It felt like I'd landed in a city populated entirely by rock stars: 700,000 people live in the Latvian capital of Riga and seemingly all of them sported stylish leather boots, tight pants and sharp flashy haircuts. It's as if someone poured blond paint over their heads, etched in sharp angles for cheekbones and stretched their bodies into tall, thin canvases. In my fleece jacket and travel boots, I felt like a hobbit among elves.
But if the locals looked good, the buildings did too. Riga is the capital of art nouveau, the 19th-century art and architecture movement that aspired to break design conventions. Reacting against Victorian sensibilities, a new wave of architects and designers used flowing lines, futuristic elements and wild artwork to fudge the rules and stamp their creative mark. More than a third of the buildings in Riga's Central District, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, are categorized as art nouveau. Although many were damaged during the Second World War, the city still has more than 800 examples, the largest collection of art nouveau buildings you'll find anywhere. Today, building watching has emerged as one of the city's most popular attractions, primarily based around Elizabetes, Alberta and Strelnieku streets. Mikhail Eisenstein, father of iconic Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, contributed some of the most striking examples of Riga's art nouveau. As I looked up on corner of Elizabetes and Antonijas, his legacy left me wondrously baffled.
What possessed this Victorian-era aristocrat to design a building laden with elaborate masonry, haunting murals, sweeping archways and sculptures seemingly time-warped from a science-fiction future? Why did he incorporate the large heads of a king and queen, staring into opposite corners, sitting above the apartment block as if it were merely a bored chess piece? I suppose art owes no explanation. I've been awed by the modern architectural vision in Hong Kong and Dubai, but they don't compete with the sheer historical wackiness on display in Riga. On Alberta Street, admiring the buildings caused my neck to ache, staring at the sphinxes, curvy naked muses, terrifying gargoyles and faces screaming in agony. With the right lighting, Alberta Street would be a perfect set for The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Metropolis and Batman - all at the same time. Mikhail Eisenstein's incredible buildings can be found at Elizabetes 10a and 10b, as well as at Alberta 2, 2a, 4, 8 and 13. Most of them are private, although some - including Alberta 13 - are fully restored and open to the public.
Many are mere apartment blocks, with For Rent signs displayed outside their windows. Some are crumbling with time; others are perfectly restored (including the Irish, French and Russian embassies). Free walking maps available from tourist offices provide routes and further information. Even more information can be found at the Latvian Museum of Architecture, housed in the Three Brothers, the oldest stone building in the city. Building watching provides a good day out in Riga, only slightly eclipsed by my more familiar passion - people-watching.
A good place to start is the Freedom Monument, located off a busy pedestrian boulevard in the Old Town. An important landmark for the entire country, it was built in 1935 using donations from citizens, and nowadays stands as a symbol of the country's survival after four decades behind the Iron Curtain. Locals once called it a "travel agent," since laying flowers at the foot of the monument was an easy ticket to Siberia. Today, flowers are laid daily by locals to honour those deported by the occupying Soviets. An armed honour guard diligently marches beneath its shadow, changing every hour on the hour from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Other monuments, such as the Monument to the Repressed, the KGB Victims Memorial and the excellent Museum of the Occupation of Latvia, recall the turbulent past Latvians experienced under the Soviet regime. On one night alone, nearly 50,000 people were abducted and deported to Siberia. Since regaining their independence in 1990, Latvians are proud of their survival, as symbolized by this shrine.
There was a certain irony ascending a church steeple dating to the 12th century: With all its history, I didn't expect to find myself inside a modern elevator.
St. Peters is one of Riga's most recognizable landmarks, having been destroyed and rebuilt repeatedly throughout its existence. From the open-air observation platform, I had a lovely 360-degree view of the city, clearly able to distinguish the modern city from the Old Town, with the unusual-looking Vensu bridge linking the two across the Daugava River.
Being winter, I beelined out of the cold to one of the city's excellent Old Town bars, which enjoy a growing reputation as among the best in Europe.
I met groups of young men from Norway, Germany and Scotland, taking advantage of cheap flight deals from European hubs such as Glasgow and Frankfurt. Bar-hopping in the Old Town, we all agreed on the quality of the city's physical attractions. I'm just doubtful they were referring to the art nouveau.
Special to The Globe and Mail
Catch up with Robin on the OLN/CITY-TV series Word Travels, or at www.robinesrock.com