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Bits and bobs about my life in my lovely home, Thatchwick Cottage, Pretoria, South Africa.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Wednesday, 22 July: Last stop - Riga, Latvia

My last stop was Riga, capital city of the Latvian Republic, venue of the 9th International Conference on Diversity which was the ultimate goal of my recent European trip. Latvia is one of the three Baltic Republics located on the eastern side of the Baltic sea, east of Sweden. It is bordered to the north by Estonia, to the south by Lithuania and to the east by Russia.

The capital Riga lies on the Daugava River about 15 km from where the Daugava meets the Baltic Sea. This is elegant bridge is one of several spanning the river.

There are three sections to Riga: the historic and beautiful Old Town; the Art Niveau section with its large array of beautifully preserved 19th century buildings; and the drab New Town built during the Soviet Occupation (1945-1991).

Riga was an apt choice for a conference on diversity. Fewer than 60% of the 2.3 million pople living in Latvia can be called ethnic Lativans. The remaining population, a legacy of Latvia's uneven history, consists of Russians, Belarussians, Ukranians and small populations of Lithuanians, Estonians, Germans and Livs.

A detail on the lovely Blackhead's House on the Rifleman's Square. Latvia's history has been turbulent and, in my view, extremely tragic. During WWII around 200 000 Latvians were killed or deported. A further 150 000 left home to avoid death or deportation to the Gulag camps by the Soviets. During the Soviet occupation over 1.2 million workers, mainly Russian, were brought into the country.

Latvia obtained its first independence in 1920 after WWI and, finally, European recognition in 1921. In the pre-WWII years the country tried to steer a course between the jostling major European powers but in 1940 it was occupied by the Red Army and a reign of terror ensued. Under these circumstances, the Nazi's appeared liberators when they first marched into the country in 1941. The Nazi occupation again ushered in persecution, suffering and annihilation of the Latvian Jewish community.

After the German retreat in 1944, the country was occupied by the Soviet Union and yet another period of suffering began. In the late 80's under Gorbachev's policies of glasnost and perestroika, possibilities for change became a reality. On August 23 1989 two million Latvians, Estonians and Lituanians made a symbolic human chain for 650 km along the Baltic Way and demands for independence intensified.

Latvia declared independence on 1 September 1991; in 2004 the country entered the European Union.

The sombre building above is Riga's museum of the Occupations: Nazi and Soviet. It makes for fascinating but grim viewing. So how did I find my short visit to Riga? I wandered the streets of the beautiful city; I bought exquisite amber jewellery set in silver; I relished fresh salmon, black bread and hearty soups. I admired the intricately knitted socks and gloves sold at street stalls. And I kept snapping a skyline of tarnished green domes and towers.

I found Latvians reserved and private and at times I was unsettled by stony faces. The young folk with whom we struck up conversations in English were couteous, helpful and charming. I asked one young lady, "But you are free, aren't you? Your country is now free?" She answered, "I don't know, I really don't know..."

I also come from a country with a troubled history. In 1994, just three years after Latvian independence, South Africa embarked on its new chapter. But, in spite of the past, South Africans remain hearty and exuberant. Hugs, smiles and firm handshakes are part of everyday greetings. Just think of the noise of the vuvuzelas at recent soccer matches!

Next stop is Home. And I look forward to just blogging the mundane and routine, for a while at least!


Vicki Lane said...

The old buildings look charming. And I appreciate your thumbnail sketch of Latvia -- I know so little of the Baltic Republics.

It sounds as if you've had a wonderful trip -- thanks for taking us along!

Vicki Lane said...

And what a header!!!

SmilingSally said...

Your new header is awesome! What an excellent adventure you've been experiencing. I went to Paris once and loved it, but I've never been to Latvia. In fact, I must admit, I've never heard of it! However, you've taught me a bit today.

Carol @ TheWritersPorch said... always when you change it, your new header has left me breathless!Thank you for an eye riviting tour and a wonderful history lesson!

Mary said...

Interesting history - we don't hear much about this area. Great pics Eleanor and thanks for telling us about what you bought - any chance we can see the beautiful jewelry?

Glad you're home safe and sound. Meanwhile I'm off again this Friday - 2 weeks in the West to show granddaughter some more of this lovely land.

I've missed you but glad your trip went well. get some rest now.

Hugs - Mary.

Janet said...

Oh I do love the detail on Blackhead's house! And the little roads with buildings so close by! Interesting conversation with that young lady - I guess none of us are reallly free, are we?
Thanks again for a lovely post.

SAPhotographs (Joan) said...

What a mixture of architecture Eleanor. I find a lot of the people from those countries did not know how to smile and not suprising with their history. Wonderful shots.

Sreddy Yen said...

Wow~~! Your new header is stupefying~~! They sure have many different styles of architecture over there in Latvia. Lovely shots of the old buildings :O)

Barbara Martin said...

The Latvian architecture is amazing. The reason the citizens do not yet feel free could be due to the oppression they have been under for nearly a century. Governments say one thing to the people and do another. As outsiders we only know the layers which have been revealed to us.

What an wonderful journey you've had, going from place to place and provided us with great photos and history.

dulcy said...

Beautiful post! Thank you for sharing so much history and detail. I really enjoyed reading this.