Trigger Warning for talk about the Holocaust
We got off to a late start in Riga, Latvia today. Our ship pulled into the port close to noon. We weren’t late or anything, that was the time we were due to arrive. Our excursion didn’t start until 2:15. I think I woke up around ten thirty or so, which sounds late, but is really more like nine thirty since we had a time change the night before. I read for a little while, and then around noon or so, we went to have lunch in the buffet, and then we just went back to the cabin and I read more until it was time for our tour.
Riga was an original Hanseatic League, which was a Northern Europe trading group of cities and nations member. Riga was founded in 1201. The ancient name of Latvia was Lettland, it’s people were called the Letts or Lettish. Interesting story about Latvia, when my ancestors immigrated over to the United States, from Latvia, they were asked what their last name was. My dad says that our ancestors were confused by the question, and instead thought that the immigration officers at Ellis Island were asking them where they were from, and they named a city in Latvia. The officer gave us our last name based on how our ancestors answered that question [and no I am not going to put my real last name on the internet so random strangers have it], but it is not our original last name. My dad believes that our original last name may have been Cohen because we were Kohan, the descendants of the sons of Aaron, who served as priests in the Temple of Jerusalem. Kohanim Jews get special privileges in temple. They are given the first aliyah when the Torah is read in synagogue, and during some services they reenact the giving of the priestly blessing. My dad likes to tell the story about when he went to a Temple service in Israel, they asked if there were any Kohanim in the congregation, and since he was one, he was able to open the ark during a Temple service.
As aforementioned, I had/have family in Latvia, who I’ve never met. Many of them were probably killed during the Holocaust. There used to be a synagogue known as the Big Choral Synagouge. On July 4th, 1941, hundreds of Jewish refugees from Lithuania and local Latvian Jews were herded into the basement of the synagogue, which was then intentionally burned to the ground. Only ruins, a metal menorah, and a memorial stone remain. There was also a concentration camp in Latvia. It was called the Salaspills Concentration Camp and was located 11 miles south of Riga in 1941. The camp has a lasting legacy in Latvian and Russian culture due to the severity of treatment at the camp, especially with regards for young children. Typhoid fever, measles, and other diseases killed about half the children in the camp, and in one of the burial places by the camp, 632 corpses of children ages 5 to 9 were discovered. About 12,000 prisoners went through the camp during its existence. About 2000 people died there due to illness, heavy labour, executions, epidemics, amongst other things. Salaspills was also a part in the final plans for the murder of the Jews of Europe known as the Final Solution, which was a policy of deliberate and systematic genocide across the European continent, which saw the killing of 90% of Jewish Poles, and 2/3rds of the population in Europe, so Latvia really is a huge part of my own personal history. On both sides of my family, I had relatives killed in the Holocaust.
Riga has a very long and interesting history. Hunter-gatherers of Uralic descent lived there 10,000 years ago. Modern Latvians trace their origin to the Livs, a Finnish/Estonian tribe, who settled in Riga about 4000 years ago. There are also 400 Livionians, who live in isolation on the outermost tip of the Curionian Peninsula, and about 30 people out of those 400 people can still speak the ancient tongue of the original language. Over the centuries, Riga has also been ruled by nearly 40 different empires. The area was conquered by Vikings, Germans, Swedes, Danes, Russians, Poles, and Catholics many times over. For years, Riga was even considered to be the largest city of Sweden. By the mid-19th century, almost half the population was Germans. For most of the 20th century, under the oppression of the Soviet Union, Russian was spoken by half the people. In 1991, Latvia became independent. Soviet names and streets were immediately replaced with Latvian ones. Statues of Lenin were also removed. Riga turned 800 in 2001, and has enjoyed two decades of freedom.
Riga is considered to be a major Baltic seaport and it rests on the mouth of the Daugava River, on the Gulf of Riga. Summers are warm and can be humid. It was actually pretty humid today, as we were walking around old town. The temperature sometimes rises to the 80s, which makes it the hottest port that we’ve been to on the cruise, but for the most part, temperatures during summer days are between the 60s and 70s. Autumn brings Riga a lot of rain and fog due to it being so close to the Baltic Sea, and winters can be cold, with highs that are sometimes in the teens.
Riga has a population of 699, 203 and the language that is spoken is Latvian, however, students are taught English from first grade, and everyone who I spoke to in Riga today was able to understand my English and communicate back to me in English. The currency is the Euro as of January 2014, but for the longest time it was the Lati. Most places do not accept the dollar, they only accept Euros, but they do accept credit cards.
There is a Hop-on Hop Off Bus in Riga. One ticket is 20 Euros. The main stops of the bus include Town Hall Square, Canal Boat, Latvian National Opera, the Railway Station, Stockmann Shopping Centre, the Art Nouveau District, KGB Building, two different hotels, the Latvian Academy of Sciences, and the Central Market. I did not take the Hop On Hop Off bus, but it is a way to tour, however the old town is only about a twenty-five minute walk from where the cruise ship docked. The old town of Riga is a pedestrian only zone with only a few cars being permitted, and if you want to explore old town, which is probably the most interesting thing about Riga, you need to walk.
