This jewel, tucked between the other two Baltic States, is unlikely to retain its unspoilt quaint nature for long. After the inevitable influx of “lads abroad” holidays which followed the opening of a Ryanair route, the tourist office has made a firm move to uphold the city’s traditions and customs. The peaty marshlands are broken up by pine and birch forest which cover over 40% of the total land area. These areas are home to various health-spas and outdoor retreat centres (as well as wolves and lynx!). The rich architecture reflects the city’s history, from stone-walled churches and castles to 19th century wooden buildings and the “Art Nouveau” capital that is Riga. Having been occupied by so many different forces during its 800 year history, Latvia is now a proud member of NATO and the EU. This dynamic and varied country is finally getting an opportunity to flourish. It is well worth a visit.
The official language is Latvian, also referred to as Lettish. Due to mass deportation and Soviet occupation, it is the mother tongue for only 60% of the inhabitants. Despite being banned in the discussion of current affairs, Russian is still widely spoken.
A few useful phrases:Labrit! - good morningLabdien! - good afternoonLabvakar! - good eveningPaldies! - thank you
Lat (Ls). 1 Lat is conveniently almost exactly £1. €1 to 0.7 Ls and $1 to 0.55 Ls.
Latvia enjoys a maritime climate. Long summer days can get up to 30˚C, Spring is the driest season although it is cold. Cyclonic winds dictate Autumnal and Winter temperatures, which can be bitterly cold, or as high as 20˚C. Conditions in the East and West of the country can differ greatly for the same reasons.
Riga – The capital is made up of ancient cobbled alleys intertwining between spectacular spires of the churches and castles. The enchanting old town itself can take up a few days exploration; the experience enhanced by a stay in one of the centres many charming boutique hotels. The highly commercialised shopping provides a more glitzy alternative and there is plenty of accommodation to match this also. There are many informative museums covering the country’s occupation and culture and art.
Sigulda – Dubbed the “Switzerland of Latvia”, Sigulda is the gate to a diversity of history and natural beauty. Historically a wealthy town, it has given rise to various castles; the Turaida Castle is still standing and provides great views over the river. Sigulda Castle itself is little more than an archaeological site but doubles up as a fantastic summer concert venue. The Gauja National Park is home to some fantastic wildlife and as the temperature drops the town fills up with those eager to take to the nearby slopes. Regular trains run from Riga (1 hour).
The trip along the coast from the Gulf of Riga has a couple of notable stop-offs. Cape Kolka is a good base to explore the rugged coastline and even a swim. The surrounding villages are protected to prevent hotels from being built leaving a reasonable choice in homely wooden guesthouses. The port of Ventspils south of Kolka is experiencing rapid development, and is fast catching up with Riga in terms of bars and restaurants.
Riga is home to a foray of chic brand-name stores and boutiques. The largest and most modern being Mc2 (www.mc2.lv/en), which is home to a range of delicatessens selling reassuringly expensive wines, cheeses and sweets. Both modern and classic home-ware products are also available, although it would be a great shame to shop here rather than investigating the smaller wooden antique dens of Riga. Locally made amber jewellery and leather goods should be of a high quality and the Laima brand of confectionary provides a slightly glossy version of one of Latvia’s finest talents.
As mentioned above, Riga has been plagued by over-indulgent stag weekenders and so there is of course no shortage of clubs and strip bars catering to this market. Some travel guides portray the local women as curious about foreign men, which is unfair as the majority are as discerning as anywhere else and as equally unimpressed with loutish behaviour. The music is a mix of European pop and some Russian radio hits. The cocktail or music bars provide a more relaxed evening, the latter doing a good sideline in American food.
Insurance must be purchased on entering the country; this is understandable given the condition of most of the smaller roads. Major cities are serviced by a good network of motorways where the speed limits are 70 to 110km/hr. The limit is 50 km/hr on minor roads owing the large volume of non-motorised traffic. There is a “zero tolerance” policy on driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs with heavy fines in place. Driving is on the right hand side and lights must be on at all times throughout the year.
Food and Drink
The three predominant ingredients for Latvian cooking are pork, potatoes and cream. They stretch far beyond a rich bangers and mash however, and those with a taste for something a little less hearty will not be disappointed with styles from around the globe readily available in Riga. Vegetarians may have difficulty outside the capital.