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Riga. Culture On The Daugava

/ Travel

It sounds like a very cliched, somewhat back-handed compliment to describe a place as “having culture”. To insinuate that you perhaps expected a place to be void of or lacking in culture in the first place would be a stroke of ignorance. I believe culture exists everywhere in many forms, sometimes it’s more prevalent, sometimes you have to dig a little under the surface for it, but it will always be there.

So it came as no surprise whatsoever (already knowing a few Rigans) that Riga, the capital of Latvia (a country which, until 1991 was part of the Soviet Union) was positively overflowing with culture. Exuded both by the people, and by the city itself. It’s unrequired, but if the notion needed backing up then it’s worth mentioning that Riga will be the 2014 European Capital of Culture. Not just a sentiment, but an accolade to embellish it.

Local Design

Local product design has seen a huge rise in popularity over the past 3-6 years, and where locals perhaps used to have low self-esteem, or felt they lacked something of a voice in this area, they have now become confident in their own ability to produce unique products, which have far more than just local appeal and interest.

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Image taken from http://www.etsy.com/shop/BugAccessories/about/.

Be it the delightfully hip “Bug” wooden bow ties and hair pins (beautiful in their own right, nevermind as part of someone’s outfit), the array of health products promoting naturally healthy hair or skin (amongst other things) or the locally produced clothing and accessories with all the appeal of designer attire from anywhere in the world, there really is a growing scene for well considered product design in Riga.

The Architecture

Walking around the city, from the touristic old town, through the “Quiet Centre”, to the centre of the city, and round the Moscow suburb, there is an abundance of beautiful architecture. A huge cross-section of building styles exist.

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The old town has the charm and appeal of any historical European city, complete with a couple of McDonald’s thrown in for good measure. The Quiet Centre has a vast array of Art Nouveau buildings boasting incredible levels of detail and flourish in a variety of colours. The centre of the city with its wide cobbled roads and beautiful apartment blocks has a faster rhythm and pace, for something of a more cosmopolitan feel, broken up every so often by older buildings which have been claimed for music venues and exhibition areas. The Moscow suburb boasts the charm of smaller buildings, wooden churches and houses, and one of the biggest markets in the whole of Europe, housed in a number of unused Zeppelin hangars. This alone has to be seen in person to really understand the scale.

The Arts

For those who prefer the high arts Riga is well known for its amazing, yet criminally cheap opera house. For those looking for something requiring less pomp and circumstance, there are a good number of bars and venues which lack the tackiness of the old town tourist haunts, and flaunt a strong lineup of musical styles for younger generations.

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Kaņepes kultūras centrs image taken from Live Riga.

The local music scene seems to be growing, and as Riga finds its feet in both imported and home-grown electronic musical styles, it’s clear that the city and its twenty to thirty-something crowd are hungry for the good parties which are popping up all over the city.

The People

Those younger adults living in the city, circling their mid-to-late-twenties seem very proud to be from Riga, embracing the cultural events, promoting design, music, and enjoying what the city has to offer. It seems that Latvia is finding a strong sense of identity, and in their growing pride they are building a host of opportunity for themselves. It’s an exciting time for them to be part of what feels like a strong and growing movement.

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I can’t comment hollistically on the older generation, but of those that I met, there was seemingly an air of content for most, despite potentially difficult financial situations and the apparent monetary divide between those with money and those without.

Sure, this outlook sounds rosy, and in slight contrast there’s definitely an underlying sense of awareness that Latvia isn’t in the most economically wonderful condition right now, but the situation is slowly improving, and with next year’s introduction of the Euro currency, there are mixed opinions on what sort of impact that may have.

Those Latvians who I know best have a wonderful mix of pride, and a fleeting sense of worry. A concern that those who don’t know Riga might not find all they were hoping for, or those who wish to invest in a life in the city longer term might fall to some form of regret after a time. To them, I would say that a place is what you make of it.

Anywhere can be a home if you have the intention to make it so. There are great things to take from every situation, and looking at Riga with everything that surrounds it, I would say that there are many positives to be embraced. Not just that, but a wealth of opportunity to get involved, and join both locals and expats in pushing Riga’s profile higher and higher.

Photos from my first trip to Riga.

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Alex Cowles

About The Author: Alex Cowles

A largely cynical and often sarcastic designer and front-end developer by day. Unknown international DJ & music producer extraordinaire by night (and at weekends). You probably won't like him.