Riga is all about Art Nouveau architecture. If I had a Euro, for every time our tour guide mentioned Art Nouveau architecture, I would probably have enough currency to buy postcards and souvenirs for the entire cruise. I literally had no idea what the hell Art Noveau was before this trip, and just the sound of it brought me back to my eight am art history class in college that I failed because I couldn’t distinguish between different architecture styles [though maybe a part of that was also that it was an 8 am class and I was not a morning person]. Riga is considered the world capital of Art Nouveau architecture. In Art Noveau architecture, fine pieces of art are integrated into building designs and cityscapes. Riga has over 800 buildings that are examples of Art Nouveau. Things like female motifs, masks of smiling or menacing faces, reliefs of peacocks, swans, owls, reptiles, dogs, cats, wolves, bears, and dragons are carved into the buildings exterior. The father of this architecture style was Mikhail Eisenstein. So many of the buildings that we saw were unique and designed in this style. It was architecture that I had never seen before. The old town is full of Art Noveau architecture.
We did the Easy Riga tour for our excursion today. It’s exactly what it sounds like. We boarded a bus, we drove around for a bit, then we did a walking tour of the old town, toured a little bit more in our bus, and then came back to the ship.
Among the sights we saw were a lot of Art Nouveau buildings. We drove past museums and such, but we did not go into any of the museums. We actually spent the majority of our tour walking through the old town of Riga with its cobblestone streets. Old town is full of bars, cafes, and nightclubs. It also has three different squares or sections. In one of of the squares, the United Buddy Bears exhibit was going on. The United Buddy Bears is an international art exhibition with more then 140 two metre tall fiber glass bears, more then 140 different countries are acknowledged in this exhibit by the United Nations are represented and promote “tolerance, international understanding, and the great concept of different nations and cultures living in peace and harmony.” Each bear is painted to represent a different country, for example, the United States bear was painted like the Statue of Liberty, and the bears stand hand in hand, and represent peace between different cultures. Apparently the exhibit has been going on since 2002, and go to a different country to be displayed every year. The exhibit has not been to the United States yet.
Another thing I enjoyed from the old city was the “Cat House.” The “Cat House” was built in approximately 1909 and is known for the two cat sculptures that are on its roof. The cats have arched backs and raised tails.
Other things we saw on the tour were Dome Cathedral, which dominates the old town cityscape. The spire is the highest cathedral in Riga, and the cathedral has a organ that has over 6800 pipes. We also saw the Riga Castle, which overlooks the River Daugava and it from the 14th Century. Due to Latvia’s colorful history of being conquered, the castle has been occupied by Lithuanians, Poles, Swedes, and Russians, however now it accommodates the President of Latvia.
There were a myriad of unique buildings in old town, and it was really interesting to stroll through it and see the different architecture. A lot of the buildings, to me, were reminiscent of St. Petersburg because they were painted bright and colorful colors like a the majority of buildings in St. Petersburg were. However, as aforementioned, a good number of buildings in Riga were designed in an art noveau style.
After the walking tour of old town, we were given about thirty minutes to wander on our own. The guide took some people to see the Three Brothers, which is the oldest complex of houses in Riga, they dated back to the 17th Century, and other people wandered over to St. Peter’s Church, but I didn’t really have any interest in going with them. Instead I decided to do a little bit of souvenir shopping. I bought some postcards [so I now have postcards from Estonia, Russia, Helsinki, and Riga] to add to my collection of postcards to be written and mailed once I get back to the United States to my friends, who collect postcards from around the world, as well as a magnet of… The Cat House, for our fridge [did you expect anything else?] I also decided to buy Gerhard a keychain because on our walk to Starbucks in Helsinki, he mentioned that he collected keychains that were meaningful from places he visits, and he’s such a nice guy [I mean he walked me to freaking Starbucks in Helsinki so I wouldn’t get lost in Finland] and he didn’t have much time to explore Riga, so I thought I’d buy him a keychain, as a thank you, in a way, for being so nice. I got him a keychain of… The Cat House, that said Riga on it, and since the Cat House has a history in old town [and since I have an obsession with cats], I thought it fit his criteria for a keychain well.
