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LATVIA

Latvia’s storybook landscape is comprised of Baroque castles and charming cities that mingle with lush forests and tranquil lakes. While the Baltic nation is just slightly larger than West Virginia, it is rich in history and culture. The diverse nation is home to a mosaic of cultures, including Latvians, Russians, Belarusians, Poles, and Ukrainians. The Eastern European nation is nestled between Lithuania, Estonia, and Russia—four countries whose turbulent histories intertwine.

Throughout history, Latvia had been passed between kingdoms, crusades, and countries—from Poland and Sweden to Germany and Russia. At the end of World War II, the Soviet Union had a firm grasp on Eastern Europe, including Latvia. By 1989, these nations had one unified goal in mind: independence. This inspired two million Latvians, Lithuanians, and Estonians to join together to form a human chain that extended from Vilnius to Tallinn. This effort, along with others, led to Latvia’s full independence on August 21, 1991. Today, Latvians are a warm and welcoming people who take pride in the resilience of their country. 

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Learn how Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania came together to achieve independence from each other.

ARTICLE

When in Riga, look up. Learn about the Latvian capital’s famed Art Nouveau movement here.

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Three Nations, One Spirit

The seeds of protest and the Baltic Capitals’ resurgence

for O.A.T.

An estimated two million Baltic people all joined hands to physically and symbolically link their three capital cities of Vilnius, Riga, and Tallinn.

Eastern Europe may still seem closed off to many—after all, most of what Americans know about Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania was associated with the Eastern Bloc. But while the Soviet shadow still lingers in the architecture and monuments, the flags raised in their capitals have changed to reflect national and ethnic identities. Regardless of the political affiliation of the countries, one fact remains steadfast: The Baltic people love their homeland, and they aren’t afraid to fight—or, in some cases sing—to protect their unique cultural and ethnic identities.

The “Singing Revolution:” Tallin’s peaceful protest

Between the years of 1987 and 1991, yearning to shake off the yoke of Soviet rule, the Baltic people began to engage in a series of public singing demonstrations—often chanting national anthems and cherished folk songs. Soviet officials discouraged these patriotic sing-alongs, wanting to unify disparate populations under the USSR umbrella. As these once-localized musical outbursts became larger and more fervent, the voices of the Baltic people echoed all the way to the highest offices of the Soviets.

On September 11, 1988, approximately 300,000 people gathered at the Tallin Song Festival Arena to sing national songs and hymns, while rock musicians supported and encouraged them onstage. More than a quarter of the entire Estonian population was in attendance—how’s that for unity? Song festivals continue to be popular across all three Baltic countries, beloved as a way to champion national identity and help preserve the past.

Chain of Freedom: peaceful protest or “nationalist hysteria”?

As it turned out, the Singing Revolution was only the beginning of a march towards democracy. On August 23, 1989, an estimated two million Baltic people all joined hands to physically and symbolically link their three capital cities of Vilnius, Lithuania; Riga, Latvia; and Tallinn, Estonia. This human chain—referred to as the “Baltic Way” or, more locally, “Chain of Freedom”—extended over a length that exceeded 400 miles. While this may sound like a feat straight out of the Guinness Book of World Records, the message was serious: It was an expression of joint solidarity against decades of Soviet rule. The year of the chain marked the 50th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact that annexed the Baltic States to the USSR. A growing number of activists, eager to bring the issue of illegal Soviet occupation to the world stage, organized the human chain.

Each state had its own pro-independence movement to help coordinate the effort: the Popular Front of Estonia (Rahvarinne), the Popular Front of Latvia (Latvijas Tautas Fronte), and the Reform Movement in Lithuania (Sajudis). Local support was encouraging; thousands of signatures had been gathered in multiple petitions, and organizers provided free bus transportation to ensure an unbroken chain in rural areas. Estonia declared the day to be a public holiday, and many businesses closed to allow employee participation. Aided by radio broadcasts to help organize the massive demonstration, the participants joined hands for 15 minutes.

Although it would take an additional two years of diplomatic and political victories, the Chain of Freedom was ultimately successful: Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia were recognized as independent states by the end of 1991. Though freedom from Soviet control took over 50 years to attain, the citizens of these three nations adapted quickly to their hard-won liberties. The transformation of the neighborhood of Užupis in Vilnius demonstrates how the creativity and revolutionary spirit of the pro-national movements lives on in their current democratic states.

