SINGAPORE (Nov 19): Who would have thought that Riga, the capital of tiny Latvia, is the Art Nouveau capital of the world, with a higher concentration of Art Nouveau buildings than any other city? The Art Nouveau movement appeared and flourished briefly as the 19th century gave way to the 20th — the period is referred to as fin de siècle. It was a period of promise and intellectual exploration, of reaction against the rehashed European styles of neo-Romanesque, neo-Gothic, neo-Classical and so on.

Art Nouveau, often attributed to Austrian artist Gustav Klimt (1862-1918), adopted a fresh approach with a modern interpretation of form, function and the use of new materials. Before World War II (WWII), Riga was peppered with about 400 examples of Art Nouveau buildings, juxtaposed against more classical architectural examples. Examples of Art Nouveau furniture, clothing and other objects also bloomed during this period, although most were lost during the Soviet occupation of Latvia in the latter half of the 20th century.
The works of Mikhail Eisenstein (1867-1920) — probably the best-known Latvian architect of the Art Nouveau style — features exotic influences, stretching perspectives with bold ideas such as empty terraces to make a statement and curvilinear lines that look futuristic even today.

Riga comprises Old Town and the rest of the city. Examples of Art Nouveau contrast sharply with Old Town, which provides a realistic glimpse into the urban life of a walled city in centuries past. Old Town is a symbol of Riga’s cultural identity, which is recognised in its status as a Unesco World Heritage site.

In the past, Old Town was encircled by wooden houses, which could be set on fire quickly as a defence against attacking enemy forces — such were the sensibilities of the day. What is now Latvia was invaded and conquered numerous times, the consequence of having larger and more powerful neighbours with territorial ambitions.

Old Town dates back to the early 1200s, when the pagan tribes who inhabited the area were converted to Christianity. Latvia was one of the last pagan strongholds in Europe. In the mid-1800s, the city elders decided to demolish the city walls. The moat is today a charming canal with an urban park running alongside it. One can embark on a cruise for a fresh perspective of the city while the park is a tree-lined retreat with fountains, bridges, sculptures and plenty of greenery.

There are remnants of the old city wall with an internal corridor, embrasures and a watchtower. The only one remaining out of 29, the tower has walls of up to 3m thick, as it was used for storing gunpowder.

Riga’s Old Town was largely spared from widespread destruction in WWII, although there are open spaces that were once occupied by buildings. What is striking about Old Town is the sense of stateliness, a quiet dignity of having escaped the cheesiness and frenetic capitalism of becoming a medieval Disneyland, or of having its character sullied by modern buildings in the midst of medieval splendour.

Although there are restaurants and cafés aplenty, the streets are neat, largely spared from the tawdriness of souvenir shops, boisterous buskers and street vendors hawking tacky T-shirts.

Old Town is dominated by the spires of three churches — St Peters, St Jacobs and Riga Cathedral — with different strata of society attending each church. Riga Cathedral is the most prominent building in the city and work on it started in 1211, shortly after the introduction of Christianity, but took more than 500 years to complete, with the great spire going up only in the late 1700s. As a consequence, the building is a mix of different architectural styles, from Romanesque to the late Gothic-style spire.

A Lutheran church today, it looks plain inside, but it was not always so. Starting as a Roman Catholic cathedral, its walls were once covered in frescoes and paintings, but it underwent many changes, including being plundered and pillaged by Reformist mobs in the 1520s. It carries legacies of its past, including luminously beautiful Bavarian cutglass windows, an elaborate pulpit and a stone baptismal font from the 12th century. The grand baroque organ of awe-inspiring proportions was the largest tracker organ in the world when it was completed in 1884, with over 6,000 pipes. Today, Riga Cathedral is a fully functioning cathedral again, after religious services were banned during the Soviet occupation of Latvia.

Riga Cathedral is the most prominent building in the city.

Little local touches lend Old Town its character, such as the small family-run ice cream stall in the shade of a linden tree outside the cathedral. Look out for confectionary shops selling Latvian-made Laima chocolates and for something more exotic, there is Riga Black Balsam, a liqueur made from a secret recipe of 24 natural ingredients dating back to the 18th century.

German businesses — in particular the powerful confederation of merchants’ guilds, the Hanseatic League — dominated the economy of early Riga, as it did in most of northern Europe during that period. The large Guild Hall was the exclusive club for the business elite and much of the city was shaped by the business community.

Directly opposite is a building that is intriguing because of the cat statues on the spires. The cats have arched backs and raised tails, as if about to take a poop. The story is that a wealthy merchant, disgruntled at being refused membership of the guild, built The Cat House and had the cats’ backsides facing the Guild Hall. After the merchant was added to the guild’s membership roll, the cats were turned around!

Old Town is the best-known aspect of Riga, but the city’s Unesco World Heritage status also extends to the nearby Central Market, which is the largest in Europe. The 72,000 sq m repurposed hangars, originally built for German Zeppelin airships, houses five large pavilions today.

The bustling market offers stalls selling seafood, vegetables, meat and dairy products, with other small businesses on the first floor and cafés and specialty shops on the periphery. A tented outdoor section is a hubbub of activity with shoppers and stalls selling in-season fruits and vegetables.

The beginning of the 20th century brought great promise to Latvia, with independence from Tsarist Russia in 1919. Such was the zeitgeist that the Freedom Monument, which remains a symbol of Latvian nationhood, was erected in 1935 just outside the boundary of Old Town.

The slim female bronze figure mounted on an obelisk has her arms extended upwards and holding three golden stars, which represent the three provinces of Latvia. At the base of the obelisk, exaggerated granite figures straining against the chains of bondage are appropriately called the “chainbreakers”.

It was not to be, for independence was short-lived. In 1939, the Soviet Union occupied the country, followed by Nazi Germany a couple of years later. This was followed by half a century of Soviet rule under the loose confederation of the USSR.

Resistance to Soviet rule came to a head in the 1980s with the National Awakening. Mass protests against Soviet rule took place at the Freedom Monument in 1987. In 1991, the USSR was dissolved. Latvia was one of the first ex-Soviet republics to declare independence.

In 2013, the National Library — called the Castle of Light and designed by famed Latvian-American architect Gunnar Birkerts — was built on the banks of the Daugava River. From Old Town, it resembles a hill with a castle rising from the water, a symbolic fulfilment of a 19th-century Latvian folklore about the Hill of Glass and the Castle of Light, which had sunk to the gloomy depths of an ancient lake, only to rise again when the Latvians regained their lost freedom.

Lee Yu Kit is a contributor to The Edge Malaysia