latvia, riga, travel

Tales of Cats and Christmas Trees in Old Town Riga

February 10, 2016

Maybe Riga isn’t going to win prizes for Europe’s most attractive city any time soon (the competition is high), but there’s beauty in the run down buildings and the hodge-podge skyline of mid-century churches and modern high rises. In fact, Old Town is considered a world heritage site and Riga won the European Capital of Culture in 2014. This is not a city to be overlooked.

There’s something special about Old Town. We were warned away by our airbnb hosts and other locals because of the extortionate prices (normal prices everywhere else in Europe) and the over-commercialised souvenir shops, but the allure of the old-fashioned buildings and the stories behind them drew me in.The first, most striking building that emerges from the old town skyline is St Peter’s Church. Pay a fee of €9 to visit the tower and look out at the spectacular views of Old Town from above.This church was first built at the end of the 15th century and after a dramatic few years of collapsing, getting struck by lightning and burning down then burning down a second time during world war 2, St Peter’s Church was renovated in 1967 and now the tower stands at 123.25 metres high and in 1997 became a world heritage site.(Photograph found in the Latvian War Museum)Almost directly opposite St Peter’s Church is the House of Blackheads (appealing name, I know). In the 14th century a brotherhood of unmarried, merchants who called themselves the Blackheads held banquets in this house.It is also rumoured that in 1510, the brotherhood, drunk one evening, stole a tree from the village, brought it inside, dressed it up in garments then burnt it to the ground. Without the burning ritual, this is where the tradition of the Christmas tree came from. In 2010 a statue was built to commemorate 500 years of the Christmas tree.Old Town is home to the Three Brothers, three houses built in three different centuries by descendants of one family. The first house was built in 1490 and it is clear to see this is the oldest with the Gothic window arches and the influences of Dutch renaissance architecture.The middle and youngest brother were built in the 17th and 18th century and together they represent the different stages of architecture in Riga. They’re fantastic to see but they’re located on an unfortunately small street. Unless you have a fish-eye camera, you’ll struggle to get a snap of the brothers as one.You won’t want to miss out on seeing the Cat House, a gorgeously art nouveau house with two statues of cats on the roof. Like all the other buildings in Old Town that come equip with a strange story, this one involves a fight between a merchant and a guild and cat anuses made from stone. To read the full story, I’d recommend reading this blog post but here’s the gist. Men fight. Man A builds cat statues on top of his house and points their anuses into the Man B’s window. Man B went to court. Man B won court case. Man A turned the cat anuses away from Man B and was then allowed to join Man B’s gang. Happy days for everyone involved but not the cats whose faces scowl for all eternity.The Swedish Gate is another landmark in Old Town. Built in 1698 to celebrate the Swedish Occupation of the city and it is the only remaining structure of the old city walls. The apartment above once belonged to the city’s executioner who put a red rose on the window ledge every morning before someone would be executed.The Powder Tower, now the Latvian War Museum, is a round tower with creeping vines around the sides. Unfortunately, they’re not quite as beautiful in the winter months so you’ll have to excuse the picture.(Pictures from the Latvian War Museum. Inside the Powder Tower)Once this tower held 11 cannons and a “cannon ball catcher” and was later turned into a prison and torture chamber and a weapon storage unit. Eventually it became a war museum and you can now visit the Powder Tower to see the various war related artefacts free of charge.

The final building you need to see is the Riga Cathedral, also known as the dome church, one of the oldest sacred buildings in the Baltic States. These days it holds church services and concerts and looks out over Dome Square, one of the more beautiful areas of Old Town. 

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