Though perhaps younger than some of the cities of the Mediterranean, Riga, the capital of Latvia, has over 800 years of history – with most of that history turbulent. Latvia’s location along the Baltic Sea has long made it an important strategical spot for centuries. In the Viking era, the fearsome Scandinavian warriors often came to the Baltics during their annual raids, though the Baltic raids weren’t considered as good as those of England or France. In medieval times, German and Teutonic knights and Swedish kings stamped in and out of Riga and Latvia – really the Baltics in general – taking control of it or simply raiding it in times of need. In more recent times, the Soviets laid claim to this little Baltic nation, in its quest for control over trade and military might in the Baltic Sea. From above, we see a forest of Gothic spires rising above Riga, and below down at street level, we see a beautiful rainbow of bright colours and Art Nouveau façades adorning each street, square and alleyway. Riga is an easy place to wander and explore – Art Nouveau architecture rears up randomly throughout the city, narrow alleys wrap themselves around unique buildings, small streets open up into large squares home to impressive churches, guildhalls, markets, mansions and other magnificent edifices. It is perhaps for this splendid blend of styles, creativity, history and beauty that Riga Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The Warsaw Mermaid Statue in Warsaw’s Old Town, Poland
There are multiple mermaid statues flopping their way through Europe. Completely unrelated to the mythical selkies of western Ireland and only loosely related to Copenhagen’s The Little Mermaid, the Syrenka, or Mermaid of Warsaw, is the official symbol of Poland‘s capital. Popular legend has it that while swimming by Warsaw, the Mermaid decided she liked it so much that she would stay. Local fishermen were frustrated with competing with her for fish, so they attempted to catch her, but like most mermaid stories, the men fell in love with the mermaid’s song and let her free. She was then captured by a wealthy merchant, but upon hearing her cries, the fishermen rushed to her rescue, and ever since, she’s been a warrior mermaid armed with sword and shield ready to protect Warsaw. A lesser-known version claims that the mermaid came to the rescue of a lost prince and he founded Warsaw in her honour. A final version and tie-in with Copenhagen is that the Danish Little Mermaid and the Warsaw Mermaid are sisters from the Baltic Sea, separated by their respective capitals. No matter which legend you favour, the Mermaid remains Warsaw’s symbol and protector, and there is a small but lovely statue in her honour in the centre of the Stary Miasto (Old Town square) for visitors to pay homage to the city’s protector.
In English: the Swedish Church. In Denmark. Located on the moat banks of the Kastellet, a 17th century star fortress adjoined to the city walls tasked with the protection of Copenhagen. What’s a Swedish church doing there? To understand, we must first look to the church’s history. Denmark and Sweden share many things, including a similarly harsh climate, the Øresund and the Baltic Sea, and even almost a common language (they are close enough for speakers of each language to understand the other). They also seem to share a similar attitude on life: live and let live. Despite a troubled past, the two nations, along with the rest of their Scandinavian sisters, all seem to get along and just live – a marvellous notion that we could all take a page from. Well enough preaching – and back to Svenska Gustaf. The story starts with a Swedish pastor called Nils Widner who went to Copenhagen to educate Swedish sailors living there, but was soon swept into the world of Swedish expats. As his circle grew, Nils realised they would need a church to provide for the growing congregation. In an action of solidarity, his loyal followers agreed to donate 10 øre a week (mere pennies, but dedication counts!) until the church was completed, which ended up being in 1911. The Danish, bless them, provided Pastor Nils with a lovely site along the northern side of the Kastellet, a beautiful island fortress (a stone’s throw away from the St Alban’s, a 19th-century English church, erected for similar reasons 25 years before). A Swedish architect designed Svenska Gustaf, and a Danish architect supervised the construction. Danish and Swedish royalty alike attended the opening ceremony. Everyone got along, everyone worked together, everyone was happy. But then again, what more do you expect from Danes and Swedes, eh?
Until very recently, controlling a port meant power. In fact, this is still the case in many ways considering that about 90% of world’s trade is still carried by the international shipping industry. Long before the invention of the airplane – and before that, the train and the truck – shipping was the method of transport. European powers have been obsessed with finding trade routes to Asia for hundreds of years (inspiring the famed Columbus voyage in 1492… as well as others), going so far as to construct the Panama and Suez canals. During the 15th and 16th centuries, the Russians (who occupied central Russia at the time) had control only of a few northern (and frozen!) ports. Baltic ports were controlled largely by the Lithuanian Empire, or by powers centralized in Riga and Tallinn. The Hanseatic League as well controlled much of the trade in North, Eastern and Central Europe. Russians had staggering amounts of natural resources – but few ports, thereby instigating the struggle for control of the Baltic Sea. Though Gdansk, located in northern Poland on the Baltic Sea, was not controlled by the Russians, other powers (German, Lithuanian, Teutonic Knights…) have their histories mingled with that of Gdansk. Indeed, the Baltic city has been an influential port for nearly a 1,000 years! Today, the Polish city is still an important port, not to mention a hub for Poles on holiday in search of the sea. It is also one of the best places in the world to purchase amber!
