Art Nouveau in Riga

Do you remember your childhood obsessions? We all had them. They came in phases, each one as intense and inexplicable as the next. For you, it might have been dinosaurs, stamps, ice skating, Greek mythology. For me, for quite a while, it was Art Nouveau.

It all started when my mom brought home a coloring book of Art Nouveau stained glass windows. With my washable Crayola markers, I attacked that book with the fervor of Michelangelo working on the Sistine Chapel, as kids do. I would hold up each translucent page to the light, mesmerized by the colors shining through flowering vines, graceful curves, and the billowing robes of nameless nymphs.

It’s been decades since I colored within those lines, but my fascination with Art Nouveau remains. This is what made walking down Alberta iela in Riga a thrill for the little girl in me.

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Riga has the highest concentration of Art Nouveau architecture of any city in the world. With an estimated 40 percent of the buildings in Riga’s old center belonging to the Art Nouveau style (or Jugendstil in German), it’s a must-visit for lovers of this architectural style.

Riga Art Nouveau 1

Riga’s 800+ Art Nouveau beauties were built during the economic boom that swept Europe between the late 1800s to early 1900s. Most of them can be found on Alberta iela (street) and Elisabetes iela, or the embassy district.

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These Art Nouveau apartment buildings are loaded with sumptuous details, and I strained my neck just looking up at all of them. Female faces abound, with finely molded expressions ranging from gentle to melancholy to fierce.

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The male faces, however, tend to veer towards the freakishly tortured. There’s a story in there somewhere, I’m sure…

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These buildings were intended to show off wealth, which explains the heavy-handed “more is more” approach. Aside from nature, Art Nouveau draws heavily from myth—from nymphs to dragons, sphinxes to centaurs, no mythical creature is spared.

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I’m also slightly obsessed with doors. If you’re a lover of doors, gates or windows, a stroll down Alberta iela will add some impressive photos to your collection.

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For more on Riga’s Art Nouveau architecture, check out Artweekenders’ informative and interesting post is a good read, which includes some juicy tidbits about the main man behind Riga’s Art Nouveau boom. I know this style of architecture isn’t for everyone, and I probably wouldn’t want to live entirely like this, but I find it fascinating nonetheless.

Okay, geek girl moment over! Next up: a visit to Riga’s Central Market.

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Old Town Riga: A Baltic beauty restored

Riga old town St Peter's spire

“What on earth are you going to do there for a whole week?” was something I was asked a lot before our recent trip to Riga. Aside from being a choir groupie and cheering my friends on at the World Choir Games, I couldn’t say much other than: “Get to know Riga, I suppose.” (I also got a lot of “World Choir Games? Is that like the Hunger Games?” Duh. But that’s another story.)

Visitors to the city pretty much start—and end—with Old Town Riga, a treasure box of pretty pastel buildings, winding narrow alleys, and gleaming cobblestoned streets.

Riga old town street

Riga old town rooftop

Riga old town cat on roof

The Cat House, or House of the Black Cat. Love this.

Most of Old Town Riga’s buildings were built in between the late 1800s to the early 1900s. After Latvia gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, meticulous restorations brought back the sparkle to this quaint and charming Baltic gem.

Riga old town Art Nouveau building

I really admire (and envy) how the Latvians were able to restore their Old Town in a little over than 20 years. Call it “prettified” or a “theme park” (well, maybe compared to the rest of Riga), but that’s infinitely better than abandoned and left to rot. Manila needs this kind of love.

Riga old town balcony

Riga’s Old Town is compact and easily explored in a day or two of walking, making it perfect for a weekend city trip. Most of its highlights—particularly the touristic trifecta of St. Peter’s Church, the House of Blackheads, and the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia—are within minutes of each other.

Riga old town buskers at St Peter's Church

Buskers playing the Game of Thrones theme (!!!) at St. Peter’s Church

Riga old town House of Blackheads

The House of Blackheads

Riga old town Museum of the Occupation

A sobering but essential visit: the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia

A few notables:

  • The restaurant at Hotel Gutenbergs serves dinner on its roof terrace overlooking the rooftops of the Old Town. A little pricey, but the view makes it special.
  • Good news for the tech-addicted: wifi is everywhere! Most Old Town restaurants and cafes offer free Wifi, and you can practically hop from one network to another as you walk down the street.
  • Latvian bread is incredibly yummy. I couldn’t get enough of it! The local black bread is especially tasty and makes white bread taste boring and bland in comparison.

Old Town Riga is incredibly pretty, and I’m glad the World Choir Games brought me here. I probably wouldn’t have gone all this way to visit for no reason at all—it’s not exactly one of those bucket list destinations, which makes it such an underrated jewel.

