Each year, the European Union designates two of its cities as Capitals of Culture. Lesser-explored or smaller burgs get a turn in the spotlight; more venerable destinations have the opportunity to show off what’s new. And with so much media focus on the problems of Southern Europe, it’s perhaps fitting that the EU Commission decided this year to highlight two relatively tourist-free cities from the continent’s northern tier: Umea, Sweden, and Riga, Latvia.
For most, Latvia is true terra incognita, which is one reason I put Riga on my list of top destinations for 2014. There aren’t too many charming Old World cities left to discover, and Riga — with its lovely antique center and centuries of Jewish, Slavic, Nordic and Baltic history — has a lot of surprises for those willing to trek slightly off the beaten European path.
Latvians are overjoyed that their capital is finally taking its turn in the spotlight, and the yearlong “Riga 2014” program ensures no visitor will ever run out of things to do. Besides the opening festivities, highlights of the year include the Midsummer Solstice Festival and an every-five-year choral event that invites visitors to participate in what is arguably Latvia’s favorite musical form.
Old Town Riga has the vintage charm of Prague without the tourists — and with gentler prices, though with this month’s introduction of the euro as official currency, that is bound to change. Perched scenically where the Daugava River meets the Baltic Sea, the city core is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, in no small part due to its collection of Art Nouveau buildings. That Riga managed to maintain its elegant good looks through not only the bombings of World War II, but also a half-century under Soviet rule, is nothing short of miraculous.
It might surprise the visitor that a place so out-of-the-way as Latvia boasts such a handsome capital. But it is no accident: Riga was a seat of the Hanseatic League, and its layout and vintage German-style architecture have something in common with those of Gdansk, Rostok, Copenhagen and other cities on the medieval trade circuit. Riga’s seaport has been a major hub since Viking days, and in the centuries since it has served as an outpost of Danish, Swedish, German, Russian and Soviet reigns.
Spend time with Latvians and you will notice a complex mélange of cultural influences that remind you of other places, but that together form something distinct.
I was surprised to realize how many Latvians — and Latvian Jews — I know of without having been aware of their origins. They include chess grandmasters Mikhail Tal and Aron Nimzowitsch; the great Israeli basketball player Tanhum Cohen-Mintz; violinist Gidon Kremer, son of a Jewish Holocaust survivor; and the conductor Mariss Janssons, born to a Jewish mother who escaped the Riga ghetto during World War II.
These last two — part of a great 20th-century wave of Baltic and Finnish classical musicians — will be prominently featured in Riga 2014’s “Born in Riga” program featuring homegrown talent. Kremer will appear with his renowned chamber group, Kremerata Baltica, in a lineup that includes major Latvian ensembles, Latvian opera singers in large-scale productions, a Bach Passion cycle in Latvia’s most beautiful churches during Lent, and a staging of Mendelssohn’s oratorio “Elijah” toward year’s end.
A Jewish legacy is further evident in one of the cornerstone events of Riga 2014, the landmark exhibition “The Book: 1514-2014,” on view all year at the newly constructed Latvian National Library. I admit to a twinge of nervousness at the title, which to me suggests (unintentionally, I’m sure) an obituary for the endangered printed word, but surely its first half-millennium deserves a retrospective.
The year 1514 was a landmark year for print: the first Jewish printing house was established, we learn, and the first Torah was printed. The first book in Latvian came along shortly thereafter, a juxtaposition that reminds us that both groups — Jews and Latvians — have rather miraculously managed to hold on to a distinct collective identity in the face of long odds.
Though the list of notable Jews from Latvia is impressive, the country’s wartime Jewish record is not: most Jews perished in the Riga ghetto and a nearby concentration camp. Today’s Jewish community is a post-Soviet resurrection, reborn in the late ’80s and — with a membership of about 8,000 — likely the largest in the Baltics. Its hub is a landmark building that was a Jewish theater, community center and library before the war; following occupation by the Germans and, later, Soviet ideologues, the edifice was returned to the Jewish community and today it houses a small museum.
Jewish visitors to the Old Town will want to check out the Peitav Shul, a 1905 Art Nouveau temple that survived World War II only because of its location: while all the other synagogues were on fire, nobody wanted to risk burning down half the Old Town. A noted “choral synagogue” sicne before the war, it was one of few synagogues in the Baltics to maintain worship right through Soviet times, and today is it is Riga’s only functioning synagogue.