I’ve been back to my hometown Riga for about a month already, and when I first came here I thought: meh, Riga. But after the last few weeks of exploring the city like a real tourist, now I think: wow, Riga! We, people – we can take even the most beautiful and precious things for granted, never appreciating how unique they are just because we get used to seeing them every day. But as Henry Miller said, one’s destination is never a place but a new way of seeing things. So I decided to look at Riga with new eyes – the way a passionate traveler looks at things when he sees them for the first time. I went on a city tour in my own city.
The starting point was the Town Hall Square of Riga. Now, Riga’s town hall isn’t just any old, ordinary European town hall that you see everywhere – I mean, they’re all usually very pretty. But the one in Riga is not only gorgeous but also unique: it was there, in that very square, where in 1510 the world saw the first ever Christmas tree.
Riga’s town hall also takes a lot of pride in the beautiful Blackheads House that is located there – a house that strikes with splendor and amazes with the richness of the history concealed behind its stunning architectural details. The building was built in 1334 by a group of young bachelors, who sort of needed a ‘club’ where they could socialize. I was actually surprised to find out that, even though there are two buildings that we always think make up the Blackheads House, it is actually only the right-hand one that comes from the ‘Blackheads family’. The one on the left was, in fact, built by a rich merchant who wanted to join the club but was refused. So to spite his sworn enemies, he built a house so close to the Blackheads’ that the two buildings are basically sharing the same wall. How’s that for a slap in the face?
The history of Riga is full of dark and vengeful stories like this. There’s another one that tells about a wealthy tradesman who, again, failed to gain membership into the Great Guild, which was the main merchants’ brotherhood. So the resentful radesman built a house in front of the Great Guild and topped the roof with a statue of an angry looking cat – its tail is raised, its back is turned against the Guild, and if you look closely, you might think that the cat is in the middle of a “process”… So insulting! It was until the merchant was accepted into the Great Guild that the cat was turned in such a way that it would finally face the building.
It’s not only angry cats that inhabit the roofs in Riga – there are also 4 roosters on the top of the oldest churches in the city – Dome Cathedral, St. Peter’s, St. John’s, and St. Jacob’s. Quite an unusual substitute for a cross, isn’t it? The explanation, however, makes quite a lot of sense: according to Christian beliefs, roosters protect people against demons, because, apparently, a loud cock-a-doodle-doo scares them away. So the roosters were put on the churches’ spires, the highest peaks in the city, so that demons would hear their morning songs from far far away.
Life was definitely very interesting in medieval Riga.
But also expensive. While we were walking in Old Riga, we stumbled upon a house with fake windows just painted on the walls: apparently there was a window tax back in the day, which required the citizens to pay for the amount of sunlight getting inside their houses. The bigger the window – the bigger the tax. This is why a lot of medieval buildings in Riga have tiny windows or hardly any windows at all.
But of course, as time flies by, the rules change too – over the centuries the tax was cancelled, and people could finally enjoy the pleasures of basking in the sunshine inside their own homes. The Three Brothers, the oldest residential complex in Riga, can serve as the perfect example of this. Built one after another in different centuries (1490, 1646, and 1718 respectively), you will notice that the oldest house – the White Brother – has way smaller windows than the two of his siblings – the Middle Brother and the Green Brother.
If you thought that a building built in 1490 was old, how about the one built in 1202? I’m talking about St. George’s Church, which is still standing there, this old survivor who has seen wars, plagues, fires, famines, the rises and falls of Livonia, and, before you ask, it has only two windows.
There’s so much more, however, to see in Riga and to learn about it that a day definitely won’t cut it. Riga has many pages to read, and the story that is written on them is so compelling that you will never want it to end.
Over to you! Have you ever explored your hometown from the tourist perspective?