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Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Regal Riga, Part I

Riga Art Nouveau Museum

It's been awhile since I've posted anything on this blog, but it hasn't been for lack of effort. My family and I were supposed to spend the week of Easter Sunday enjoying some much-missed sunshine in Cyprus, but the passing away of an immediate family member meant the cancellation of that trip and a hastily-arranged solo visit to the U.S. to attend to personal matters. As a way of making things up to my daughter and wife, we spent the past weekend (an extended three-day holiday due to International Workers Day having fallen on a Monday this year) in Riga, the capital of neighboring Latvia. We departed late in the afternoon on Thursday for the four-hour drive from Vilnius, during which time it never stopped raining. The precipitation continued on into Friday, so instead of spending our first full-day in the city exploring Old Riga, Shu-E made the eminently sensible suggestion that we escape the weather by visiting Rundāle Palace (Rundāles pils), described by Lonely Planet as "rural Latvia's primo architectural highlight" and just over an hour's drive south of the capital city. Our car's GPS decided to shave a few minutes off the travel time by directing us along a series of muddy, semi-paved country roads, a route that provided tantalizing glimpses of the Latvian countryside while leaving the rear and sides of our Accord caked in a fine layer of grime.

Unwinding with a Latvian beer on Thursday night after checking into our hotel in Riga

Rundāle Palace is the 18th-century home of Baron Ernst Johann Biron, Duke of Courtland and Semigallia, and one-time lover of Anna Ioanovna, the Russian-born Duchess of Courtland who later became the Empress of Russia. The palace seen today was painstakingly restored between 1972 and 2015 after having been badly damaged in the two world wars. It's well worth the trip from Riga, and it's recommended you do as we did, paying the extra €2 for the "long route", which allows you to see the duke's and duchess' private chambers. It's an ideal rainy-day option:




The palace was heated by a network of 80 porcelain stoves:


Ernst Johann apparently had an affinity for collecting Asian art:







A peek into how the stoves operated:


The view through a window of the palace's Versailles-style garden:










After touring the East and West Wings, we had lunch at the Rundāle Palace Restaurant. I had guineafowl for a main course; Amber discovered the joys of chocolate fondant for dessert:



My daughter and I then checked out the Royal Gardens, where there wasn't much to see at this time of year. It must be a pretty sight, however, when the roses begin to bloom:


For the return drive to Riga, the GPS again tried to direct us off the main roads, but I wouldn't give in. As a result, we remained on sealed surfaces for the entirety of the trip back to our hotel, though the dirt on the car would remain until we visited a car wash after returning to Vilnius on Monday evening.

While I was battling with the navigation system, my wife was involved in a losing struggle with the cold virus. It came as no surprise then that she just wanted to stay in our hotel room after getting back to Riga. As it was only 4:30 by the time we returned (and the rain had let up somewhat), I went out with Amber to have a look at Riga's standout feature, namely its massive collection (more than 750 buildings) of art nouveau architecture, more than any other city in Europe. Only a short walk from our hotel, the Riga Art Nouveau Museum (Rīgas jūgendstila muzejs), the former home of local architect Konstantīns Pēkšēns (who designed over 250 of the city's buildings) provides a glimpse into what a middle-class apartment from the 1920's must've looked like:


The interactive exhibits in the basement allowed my daughter to pose for a period photograph and to design her own art nouveau building:





On the first floor visitors can walk through various rooms while checking out the period furniture and admiring the stained glass windows and still-functioning kitchen stove:





Notice the swastikas on the apron, a popular symbol in Latvia (used by its air force in the years between world wars), until you-know-who came along and spoiled it for everyone:


The spectacular spiral staircase:



Having introduced Amber to the wonders of art nouveau, the two of us took a walk around the neighborhood, where we came across this giant space monkey (my daughter insisted, and probably accurately, on calling it a chimp) standing tall in Kronvalda park:


More art nouveau architecture on Elizabetes iela...:


...and on Pulkveža Brieža iela, just down the street from the PK Riga Hotel, our accommodation for the three nights we stayed in Riga:


For dinner (and with Shu-E in tow) we went downstairs to the Kuk Buk Restaurant, where I toasted the end of our first full day in Riga with a bottle of Madonas Beer, brewed in a small town in eastern Latvia and tasting like an alcoholic version of kvass. And I mean that in a positive sense...:







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