Jul 31 - Aug 2, 2020

After more than 4 months of being grounded in Germany by the Corona pandemic, I decided it was time to get on a plane again. By the end of July most European borders had re-opened, and some intra-European air travel had been resumed. So, the question was "Where should I fly to?". Two countries that had the pandemic fairly well under control, and which I had never visited before, were Latvia and Lithuania. So I booked a direct flight on BalticAir from Munich to Riga. The flight was only about one third full. The hygiene rules on the flight were quite strict. Masks were mandatory during the flight, you could only take them off briefly to eat or drink.

I arrived in Riga in the early afternoon, and the taxi ride from the airport to my hotel took less than 20 minutes. I stayed at the very nice Wellton Riga Hotel, which is right next to the city center. To start my sightseeing I decided to get an overview first. The 123 meter high steeple of the medieval church St Peter towers over the old town, and it has a viewing platform, that can be reached by elevator. It was a perfectly clear day, and the views of the old town and across the river were amazing.

Despite the fact that Latvia was ruled by varying foreign powers (Sweden, Poland, Russia, Germany) during most of its history, the Latvians managed to maintain their distinct national identity and language throughout the centuries. The country first became an independent nation in 1918, but that only last until the second World War, when together with its Baltic neighbors it was forcibly incorporated into the Soviet Union. Latvia regained its independence in 1990 following the breakup of the Soviet Union. And unlike many other former Soviet republics, the country enjoyed a peaceful transition with strong economic growth since then. Today Latvia scores consistenly high in measurements of civil liberties, freedom of the press and democratic governance. In 2004 it joined the European Union and in 2014 adopted the Euro as its official currency. The 1935 Freedom Monument, located at the edge of the old town, is an important symbol for independence and freedom in Latvia.

Riga, the capital city, has a population of just over 600,000, which is one third of the whole country. As a member of the Hanseatic League, the city started to become very wealthy in the 13th century from trade with eastern and central Europe. It remained an important trading center well into the 19th and early 20th century, which is reflected in its rich art nouveau architecture. The city has a small medieval center, that is surrounded by what is considered to be the most extensive collection of art nouveau buildings in the world. Riga's old town became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1997.

The Lutheran Riga Cathedral is an impressive structure and can be seen from almost anywhere since it still is one of the highest buildings in the city. The cathedral was built in the early 13th century and is the largest medieval church in all of the Baltic States. From 1939 to 1989 the building was only used as a concert hall, since church services were forbidden during the Soviet occupation.

The iconic House of the Blackheads is probably the most recognizable landmark in Riga. It was originally built in the 14th century, and served as a meeting place and hostel for the Brotherhood of Blackheads, a guild for unmarried merchants, ship owners and foreigners in Riga. The building was completely destroyed by German bombs in WWII, it remained in ruins during Soviet times, but was faithfully restored and rebuilt in the late 1990's largely supported by private donations.

In 1650, when Riga was under Swedish control, the Swedish authorities started to built a huge moat around the city walls in order to prepare for a potential Russian invasion. It didn't work, as Russia took over control of Riga in 1701, but the moat remained an important part of the city's defences for the next two centuries. In 19th century the city walls were demolished and the moat was turned into a canal for pleasure boats. As a result the old city is completely surrounded by this beautiful park and canal. I went on a sightseeing boat, which took about an hour and completely circled the old city first through the canal and then along the huge Daugava river, from which I had great views of the spires of the old town.

Riga also has a number of interesting Russian Orthodox churches, such as the Nativity of Christ Cathedral (left), which was built in 1873 - 1883 in the Neo-Byzantine style and is the largest orthodox church in the Baltics. The beautiful red building on the right is the Holy Trinity Orthodox Church, located in a suburb on the other side of the river. Latvia's Christian population is fairly evenly split among Lutheran, Catholic and Russian Orthodox.

I had a really lovely albeit short time in Riga, but after two days in Latvia I made my way to Vilnius in Lithuania.

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