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Riga, Latvia: A Walk in the Park


While there's not much trace of it today, Riga used to be a heavily-fortified city at the mouth of the Daugava River, controlling the route from warmer Baltic waters to colder climes further up the river.


Over the years, fortifications of various sorts were built by Swedes, Germans, Russians, Latvians and even later by the Soviet Union. But by the middle of the 19th century, modern artillery and other weapons made most of those forts obsolete, and the Riga Fortress, right at the then-edge of the city, was torn down.

20230917_125132P134064220230917_124913Hints of fortress walls and base of a waterside tower can still be seen

The land that it occupied and the canal that formed a moat for the fortress were redeveloped into a park, named Bastion Hill for the former fortification. A new and peaceful purpose for the land, and one which opened up the area east of the old fort for the city to expand out of its medieval core.


Riga is a fairly compact city, and highly walkable; a visitor with time will seldom need the city's extensive network of buses and trams. Because the park lies along the line between the old town and newer 'suburbs,' it's a pleasant way and a good shortcut between destinations. I walked it often in my week there.


Ducks, and occasionally gulls, are well-established residents in the park, but there's no sign of the flock of swans that were raised there in the 1890s, with their own custom-built swan house.


On the other hand, there is a giant snail, its shell painted with clouds and its body jeweled by bits of mirrored glass. It's the last one of fifteen, painted in various colors that were set down around the city in 2014, and moved a bit each day as part of a campaign to create a Latvian museum for contemporary art. The campaign was successful.


The snail is not the only sculpture in the park by any means. One of the first artworks installed in the park is the monument, above, to Rodolfs Baumanlis, a journalist and playwright who helped revive Latvian as a literary and popular language at a time when Latvia's population was half Baltic Germans and German was the main language of trade and government.


A far less likely subject for a statue in Riga is Mīrzā Muhammad Tāraghay bin Shāhrukh better known as Ulugh Beg. Grandson of Tamerlane, he ruled (briefly—his family assassinated him) a vast empire based in Samarkand, now in Uzbekhistan. His lasting fame is as an astronomer and mathematician whose work is still important. The statue was a gift given when the Uzbek president visited Latvia in 2004.


Another work with overseas ties stands along the bank of the canal: An Edwardian gentleman with his wife and dog. But this statue, dedicated by Queen Elizabeth II while visiting Riga in 2006, has a much closer connection to Riga.


George Armitstead was the son of a British merchant family living and trading in Riga. He was born in Riga, then under Russian rule. He was educated in Riga, Zurich and Oxford. An engineer and entrepreneur, he became Mayor of Riga in 1901, and for twelve years presided over its growth from a small trading area to a major European city. Tsar Nicholas II invited him to become mayor of St Petersburg, but he declined.


After the Second World War, parts of the park and canal area were rebuilt and the canal walls reinforced, using materials salvaged from buildings that had been destroyed by bombing during the war.


A sunny day, a beautiful park and a bit of urban history... all make for a great walk in the park!



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The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

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