10 Fascinating things you didn’t know about Latvia

1. It has three independence days (sort of)

And the first of them is November 18. Much like the modern incarnation of Poland, Latvia emerged blinking into the daylight of statehood as the First World War ceased its fire (albeit an exact week after the guns had stopped), in 1918. So today is marked in the Latvian diary in red ink. But then, this chapter of independence was short-lived, swamped by the country’s ingestion by the Soviet Union in 1940. This grey period would endure for another half a century, give or take three awful years of Nazi occupation (1941-1944) – until Latvia finally shrugged off Moscow’s attentions via its Declaration of the Restoration of Independence on May 4 1990. So you could probably cheer and holler for Latvian freedom on this anniversary too, and they wouldn’t mind. Or you could wait for August 21, and raise a glass in memory of 1991, when the Soviet Union formally recognised that Latvia definitely didn’t want to receive its phone calls anymore, and had blocked it on Facebook. Or would have if Facebook had existed in 1991. You get the gist.

 

2. Before it was Latvia, it was Livonia

Which was more of a region than a country, encompassing the northern portion of what is now Latvia, and the southern half of what is now Estonia. Its epicentre was the settlement of Turaida, 35 miles north-east of the modern capital Riga. This was the home of the chieftain Caupo in the early 13th century. Caupo of Turaida was an interesting chap. He was the first Livonian leader to switch to Christianity (being baptised in 1191), even making a trip to Rome in 1203-04 in order to meet the Pope. This was one of the causes of his pagan subjects revolting against him, and he even had to recapture his own castle in Turaida – in 1212. Unfortunately, he burned down said wooden fortress in the process.

 

3. Turaida Castle is still there

The fortress was rebuilt almost immediately, in 1214 – this time as a rather sturdier package of staunch stone. It saw service throughout the Middle Ages, and was only abandoned in 1776 after a fire had caused considerable damage. Now restored, it is a glorious semi-ruin in a photogenic position on a hillside above the River Gauja, easily reached from Riga. You can find further information at turaida.lv and turaida-muzejs.lv.

 

Brīvības piemineklis.

 

4. Riga has a big monument to the joys of being Latvian

In order to confirm its independence in 1918, Latvia had to go through the Latvian War of Independence (1918-1920) with those loveable Soviets. It ended in triumph – and is immortalised in the heart of the capital in the Freedom Monument (Brivibas Piemineklis). Unveiled in 1935, this column of granite and travertine, crowned by a female figure of liberty, is a large landmark. It reaches a height of 138ft (45m) – which makes it smaller than Nelson’s Column (169ft/51.5m) in London, but not by much. You can’t miss it.

 

5. Riga is in thrall during the 1900s

You might assume that the dominant architectural style in the Latvian capital would be a pretty brand of colourful Baroque – or a hard thump of Soviet Brutalism. In fact, Riga may be home to the finest collection of Art Nouveau buildings anywhere in the world. It owes this unexpected boast to a growth spurt and an economic boom between 1850 and 1914 – especially between 1904 and the outbreak of the First World War – which spawned a number of glorious structures. Alberta Iela (Albert Street), just north of the centre, is an excellent example of this turn-of-the-century flourish – the townhouse at number eight is a delight in pastel blue, designed by the Russian architect Mikhail Eisenstein. Two doors down at number 12, the Riga Art Nouveau Museum offers copious detail on how the city came to be an emblem of the Belle Epoque (jugendstils.riga.lv/eng/muzejs).

 

6. Some of the architecture is a bit spotty

That’s a joke at the expense of the House of the Blackheads (Melngalvju Nam) – a fine piece of structural craftsmanship at the core of the old town. Of course, the “Blackheads” in question were not teenage boys of inconsistent complexion, but a medieval guild for unmarried German merchants plying their trade in Livonia. And the House which held them is a wonder, with two red triangular facades. Or it was. The building was founded in the 14th century, but gutted by German troops in 1941 and flattened by Soviet hands in 1948. It was carefully reconstructed between 1995 and 1998, and does a superb job of mimicking itself. For the record, it is not pock-marked or prone to patches of greasy skin.

 

Brezhnev’s crashed Rolls Royce Silver Shadow

 

7. You can tell that Leonid Brezhnev was not a great driver

Pitched six miles north-east of the centre, Riga Motor Museum (motormuzejs.lv) is an intriguing proposition. Its collection includes vehicles driven by some of the big beasts of the Cold War era – including a Rolls Royce Silver Shadow that Leonid Brezhnev (Soviet kingpin between 1964 and 1982) crashed into a truck in Moscow in 1980. The front left of the car is still a wreck. Nor is its dignity boosted by a mannequin of its famous driver, leaning back from the wheel in the front seat, in waxy fashion. Still, it’s a slice of history.

 

8. Latvia revels in sun and sea

Specifically, it has 307 miles of coastline along the Baltic Sea and the Gulf of Riga. Some of the best spots for a day on the sand are found in the city of Jurmala, which stretches along the shoreline 16 miles west of Riga. Here, the waterfront areas of Majori, Bulduri, Dzintari, Dubulti and Jaunkemeri can all proffer Blue Flag beaches. Ventspils, a city on the west coast, also knows its way to the waterside, and can claim to have experienced the hottest day in Latvia’s existence – August 4 2014, when temperatures reached 37.8oC.

 

9. Liepaja echoes to ghosts of war

Elsewhere on the west coast, Liepaja is Latvia’s third biggest city. Its strategic location on the Baltic means that it has a secret of sorts in the form of Karosta (karosta.lv) – a former military port which was built between 1890 and 1906 as a base for Tsar Alexander III’s Russian navy, and became a similar enclave for the Soviet Baltic Fleet after the First World War. It began to crumble once it fell into disuse in 1994, but has been revitalised as an enclave of art shops and eateries – while the onetime military prison is now a museum.

 

10. Latvia has Europe’s widest waterfall

The cascade in question is the Venta Rapid, which splashes and dashes just outside the westerly town of Kuldiga. Magnificent in its scope, it spreads its arms to a full 886ft (249m) in breadth as the River Venta goes in search of the Baltic (at Ventspils). Alas, its statistics are only impressive on one level. Though incomparably wide, the Venta Rapid is just 7.2ft (2.2m) tall at high water. Nonetheless, it looks beautiful on a summer afternoon.

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