Riga launches stint as one of two European capitals of culture with an emotional ceremony

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Riga launches stint as one of two European capitals of culture with an emotional ceremony
Latvian citizens take part in the "Chain of Booklovers - the Path of Light Action" event in Riga, Latvia on January 18, 2014, as part of the "European Capital of Culture" program. During the event participants pass books from the old National Library of Latvia building from hand to hand to the new building on the other bank of the river Danuba. AFP PHOTO / ILMARS ZNOTINS.

RIGA (AFP).- Latvians on Saturday marked the start of Riga's tenure as one of two European capitals of culture with an emotional ceremony recalling the Baltic states' 1989 fight for independence from the Soviet Union.

Around 15,000 people braved freezing temperatures to form a "chain of book lovers" stretching more than two kilometres (more than a mile) across the capital,deliberately echoing the Baltic Way when some two million protesters formed a human chain across Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.

In Saturday's event, people in the chain passed along books from Riga's existing 150-year-old national library across the River Daugava to a new national library building due to open in August.

Organiser Aiva Rozenberga said the event had deep symbolic significance for Latvians.

"The people who stood in the Baltic Way remember that feeling of being shoulder to shoulder with complete strangers," she told AFP. "The people taking part in the book chain who are prepared to stand here on a cold winter day are taking this seriously too -- we are literally standing up for culture."

"We are a nation of readers," said a 61-year-old Riga resident who gave her name only as Elga, standing in the shadow of the vast new library.

However, not all Rigans are enthused over the new facility. Mayor Nils Usakovs has in the past likened the triangular grey building -- designed by Latvian-American architect Gunnar Birkert at a cost of more than 166 million euros ($225 million) -- to a giant supermarket.

Another resident, Katarina Kurova, 29, also said she was unimpressed. "There used to be a nice view of the Old Town and the river from where I live. Now all we can see is the library."

Highlights of Riga's programme as European city of culture -- an honour it shares with Umea, in northern Sweden, this year -- include a new production of Richard Wagner's opera "Rienzi", whose first two acts were written while the composer was living in Riga.

© 1994-2014 Agence France-Presse

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