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Travel: One night in a forgotten museum in Riga, Latvia

How an unassuming Art Nouveau guest house in the Latvian capital, Riga, came to represent the country’s tortuous past and spirit of revival

brunch Updated: Aug 11, 2018 22:52 IST
Don Sebastian
Don Sebastian
Hindustan Times
Riga,Art Nouveau,Latvian capital
An old shopper feeds a seagull near the Central Market in Riga(Don Sebastian)

History was not on our agenda when we landed in Riga with three little girls. Holocaust museums and KGB torture chambers were not exactly holiday material. We skipped the countless museums the Latvian capital had to offer, except a vast open-air museum with fairy-tale windmills and wooden churches on the banks of Lake Jugla.

We skirted the wayside shops selling remnants of the country’s Nazi and Soviet past. We ignored the crumbling buildings abandoned to oblivion. Instead, we feasted on the unabashedly Oriental cebureki and belaši in the crowded Central Market and shopped for children’s shoes in an equally busy mall.

“India and Latvia are friends,” beamed Mikhail as he drew my attention to the rusted medals he wanted to peddle. “Nehru, Indira...” he started dropping names almost nostalgically. The son of a Soviet official, Mikhail has lived in all Soviet Republics from Estonia to Tajikistan until the fall of the super nation. He has since made Riga his home and the Central Market his workplace.

Nazi propaganda was everywhere, even on matchboxes. Yesterday’s misery is today’s merchandise... (Don Sebastian)

We bought a Nazi badge and a Soviet Pioneer medal from him before getting into the Central Market housed in World War I Zeppelin hangars. We foraged for the riches of Latvia – a variety of cheese, shades of honey, loaves of rye bread and sweetmeats including the aptly named Austinas (headphones!) – for a delectable dinner.

Later that evening, history caught up with us. There is no escape when you are in the Baltic.

It started as a casual exchange of pleasantries. Karlis Erglis played the good host by asking me how I liked the lakeside ethnographic museum. I had been wanting to ask him about the Jakob Lenz guest house since we’d checked in the previous evening. How was the Latvia-born German writer from the 18th century related to this not-so-vintage establishment?

By the time the Soviets drove out the last Nazi troopers from Latvia, almost a quarter of the population had been dead or exiled

“It was a mistake,” Erglis started with a candid admission. He named his establishment after Lenz because he thought the street was named after the doomed writer.

“Lenz was a tragic hero,” he said. “He was tutored by Immanuel Kant at Königsberg, which nowadays goes by the name of Kaliningrad (Russia’s Baltic exclave stuck between Lithuania and Poland).” Lenz would later become a major figure in the revival of German theatre during the time of Goethe. He died in a Moscow street at the age of 41.

Museums are not the only places to showcase history. Soviet veterans eke out a living by peddling war memorabilia (Don Sebastian)

“I thought the street was named Lenu Iela after Lenz. Later a scholar of local history proved me wrong. But I stood by the name.”

Costly legacy

The Art Nouveau building preceded its name by several decades but it has been beautifully kept unlike some of the adjacent structures. “That cost us dearly,” said Erglis, whose bourgeois grandfather once lost the building to the local Soviet. “The building was in need of urgent repair when it was handed over to my family after the fall of the Soviet Union. We had to invest so much to get it back in shape.”

His grandfather, a construction engineer who made a fortune in Czarist Russia and England, bought the building in 1930. He also set up a finance business. Ten years later, Stalin’s armies marched into Latvia and the Soviets took over every private building including Erglis’s. The six-storey building was divided among dozens of families. The two-room suite we had rented for three nights had housed a family while the Soviet Union lasted.

An Orthodox church near the Central Market in Riga (Don Sebastian)

The Erglis family was allotted a slightly cushier apartment elsewhere. “Honestly I don’t know how they survived those days. My grandfather could not go on with his business. He was a man of varied interests but he was prohibited from pursuing any of it. My grandmother was a lawyer but she could not practise either,” Erglis said.

Riga has turned into a destination with the largest collection of Art Nouveau buildings in the world

His grandparents were at the risk of being deported to Siberia. The couple hid in the attics and cellars of sympathetic families. “That was fairly common in Soviet times. They would be given 30 minutes to pack their stuff and they were never seen again. Almost one percent of Latvia’s population was deported on a single night just a week before the Nazi invasion in July 1941.”

The next three years witnessed the worst horrors of the World War II. Jews, gypsies, communists and any perceived dissidents were summarily executed or sent to the concentration camps. By the time the Soviets drove out the last Nazi troopers from Latvia, almost a quarter of the country’s population had been dead or exiled. Freedom was still a dream.

Flea markets in Riga pack a punch from the past, selling everything from used books to disused gas masks! (Don Sebastian)

Change came after two generations. Erglis was 19 years old when he joined hands with two million Latvians, Lithuanians and Estonians to form a 650 kilometre human chain that stretched from Vilnius to Tallinn on August 23, 1989. The swell of popular anger was to free the Baltic states from the loosening grip of a failing Soviet Union two years later.

Concrete future

Riga has moved on, like the Erglis family. The Baltic capital has turned into a decent destination with the largest collection of Art Nouveau buildings in the world. Travellers from around the world meet up at the breakfast table of the Jakob Lenz guest house, looking out its tall windows for glimpses of the city’s architectural splendour.

A couple of blocks away lies the Alberta Street, sought after by architecture enthusiast and selfie seekers for its ornate buildings. A few of them are designed by Mikhail Eisenstein, whose son Sergei would go on to shape the new medium of cinema with Soviet era classics such as Battleship Potemkin (1925) and October (1927). The Medusa heads and griffins the father had built on to his designs are as dramatic as the son’s epic close-ups.

A view from the Art Nouveau guest house in Riga (Don Sebastian)

The street has eight national monuments, including architect Konstantns Pkšns’s former apartment that has been redesigned into a charming Art Nouveau museum. The time capsule takes you back a hundred years to the short-lived world of the Latvian gentry whose luxurious possessions included a refrigerator, a flush toilet and a cast iron sink with a water faucet.

This year, Latvia is celebrating the centenary of its independence from the Russian empire. In the much shorter period of its existence as a modern nation, Latvians have done a commendable job to make their capital the go-to place in the Baltics.

From HT Brunch, August 12, 2018

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First Published: Aug 11, 2018 22:27 IST