• Matthew Waters

Culture for All

Riga is truly a city with a distinct culture that can be experienced by all. Latvia is a country that still appreciates the classics of Opera, Ballet and Orchestra, as well as being very connected to its history with loads of interesting museums and finally, a great love for art. Although, many cities across the world have all of these things readily available, what really makes Riga stand out is the price of these events. They are very affordable and for me it is a city that embodies having access to culture for all.

I am going to start off with the ‘classical’ elements of culture that many will see as upper brow and kind of snobby affairs. Before this trip when I thought of Opera I had the image in my head of; red faced old men listening to people sing in Italian, which they don’t understand, dressed in tuxedos, after spending an extravagant amount of money, and I bet some of you thought that way too. But, in Riga this is not the case. Opera is an event for everyone! Come dressed in what you want, have a good time listening to some really talented singers, I mean I still didn't understand them but they were incredible, and be able to follow the story thanks to subtitles. I didn’t feel judged going in my crinkled, short sleeved, pink shirt; everyone was really friendly and there was a great sociable atmosphere with people from all walks of life watching. It is also a bit of a local affair and gives you the ability to see how the locals have fun, while all the stag does are drinking they are all sat watching Opera and socialising with each other. There were groups of Latvian students down the front having a few drinks before heading on a night out. Maybe they had an opera drinking game? But why is it so different to Opera in countries like the UK? Well it's simple… price. In Riga our Opera tickets cost €6.29 where as tickets in Cardiff average about £30 and that's one of the cheaper cities in the UK with those tickets being closer to the gods then to the stage. This lower price means everyone can get involved and it completely changes the experience of going to an Opera, and it is the same with Ballets, but we didn’t get to see one. So, if you visit Riga a trip to the beautiful Opera house has to be at the top of your list, it's a great way to live like a local.

Secondly comes the embrace of history in Riga. The well preserved Old town in Riga is really up there with the best of them in Europe. Towering bright brick buildings mixed with aspects of Gothic architecture surrounding you on all sides, showing Riga’s former merchant power, profiting from trade between the West and Russia. In the old town you will also see a series of beautiful churches both Western and Orthodox, if you are into that thing. The preservation of the Old Town Riga has lead to one of the most beautiful cinemas I have ever seen. The Splendid Palace in Riga is a cinema that opened in 1923 and is a National Architecture Monument in Latvia. It is the place to go to see original Latvian films and is home to the Latvian National Film Festival as well. It is also decorated with work by Latvian artists. So what did I go see? Some edgy Latvian masterpiece? Well no it was actually Jojo Rabbit, a masterpiece but of a different kind. Although I didn't go for the most cultured reason the fact this building is a cinema blew my mind. I'm used to soulless cinema complexes like VUE and Cineworld but having a cinema in a beautiful building really changes the experience and for me, a history freak, I felt like I was sitting in history. Thank you for finding ways to keep history alive Riga.

However, I think Riga’s preservation of Soviet history is the most appealing. They haven't just destroyed all features of the former occupiers they have left it engrained on the architecture of the city. This makes it free! High rise Soviet style buildings can be seen everywhere in the city. Riga is by no means a stereotypical Eastern block city, and it is rapidly moving away from it connections with Russia and trying to become more European. But being able to see the elements of Soviet past gives you a glimpse through the keyhole to their history. The best examples of the Soviet stamp on Riga are the Academy of Science and Former Press Building for the Latvian Soviet Republic.The Academy of Science is building is a monumental structure tower over you with local names including 'Stalin's Birthday Cake.' It also offers stunning views of the city from its 17th floor balcony, but the really interesting thing about this building is it is still adorned with Soviet symbols, giving you a real view into the history. The Former Press Building is a huge concrete block, towering over the Daugava river, built in 1978. It is now abandoned but in true Latvian style they have found a new purpose for it, it will be converted into a hotel and business centre, but thankfully they will not change the outside. I love this kind of physical history that you can just see by walking around.

Riga also has a vast range of museums across the city, if this is more you kind of history. Now I am not going to talk much about the museums because I didn’t really visit many. I know a disgrace as a history student but I was so strapped for time. From what I have heard about the museums though they are great especially the KGB museum and the Riga ghetto museum, happy I know but I hear they are very interesting, and well priced! If you want to know more about the history of Riga there are also a range of free tours, that give you a locals knowledge.

Finally, Riga is a great destination for those who seek art. The Festival of Light is a contemporary art festival with different aspects all around the city and all for free. They run two of these festivals every year, one in late August for Riga's birthday and one in November for Latvian independence day. The artists have to use the medium of light, giving an outstanding effect in the dead of Latvian night. People get dressed up and most people come with some form of light attached to them, adding to the sensation. So for any contemporary art buffs or just people looking for an outstanding spectacle come give the Festival of Light a go. There is also a beautiful festival that happens every four years called 'The Latvian Song and Dance Festival.' I haven't been to this festival yet but it is on my bucket list. It is a festival of traditional Latvian culture where people come dressed in traditional Latvian clothing and sing beautiful Latvian songs. Why is this so high on my bucket list? Well, let me show you.

All these people singing in their native tongue, coming together every four years, and singing with such passion genuinely moves me every time I see it. I need to see this in person. There are many other festivals over the year, that are free in Riga and available to everyone in the city. Further increasing the stance that Culture for All is important to the Latvian people.

So to sum up. The Latvian people are not only welcoming and kind, they love culture. Companies and the government both make elements of culture very affordable for everyone who wishes to indulge in it. Riga must be your next stop, especially if you love Opera, physically history and local traditions.

Thank you for reading.

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