Pro tip: Some of Gdansk’s most photogenic and picturesque spots is in the Long Market, bookend-ed with the Green Gate (that’s actually pink…) leading to the waterfront on the other side.
Travel to Other Beautiful Places near the Baltic Sea
Light blue skies hang over the waterfront buildings of this Polish city. Located in northern Poland, Gdansk is one of the “trojmiescie” cities. Together with Gdynia and Sopot, these three cities make up the “Tricity” region thanks to their close proximity to each other. In fact, they are so close that the same tram/bus network services all three, and it is quite normal to live/stay in Gdansk and party in Gdynia then shop in Sopot the next day. Once part of Germany (‘Gdansk’ was called ‘Danzig’ and still is called so by German tourists), this region on the Baltic Sea is today known for its beaches (in Poland, that is), and its amber production (worldwide!). It also happens to be beautiful. While the city isn’t exactly on the Baltic, (the water here is the Motlawa River), it’s only a hop, skip and a jump away from the infamous sea. A visit to Gdansk during the summer months will be pleasantly spent, no matter whether you’re sitting along the river, digging your toes in the sand of one of the surrounding beaches, eating at one of the many pleasant cafes and restaurants on the main street or dancing your heart out in one of the Tricity’s many nightclubs!
The Brama Zielona, as it is called in Polish, towers over the far end of the Long Market (differing from most Polish market squares which are typically square in shape, often with the city hall or some other monument in the centre). The Gate was built in 1568-71 as a residence for the Polish monarchy, and was inspired by Antwerp’s City Hall (in the linked photo, the city hall is to the far left-hand side; google it for further views). This tie to the Belgian city also explains the Flemish influence in the Poland’s Baltic gem. Now a museum of Polish history, it even includes the second president of post-Communist Poland’s office. After traversing Gdansk’s beautiful Long Market, step through the magnificent Brama Zielona to enjoy the city’s beautiful waterfront on the Motława River!
Down Ulica Długa to Długi Targ (Long Street to Long Market), Gdansk, Poland
This beautiful Polish city on the Baltic Sea hasn’t always been Polish…in fact, it hasn’t always been called by its’ Polish name, “Gdansk.” Because the city has historically laid upon the border between Slavic and Germanic controlled territories, it has switched hands at least 15 times since being founded in 997. Its position on the Baltic Sea made it a disputed city in WWII, with the Germans taking control of “Danzig.” And like so many other Polish cities, it was demolished in the war, and, once again like all the other cities, had to be painstakingly rebuilt and restored by dedicated citizens–though some German vestiges still exist and German tourists are still plenty. Along with Gdynia and Sopot, the three cities form the Tri-city (Trójmiasto) region, with 1.4 million inhabitants. The Long Street/Long Market is one of the most beautiful market squares in Poland and even in Europe (though it’s not really a square…more of a rectangle!), and even more lovely in warm weather as the Baltic Sea is a just a hop, skip and a jump away!
Travel to Other Beautiful Places near the Baltic Sea
The Baltic Sea is a basin of water in the north of Europe. Bordering Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Russia and Sweden, it also happens to be one of the finest places to find that curious orange-red, stereotypically Baltic mineral, amber. As the Baltic is almost always too cold to properly enjoy its beaches, one of the nicest ways to see the sea is by way of bike. Historically, the sea has played a major role in commerce, trade and movement of peoples, including containing the main trading routes of the Hanseatic League. It played a major role in other trades too, such as the lumber, flax, hemp and fur industries. Sweden’s silver and iron mining industry and Poland’s salt mines have also profited from the Baltic Sea trade. All in all, if you find yourself in Northern Europe, the Baltic is worth seeing–and hard to miss!
Resting on the shores of Lake Galvė, a mere 300 km from the Baltic Sea, is Trakai Island Castle. Dating back to the 14th century, it was built to withstand attacks from the Teutonic Knights, who played a large role in the region. At the time, Trakai was one of the main centres of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania before it fell into obscurity after merging with the Kingdom of Poland. Today, the town of Trakai is a collection of colourful, wooden houses with a population of only 5,000. Until recently, the castle had been little more than ruins on an island, inspiration for writers and artists. Finally rebuilt in all its glory, Trakai Castle is an impressive monument standing in the middle of a careworn village, reminding us of bygone times when castles and knights and kings still ruled the lands.
More About Travelling to Central & Eastern European Castles