My first visit to Riga was on 29th November 2005. On the first morning the sun was shining and the roofs of the buildings opposite were covered by a white blanket of snow with a cold frosty sparkle. Outside the hotel front door an old lady was efficiently clearing the snow from the taxi rank and the footpaths by scraping away with an oversized plastic shovel that seemed to be most effective.
First of all today we found the fabulous Art Nouveau buildings that were all quite close to our hotel. There had been a lot of restoration activity and the pace of regeneration to repair generations of neglect was very impressive. The buildings were bathed in soft winter sunshine with snow on the roofs and when we had done enough neck craning to peer upwards towards the statues and friezes we left this part of the city and walked through the spacious parks towards the city centre.
The snow was still largely undisturbed and looked sensational in the bright sunshine. The canal, which runs around the city, was frozen solid where hooded crows were scavenging unsuccessfully and stranded ducks were optimistically looking for running water. After an aimless wander through the parks we emerged at the Freedom Monument just in time to see the eleven o’clock goose-stepping changing of the guard ceremony where the young soldiers that had stood there in the cold for the last hour looked mighty relieved to see their replacements.
Next on the itinerary was the Russian Orthodox Cathedral, which had also been recently restored in an ugly duckling transformation from a grimy communist grey to a resplendent sandstone yellow under black domes with gleaming crosses. The renovated brickwork was clean and sharp with red brick stripes and elaborate white columns soaring into the blue sky above. The communists had closed the cathedral as a place of worship and had converted the building into a planetarium but the place was surely more heavenly than ever now that it had been returned to its intended purpose. The interior was bright and cheerful, was adorned with shining icons and smelled of incense and to one side there was a service of some kind attended by a standing congregation who were in a very solemn mood. We discovered that it was a funeral service because there was corpse laid out in a casket but I wasn’t tall enough to see over the shoulders of the congregation and I though it rude to intrude to close to the front because of a macabre interest. The service was attended by nuns in black robes and pointy hats who looked like extras from the Lord of the Rings and was led by a priest in a lavish scarlet and gold robe.
At the market square we watched people skating and strolled through a small winter market. There was a lot of snow clearing activity with a man in a tractor with a snow plough working quickly and efficiently to clear the square and he made a really good job of it too. The city clearly had an efficient risk management strategy with a comprehensive snow clearance plan.
Next stop was a trip to the top of a church tower to see the city from an elevated perspective and from here we could better appreciate the patchwork quilt of coloured roofs and pastel facades looking even more attractive under the snowy mantle that decorated them. Luckily we didn’t have to climb to the top and there was an attended lift that raised us to the summit. We had ten minutes at the viewing platform which was about nine more than we really needed considering how cold it was with a bitter wind that felt like icy needles being driven into our faces so we were careful therefore that we didn’t miss the descent when the lift came back to collect us and return us to the ground floor and back to the street.
We resumed our walk through the city and made for the old Jewish Quarter called Little Russia, which took us through the market on the way. This area of the city was interesting for consisting of buildings constructed of timber that are fighting a losing rearguard action against decay and neglect and caught in a catch twenty-two situation, too expensive to repair and restore and too culturally important to be demolished. Adjacent to this area was the Academy of Sciences building, constructed by the communists in the style of the Empire State Building and although impressive in its appearance was seriously ill conceived in respect of location.
The sky was still clear so we decided to make the Skyline bar for the sunset, which the guidebooks described as not to be missed. We walked back through the market, this time through the old zeppelin hangers that had been converted into a huge indoor market with an impressive array of produce.
The Skyline Bar is a great place to relax in the early evening after a day sightseeing and a good spot for watching the sunset. At the bar we found a grandstand seat by the window and settled down for the sunset that we estimated to be due at quarter past four. We got that wrong and had to wait until five o’clock but there was a pleasing atmosphere in the bar and we watched the last puddles of sunshine laying on the rooftops of the city until the sun quickly dipped below the horizon and it went dark.