My first impression of Riga was of spires. Or perhaps not the very first. The first things I registered on the bus from the airport were buildings - some slightly dilapidated but rather pretty wooden houses in a leafy suburb, a handful of grim ‘Commies in boxes’ Soviet-style apartment blocks, a rather more modern shopping mall. But then, crossing the Vansu Bridge, you get a view of the city’s skyline, and it’s dominated by spires; the squat black belfry of the Cathedral, the improbable green spike of St Peter’s, and a handful more.
Later, exploring on foot, the most lasting impression was of greenery. Riga is a handsome city. A little distance from my guesthouse, Alberta iela is an explosion of Art Nouveau, with massive, colorful facades laden with caryatids, animals, scrollwork and grimacing faces. The city’s architecture seems to have come through Communism well, so that the remnants of its prosperous past are everywhere; just when you think you’ve seen all the Jugendstil that can exist anywhere, you turn a corner and stumble on another block. Most has been beautifully restored; a few buildings are in less good repair.
But it’s the parks that still predominate. Walking from Central Riga to the old city, you quickly find yourself in a belt of lush green, the Kronvalda Park, with its meandering canal. On the far side of the river, the Uzaras Park is less manicured, but far larger. Even walking around Agenskalans, which my guidebook likes to describe as a gritty, working-class neighborhood, I was struck by the sheer profusion of greenery, the slightly-shabby wooden houses half-buried in a riot of trees and bushes.
Riga is apparently styled “the Paris of the North”, and based on the elegance of the Art Nouveau districts, the broad cobbled streets and the imposing monuments, I can see the resemblance. But Paris is seldom so green. Parisian parks tend to be rather precise and sterile, with formal walks and gravel most often taking the place of grass. Central Riga is a succession of green spaces, trees and buildings sharing the city on what seems like an almost equal footing.