Why there’s more to Latvia than Riga

The Independent 1 month ago

The Independent’s hotel recommendations are unbiased, independent advice you can trust. On some occasions, we earn revenue if you click the links and book, but we never allow this to affect our coverage.

I’m strolling, shoeless, across pinecones, alongside a forest-bordered lake. I’ve not gone feral: I’m walking the 3km barefoot path at the former Soviet health spa at Valguma Pasaule. Eschewing shoes may not be for everyone, but in the few days I’ve been here in the Kurzeme (or Courland) region of West Latvia, I’ve seen enough to tell me there’s plenty of alternatives on offer for all kinds of visitors, from history buffs to wildlife enthusiasts, foodies to outdoor lovers. It’s an area that receives little in the way of British visitors, yet is only an hour or two by car from the tourism hotspot of Riga.

My visit began in the small town of Kuldiga, a two-hour drive from the Latvian capital’s airport. With a strong Germanic past, Kuldiga has prospered since the 13th century. Thanks to restoration programmes that actively involve residents, the town is a historic work in progress, with little in the way of modernity encroaching in the centre. Wandering the cobbled streets past the Lutheran Church of Saint Catherine to the Venta Rumba, Europe’s widest waterfall, it was easy to imagine an older, more traditional Latvia from before the Soviet occupation began in 1940. 

Elsewhere, I got to experience the Suiti Cultural Space. On Unesco’s List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding since 2009, it’s dedicated to a small Catholic community – the Suiti – in this largely protestant region. At Spelmanu krogs in the picturesque town of Alsunga, a hands-on demonstration of how to bake the local favourite Sklandrausis – a sweet-savoury tart made with rye flour, carrots and potatoes flavoured with caraway – was punctuated by an al fresco performance of traditional drone singing by a trio of Suiti women. With the sun on my back, a bright orange Sklandrausis in my hand, and the sound of ancient folk songs ringing in my ears, it was like going back in time for a brief spell. 

The World Monuments Fund (WMF) has revealed its watch list for 2020, which includes 25 historical and culturally significant sites that are particularly endangered. First up, Koutammakou, Land of the Batammariba, Benin and Togo
Ontario Place, Canada
Rapa Nui National Park, Chile
Alexan Palace, Egypt
Notre-Dame de Paris, France
Tusheti National Park, Georgia
Gingerbread Neighborhood of Port-au-Prince, Haiti
Historic Water Systems of the Deccan Plateau, India
Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel Stadium, India
Mam Rashan Shrine, Iraq
Inari-yu Bathhouse, Japan
Iwamatsu District, Japan
Canal Nacional, Mexico
Choijin Lama Temple, Mongolia
Traditional Burmese Teak Farmhouses, Myanmar
Chivas and Chaityas of the Kathmandu Valley, Nepal
Anarkali Bazaar, Pakistan
Sacred Valley of the Incas, Peru
Kindler Chapel, Pabianice Evangelical Cemetery, Poland
Courtyard Houses of Axerquía, Spain
Bennerley Viaduct, United Kingdom
Bears Ears National Monument, USA
Central Aguirre Historic District, USA
San Antonio Woolworth Building, USA
Traditional Houses in the Old Jewish Mahalla of Bukhara , Uzbekistan

With 500km of coast bordering the Baltic, the sea is a big deal in Latvia. This was once the heavily-guarded western border of the USSR, but today is much more important for its recreational potential. Arriving in the small town of Pavilosta on the west coast, I felt like I’d rocked up at a surfer’s paradise. A fine, white-sand beach was fringed with scrubby pines, while the Wonderland campsite, complete with bar and wholefood café, was busy with camper vans and the odd tent. In the summer months novice surfers enjoy the modest waves here, while in winter it’s strictly for the experienced. The next morning, I wandered the five minutes from my room at Veju Paradize for a sunrise swim and found the Baltic Sea surprisingly warm, millpond calm and shallow for quite a distance. Gorgeous. 

Further north, secreted amongst seemingly endless forests of pine and birch, is one of Kurzeme’s most surprising tourist sights. The Irbene radio telescope was a crucial listening post during the Cold War, constantly monitoring the communications of the perceived enemy. Back then, the base was home to more than 2,000 people but the Russians left in 1994. Today, only six staff work here. Now, the 32 metre dish no longer listens in on information about the Apollo 13 mission, Vietnam and the Falklands conflict, instead gathering data from space, which it shares with a network of other telescopes, including Goonhilly in Cornwall. A guided tour by Arnis, one of the scientists, showed how nature has reclaimed the site, bushes growing out of windows and vines twined around the large Soviet star on the front gate. Bats now inhabit the service tunnel that runs between the main building and the big dish; I spotted a snake basking on the fissured concrete outside. 