But there’s far more to Riga than its Old Town, and truth be told, it was those discoveries that made my experience of this Baltic capital memorable and complete. Stay tuned.

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sisterMAG Blogger Feature: Urban Island

Oh hey look, I’m in sisterMAG! What a great way to start the week.

Issue #14 of “the journal for the digital lady” is all about Islands this summer, and celebrates the Urban Island for those who spend their summer holidays in the city. I’m part of a sisterMag blogger feature that highlights what summer is like in the “urban islands” of Barcelona, Hamburg, Essen, Munich, Vienna and of course, Amsterdam.

Amsterdam canals Instagram

Spring with the famous Dutch tulips in full bloom is great for visiting Amsterdam. But for me, summer is the best time to actually be living in Amsterdam. Because Tala doesn’t go to school yet, Marlon and I like to travel off-peak, during the months of April to June and early September.

That leaves the summer for discovering my adopted city: fighting for tables on packed terraces (and discovering new ones), feeling more like myself by wearing sandals and skirts, biking in the sunshine, seeing the canals by boat. I actually feel cheated when we’re away during the summer and I find out that Amsterdam’s been having awesome weather. When the sun’s out in this city, I often feel thankful for my life here, and feel that there’s no place I’d rather be.

I’m happy to be celebrating my favorite season in Amsterdam by being part of this issue of sisterMAG. You can read Issue #14 right here—skip ahead to page 195 for the Urban Island section, or take your time and savor the whole magazine. It’s fab summer reading. Enjoy!

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Life is beginning again

Doreen Fernandez

It’s oddly prescient of our food-loving relationship that Marlon and I met in the freshman English class of Doreen Fernandez, the Philippines’ foremost food scholar, food writer and food critic.

Both of us loved Doreen, although perhaps we didn’t appreciate her as much as we did after we left her class, and especially after she passed away in 2002. Maybe because in our classroom, she wasn’t the Philippines’ foremost food writer, scholar, critic and all those amazing things—she was simply Ma’am Doreen.

Her Facebook page, run by her relatives after her death, says:

She has taught us that food writing can be a scholarly pursuit, eating an erudite experience, and the celebration of Filipino cooking an affirmation of our national identity.

But what she taught me was that I was good at writing, that I could take it beyond the formal theme books of high school, and do more with it than impress teachers with my precociousness. I’m a writer today because of her generous marks on my essays; because she called me to read my writing out loud in front of the class; because when I wrote about a creepy supernatural thing that happened to me, she believed me (and told me to contact Danton Remoto and join the Spirit Questors); because of her gentle ways and ever-present smile.

It was a delicate time in my life, but I didn’t know that then. At the time I needed it most, she gave me the stimulus I needed to write, a structure within which to write regularly, and the gentle encouragement to keep writing well.

As chair of the Communication department, her door was always open for a chat. I remember talking to her about wanting to live in Europe, and if I should do it as a singer or as an English teacher. “Sing!” she said without hesitation. “If I could sing, I would! You can teach English when you’re old, like me.”

I’ve been rediscovering her food writing, or at least trying to. Her books are hard to get hold of outside the Philippines, but some of her wonderful essays are excerpted in this blog. That’s how I found this quote, which I think is a wonderful way to start the week—or any day for that matter. The reference to food makes it uniquely Doreen, and resonates with a foodie like me.

So, happy start of the week, everyone! I wish you a fresh and hopeful day, an upbeat spirit, and life that begins anew. Oh, and good food, too.

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Instagramsterdam: July

In case you haven’t noticed, I’m on Instagram a lot. Rather than feel like I have to catch up on so much blogging backlog, I love posting quick updates on Instagram.

Instagramsterdam is a new blog series rounding up my favorite Instagram posts of the month about  Amsterdam. For me, it’s a way to appreciate the little things I enjoy about living in Amsterdam, and to embrace my adopted city a little bit more.

For you, it’s a way to see glimpses of daily life in Amsterdam—hopefully, to get to know the city the way I know it, and see that it’s so much more than the tired stereotype of weed and wooden shoes. I also want to introduce you to some of my favorite Instagrammers from Amsterdam and beyond.

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I didn’t spend much of July in Amsterdam, but there were some beautiful moments nevertheless.

July was all about blue skies and fluffy clouds, a rarity in this land of overcast and gray; yummy, summery meals at the Neighbourfood Market; stolen moments to lie in the grass and read a few pages of a new book; rediscovering the city on my new bicycle (it’s that orange one in the foreground!); finding a new place to work on the water; and simply enjoying being home after a long trip.

Now August begins, the last month of this wonderful summer we’re having. Let’s make the most of it.

P.S. If you haven’t yet, come follow me on Instagram!

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