Ravishing Riga hides a secret within the folds of her ornate civic garments. She is draped in all the normal accoutrements of a beautiful European city – picturesque old town, swathes of green, a calming river running through.
But her Art Nouveau buildings are her crowning glory – masterpieces, often multi-storey apartment blocks, built in the "flaunting modern" style employing sinuous, organic lines with a strong synthesis between decoration and construction.
The fluid decoration using flamboyant images often drawn from nature reflects the Latvian character. This Baltic nation has a great affinity with flowers and trees, to which Latvians can often ascribe human characteristics.
Riga is one of the world's greatest Art Nouveau cities with about 900 representations of this architectural style adorning the Art Nouveau quarter. One third of the city's central buildings are in the Art Nouveau style, also known as Jugendstil.
To Riga's credit, many that had fallen into disrepair are now being renovated or have already been renovated. An easy option would have been to demolish or gut them for modern apartments.
Restoration is also commercially smart – the guided walking tours dotted around the quarter point to the growing numbers of visitors in love with Riga's style. This includes coloured mosaics, polychromatic bricks, intricate facade decoration, unusually-shaped windows, gargoyles and statuary, ornate iron balconies, stylised foliage, rich floral ornamentation and creatures – cats, dogs, foxes, frogs, peacocks.
In 1997, Riga was included on UNESCO's world heritage list with special emphasis on the richness of its Art Nouveau architecture, defined as "a masterpiece of global and human creative genius".
Founded in 1201 on the Baltic Sea at the mouth of the River Daugava, the wealthy fortress city has hosted many of the European architectural styles including Romanesque, Gothic/Renaissance and Baroque.
However, the Art Nouveau style that defines Riga today emerged between about 1890 and 1910 and Latvian architects fell for it in a big way. Between 1897 and 1913, the old Hanseatic town boomed, growing by 88 per cent. The gates and walls of medieval Riga were replaced with the boulevards and gardens that shine today.
The city expanded in a grid pattern with strict regulations – no building could be taller than six storeys. Though Art Nouveau buildings cropped up in the old town, up to 500 new buildings went up annually between 1910 and 1913, mostly Art Nouveau, mostly Latvian-designed and mostly outside the old town, but easily walkable.
By 1904, 40 per cent of central Riga was built in this style, more than any world city. Houses were designed to be distinctive works of art, with fine crafting of every detail, from symbolic door handles to balconies, a reaction to 19th-century mass production.
Riga's strategic position on the Baltic meant wealthy citizens had long built significant homes embellished with gorgeous portals and decorations to enhance their status. According to Riga Art Nouveau by Andris Bruderis, residents were at first taken aback by Riga's architects' devotion to Art Nouveau but "soon yielded themselves to its singular charms".
The Art Nouveau mania had swept the world, breaking from "imitative historicism" not just in architecture but interior design, poster-making, jewellery and glass-making.
In England, Aubrey Beardsley and William Morris's Arts and Crafts movement were forerunners. Paul Gauguin and Toulouse-Lautrec's use of expressive line subscribed to the new movement, as did the American glassmaker Louis Comfort Tiffany, French glass and jewellery designer Rene Lalique and Spanish architect and sculptor Antonio Gaudi.
We've sailed in to Riga on our APT small ship Baltics cruise, negotiating the shallow channel from Estonia's Parnu to dock near the heart of this magnificent walking city.
And walk we do – through the old town, to Riga's huge UNESCO-listed Central Market that thrives in five repurposed German Zeppelin hangars and through the Art Nouveau quarter, centred on Elizabetes, Alberta and Strelnieku streets. There are also significant buildings on Terbatas and Brivibas streets.
There are different styles of Riga Art Nouveau – Eclectic or Decorative, Perpendicular or Vertical and National Romantic or Neoclassical. All three are often combined. In Alberta and Elizabetes streets, look out for buildings in the Decorative style by one of Riga's most famous architects, Mikhail Eisenstein, father of film director Sergei Eisenstein of Battleship Potemkin fame.
The Riga Art Nouveau Museum at 12 Alberta Street with its superb spiral staircase is housed in the home of the great Latvian architect Konstantin Peksen and is a gem of residential Art Nouveau.
It is true that Riga also harbours darkness, not of her own making. Between 1940 and 1991, its citizens suffered appallingly under the Nazis and Soviets. Riga, and Latvia, have survived and thrived thanks not just to their resilience but also perhaps, less recognised, a faith in the healing powers of beautiful art.
Singapore Airlines flies daily from Sydney and Melbourne to Stockholm via Moscow and daily from London to Sydney and Melbourne. See singaporeair.com/
APT's 13-day Best of the Baltics small ship cruise from Copenhagen to Stockholm starts from $14,995 a person twin share, departs July 2 and July 14, 2020. Price is based on a July 2, 2020 departure (standard suite). See aptouring.com.au
Alison Stewart was a guest of APT