A Land Rover safari with Dabalaba made its way from the Irbene telescope deep into the forests and wetlands, cranberries and blueberries growing wild among trees that are home to countless deer and lynx. We arrived at the Dabalaba forest café to sample – somewhat appropriately – venison pizza for lunch, before visiting the dramatic scenery of Cape Kolka, where the Estonian islands of Vilsandi were clearly visible on the white-capped horizon. It was a far cry from the chilled-out vibe of Pavilosta, but completely mesmerising in its own way. 

That same strip of water visible from Cape Kolka looked darker and more menacing without the sun on a guided sailing trip from Roja the next day. Cobwebs were well and truly blown away as Janis and Liene expertly handled the boat in what I was laughingly assured was far from choppy water. 

Heading inland, I was in search of a bog (not that sort). A two-hour guided walk – or, more accurately, squelch – in the Kemeri National Park, with its 382km2 of ancient raised bog, involved strapping on bogshoes (not dissimilar to snowshoes) to my feet and navigating ground that was so waterlogged I’d have been up to my armpits in minutes without them. Pools of water the colour of builder’s tea bubbled mysteriously with trapped methane as we passed, looking out for orchids and insect-trapping sundew. 

Back at Valguma Pasaule, the barefoot path, which aims to activate the body’s chakra points via the feet, leads me over different surfaces, such as the aforementioned pinecones, pebbles, logs, mud and even cold, clear water. After a couple of hours of non-stop sensation, my feet have never felt so invigorated. I return to the austere modern building for one final lunch before waving a sad goodbye to Latvia’s wild, wild west. 

Travel essentials

Getting there

Ryanair, Wizz Air, Air Baltic and British Airways fly direct from London to Riga from £43 return.

Staying there

Valguma Pasaule has rooms from €65 (£56), B&B.

Veju Paradize has rooms from £51, room only.

More information

Latvia.travel.en; Kurzeme.lv; Experiencebaltics.com 


Source link
Read also:
Forbes › 3 days ago
Analyst Will Townsend provides his takeaway from the recent 5G Techritory conference in Riga, Latvia.
One America News Network › Finance › 1 month ago
By Gederts Gelzis JURMALA, Latvia (Reuters) - Latvia's central bank chief, who led the former Soviet republic into the euro, appeared in court on Monday accused of bribery in the first corruption
Mirror Online › Traveling › 1 month ago
Cheap Riga city breaks are up for grabs from £59pp on Icelolly which include a 4* hotel stay, return flights and breakfast
Daily Mail Online › 1 month ago
A girl decides to brighten up her day by jumping in a puddle on a cobbled street in Riga, Latvia. She takes a run up to the puddle but lands flat on her backside as onlookers cycle past her.
One America News Network › 1 month ago
LONDON (Reuters) - European Union leaders are willing to delay Brexit past next week's Oct. 31 deadline, but have not agreed on how long the extension should be, Latvia's foreign minister, Edgars
The New York Times › 1 month ago
European Union leaders are willing to delay Brexit past next week's Oct. 31 deadline, but have not agreed on how long the extension should be, Latvia's foreign minister, Edgars Rinkevics, said on Saturday.
Sputnik International › 1 month ago
MOSCOW (Sputnik) - The Russian military will perform an observation flight over Latvia from 28 October to 1 November, the head of Russian Defence Ministry's National Nuclear Risk Reduction Centre, Sergei Ryzhkov, said.
The Sun › Sports › 1 month ago
SUPERSTAR Cristiano Ronaldo has generously sent boots to the entire Portuguese women’s Under-17 side – urging them to go and achieve their dreams. The 34-year-old rewarded the team after they defeated Latvia 4-0 to qualify for the elite round of...
Reuters › Finance › 1 month ago
Latvia's central bank chief, who led the former Soviet republic into the euro, appeared in court on Monday accused of bribery in the first corruption trial of a European Central Bank governor.
One America News Network › 1 month ago
By Sabine Siebold and Robin Emmott RIGA/BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Germany is willing to contribute more to NATO's running costs as long as other allies also step up to help reduce the United States' share
Sign In

Sign in to follow sources and tags you love, and get personalized stories.

Continue with Google
OR