Usually, during summertime, I like to travel somewhere warm and sunny, with extraordinary beaches, big palm trees and the foresight to come back home relaxed and well-tanned 😉
This year I thought I’d try something new, something different.
I have a good Russian friend who was born in Latvia. Her family belongs to the largest ethnic minority in Latvia – Russians.
When she invited me to come along and explore her country, I jumped on the opportunity to travel with a local and have her introduce me to her country and culture. So at the beginning of August, I grabbed my backpack (which has been unused for waaay too long 🙂 ) and packed all the necessary stuff. Since I had booked a super cheap flight, I could only bring hand luggage with me and to be honest, I dreaded the experience! Only one small backpack for 9 days! But as I packed, it was liberating – I was so free, carrying all the stuff I need for living on my back. (If you think about what’s really necessary to survive – you realize that a lot of the stuff we carry around, you don’t need at all!)
I started my journey in Vienna, where I took the 2-hour flight to the capital of Latvia – Riga. The airline I traveled with was AirBaltic, a Latvian airline that offers flights particularly for the north European but also other European and Asian countries. The flight was punctual, well organized, safe and without interruptions – in short: I have nothing to complain about – it was a great experience! 😉
Arriving in Riga a nice surprise was expecting me! The sun was shining! My Latvian friend Ramona told me in advance that the weather in the north is usually not the best – even during summertime. Therefore I felt even more blessed to be welcomed to this new country with sunshine.
Nonetheless, I should learn quickly that Ramona was right – the weather up there is unpredictable! 10 minutes later on the way to her house it was already raining and the sky was as grey as you can imagine 😀
On the way to Jurmala, where Ramona lives with her family, I realized that Latvia is a very green country. More than 50% of Latvia consists of woods! It’s incredible how many rivers, different national parks and natural attractions you can find there. The most amazing part for me was that from Ramonas house the Baltic sea is just a 20-minute walk away! Actually, Latvias Baltic Sea coastline is 500 km long!!
You have literally every landscape imaginable in the north of Europe – except for mountains. The biggest “mountain” in Latvia is about 300m high… For me, as an Austrian, I have to laugh a little by hearing this being called a mountain 😉
The next days I spent with my new Latvian family. Ramonas family is really sweet and open-minded and I think for the days I spent with them, they adopted me as their Austrian child ;). They introduced me to the history and culture of the country, showed me around in the non-touristy parts and also taught me some words in Russian 😉 (Ramonas parents are originally from Russia, but grew up in Latvia. A really big part of the population uses Russian more frequently than Latvian.)
Besides practicing my pronunciation of the word “Spasiba” (Thank you in Russian) – unintentionally I pronounced it in the “Russian accent” that we use in German when we try to sound Russian… As everyone was laughing at me when I said it I knew I did something wrong 😀 Throughout my stay there I did get a little better though! – I was also shown around the beautiful Latvian countryside.
For example, we went to the Baltic barefoot trail which is located in Kemeri National Park, next to the beautiful lake called “Valguma ezers”. Walking the 2 km long trail through nature without shoes and passing by some really awesome and some really painful stops was a lot of fun and also a real treat for body and soul. Afterwards, it wasn’t just your feet that felt totally relaxed, I also felt free and happy spending time in the middle of nowhere in the woods and just thinking about walking and exploring nature.
The path contains a lot of pebbles, moss, cones, sand, boulders, wood, cane, rough tree trunks, clay, etc. You also have to cross a river and walk in mud, that goes up to your knees – As I said: A lot of fun 😀
What I liked a lot as well were the signs of information which showed you which “Shakra” you were activating at the moment. A real treat for body and soul! 🙂
Later on, we visited the Kemeri National Park, which contains huge parts of swamps. You can walk through the watery landscape on a wooden path. After maybe 20 minutes of walking, you arrive at a huge wooden tower that you can climb up. Up there you have an amazing view over the entire National Park!!
Unfortunately, while walking there the northern weather teased us again – it was raining like there’s no tomorrow 😀 Totally wet but very happy, we arrived at the viewpoint and enjoyed the view – in one direction pure sunshine, while in the other direction, it looked like the end of the world was near. If you are going to visit Latvia you should definitely get used to this rapid weather changes 😉
After exploring Jurmala and its surrounding, enjoying a lot of good meals and swimming in the Baltic Sea, we went on to visit the capital of Latvia: Riga.
Riga is with around 700,000 inhabitants the largest city in the Baltics. It’s a city that seduces you with its charming old town, tons of little cafes, bars and restaurants, historical buildings which sometimes reminded me of fairy-tales from my childhood. You can walk next to the river Daugava, have a rest in one of the relaxing parks or enter some of the numerous imposing churches. For everyone interested in history, there are a lot of museums about the time when the Baltic countries were part of the Soviet Union.
What I always love about big cities are the market halls. It’s the place where locals usually buy their groceries, which is why you can usually find all kinds of traditional food there. In Riga, I found the typical extremely dark bread, which is normally eaten in Latvia, special kinds of cheeses or the typical fish Sprat, which is an important Latvian export.
I have to admit that I didn’t know much about Latvia before going there – I had just heard some stories from my friend Ramona. Of course, she has a very different view on the situation in her country, compared to someone like me, who has never been there and doesn’t know the history and the problems that the population faces. One could think that the salaries in Latvia are similar to the ones in Finland or Sweden, as everyone has an idea of northern European countries to be rich, but in the reality, people in Latvia are pretty poor. The minimum wage in Latvia is about 380 euros per month, while the prices are similar to the Austrian ones. That is the reason why a lot of Latvians work in two jobs or at least try to earn some extra money on their free days. Even though the country shows the largest inequality in terms of an unequal distribution of wealth among all EU countries (According to statistics from Eurostat), the population consists of lovely and interesting people who welcome every foreigner as a friend in their country.
For me, the week I spent in Latvia was amazing! I got an insider view into a very different and interesting culture that is marked by the Soviet leadership. I definitely want to go back and learn more about this very special northern country!
My journey didn’t end in Latvia. After visiting Riga, my friend Ramona stayed with her family and I was traveling on my own to Estonia and Finland. You can read my stories in following articles.
Fun fact: Eating a lot of ice cream is totally normal in Latvia! Not only are the ice cream cones you can buy in the shops huuuge (like the double size of what would be considered “normal” ice cream in Austria!!), there is also an incredible variety of flavors, brands and forms! I was always wondering why my friend Ramona is eating sooo much ice cream – but now I get it! It’s part of their traditions 😀
You should really visit this awesome country 🙂