Sunday, April 29, 2007

Spires (and Roosters) of Riga

When I shut my eyes and think “Riga,” I see ancient church spires. Clearly, I’m not the only one because the logo for the 800th anniversary of the city in 2001 used a line (almost like an electrocardiogram) for those spires. And for nearly 800 years, four of those spires have been landmarks: the Dome Cathedral, St. Peter’s, St. Jacob’s, and St. John’s churches.

The cornerstone of the Dome was laid in 1211, becoming the headquarters of Albert, Bishop of Riga and founder of the city during German domination. Now it’s slightly sunken from the rest of Dome Square in the middle of Vēcriga (the old, medieval city), and claims the title of largest church in the Baltic States (Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia). After the Protestant Reformation, the cathedral lost much of its elaborate interior. Today it’s famous for the fine organ (Walcker, 1884) and frequent organ concerts. [To check on what might be happening during our visit in July:]

St. Peter’s church (1209) is a Gothic structure with the tallest (405 feet), wedding-cakey spire, which has been rebuilt three times. The first wooden steeple, erected in 1491, collapsed. Its replacement was badly damaged by lightning and replaced in 1721. That one lasted until 1941, when German mortar fire destroyed both the tower and most of the church. The ragged stump of St. Peter’s waited 3 decades during Soviet times before the current steel tower was built in 1973. If you take the elevator up to the observation platform (a custom of Latvian couples on their wedding day), the bird's eye view is great. Admission is about 1.5 Lati, and the elevator is open 10-18 except on Mondays. (Our hotel, the Reval Hotel Latvija, has the other great panoramic view of Riga from the Skyline Bar on the 26th floor.)

St. John’s church (1234) began as a Dominican cloister. After the monks were tossed out during the Reformation (around 1523), it was a stable for the mayor’s horses, then an arsenal, until the Polish king seized it and gave it to the Jesuits. They were eventually replaced by the Lutherans. Lots of old Riga buildings metamorphosed over the centuries in similar ways. St. John’s was where my husband was baptized in 1941, when the city teetered back and forth between the Nazis and the Communists, before his family fled westward in 1944.

St. Jacob’s (1225-26), having changed hands several times, returned to being the Roman Catholic archbishop’s church in 1922. For me, its claim to fame is having the weather cock with the most character (see photo to the right).

Yes, I’m back to my bird theme again

For the 800-year jubilee of Riga’s founding, the rooster was chosen as the city’s symbol. The ancient steeples mentioned above had a rooster weather vane on top even back in the 1200s. Fires destroyed them frequently, but soon another gailis (Latvian rooster) would take its place. To tell which direction the wind is blowing, look where his beak is pointing.

In Christian folklore generally, I believe, the Devil is supposed to be terrified of the sound of crowing and can’t stand to be seen by the cock. According to legend, the rooster atop the Dome forecast times of abundance and of famine. One side of the rooster was painted black and the other, gold. If Rigans saw the black side, it indicated the doldrums had gripped the Baltic Sea, and no foreign ships could enter the harbor with their goods. But when the rooster flashed its gold side, then the local merchants knew ships would soon arrive, and a good marketing day was in store. Nowadays Riga’s roosters are gilded on both sides—in hopes of good times 24/7. Some of the older birds are still on display inside the Dome and St. Peter’s. St. Jacob’s copper rooster (my fave) has endured since 1736, while St. John’s (now in the eaves rather than at the top) is the oldest, dating from 1680.

Just as country Latvians think their storks are a sign of good luck, the urban Latvians revere their gaili as symbols of alertness, peace, prosperity, and as one writer says, “[they stand] ever vigilant against the Powers of Darkness”--a central Latvian theme. They've even been incorporated into the 1-Lats coin.

BTW, Latvian roosters don’t say “cock-a-doodle-do”. They say “kikerigī” (sounds like kicker-ee-ghee), which never ceased to amuse our daughters--along with Latvian dogs who say “vau-vau,” pigs who say “ruk-ruk,” and ducks who say “pēkš-pēkš. Our friend the sheep still says “bēēē” (baaaa). Which reminds me, I need to talk next week about knitting in Latvia.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Observing Earth Day: Nest Voyeurs

"She's laid another egg," my husband calls from his study. "Is that number four?" I shout back from the kitchen. This is turning into a rite of spring. For a second season we've become enthralled by a website from the Rezekne district of Latvia. To promote the rural beauty of the Latgale region, the owners of a horse farm rigged a camera just above the top of a tree on which a nesting platform has been constructed. Every 10 seconds, or 6 times per minute, the camera snaps the activities of the pair of European white storks who moved in this month. The screen goes black during hours of darkness (from approximately 1:00-10:00 p.m. CDT), but all morning long and late at night we can keep tabs on the private lives of the stork couple at the following website:

"Untumi" is a Latvian noun that roughly translates as "quirkiness"--an apt descriptor for many Latvian enthusiasms, and one reason I enjoy visiting. This year terse captions in Latvian have been added to the site: On March 28, the male stork flew in (having wintered in Africa) and added a few tufts of grass and twigs to freshen up this previously owned nest. On April 5, the female arrived. Apparently, stork mating is more a matter of finding a good location than attractiveness of the opposite sex. These two also seem happy to participate in reality TV. The first egg was laid on April 13, and every other day another egg has been added until as of April 22, there are 4. Last year's pair had 4 eggs. The chicks hatched in May, were fed by both parents, and finally left the nest sometime in July.

Black Stork: Research subject

An ornithologist friend of ours, Peter Blums, is responsible for getting us hooked when he suggested we check out the website last spring. His expertise in banding ducklings in the Latvian marshes and following their migration patterns drew international attention in the 1990s and led to the migration of him and his wife, Maija, to University of Missouri's Gaylord Laboratory in Puxico about 14 years ago to study U.S. wood ducks with Leigh Frederickson. Peter tells me a European consortium of biological scientists from 8 countries has begun a project to follow the travels of the black storks, who are rarer and less accessible than their white cousins. They also find the forests and peat bogs of Latvia to their liking. By attaching a tiny radio transmitter to one of the stork's legs (see photo), scientists are able to following their flight of 10,000 kilometers southward in late summer and then northward again in spring and glean much more information than they could from banding them. Another website provides details about these efforts: The Latvian stork "ambassadors" are named Varis and Maija (and are described when you select "Black Storks ID Cards" from the menu on the left and then click on their silhouettes on the map).

Happily, over the past decade both white and black stork populations have been increasing in Latvia, which now hosts more storks than ever before. Unlike parts of western Europe where wetlands have been drained and pesticides have poisoned the bird's food sources (insects, frogs, the young of small birds), Latvian farmers have encouraged colonies of these waders. Enthusiasts have built substantial platforms (like the one at "Untumi") in convenient places for storks to nest, even scatterings some lime around the platform to make the stork think that another bird has already nested there successfully. One expert warns that the middle of a farmyard is probably not the best place for a platform. Storks eat a lot, and as Janaus says in her guide (citation below), "the white rain they produce over the edge of their nests can be powerful and frequent especially in June and July when the nests are populated with young birds."

Although we probably won't encounter any storks in Riga, no drive into the Latvian countryside is complete without sighting some storks sitting in the fields and atop the haystacks.

Resource for more information (in English) about Latvia's storks: Latvia--Land of the Storks by Mara Janaus (Jumava, 1999). It's a small paperback obtainable in most Riga bookstores from the series on aspects of Latvia's cultural heritage.