On the first morning of the visit to Riga we walked around the Art Nouveau district where previously grand buildings that had fallen into disrepair during the communist period of occupation are once more being restored to former glory.
Art Nouveau was an international architectural style that flourished for only a relatively brief period in Europe between 1880 and 1914. It was an elaborate statement of increasing bourgeois wealth and influence and a rejection of the aristocratic stoic classicism that had previously dominated.
This period happily coincided with a time of growth and prosperity in Riga, which by 1900 had become the third largest city in the Russian Empire after Moscow and St. Petersburg and it has over eight hundred fine examples of Art Nouveau buildings across the city. These are the legacy of Latvian Romanticism, which was the classical era of Latvian culture that made Riga one of the European centres of Art Nouveau
When I first saw them I was completely astounded by the beauty and the grandeur of these very fine buildings. Their ornate facades and intricate decoration were perfectly framed against the blue sky and they looked spectacular. Between the two world wars tourists flocked to Riga, which was a vibrant and grand city, before first the Germans and then the Russians did their worst, it was known as the ‘Pearl of the Baltic’ and visitors referred to it as ‘the Paris of the North’ and walking around this area now it is very easy to see why and everywhere there was evidence of a prosperous past that is now beginning to re-emerge.
You can always tell where the best buildings are in a capital city because the Government buildings, foreign embassies and the financial institutions move in and this is where they all are standing side by side in rows of tall pastel coloured buildings with impressive statues and friezes all competing with each other for superior magnificence. This is only my opinion of course but if you ignore the special significance of the Gaudi factor I think these buildings are better even than those in Barcelona. Other European cities famous for Art Nouveau were Paris, symbolised by the design entrances for the city’s new subway system, Brussels, which was enjoying a new prosperity from the wealth it had gained during the Industrial Revolution and colonial expansion in Africa, Vienna, Munich and Glasgow, which although Art Nouveau was not generally embraced in England, the style developed in exciting new directions in this Scottish city.
The Art Nouveau region in Riga is an area in the north of the city not far from the old town and quite close to the Albert Hotel. We walked first down Dzirnavu where there are some of the finest buildings and then down the main boulevard of Elizabetes where the government buildings are located and then further out towards the river where the buildings are patiently waiting their turn for renovation and the quality of the buildings starts to decline. Some day it is certain that all of these buildings will be restored to their former glory but for now they remain sad and unstable with health and safety precautions taken to protect pedestrians from falling masonry and rusting ironwork.
The pace of renovation is truly impressive and on every return visit the number of restored buildings has increased. And this is not the only thing that is changing because I have detected changes that make me glad that I visited Riga for the first time nearly six years ago. The number of tourists has increased by nearly 25% since 2005 and for someone visiting then the changes are obvious. For a start things are becoming more expensive and prices in the restaurants and the bars are beginning to creep up as the Latvian hosts wise up to how much we pay for things back home in the UK. On this visit I would say that prices were getting closer to those in Prague and I certainly needed to exchange more sterling for Lats than ever before. Interestingly though, taxi prices seemed to be going down, prices to and from the airport were cheaper, and I’ve never come across that before. The drivers are just as crazy though and the one that took us from the airport to the city when we arrived was a complete psychopath who drove at alarmingly breakneck speeds in the most unpredictable manner that made us pleased to arrive at our destination in one piece.
Apparently the weather is changing too and I blame global warming for that. The average February, early March temperature is supposed to be a few degrees below zero but we barely saw temperatures fall below five or six degrees centigrade and on the stroll down Jurmala beach for example the weather was most unseasonably warm. All of these unexpectedly high winter temperatures had played recent havoc with winter sporting activities and these had had to be moved from natural to artificial venues in recent weeks before our visit. One artificial venue that we did enjoy was a skating rink in one of the public parks in the city centre. We were determined to give it a try and it looked easy enough with two young men skating effortlessly across the surface and performing pirouettes and other dazzling moves so we hired the boots and took to the ice.
It might have looked easy but it certainly wasn’t. The orange boots were excruciatingly uncomfortable as they our gripped ankles like instruments of medieval torture and the hard as iron ice looked as though it could inflict really serious damage to fragile bones if there was to be a fall and bodily contact with the inhospitable surface. The boot hire was for a full hour but fifteen minutes of communist iron caliper treatment was enough and even though we were beginning to master the technique fifteen minutes or so was more than enough and an application for ‘dancing on ice’ will almost certainly have to wait until after quite a bit more practice.