The prettiest part of Riga is not – if you ask me – the Old Town, but the series of tree-filled parks bordering the New Town.
I imagine that they’d be even more lovely in the summer time, when apparently it’s the done thing to hire pedal boats and drift lazily along the canals, but I did enjoy strolling along the snowy paths nonetheless. It was while I was wandering through Bastejkalns park, searching for some engraved stones as advised by my guide book, that I found the sight that instantly became my very favourite thing. I found it completely by accident, as it was taking me forever to find the stones, which were engraved to commemorate Latvian civilians killed by rooftop snipers in 1991, when Black Beret forces loyal to Moscow attempted to capture some government buildings. This sounded quite interesting, but it was something of an anticlimax in the end, as they were, in fact, just stones. I couldn’t even see any engravings because they were all covered in snow. The only reason I was able to identify them was that visitors had placed some flowers on and around them.
However, as I was on the verge of giving up on finding them, I decided to have one last try by cutting across a little footbridge and walking alongside the frozen canal. As I neared the bridge, I realised that there was something unusual about the railings, but I couldn’t quite make out what it was.
Getting closer, I saw that the bridge was, in fact, covered with hundreds and hundreds of padlocks.
They were ordinary little padlocks; no different from the sort that you’d use on a garden shed or a small gate. As I examined them more closely, I realised that many of them were engraved with names and dates.
It was quite surreal. Bemused, I looked around for a sign or something that would explain this strange sight, but there was nothing. A group of teenagers who were loitering near the brigde watched me in amusement as I began to hunt around in the snow in search of clues, and eventually I gave up, took several photos, and left with several backward glances.
Anyway, it turns out that it is a Latvian tradition for a newlywed couple to add to this bridge (or other railings in public places) after their marriage. They get a lock, attach it to the bridge, and throw away the key as a symbol of their love and commitment. There’s something strangely touching about seeing all those padlocks, keys gone forever, hanging in huge clusters for everyone to see. I know it’s the romantic/sentimental fool in me, but I really do think it’s beautiully symbolic – particularly in a country like Latvia, which has seen long, bloody, heartbreaking struggles in its troubled and often violent history. These locks say that people love each other.
So, yes… that was my favourite thing in Riga.
(The rest of the pictures from my trip are here, if you’re interested!)