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 cafĂ© 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.

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