Riga throws party to history

  • 2001-08-23
  • Anna Pridanova
RIGA - For three days last week, from Aug. 17 to 19, Riga relived its history and explored its new identity as a modern European city. One and a half million people participated in the celebrations of the 800th anniversary of Riga, which took four years to prepare and came off without a snag.

Called a "city of inspiration" by the organizers, the Riga 800 Agency, Riga proved again to the doubtful that it was capable of organizing a huge international event.

Guests from elsewhere in Europe, the U.S.A., Australia, Japan, China, and around the world praised the organization of the event. Delegations arrived from 55 countries.

U.S. President George W. Bush sent a message of congratulation to his Latvian counterpart Vaira Vike-Freiberga on Aug. 17, and took the opportunity to praise the substantial transformation Latvia has undergone since the restoration of its independence in 1991.

King of Sweden Karl XVI Gustav, German President Johaness Rau and the presidents of Lithuania and Estonia dropped by for different parts of the festival.

The opening of a full Saturday of celebrations on Dome Square in the center of the Old Town on Aug. 18, crowned with a speech by Vike-Freiberga and a welcome from Estonian President Lennart Meri, attracted 7,000 people.

The entire crowd observed a minute of silence to remember all those people in the city's troubled past who made the life of the current 33rd generation of Rigans possible.

Despite the enormous influx of people over the weekend, Latvians showed themselves to be a truly cultural people, not a disorganized rabble, said Inguna Ribena, the Riga 800 Agency's director. "The agency created the event so the celebrations could occur, but it depended on the 1.5 million people who came to the birthday party to make it a good one," she said.

The charming cobbled streets of the Baltic states' oldest capital city filled up with curious crowds encouraged by the unusually hot weather, which rose to 32 degrees Celsius.

The history of Riga was re-experienced in 800 minutes during Aug. 18.

Events were held throughout the day at different locations, as "Riga Dresses Up" in 33 generations of costume, "Riga Competes" in Sumo wrestling, pizza throwing and an American-style rodeo, and "Riga Feasts" its way through a history of dishes at an 800-meter outdoor dining table on Raina Boulevard.

These included everything from medieval-style meat to "Soviet army meals." Children lined up to have their photos taken next to huge knifes, forks and spoons as long lines of hungry participants stood by each food tent.

Merkela Street, usually a busy three-lane, one-way thoroughfare, became a "river of dance" for adults and children, waltzing, rocking or doing the tango all day.

Latvians' attachment to flowers was revealed as, overnight, the streets that lie over the bed of the now-vanished River Ridzene, after which Riga was named, were covered with field flower bouquets.

Many Latvians warmed to the idea mooted by the Riga 800 Agency that this was a time for the country to experience unity. Alda Liepina, 45, a farmer's wife from the quiet town of Jelgava, journeyed to Riga for the event. "This is my nation and my capital, and I think we all have a duty to participate in festivals like this," she said.

Teenage student Inga Redverga agreed. Although she was enjoying this chance to meet tourists and new friends, "there is a sense of Latvia being together."

With two people per square meter in the Old Town, people ran into old friends on the streets out of sheer chance. "I met my old classmates from Valmiera, where I went to school," said Rasma Zarina, 56, now a teacher in Riga.

Possession of a cellular phone was an obvious advantage during the festival. For local cell phone providers the number of calls made rose by several times over the weekend.

The culmination of the celebration, a spectacular half-hour light-and-sound show over the River Daugava provided by the creators of the fireworks of the Sidney Olympics, caught the breath of all who saw it. This was the only time during the three-day festival when the city's public transport, which was free to ride over the weekend, ran absolutely empty.

Although the 2.7 million lats ($4.5 million) allocated by the Riga City Council for the event are almost gone, a hefty third of the sum goes back to the state in taxes.

Since its founding by Christian knights as a German fortress during the Crusades, Riga has seen Russian, Swedish, Danish and Lithuanian domination. Today, Riga is, with 800,000 inhabitants, a real European metropolis.

The city's officials are hoping that Riga 800 will solidify Riga's reputation as the one and only regional capital for business and culture.