Showing posts with label Riga. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Riga. Show all posts

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Riga Recap

Today is our last evening in Riga until our return home. For the first time since our arrival we ventured out of the old town, leaving its cobblestones and automobile free streets. It felt like a shock to have to dodge automobiles again and we were very conscious of the intensified pace.

We walked across a large park in the middle of town to Elizabetes Street where the largest concentration of Art Nouveau buildings is located. About a third of the buildings in the central district are in this style, many designed by Mikhael Eisenstein. The buildings contained many intricate architectural details and beautiful coloring.

We also did a stop at the Jewish Museum which chronicled Jewish life in Latvia from the 18th century until the present. From a thriving community of 95,000 in 1925, only 1,000 survived after the Holocaust. Today there are about 8,000 Jews of which 7,000 are in Riga. The museum is housed in what once was the building for the Yiddish Theater. It also serves as a community center and a social gathering place for many Holocaust survivors. The museum reinforced some of the stories which Michael Freydman had shared about the destruction of the Choral Synagogue where 300 Jews were locked in as it burnt. It is difficult to comprehend how a people who today are so cordial, charming and helpful could have participated in such atrocities in the past.

Other experiences today included a visit to some beautiful parks along canals, walking through a fragrant flower market, and encountering a special Orthodox Church Mass celebrating the 20th year of a priest’s service there. There were many babuska’ed women, people bringing floral tributes and many black-robed nuns and other Russian priests attending the ceremony. The church was decorated with gold and Russian religious icons and quite beautiful.

We had hoped to attend the evening Rosh Chodesh services at the synagogue, but had erred on the day. However, it gave us another opportunity to visit with Michael who recommended several books, Shlepping the Exile by Michael Wex and A Dictionary of the Jewish Family Names and their History by R’Ben Zion Kaganoff.

As this is our last evening we thought it would also be a good opportunity to share our overall impressions of the city. Riga is a charming town with a well preserved old section. Cars are not allowed in this part of the city, streets are cobblestone and there are many pedestrians of all ages and nationalities. There were many street musicians. We saw and heard flutists, cellists, saxophonists, guitarists and accordion players. Most people spoke fluent English. The big products for sale in this region are amber jewelry and finely woven linen. We were surprised to see elderly men and women begging, but learned from Michael that Latvia has had very difficult economic times and cut social security/pension benefits and other services for those in need. The synagogue does its part by providing a soup kitchen for its congregants. Even our waitress spoke of the difficulty of finding a financial way to meet the cost of university she hoped to attend soon.

There are many open air restaurants which provide blankets for chillier nights. Although we had the opportunity to eat the local cuisine of blood sausage, sauerkraut and pig shins, we opted for less ethnic choices. We did enjoy the dense black bread of the region. Two restaurants which we particularly enjoyed, Velvet and Domini Canes, were located on Skarnu Ilea across from St. Peters. Our hotel, the Monte Kristo, was very convenient and charming despite the street noise. The breakfast was more than ample and the location at the edge of Old Town allowed for walking to and from the bus station as well as to many of the tourist spots. We would recommend asking for a room that does not face the street where an open air café generates considerable noise. We were close enough to walk to the bus station (Autoosta) to buy our tickets for tomorrow’s journey to Vilna, Lithuania. It is adjacent to the biggest food market in Europe.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Last Synagogue in Latvia

Fran, my traveling companion, is the author of today’s blog on our day in Riga.

This is incredible as this blog is being written while listening to downloaded Klezmer Music. It is more relevant as we started this day searching and successfully finding the only synagogue in all of Latvia. Easily missed, we located our destination by finding Michael Freydman, the caretaker, standing (with yarmulke) within the courtyard.
Michael was friendly and funny, greeting us warmly, and telling us about the status of the structure. He jokingly referred to the permanent apartment of the police who guard the building 24/7 after a bombing there years ago. The “apartment” consisted of a van up on blocks. He informed us that the building was under renovation and we couldn’t go in, but agreed to let us see the small downstairs hall currently in use for services. Michael was born in Riga and described speaking Yiddish growing up. He laughingly offered to teach us Yiddish when we told him we were going to the Yiddish Institute in Vilnius. He read us a Yiddish commemoration plaque for the memory of the Jews massacred by the Nazis during WWII. The plaque was written in Yiddish so it would be familiar to the (Orthodox) congregants as they only use Biblical Hebrew for praying.

While the main synagogue was burned, the priests from the nearby church protested to the Nazis that burning this synagogue would do too much damage to the area, thus it alone survived. Inside the sanctuary we saw dedicated seats donated by descendants of a Jewish family that were slaughtered at Rumbala. Michael translated the Hebrew at the front of the Synagogue as “The house of mine will be the house of prayer for all nations.” Laughing he told us that American Jews have a few additional commandments to the standard ten. #ll Don’t be pessimistic, #12 Look on the bright side, #13 Elbows akimbo (have an attitude), #14 Buy low, sell high. His humor seemed very Jewish and easily spanned geographic distance. Visiting the synagogue was a very poignant and moving experience and our conversation with Michael added considerably to the experience.

We found this interesting article about the synagogue in the Baltic Times.

As we departed the synagogue we noticed a life size image of a scantily clad woman holding out an apple which seemed like an ironic contrast to the synagogue.

