Riga, the largest city and capital of Latvia has just been announced as the Culture Capital of Europe for 2014, tied up with university town of Umeå in Sweden. The city has a rich cultural history, with its historic center being a UNESCO World Heritage Site, known for its 19th century examples of wooden architecture as well as Art Nouveau/Jugendstil architecture. Latvians, about 14,000 of them, braved freezing weather to form a human chain, passing books by hand from the old library to the new building two kilometers away to celebrate the occasion. The new library building, named Gaismas Pils or the Palace of Light is from the design of Latvian-born Gunnar Birkerts, an American architect.
The forming of a human chain, this time to pass about 2,000 books out of the four million in the library’s collection, is a tradition. It recalls the Baltic Way, a peaceful demonstration staged in 1989 where more than two million people from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania formed a human chain about 600 kilometers long. The demonstration was to show their solidarity and peaceful means to gain freedom, which the three states won several months after, as recalled in the article that appeared in Global Post:
“On August 23, 1989, some 2 million people joined hands to create a massive human chain. They stretched 370 miles (600 km) and linked the Baltic capitals of Vilnius (Lithuania), Riga (Latvia) and Tallinn (Estonia).”
The passing of the books is symbolic, as one of the events for the celebration of the city being the Culture Capital is an exhibition entitled The Book, 1514-2014 showcasing the last 500 years of book printing. The exhibition will be held at the new Latvian National Library, the Gaismas Pils. It was in 1514 that the first book with Arabic script was printed and the year when the first printing house for the Jewish was established. It also was the year when the Torah was first printed, as well as the publication of the first book in the Polish language. The first book written in the Latvian language came a few years later.
The celebration in Riga will continue throughout the year, with about 200 festivities being planned. Last Friday, the Latvian National Opera produced one of Richard Wagner’s early works, Rienzi. Other concerts and art exhibitions focusing on several themes are planned. Riga will also host the World Choir Games in July and a series of concerts in the same month entitled Born In Riga. The Staro Rīga Light Festival in mid-November will bring some of the best light artists from Latvia and the rest of Europe. Other wonderful events include experiencing the Latvian Jāņi traditions during the summer solstice, a science/music/art collaboration called RīgaPunkts science festival and the exhibition of the Amber Route in Riga at the various museums in the city.
The Capital of Culture program of the European Union was conceived in 1983 by former actress Melina Mercouri who at that time was the Culture Minister of Greece. Its purpose is to give focus to the diversity and richness of European culture. The first to hold the title was Athens way back in 1985, when the program formally started.