We started the day with a self-guided tour through The Corner House as the notorious KGB building was known. As the joke from Soviets times states, the highest building in Riga must be The Corner House because you can see Siberia from the sixth floor. Already emotionally affected by the information and documentation provided in the tour, I stood behind an elderly woman who, with tears, kissed flowers and placed them at the door of the room where the Cheka executed suspected counter-revolutionaries. We decided to forego the extended, additional tours till the next day.
We had zipped the linings out of our rain coats before we left and decided that we should return to the apartment to put on some warmer clothes. On the way back we stopped at a restaurant specializing in Czech food and beer. Though the beer selection was far too limited, Jo had a lovely vegetable soup with a cheese base served in a bread bowl (the bread was very tasty) and Paul had a ham in mustard sauce hot pot.
Completely sated and with proper clothing against the weather, we walked towards Old Riga and were drawn by music playing in a park on a steel pipe stage specially constructed for Riga 2014. We very much enjoyed listening to about five songs by ElektroFolk. Jo was busily snapping photos of the crowd who responded with smiles – except for the small, elderly woman who raised her cane rather menacingly towards Paul. We walked through the various booths for children to build and race miniature sail boats, model in clay and walk off waving small plastic Latvian flags. Seeing the Corner House exhibit, followed by a celebration of the nascent nation’s Constitution provided a deep affection for the country.
We walked through the food booths, stopping for free samples. There were three booths doing wine tastings of various fruit wines. Abavas was exceptional, we enjoyed each of the wines being poured – something that never happens when sampling vintners’ wares. We bought a bottles of the sparkling rhubarb and the black currant wines.
We decided to go to S. Brevinga Alus un Viskija Bārs to indulge in one of the many, many single malts during their happy hour. After patiently waiting ten minutes until the appointed time of discounts, Paul ordered an exceptional Japanese single malt, Nikka from the Barrel and Jo ordered Connemara 12 year old Cask strength, a peated Irish single malt. As it took the bartender quite a bit of effort to locate the chosen libations amongst the wall of whisky bottles, it was clear that these were rare choices. Oddly, though the Connemara was lighter in color and a lower percentage alcohol, the Nikka was smoother and sweeter – both benefited greatly by adding a splash of water. We also enjoyed a couple of Latvian beers. The evening was a bit dampened when we got the bill and found out that the whiskies were not discounted – ouch!
Jump forward a day: Turns out that was the right choice, we went to the exhibit the following day and, after about three and a half hours, we came back home fairly exhausted. The shows included “Stories of People and Power in Ten Objects” which was rather stunningly exhibited and quite powerful. “(Re)construction of Friendship” featured contemporary installations by artists from various post-Soviet states. There were some good works:. one that stood out was a series of souvenir plates with illustrations from KGB torture manuals painted on them, another created a massive metal-plated wall dividing a tiny room, another featured whimsical designs for a flying hospital bed to escape the Soviet mental hospital, and one that had a series of paintings, each of a more close-up view of a photo, that were cut into the banal fading flower print wallpaper.
“A Latvian’s Suitcase” featured items chosen to bring with exiles – Jo was inspired by the living rye bread yeast that was started from a crust of old bread and still is being used to bake bread. The smell of the small jar of yeast on a central table was a nice touch. There were four very effective animations that accompanied some of the pieces. As a companion exhibit, “Museum of Fateful Objects” exhibited items collected from the general public with accompanying stories of why these objects were considered fateful. We finished with “In Spite of All”, naivé art created by Latvians imprisoned in Siberia. There was a lovely animation narrated by the woman who had created a visual diary of her life.
Then back to Old Riga for a cello/organ concert at St. John’s Lutheran Church. We love cello so the idea of the eight member Cello Dream Team with three additional cello soloists sounded great. Unfortunately the reality of this many cellists didn’t sound great. The Bach (spelled “Bahs” in Latvian, it is the law that all names must be Latvianized) Brandenburg that opened the evening was a bit muddled when orchestrated for eleven identical instruments. The acoustics, great from the organ/choir loft weren’t as good when the instruments were placed in front of the main altar. The pieces for organ and/or for organ and three cellos were much better. The repertoire of the concert was all rather “wet” (even the “Bahs” piece sounded a bit wet), the work we enjoyed the most was the last piece by a contemporary Latvian composer, Rihards Zalupe, which made use of the full cello ensemble and the organ. As the composer took a bow and I didn’t see the work, Rain, Steam and Speed, listed in his bio, it seems likely the piece was written specifically for the concert.