Next we went to the Doma area and found a large fountain around which were located a number of unusual buildings. The focal point was the Blackheads House which was originally built in 1334 and renovated since. The Blackheads were an association of unmarried merchants. The name came from their patron saint, the Moor Maurice.

Next door to that was the somber grey building housing the Museum of the Occupation that told the story of Russian/Nazi control of Latvia and the attempts by both regimes to destroy the culture, infrastructure and spirit of the Latvians. It showed life in the gulags in Russia where many were deported. A small section was devoted to the Holocaust and the impact on the Jewish community. It also described how the Russians blamed the Jews for the policies imposed by the Russians. The difficult conditions under the Russians caused many Latvians to be receptive to the Germans.

We stopped at a café for a cold drink before heading back for an Eastern European nap (sounds more like a cultural experience that way), before going out once again. We have been searching for the Art Nouveau section (Elizebetes Iela) but never seem to make it there. We keep going in circles but found new sights and sounds anyway. Today we saw an art class sketching at St. Peter’s, two flutists, and several street musicians. We also came upon another center, populated by a younger crowd where a rock band would play later. We had been looking for another church concert, but couldn’t find it. That allowed us time to meander and find some beautiful architectural adornments to the facades of buildings.

We ended our day returning to last night’s restaurant, this time eating outdoors as the threat of rain no longer haunted us. Oh, I forgot, in our wanderings we found a scrumptious dessert/coffee place and had a decadent chocolate delight. Of course, now we are back at the hotel, recapping the day and planning for tomorrow, our last full day in Riga. We definitely are going to the Jewish Museum along with the intent on finding Elizabetes Iela (Street).

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Rainy Day in Riga

My first full day in Riga began at 4:30 AM with the scent of cigarette smoke wafting in my open window as two men carried on a conversation outside. Realizing I was not going to fall back to sleep, I gathered  my Magic Jack and my computer, quietly got dressed so as not wake Fran and went out into the lobby. With an eight hour time difference from home, I knew I could probably catch up with my fiancé Marty. He and I had communicated electronically upon my arrival, but we still had yet to speak by phone. At home we had successfully experimented with chatting with a web cam, but we needed to replicate that effort from abroad. After a number of false starts, we finally got the audio working and were able to have a conversation complete with video. I even got a video hello from our cats. We used an Acrobat site that Marty located.  It is actually a meeting site, but worked well for the webcam. It also enabled me to allow him access to my screen or control of the screen. We’ve also been able to communicate on Google Chat with a web cam with slightly better reception. Through both of these vehicles we were able to converse on-line without a phone.

An alternative for phoning less technology savvy people is the Magic Jack which is a small device that plugs into a USB port. It has a US number and allows me to call the US as if it were a local call and without additional cost. I forwarded my cell phone to it so it alerts me by e-mail if I get any calls to my cell phone or Magic Jack number while I’m gone. I can then use it to check my voicemail. The only requirement is an Internet connection in order to work. Technology plays an important role in my travels, allowing me to easily stay in contact and share information.

When Fran awoke we went to the dining area, an arched brick room reminiscent of a wine cellar. The breakfast was sumptuous– fresh yogurt and honey, banana blintzes, baked eggs, ham and a Mediterranean vegetable salad. It lasted us until dinner. We then ventured out to explore Riga only to realize that it was cool and verging on rain. As we began to walk the skies opened up and torrents of rain descended. We walked in the rain and found St. Peter’s church where we saw a notice for a concert later in the day which we planned to attend.

We had set out for a walking tour until the rain deterred us. Our focused destination dissolved into a meandering walk through the city as we admired its architecture. Here are a few of the buildings in the streets close to our hotel.

Riga is known for its Art Nouveau buildings with the largest collection of Art Nouveau buildings in all of Europe. .We found the Cats’ House, a yellow Art Nouveau building, atop of which stands a feline statue.

The story is that prior to WW I a merchant who owned the building was refused entry to the guild as he was Latvian and only Germans were admitted. In retaliation he put two statues of black cats, their backs arched and tails raised, on the roof and posed them so their backsides faced the guildhall. He finally was admitted to the guild and then turned the cats around.


As the rain intensified we sought shelter in a coffee shop as we watched the parade of umbrellas. When the rain finally ceased we wandered through the streets, taking pictures of the reflections of the buildings in the large puddles. I had done a series of paintings based on reflected images so am always looking for such source material as it allows for a collage-like effect in paintings.

When the rain began again we headed back to our hotel for a long nap. We ventured out in the evening to the concert at St. Peters. A lovely blond Latvian flautist together with several pianists performed the concert which was hauntingly beautiful. We have noticed the typical Latvian woman is rather Nordic, often statuesque and blonde.

We ended our evening with a delightful dinner at an elegant restaurant across from St. Peters. We are splitting meals so we can try a greater variety of foods. Duck seems to be plentiful and we’ve enjoyed it in several meals as well as seafood from the Baltic. The menu was in Latvian, English and Russian script which allowed me to practice reading Cyrillic script.I found that many words translate to English words if one can read the Cyrillic. My new Russian vocabulary includes such words as mozzarella, Rhubarb, Tagliatelli and Tiramisu. I am working on speaking fluent “Food” although I don’t think it will help me much in the Vilnius archives.

We’ve located where the synagogue and Jewish museum are and plan to visit them tomorrow. The main synagogue was destroyed in 1941 and the one we are going to visit is the only operating synagogue in the country.