hierarchy, 13... and so on up to the 33 that feature in some Orthodox churches.
The colour of the domes also has its symbology, golden, green, multicoloured,... or intense blue such as in this church that symbolises purity. In this church we also find a rood of an intense green, that reminds us of the green colour associated with the Holy Spirit.
The components of the sculpture and symbology in Russian Orthodox churches intertwine to emphasise all the sensory aspects of the religion. Herein, the colours, the level of natural light, the interior spaces, the acoustic, the space proportions... allow that the worshippers may feel protected and sheltered during prayer, having a direct effect on the whole experience.
After photographing this colourful church, we will be able to have a wander around this calm and green neighbourhood outside the noise of the city.
Meža iela à Agenskalns
PEDALS OF CULTURE
Do you dare to get to know the city of Riga on a bike?
One of the best ways to get to know not only the city centre which visitors can visit on foot but also the less known part of the city.
From May to September one has the opportunity to take a tour on a bike. These tours run every day but the price is 35 €, which includes a helmet, a guide, and insurance.These tours are an ideal way of getting to know the contrast between the different neighbourhoods of the city an even “invisible” parts that never get visited. In addition to getting to know this dynamic city from a different perspective.
On top of the astonishing architecture of the old town, visitors would also go to the island of Kipsala, to discover the wooden architecture that still remains in the city.Visitors would also pass through the Citadel, and through the Art Nouveaudistrict, the old suburb of Moscow and its Jewish history. Even the little visited working class districts from the XIX century.
This trip allows us to observe the difference between the grey and less active Riga, with the completely ornamented, happy and noisy Riga.
We will go through the Shroud Bridge, one of the symbols of modern Riga. Even though it may sound like it has a bucolic name, the literal translation would be something like a cable-stayed bridge.It is 595 metres in length and it is one of the bridges connecting Riga with the neighbouring island of Kipsala. It was built during the Soviet period and inaugurated in 1981. Nowadays, a beach has been built underneath it for the leisure of people during the summer.These tours are adapted for the physical capabilities of each person, as the guide will adapt the route depending on our pace.
The price is 35 €, and it has a duration of approximately 3 hours.
Giharda Vagnera iela, 14
LUCK IS IN THE DONKEY
We cannot stop visiting and photographing the sculpture of the Bremen Town Musicians.Bremen Town Musicians is in fact a traditional German fairy tale.The main characters of this fairy tale are a donkey, a dog, a cock and a cat.
The sculpture was created in bronze by a German artistin 1990Despite being a modern sculpture, it is still one of the most curious and photographed monuments in the city.
This sculpture has given place to many interpretations.The singularity in this sculpture is that the animals are represented peeking out an iron curtain, but it was not until 1991 when through the Singing Revolution that the Baltic countries were able to become fully independent of the USSR.On 23rdAugust 1990, one and a half million people formed a gigantic chain by holding their hands that united the capitals of the three Baltic countries, Tallinn, Riga, and Vilnius throughout the 600 km that separate them.
A human chain that united like a nerve of freedom the 3 Baltic republics and that shouted the independence and disconnection with the USSR through their songs and joint hands.Another interpretation could be that as in the fairy tale, the animals had joined together to create a great menacing figure frightening a group of bandits... making a symbolic comparison in between the dissolution of the Soviet bloc, with the Singing Revolution and its human chain. It is for this reason that they also chose the musicians as their main figure.The truth is that the city of Riga was founded in 1201 by an important member of the church from the city of Bremen. He even became the Bishop of Livonia and a member of the Brotherhood of the Sword, who were in charge of the Christianisation of the heathen peoples of the Baltic.It is due to this that the statue is placed next to Saint Peter´s Church.
In any event, all animals have their snouts worn down, as tradition dictates to touch their noses for our wishes to become true.
Theoretically one only needs to touch the nose of the donkey for our wish to come true, however, Latvians have a saying “one is good but four is better”
Therefore, of course, we won´t stop doing this and make our wish
A RIDE OVER THE WATERS
During the months of December until April, the river Daugava remains frozen. This river is born in Russia and crosses Belarus, flowing into the Gulf of Riga which an arm of the Baltic Sea with a length of 1,020 km.
On its way through Riga, it forms a channel that surrounds the old town, and that also passes through many of the most important monuments in the city.
In this walk by the river, there is a monument that according to the legend is Saint Christopher.Saint Christopher was by all accounts a corpulent man, and he used to help people crossing the river before any of the current bridges existed.On a cold and dark night, this giant heard the cries of a child by the river bank.Christopher took him and crossed with him the river.The mysterious child disappeared once they reached the other side of the river, but in his place gold coins appeared. With those coins, Bishop Albert founded the cityThat why the patron saint of Riga is Saint Christopher.
Therefore, protected by Saint Christopher, we shall discover Riga by boat.And as if this was an overview of the city, we shall pass through the most important monuments of the city by boat. Yes, by boat.The trip lasts approximately one hour. One part of the journey is done over the river Daugaba, and the other one over the city´s channel.The transport is a traditional ecological boat, and there is one leaving every 30 minutes, always depending on the weather conditions.
On the boat, we will pass by emblematic buildings such as the Castle, the Freedom Monument, the Opera, the old town, and we will pass under the Shroud Bridge and the Stone Bridge. If we are lucky we might be able to see one of the most the city´s most famous pet, a beaver that lives on the channel. It is used by children and adults and comes out to wave to the public most times of the day, as it was its own performance.
One of the most spectacular times to take this boat is during sunset. During this time, the city is covered becomes golden, making it one of the most magical moments in our trip.
The jetty is found next to the Freedom Monument in Bastion Hill (Bastejkalns), costing 15€ per person.
CATS IN THE RIVER
One of the most popular spots to take a break and Carpe Diem is LIVU square. This square is said to have been built by World War II when several buildings were destroyed leaving an empty space. In 1,950, the square as we know it was finishedafter several remodelations, featuring a new architecture to the city. Some of the most remarkable ones being the Great Guild Building, which makes reference to the traders of German origin, and the Small Guild, dedicated to craftsmen.We also find the concert hall of the Latvian Philharmonic, which houses musical performances throughout the year.Another characteristic building of the square is the Riga Russian Drama Theatre, which is the largest Russian theatre outside of Russia.
There is also a very famous house belonging to a guild on top of which we can find two black cats. This is the most photographed house in the city, and it is of Art Nouveau style. The wealthy owner of the house placed two bronze cats on the higher part of the ceiling. It is said that he did so to annoy the palace of the Great Guild, after his application for membership was denied. It was never resolved if that was the whole truth, or simply a coincidence. Legend or not, cats are famous in the city.
In summer, the square is full of outdoor cafes and beautiful flowers drawing waves, that reminds of the lost river that gave the name to the city. It was that very place, where the stream of the Riga Channel flowed through. Gradually the stream became narrower and the city progressively gained space to the river until the XVI century, when the place became the location of the square up to today.
However, in winter the square transforms itself into a skating rink and a true Christmas market where one can find all types of Christmas decorations, from handcrafted items to more commercial ones.
It is also the meeting point for the youthful life in Riga, and it is because it is said that the square never sleeps.
It is without a doubt one of the best places to take a break and Carpe Diem...
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