Latvia – the unexpected jewel of the Baltic

Steve Newman heads to western Latvia and explains why it should be on every Silver Traveller’s list.

Most people are aware of the three Baltic States from a cruising aspect, but Latvia in particular has far more to offer. With a cultural history that stretches from the Dark Ages, perfectly preserved medieval villages to the Russian Orthodox churches built in the time of the Czars and remnants of the Soviet era, this tiny country has a fascinating cuisine and an amazing range of scenery and wildlife.

So, here’s a brief overview with some of the reasons why western Latvia should be on every Silver Traveller’s list.

Riga

As a capitalcity, Riga is something special. You can’t help getting the feeling that it’s half asleep with is UNESCO old town medieval cobbled streets that seem almost deserted as you stroll around.

Even at night when the bustling cafes spring to life it still doesn’t seem so frenetic as other cities, but it is a place of surprises. Riga has more Art Nouveau buildings than any other capital city in Europe and it’s also one of the most walkable I have ever visited. Do take in the House of The Blackheads – an historic building that is a symbol of the city’s past wealth and cultural heritage.

Besides the walking tours of the old town, I’d recommend exploring Riga from the water. You’ll find delightful wooden boats reminiscent of Edwardian elegance on the Thames that take you along the canal, or if you’re feeling a bit more adventurous take a canoeing tour that provides a unique and enjoyable way to explore the city from the water.

Ķemeri National Park

Kemeri National Park is undoubtedly special for its great biological diversity, the unique Kemeri Bog, mineral waters and therapeutic mud are found here, and The park stands out with its diverse world of wetlands.

It is home to moss or raised bogs, fens, and transitional bogs. The Great Kemeri Bog is one of the largest of its kind in Latvia. Bogshoe hiking in the bog is great experience but do remember to bring your insect relent as mosquitos can be abundant here at certain times.

Basically, you’re given a pair of plastic snowshoes and the walks are led by highly experienced bog and nature enthusiasts and experts. Walking in swamps and bogs in bogshoes is exotic, environmentally friendly and practical. The hikes help you learn many new and fascinating facts about the nature, origin, flora and fauna of swamps and you do come out of it with a feeling of satisfaction and achievement.

Kuldiga

The medieval town of Kuldiga is a true gem of the Kurzeme region, located 130 km from Riga. Its narrow streets are lined with houses with red roof tiles that are well-preserved and create a romantic atmosphere in the town. Because of its authentic planning and architecture which reflects the local building traditions of the 17th and 18th centuries, Kuldiga has been included in the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

The old red brick bridge is one of the longest in Europe but the town’s real claim to fame is the waterfall on the River Venta some 250 metres wide and as such is the widest waterfall in Europe. The height of the waterfall is between 1.6 and 2.2 meters and paddling across its lip is an experience you will never forget.

Slītere National Park

Slītere National Park is located in the Northern Kurzeme peninsula washed by the Baltic Sea. The park is known for its incredibly beautiful vistas – courtesy of the sea, broadleaf forests, bogs, wetlands, boreal forests and swamps. Think Caribbean but not with palm trees but dense woodlands of oaks and silver birch lining the beaches. This coast line is part of the 1,200 km Grand Hiking route of Latvia and Estonia which is becoming popular with longs distance walkers.

Bird watching at Cape Kolka

At Cape Kolka you can experience one of the finest bird watching spots in Europe. The 370 km bird watching route follows the scenic Baltic Sea coast, where you can spot a variety of birds, such as seven species of woodpeckers, six species of owls, two species of crossbills, and at least 14 species of raptors, including the Lesser-spotted eagle, as well as various waterfowls. If you’re keen birdwatcher like me and even if you’re not, you’ll find it amazing.

Food and drink

If I’m going to give you one piece of advice it’s to immerse yourself in the Baltic cuisine – so full of exciting combinations of flavours. We visited Sabile a small, romantic town located at the most beautiful and deepest part of ancient Abava River Valley. It’s famous for its wine hill the most northerly vineyard in Europe. But also, do visit the Sabile Cidery a small family run business that produces several aromatic ciders in the traditional way.

One of the joys of Latvia is finding reasonably priced superb restaurants in tiny towns and villages serving excellent meals and Sabile has several. Do try the smoked fish tasting at Skadiņi, an old fisherman’s homestead in the town of Lapmezciems who are ready to welcome guests for overnight stays or local fish sampling.

And finally

The western part of Latvia is waiting to be discovered with its deep forests, tiny fishermen’s villages, and a wonderful coastline rich with white sand and rocky beaches.

Local people living among this harsh, yet beautiful land tend to be reserved at first sight, but when you get to know them better, they are warm and hospitable, and just like the country itself ready to offer the warmest of welcomes.

Next steps

To plan and book your holiday to Latvia, call Silver Travel Advisor on 0800 412 5678.

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Steve Newman

Eco Adventure Cruising writer & photographer

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