After shopping, I still had some time left, so I went into the Costa next door, which is basically like European Starbucks because I’ve seen them all over Europe. There was a nice free water closet er bathroom [it was nice not to have to pay Euros to use a toilet] and then I decided to get a “frostini”, which is basically like a frappacino. I got a double chocolate marshmallow frostini [and an orange fanta for my mom], and it tasted just like I was drinking a marshmallow flavored milkshake, it was good. I wanted to sit outside, and there was the empty table with no chairs, so I asked this guy, who was sitting at a table by himself with a bunch of chairs, if a chair was taken. I don’t know if he thought I wanted to sit with him, which I didn’t, I just wanted to steal a chair for the lone table so I could sit by myself, but he told me all the chairs were taken rather rudely, so I was like whatever, and just went back inside and sat at a table inside. I called Justin from the table since it was the last time I’d get to talk to him before Amsterdam [we basically have two sea days in a row] even though it was like seven am in Texas and a Saturday, and he likes to sleep late, but luckily he answered, so we spoke for a few minutes. At one point, I left the cafe because it was getting close to the time to meet the bus, and I freaked out because I didn’t feel my camera around my neck, and thought I left it in the coffee shop, so I ran back in the coffee shop [of course if I did that, I really doubt my camera would’ve still been there], then I realized my camera was over my shoulder, which is why I didn’t feel it since I usually wear it around my neck, so freak out was contained. When I walked by the front of the cafe, the guy was still sitting alone, at a table, with nobody sitting in those chairs.
I got back on the bus, we drove around a little more. We passed some controversial statue. It’s a Soviet Victory Monument which commemorates the supposed communists liberation of Riga. It was erected in 1985 to lionize the Red Army and to basically irk the Latvian people. It’s a tall obelisk that’s topped with five golden stars that symbolize the years of World War Two. On one side of the obelisk is Mother Russia and on the other side is soldiers that are advancing with their weapons raised. The monument is considered controversial because it is regarded as a symbol of Soviet Victory in World War Two, as well as the reoccupation of Latvia by the Soviet Union.
We also passed a building known as “Stalin’s Birthday Cake,” which was an academy of sciences built after World War Two between 1951 and 1961, and the funding to build it was deducted from the salaries of the Latvian population as “voluntary donations”, which obviously weren’t too voluntary. The building is an example of what people call Stalinist Architecture, and was similar to many other buildings in Russia, at the time.
I found Riga to be interesting. It’s interesting to compare Estonia to Latvia. I think Latvia, the country as a whole, seem angrier at Russia and their history than Estonians do. Estonians, to me, have a big “fuck you” attitude towards Russia, but don’t seem as angry as Latvia still does. That’s just my opinion. But needless to say, I enjoyed learning about Latvia and exploring Riga. Latvia was one of those countries that I knew existed, but didn’t know much about, and I enjoyed learning more about it, and the old town really was beautiful.
After our tour we got back to the ship. It was too late to go to the medical center to get my bandages changed since we arrived at Riga later than we usually arrive at ports [usually we get to ports first thing in the morning] and because our tour left later than usual, therefore ending later than tours usually end, so I’ll go to them tomorrow to get my bandages changed. I don’t think an extra day in the same bandages [usually I go every other day] will kill me and tomorrow is a sea day anyways, so there’s no place I need to be at any specific time.
We got back to our cabin, and I tried to read, but I’m really not feeling the book I’m currently reading, which means it might go on the back burner for now, and I might just start a new book, so instead I just played a little bit of Fire Emblem Awakening before we went down to dinner around 7:30.
Dinner was open-seating. I really don’t like open-seating, but luckily I think today is the last open-seating dinner for the entire cruise. We sat with a family, there was a mom and dad, and a girl, who was probably around 12 or so. She didn’t talk very much, she just played with snapchat on her phone. Her parents were nice enough. They’re originally from South America, but currently reside in South Jersey near Princeton. The mom couldn’t believe I was as old as I am, she said I look like I’m in my early 20s, so that totally made my night. For dinner I had the same thing I had yesterday, a caprese [mozzarella, tomato, and basil] appetizer and a chef salad for dinner. For desert, I had a Sacher torte, which was okay. It was a chocolate cake that has apricot jam between the layers of cake and chocolate frosting. It wasn’t bad or anything, but I think I would’ve liked it better if there was chocolate between the layers instead of jam. I also saw Gerhard at dinner, and gave him the keychain that I had bought for him. I think he liked it. Even if he didn’t like it [though I think he did], I could tell he really appreciated the gesture and the gift.
After dinner, I went and got my usual cranberry juice, though Josh wasn’t working the bar tonight, so I got it from somebody else. Then went up the room. The ship seems to be traveling faster than it has been traveling tonight, which I guess makes sense since we have further to go than we’ve been having to go since most of the Baltic countries are pretty close together, and we’re en route to Amsterdam, which is further away than other countries have been. The worst part about having a cabin in the back of the ship is that we really feel the difference in speed and things, and the sea seems rougher than it’s been, and I can hear and feel things vibrate throughout the cabin, which can be irksome when I’m trying to fall asleep. Hopefully, it won’t be too bad tonight, and I can sleep in my own bed, and not crawl into bed with my mother [since her bed is higher up, I hear and feel less from there] at four in the morning like I did when we were en route to Russia.
Hard to believe that was about a week ago, and that we only really have four days left of the cruise before I fly back to Texas. Crazy.