Užupis: The bohemian utopia

Located just one mile east of Vilnius University (the oldest in Lithuania), Užupis is an eccentric neighborhood that makes for a perfect detour during a free afternoon in Vilnius. In the native Lithuanian tongue, Užupis literally means “on the other side of the river.” In this case, the river in question is the Vilnia River. But a more familiar moniker could just as easily be “on the wrong side of the tracks.” Užupis was nearly deserted during World War II, when Nazi forces drove out the mostly Jewish population. For years, the empty buildings and abandoned storefronts became a haven for criminals, prostitutes, the homeless, and others that lived—some intentionally and others by circumstance—on the fringes of society.

Over the past several centuries, the population has shifted from medieval craftsmen to Jewish communities, but the bohemian spirit of the neighborhood is forever sealed in the DNA of the colorful, dilapidated buildings. Nowadays, Užupis is populated by a new mix of lifestyles: students living cheaply, artists seeking inspiration, and the free spirits who balk at the idea of living in the more “respectable” capital city of Vilnius. The muses of art, craftsmanship, and self-reliance still seem to haunt these streets.

In the place where a former statue of Lenin once stood watch over the town, a new icon has emerged, one that is far more fitting for the artistic and eclectic population: Frank Zappa, the American musician, composer, and kindred free spirit.

The Baltic Capitals' Resurgence

Rhapsody in Blue

The many faces of Art Nouveau stun in Riga

by Tom Mashberg, for O.A.T.

As you stroll the streets of Riga, Latvia’s cosmopolitan capital near the Baltic Sea, be prepared to look up. Some of the most fanciful faces in all of Europe will gaze back at you. They might be silent and serene; or screaming, horrified, and hollow-eyed; or ecstatic and full of merriment. You’ll spot women decked out in intricate Egyptian headdresses, and young ladies who sport bejeweled headbands like showgirls in the Roaring Twenties. As for the men, it’s all ferocious manes and flaring nostrils, swirling Zeus-like beards, and headpieces befitting King Tut and his fellow pharaohs. If it seems like they’re scowling, don’t take it personally: Riga is welcoming you.

These faces, numbering in the thousands and known as mascarons, decorate the 800 or so buildings in Riga that were constructed in the Art Nouveau style. Riga, a city of 700,000 people, is the widely recognized epicenter of that theatrical approach to design and architecture, which swept Europe from 1890 until about 1910. Art Nouveau, as its name suggests, was a fresh, youthful movement in sculpture, building design, and decorative arts that sought to embellish homes, household items, and utilitarian objects with all manner of decorative flair. It might have been a ten-story grand hotel, a table lamp, or even something as mundane as a soup ladle. The practitioners of the genre found a way to give each piece elaborate contours, countless flourishes, and a unique sense of vibrancy.

At its zenith, Art Nouveau in Riga and cities like Paris, Munich, and Stockholm grew more and more ornate, intricate, and overwrought; the movement fell out of favor as the world entered the tumult of World War I. But its brief epoch left behind creations with timeless appeal. These architectural masterpieces are characterized by their many supple curves, soft waves, and flowing lines, and by the juxtaposition of mythological figures, like the snake-haired Medusa, with contemporary human faces. Its artists often took their inspiration from sinuous plant and sleek animal forms. Art Nouveau landmarks in Riga include variations on the school that came to be known as the lily, eel, noodle, floral, and wave styles.

Street smarts

Architecture was at the heart of the Art Nouveau movement, and given Riga’s abundance and variety of buildings, UNESCO declared the Latvian capital’s historic center a World Heritage Site in 1997. According to the United Nations, the city “has the finest collection of Art Nouveau buildings in Europe,” yet still “retains its medieval fabric relatively intact.” Riga’s pride in its edifices is boundless. Exteriors and interiors are lovingly cleaned, restored, and preserved, and every detail is being photographed and catalogued for a comprehensive databank. As the UN said, “the quality and quantity are unparalleled anywhere in the world.” City officials consider safeguarding this heritage a priority at a time when Riga is experiencing a commercial and residential construction boom.

What to see? Gems abound, particularly on one of the city’s premier byways: Elizabetes Street. The apartment building known simply as 10B features a feast of ornamentation—masks, peacocks, sculptured heads, and geometric figures at the top of its façade, with sky-blue ceramic tiles offsetting the clean white stone and plaster. The roof is famed for its enormous sculpted face of a woman who resembles an heiress straight out of The Great Gatsby, her face slightly hidden and surrounded by peacock feathers.

Nearby, at Alberta Street No. 8, the visuals are more severe. This building has a wealth of design elements, but little softness or humor. Its most ornate aspect is its sturdy central projection, which is meant to represent an old and immovable tree. At the top, a lion’s head stands guard, roaring out a warning to trespassers. The rest of the façade is divided into pilasters decorated with pretty, yet solemn, female faces. The windows are adorned with reliefs depicting unearthly monsters with furrowed brows, whose role is to protect inhabitants from evil interlopers.

