Riga becomes Europe’s Capital of Culture next year, with hundreds of special events taking place. Already now, activities have started, evidence that a new understanding of culture as a positive force for change in people’s lives has taken hold. The ‘Riga 2014’ creative and information space continues its active work. One theme is the ‘Environment,’ and one can get a sense of this by strolling through Riga’s Old Town, and especially along its perimeter: the canal and green space that surround it.
Here’s a short walking tour to follow:
A walk through Riga’s parks and gardens takes one through one of the greatest of Riga’s green areas, around Old Town – Bastion Hill and greenery around the canal. This green area was created by taking down the old city fortifications. Similarly as in Austria, a canal, parks and an avenue circle were established instead. Nowadays, the most significant symbols of the national culture rise are at the Riga canal green area such as The Latvian National Opera and The Freedom Monument, designed by Latvian sculptor Karlis Zale.
In the 1850s, medieval Riga fortifications were destroyed with the permission from Russian czar Alexander II. The world evolved fast, so the historical walls did not serve the basic functions anymore. Therefore, a hill was created instead from the sand bastion, formerly known as Gliemeznicas kalns (Cockleshell’s Hill), and has kept its name as Bastion Hill till today. Similarly as did medieval city walls, Bastion Hill, the canal and its greenery had to separate the old city from the new one: modern Riga.
The greenery serves its purpose as a peaceful, lively dam embracing Old Riga and inviting walking across bridges and spending time sitting on park benches. Several plants, not quite common to our climate zone, have been planted in the canal greenery with inconsistent success. Some plants even remain from the second part of the 19th century when Georg Kuphaldt was the first director of Riga gardens.
The American Coffeetree, planted by Kuphaldt himself, still grows between The Opera and the main building of the University of Latvia. The unique, strangely smelling Ginkgo tree with special healing qualities lies opposite the bridge that connects those two buildings. Gingko is one of the world’s oldest plant species. The Canal Square opposite The Opera House is a particularly romantic place where magnolia from the 1970s, and the Chinese decorative shrub Forsythia suspense, grow.
Next to the bridge that goes from The Opera House over the canal, one of the youngest monuments in Riga, The Mayor of Riga George Armistead with his wife and dog, established by Queen Elizabeth II, is set. She dedicated the monument to Armistead, whose country origin is Great Britain, in the first part of the twentieth century. One of the most splendid fountains of the capital is set at Opera Square. A naked nymph with a big shell above her head as well as children and dolphins playing at her feet “wallows” in the middle of the figure complex, which was created in the 1880s.
The new fountain is an original copy from the nineteenth century.
Bridges, both big and small, are an essential part of the canal. The three biggest bridges came first, often not even noticed. Three big bridges over the canal were built in times when the medieval wall was taken down, connecting Krisjana Valdemara Street, Brivibas Street and Krisjana Barona Street with Old Riga. At first, the small pedestrian bridge over the canal was created from wood. The bridge next to Bastion Hill was built too steeply, so in winters people often slipped. Because of that, the bridge soon was called “the eighth wonder of the world.”
The mysterious Bastion Hill, from Saulkalne dolomite, sand and old Riga walls seems a pretty attractive place in the city center. The romantic shape of Bastion Hill was highlighted in the 1880s when a cafe-pavilion was opened. The artificial cascade adds a dusty park sweetness from the nineteenth century’s end. It was created from decorative travertine rock pieces with the last great renovation more than five years ago.
In 2008, this work received sharp critical responses from architects and urban environment professionals saying that the new cascade is tasteless, degrading to the surroundings and does not fit the historical appearance. In 2008, members of The Latvia Association of Architects told the daily Diena that this is not a decent cascade renovation. Rather, it is a serious rebuilding without permits. Even taking down the cascade was suggested that time.
It’s hard to imagine someone who has not fed the ducks near the canal. The real challenge is to get closer to the proud, noble, independent swans. A swan house was created by the canal in the 1890s serving its purpose as a splendid luxury in the green city wall. Back then, the Riga Bird Breeding Association gave to the city two pairs of swans. At first, the house floated on a pontoon, but later it was anchored to the Bastion Hill bank where it was set till 1996. Once the swans living in the house died, the house was taken down. Former Mayor of Riga Andris Argalis renovated it with his own private funds, allowing two swans, Janis and Liga, to live there. The swans are gone now, and the house remains empty waiting some new residents.
Beavers are the one and only revolutionists at Riga city canal trying to create their own republic by ignoring city rules and nature regularities. “Beavers of Riga canal make Riga City Council worried,” said the headlines a year ago. Beavers could not care less about The Opera House greenery or a hundred year old tree. Last year, two beaver families lived in the canal. The local authority decided to close their eyes towards them. The metal fences,though, around canal trees are a nice way to get along with nature by keeping the greenery clean.
If one gets lucky, beavers may be noticed during dark night hours or by riding in a canal boat. All in all, it’s the best way to keep the counter-stream to the harsh city rhythm, by enjoying the canal greenery in its true brilliance.