German traces in Latvia: Rīga Central Market

Thousands of visitors frequent the Rīga Central Market – the Baltics’ largest market – each day, but many are unaware that a large portion of German military history is preserved in its food pavilions.

The market’s five massive halls are among the most characteristic landmarks in the Latvian capital. When it was first built, it was the largest and most modern market in Europe. It gets quite busy nowadays as well, with 80,000 shoppers visiting daily. But they didn’t always sell food under the pavilion arches, as during the First World War these halls served as hangars for airships.

In 1916 the German Imperial Navy set up an air base for its airships at Vaiņode parish, about 200 km southwest from Rīga. From there German airships made observation flights in the Gulf of Rīga and went on the attack, bombarding strategic objects of the Russian Empire across the territory of what is now Latvia. Two massive hangars were built for housing these pioneering aircraft. The halls, 240-meters long, 47-meters wide and 38-meters high were named Walhalla and Walther, following German mythology.

After the First World War ended in 1918 and the German Empire fell, newly-independent Latvia no longer had any use for the airship base and its two zeppelin hangars. But the city of Rīga did. Even before the war, the old market, situated between the old town and River Daugava, was no longer able to meet metropolitan needs.

Finally, a decision was made to expand the market and move it to a location adjacent to the Central Station. The roof constructions of the two hangars were to be used for building the new market pavilions. Walhalla and Walther were taken away from Vaiņode, and five smaller halls were created from the roof constructions; the twenty-meter arches were still a rather impressive sight.

Under construction for six years, the Rīga Central Market was unveiled on November 2, 1930. Today, almost every single visitor to the city uses the chance to immerse themselves in the motley hustle and bustle of the market and discover unusual treats and the tastes particular to Latvia, such as fried lampreys in jelly, pork jowl and birch juice. Seeing as the prices in the market are sometimes better than at shopping malls, the visitors mostly consist of locals doing their daily shopping.

Even though the pavilion layout is less than intuitive, the goods on offer are actually very wide-ranging. Copious amounts of fresh produce are sold seven days a week in this territory, which measures the size of ten football fields. The particular atmosphere inside each pavilion is due to the products available there: live fish, mountains of meat, pyramids of fruit and vegetables, cheap clothing and refrigerated cabinets with dairy products. Those who haven’t found what they’re looking for in the pavilions can step out into the open-air part of the market. Everyone will find a souvenir or a present to their liking here, because seemingly everything is on display – including seasonal fruit and vegetables, cheap clothing, electronics of suspect provenance, craft wares and bric-a-brac.

More recently one of the capacious hangars found another use that could not be more contemporary: as a Covid-19 vaccination point.

The German Traces series was first published as part of the Goethe Institut in Rīga project “German Footprints in Latvia” ("Vācu pēdas Latvijā" www.goethe.de/vacu-pedas). The linked mobile application "German Footprints in Latvia" can be downloaded at www.ej.uz/vp-iOS and www.ej.uz/vp-Android.

 

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