The area surrounding Miera iela (the Street of Peace, roughly translated) in Riga has long been known as a magnet for the creative and imaginative people of Latvia, but when the website Skyscanner placed the district top in its list of the twenty most hipster neighbourhoods in the world, above long-standing bohemian quarters like Kreuzberg in Berlin and Williamsburg in Berlin, it’s fair to say a lot of people were taken rather by surprise. In this article, Riga-based journalist Agita Salmiņa visits the street and traces its long history, finding that it is an even more complex and unconventional place than it appears at first sight.
The history of Miera iela proves the old story that Riga will never be complete. At one time, the street was just a little path beyond the city limits leading to a graveyard, but as the years passed, it grew into the dynamic, creative and cobbled street it now is; a seemingly peaceful place disturbed every now and then by the legendary No. 11 tram.
The Republic of Miera iela’s slogan “the peace is deceptive” really does suit this street, the so-called “centre of the hipster world”. The time-honoured watering holes of the creative elite of Riga increase in number from time to time to include cafes and businesses with alternative views on life; acoustic concerts, lectures, improvisatory theatre performances, exhibitions, etc are always taking place in the area.
Although the graveyard at the end of the street, which is reminiscent of some kind of gothic park, is the eternal home of uncountable numbers of Latvia’s intelligentsia; how this narrow path turned into a street of some importance has more to do with the now-closed factories that were hurriedly put up one after another at the end of the 19th century. Nowadays, the people of Miera iela wake up to the smell of ground coffee beans in the air, but at that time, the inhabitants of the street had to breathe the fumes from the Maikapar tobacco factory – although every so often the wind would also carry over the bittersweet aroma from the nearby champagne factory on Aristīda Briana iela.
Of all the factories that once operated on Miera iela, the only one still active is the Laima chocolate factory, where traditional Latvian chocolate-making recipes are preserved. The champagne factory has closed, but part of the space is now occupied by the pretentious bar/cafe Piens. However, the space of the former tobacco factory will be opening to theatre lovers: it will in the future host a performance by the New Riga Theatre.
By the first decade of the 20th century, it was not only workers’ families living in Miera iela: members of the new intelligentsia began to move into the just-constructed modern rental houses, examples of the National Romantic and Jugendstil architectural movements. Nowadays, the ground floors of these buildings host many cafes and creative establishments.
While speaking about these residential buildings, which sprang up like
mushrooms after rain, each one prouder and more modern than the one before, it’s impossible not to mention Jānis Alksnis – one of the first architects of Latvian ethnicity. He was responsible for many buildings on the street – for example, No. 10 (which now hosts Café Taka) and No. 17 (now the home of DAD Café). According to contemporaries, every morning for many years afterwards Alksnis would go out for a walk to look at the buildings he had designed, often returning to Miera iela. One particular pearl of National Romanticism can be found at No. 27; its creator was the renowned architect Eižens Laube. Sneaking into the stairwell of one of the buildings is worth doing if you can.
The architect Heinrich Devendrus was the author of a number of low-key buildings in the German romantic style – especially well-regarded is the building located at the street’s conclusion, at No. 94. The sharp little towers on the roof of the six-storey building mark the end of the republic; just over the railway lines are the low wooden roofs of the district of Čierkurkalns.
Another important name connected with Jugendstil and National Romanticism in Riga’s history is that of August Volz. At the top of a building where Hospitaļu iela and Miera iela meet is hidden one of his most significant sculptural compositions – “Blacksmiths”. A few steps further, opposite the Great Cemetery, is historically where the noisiest and quietest parts of the street meet: at one point a decent number of stonecutters worked theme, Volz among them. His neighbours included the stonecutters, where, under the management of Kārlis Zāle the details for Latvia’s Freedom Monument were completed.
Now Miera iela is filled with smells. Freshly cooked carrot, and raspberry, marzipan or cheese cakes from Mierā cafe; the aroma of beer from Taka cafe; and beetroot soup, toasted sandwiches, and stuffed pancakes from through the half-cracked door of DAD Cafe. All take their names from art and music. The first of them once belonged to the Epners family, and the last is connected with the tragic death of book-seller Jānis Rapa. After the occupation of Latvia, his business was nationalised and many of his books were burned. Fearful that his family would be repressed by the regime, Rapa killed himself in his own flat.
It’s not only in the cafes of Miera iela that you can find art. Also on the street is the workshop of glass artist Marta Ģībiete, as well as Ieva Grase’s ceramic workshop, a glass-working studio and an art centre for children. In the Laimes Lāde gallery art is reproduced on many everyday items to make unique presents or souvenirs – cups, shopping bags, reflectors and postcards.
Alongside the art displays, you can also find enterprises connected with sports. In summer, Surf Pro is an ideal place for surfers to shop for stock; but in winter, you can sip tea and watch the World Championship of wakeboarding together with fellow enthusiasts. Although Miera iela does not have a bike path, it’s still a favourite street of cyclists, thanks to the useful services provided by Rīgas Velo Serviss (Riga Bike Service).
Although it is now abandoned, the Great Cemetery in Riga is just as important and worthy of a visit as Montparnasse in Paris. The park tells of a burying tradition going back to the last decade of the 18th century, of different historical figures and monuments of architectural significance. The graves of certain special people have become cult sites and are regularly visited; such as those of the clairvoyant Eižens Finks and the actress Vija Artmane, who are buried in the Pokrovs cemetery. In the Great Cemetery at the furthest end there are monuments to some of the first Latvian linguists and writers, including Andrejs Pumpurs, Krišjānis Valdemars, Fricis Brīvzemnieks and Krišjānis Barons.
Miera iela’s Summer Festival has taken place in May every year since 2011. Then the silence and peace of the street is driven away, the street resounds with music, and the working people of the cafés, small shops and workshops are coloured in expressionist colours, who hand visitors all that is best on a table – masterclasses, concerts, tasting sessions, markets and so on.
Agita Salmiņa is a freelance journalist and tour guide, who is interested in the development of cities’ history, culture and art. Riga has been her home for seven years.
A version of this article originally appeared on Another Travel Guide
Translated from Latvian by Will Mawhood
Header image credit: Andrejs Mors-Jaroslavcevs
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