Riga: The Curtain Rises

The Museum of the Occupation of Latvia displays secret listening devices and other items from Riga's five decades under Soviet and Nazi rule.
The Museum of the Occupation of Latvia displays secret listening devices and other items from Riga's five decades under Soviet and Nazi rule. (Museum Of The Occupation Of Latvia)
By Gary Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 22, 2007

Saturday evening was falling across Riga's cobbled Old Town, bacchanalia calling from every street corner. At Steiku Haoss, a classy steak joint, a saxophonist was working the floor with Big Easy abandon. Long-legged dancers balanced on tabletops at the Pupu Lounge. Across the packed floor of Nobody Writes to the Colonel, a perpetually hip warehouse club, 20-somethings were dancing up a frenzy to house music.

Temptations, temptations. But my plans took me elsewhere, on a foray into Riga's dark and drama-filled past.

A few steps inside a massive room in the city center, and I was engrossed in paraphernalia from the city's five decades under Soviet and Nazi rule: secret listening devices taken from the walls of the Hotel Riga, dispatches from Latvians deported to Siberia, poignant photographs of the 370-mile human chain of protesters that snaked through Riga and across the Baltics in 1989. Admittedly, my evening tour of the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia would not be everybody's idea of a Saturday night thrill.

But I'd come to the Latvian capital to explore the city beyond the revelry, and it turned out to be like searching for cornfields in Kansas. There is so much here -- art nouveau buildings with elaborate facades, music rippling through churches and concert halls almost nightly, and hearty Baltic fare in restaurants on nearly every block -- that I wondered why any curious visitor would squander time over a beer in a dank basement club.

Riga is the rising star of European destinations. For the last half of the 20th century, this urban stronghold -- in fact, all of Latvia and the neighboring Baltic nations, Estonia and Lithuania -- were buried on the bleak side of the Iron Curtain. Riga's relatively small size (population 727,000), far-flung location (11 hours from Washington) and nippy climate (snow often covers the ground from November to March) kept all but a trickle of travelers at bay.

That changed when the Baltics gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 and Riga's stock began climbing. It hasn't stopped. By the account of the Latvian Tourism Development Agency, travel to the seaside country has shot up 25 percent a year for the past four years.

Much of the fuss has been over the up-all-night festivities, especially on weekends, that consume the Old Town, an alluring quarter dominated by Baroque, Gothic and Romanesque buildings. In the past couple of years, stag groups and other youthful partyers have swooped in by the planeload and transformed the place into a kind of Mykonos without the bikinis (or the beach). A plus for American travelers: Most young Rigans have a good grasp of English.

Sounds like fun. But I knew there was much more to this place.

A Flowering of Freedom

First, a brief history lesson.

The Baltics, free of foreign control for a brief period in the early 20th century, were placed in the Soviet sphere by a 1939 pact between Hitler and Stalin. The Soviet troops and security agents who were deployed throughout Latvia after World War II brought home the country's occupied status. In the late 1980s, dissidents started campaigning for Baltic independence, climaxing in an extraordinary human chain across the Baltics on Aug. 23, 1989. The collapse of the Soviet Union the next month freed Latvia to declare independence.

As a foreign correspondent in the 1980s, I'd visited Riga several times to cover demonstrations against Soviet occupation. In that period, many of its monuments and other historical locales were closed or inaccessible. Last fall, I took my first trip to independent Latvia. I wanted to use my five days there to see landmarks that had shaped the city's character.

The House of Blackheads, near the Occupation Museum in the Old Town, is a replica of a landmark that did not survive. Crowned by a 92-foot-high gable, Riga's most exalted mansion has more than a dozen rooms adorned with portraits of monarchs and landed gentry. After the original (built in the 1330s) was heavily damaged during a World War II bombing raid, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin condemned it as an example of bourgeois excess and had it destroyed.

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