At Alberta Street 2A sits one of the last and most eclectically decorated Art Nouveau buildings built in Riga, and it is a great example of the often-used Egyptian motif. There are two sphinxes at the entrance, symbolizing the sun and security. Two sculptures of gowned women with torches in hand stand above both sides of the entrance. The façade is accented with bands of glazed red tiles. The building’s rooftop features ornamental apertures intended to let in light.

Journey back in time

About 40 percent of buildings in the center of the city belong to the Art Nouveau school, which the Latvians called Jugendstil, meaning roughly “young style.” Latvian artists and artisans were first recognized and appreciated across Europe because of their spirited embrace of the movement. At the time, Riga was growing and gaining respectability as a seafaring center for commerce and tourism, and the sides and tops of many new buildings overflowed with cornices featuring obelisks, sphinxes, lions, vases filled with flowers, bowls filled with fruits, and other items meant to celebrate the city’s growing prosperity and sense of confidence.

So how does a traveler get oriented? The Art Nouveau Museum, on Alberta Street, gives visitors a chance to immerse themselves in the history of the movement before setting off for a stroll. Built by Riga’s most prominent architect, Konstantins Peksens, and renovated in 2009, it offers an intimate look at the 1903 household of the architect’s well-to-do family. Its centerpiece is its dizzying spiral staircase, with a finely wrought iron balustrade and a curved wooden handrail. A glance upward shows that it leads to a dazzling circular ceiling mural featuring geometric patterns painted using shades of orange, brown, and gold.

Tour guides dressed in period clothing lead visitors into rooms filled with original decorative elements. A sitting room features a stucco ceiling molded with daisies and roses, stenciled walls, and an airy, finely carved doorway frame leading to a bay window. The fireplace room shows off floral textures inspired by the diversity of trees and plants in Riga, including an ornamental frieze with chestnut leaf motifs. The ceiling is thick with stucco decor and its centerpiece is a large geometrical rosette. There are original parquet floors and small decorative items made in the translucent reds and light greens favored by period artisans.

Movement masterminds

Peksens, who lived in the building, was one of the greatest of the Art Nouveau architects. He was born in 1859, and owned a plumbing business when he started designing his earliest buildings. He soon became a master of the style and a mentor to younger building designers. He taught them that the structure’s form needed to be in harmony with its function. The decor, embellishments, and sculptural flourishes should not interfere with what went on inside.

Among his masterworks are buildings on Smilsu and Strelnieku streets. The first showcases a bearded man and a tall, curvaceous female form; they stand about six feet apart, holding up a pediment ornamented with vines and tree branches. Many say they are the finest of the city’s building sculptures, and natives have dubbed the woman Miss Riga. The second building features a large, complex square frieze that seems to blend Art Nouveau with Gothic elements. Its two pillars, one on either side, are topped by ghastly, shrieking heads that bring to mind the gargoyles of Notre-Dame Cathedral. The centerpiece is a gracious face delicately encircled by a multitude of rounded carvings. The figure wears a seven-pronged crown that suggests the rays of the sun as well as a crown of thorns.

Groundswell

So much to see so far above street level means visitors will be craning their necks more than normal. A set of binoculars may be something you should add to your packing list. There are also several restaurants and shops installed on the ground floors of Riga’s Art Nouveau buildings, and their interiors try to do justice to the style. The building at Alberta 13, for example, is covered with sculptural reliefs of dragons, screaming faces, snakes, flowers, heads of knights, and dozens of theatre-style masks that display a panoply of emotions. Its restaurant, called simply Alberta 13, is vast and airy and far less garish than the exterior. It features purple banquettes embroidered with flowing vines, simple moldings patterned after plants, and modest wall carvings. It is a bit of a relief after the intensity of the surrounding structures.

Many who tour Riga’s Old Town make an effort to visit what is known locally as the House of the Cat, at 10 Meistaru Street. The building, painted in yellow and dark green, has the aesthetic of a medieval castle, with two pointed turrets. It was built as a blend of Medieval and Art Nouveau architecture, and is famous for the large metal sculptures of two angry cats, their backs arched and tails raised, that stand hissing atop its tallest points. Legend has it that the wealthy tradesman who commissioned the building had a falling-out with the city’s trade guild and had the cats placed there to show his contempt for his colleagues.

No matter what the truth behind the legend, the result is a universal favorite, a gem in a crown of many jewels that lace historic Riga and encircle its place in architectural history.

The many faces of Art Nouveau stun in Riga

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