Riga’s medieval architecture and art nouveau edifices often have people craning their necks to get a better look at a golden rooster atop an ancient spire or a playful nymph smiling from a plaster façade, but visitors should also try to keep an eye to the ground and not just to prevent an unfortunate ankle twisting on the city’s uneven cobblestones. A number of interesting historical markers may go unnoticed or may even cause you to lose your footing if you don’t pay attention to what’s underfoot in Old Riga.
The Baltic Way The Baltic Way was an unprecedented event in world history when roughly 2 million Latvians, Estonians and Lithuanians joined hands to form a 600km-long human chain from Tallinn to Vilnius via Riga. The mass demonstration commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact took place on August 23, 1989, while the Baltic nations were still occupied by the Soviet Union. A small red granite ‘footprint’ at the crossroads of Kaļķu and Vaļņu (near McDonald’s) serves as a reminder of that amazing event.
First Christmas Tree An historical account of the Blackhead’s Guild recorded in 1510 sheds some interesting light on Riga’s claim to Yuletide fame. According to the medieval document, the guildsmen placed a decorated tree on the town square on Christmas day and then set it on fire at the end of the holiday season. This is supposedly one of the earliest accounts of a Christmas tree in Europe and certainly the first in Riga. Today a commemorative monument marks the approximate spot on Rātslaukums (Town Hall Square), just outside the Blackheads’ House, where this interesting piece of history took place.
UNESCO World Heritage site Riga’s medieval old town and its surrounding city centre was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1997. Although its 13th-century churches helped the city achieve this status, it’s Riga’s art nouveau architecture that really sets the city apart from other European capitals. To quote UNESCO’s World Heritage website: ‘The Historic Centre of Riga has the finest concentration of Art Nouveau architecture in the world.’ A bronze circular marker in the middle of Cathedral Square (Doma laukums) celebrates this accomplishment.