November 08, 2010
RIGA: WORLD’S FINEST ART NOUVEAU ARCHITECTURE
PUBLISHER of interesting e-zine Oz Baby Boomers*, John Rozentals visited his ancestral homeland in search of memories of a namesake – and discovered the world's finest collection of Art Nouveau architecture. He sent us this fascinating report from Latvia to share with readers.
For most visitors to Latvia, the search for 12 Alberta Iela, on the northern fringe of Riga's CBD, and the struggle up some eight flights of steep, narrow stairs to the Janis Rozentals & Rudolfs Blaumanis Museum, would be low on their list of priorities.
Admittedly, Blaumanis was a celebrated writer and Rozentals was probably Latvia's greatest artist, but the former's fame was largely restricted to his native land, whilst you can see much more significant examples of the latter's work in the Latvian National Museum of Art, in Riga's Esplanade Square.
For me, though, the lure of these few small rooms was compellingly magnetic. As well as sharing ethnicity, Janis Rozentals and I share our names, or at least we did until my parents, probably rightly, decided Australian school life in the 1950s would be easier for a boy named John than for a boy named Janis.
It's extremely unlikely we're related, but I felt strangely comfortable browsing through the apartment where my namesake had lived a century ago, and sitting on a couch he would have spent many hours resting on.
There's a much stronger connection, though, between Janis Rozentals and this part of Riga than just an apartment.
Rozentals was a leader of the Art Nouveau movement, which flourished in Europe around the turn of the 20th century, influencing design in general and architecture in particular.
Nowhere was that architectural influence felt more deeply than in Riga. The precinct centring on Alberta Iela ("iela" is Latvian for "street") and including Elizabetes Iela and Streinieku Iela, is widely recognised as having the largest and finest collection of Art Nouveau architecture in the world.
Yes, the world — better than in Paris, Berlin, Moscow and St Petersburg that are all widely recognised as Art Nouveau centres.
I laughed with sheer joy as we entered Alberta Iela, overwhelmed by the absolutely over-the-top beauty of the buildings and the totality and consistency of the streetscape.
Despite a century of wars, invasions, social unrest and the economic fundamentalism of the Soviet era, the buildings here have survived intact. And the short-lived economic boom times of the early 21st century provided the city's new-found financial aristocracy with the funds for their meticulous restoration of the grand apartments they once were — or transformation into professional offices, corporate headquarters and national embassies.
Themes of ancient Greece and Egypt, nature, and ravishing female beauty seem to dominate. Sometimes, every floor, even every balcony and window, has an individual motif. It is a spectacular visual delight and the makings of an artist's or architect's dream tour.
Alberta Iela is within easy walking distance of many of Riga's downtown hotels, but one of the best nearby is the Reval, on the corner of Brivibas Boulevarde and Elizabetes Iela.
Its upper levels offer stunning views over the medieval gems of Vecriga ("Old Riga"), the nearby gardens, churches and the broad Daugava River, which wends its way to Riga and the Baltic Sea through the flat Latvian countryside.
Make sure that you get a city-view room, though. The outlook from the rear is far less attractive. The rooms are comfortable and well equipped if not grand, the service can be a bit off-hand, but the location is spot-on and the views sublime.
In nearby Vecriga, try the tiny, boutique Hotel Ainavas. It boasts no views, but is charming, central to the attractions of the medieval city, and the service is wonderfully friendly.
Several years ago, hotels such as these were charging 400–500 Euros per night. Following the collapse of the "Baltic Tigers", it's more like 100–150 Euros today, with breakfast thrown in.
And whilst in Riga take time to stroll the cobble-stoned streets of Vecriga (Old Riga), which has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site, and shed a tear while visiting the Occupation Museum of Latvia and wonder how people could be so cruel to each other.
Finally ensure you try some of the local delicacies by devoting a morning to Riga's Central Markets.
 LATVIA's Riga has the world's largest collection of Art Nouveau architecture.
 UPCLOSE look at the fine detail.
 RIGA's fine architecture, churches and parks from the city's Hotel Rival.
(All Images: Sandra Burn White)