The truth is that if we hadn’t met Baiba and Aivis in Barcelona in December 2018, we might not have set off to this unexpectedly beautiful destination! But let’s see how everything started…
Danis was flying his drone over the Magic Fountain in Montjuic in Barcelona and Aivis approached him out of curiosity. A few meters further away was Baiba, Aivis’ wife, who, after only five minutes chatting to each other, invited us to her land in her broken English! “Come! Don’t be shy”… We became friends on facebook and that was it, our lives connected!
Baiba’s invitation made me start reading about Latvia, which, I have to admit, had not been in my to-do-list before our encounter. The more I read and researched, the more intrigued I became! And then, we found that cheap flight from Vilnius to Riga, so we thought, “Let’s do it! Let’s visit Latvia!” Of course, we let Baiba and Aivis know about our plans to visit their country because it is always better to have some suggestions from locals than just from the Internet. The plan was to meet them and spend some time together and ideally get some advice about what to see and what to do in Riga. But Baiba sent me a big text message, inviting us to her house and suggesting a load of places to see and visit! She even prepared a chart with ideas for the whole duration of our stay! And she offered to take us everywhere in her car! What else could we have expected! How much luckier could we have been! Latvia was waiting for us!!!
We landed at Riga’s airport at 14.20 on April 26 after a flight from Vilnius that lasted only 40 minutes. The temperature was unexpectedly high, at about 25-26 degrees Celsius! Unfortunately, Aivis was away for work but Baiba was there, waiting for us, looking very stylish in her beautiful yellow dress. She drove us to Riga, which was just a 15-minute drive away from the airport.
She took us to the most central point of Riga, the Freedom Monument in Freedom Boulevard, near the Old Town of Riga. The Freedom Monument is dedicated to their independence which was declared on 18 November 1918. However, their independence was interrupted at the outset of World War II, beginning with its forcible incorporation into the Soviet Union, followed by the invasion and occupation by Nazi Germany in 1941, and the re-occupation by the Soviets in 1944 for the next 45 years. They regained independence on 4 May 1990 as a result of their peaceful ‘Singing Revolution’. At the top of the 42-meter high Freedom Monument sits a green lady, colloquially referred to as Milda, who holds three stars, each representing one of the three historic regions of the country, Kurzeme, Vidzeme and Latgale, which were united into Latvia in 1918.
Baiba had to go because she had a meeting for “Latvia’s best granny”! I thought “What is she talking about? She can’t be a granny! She looks so young and fresh!” And she was! Young, fresh, a mother of 4 and a granny!!!! She gave us a map with all the highlights of Riga. We would meet her again at 19.00 at the same spot, the Laima Clock, whose location between the Old Town and the Centre commercial district has made it a landmark of the city and a very popular meeting spot.
We started our wandering in the beautiful park around the Freedom Monument which was very well-kept, full of colorful flowers and with an impressive fountain. People were lying on the grass relaxing, children were playing around and some youngsters were sailing in the city’s canal which was created by the overflowing of river Daugava when the old town wall was torn down and now forms the natural boundary between the Old Town and the city center. We could even hear the birds singing although we were right in the center of the capital! The population of the city is about 630.000 people and the whole country less than 2 million. Quite small, isn’t it?
At the park around Freedom Monument in Riga
By simply crossing Freedom Boulevard in front of the Freedom Monument we entered the Old Town. Cobble-stoned streets, beautifully restored buildings but most of all, full of life!!! The area is famous for its old churches and cathedrals.
Our first finding was the imposing Dome Cathedral whose history starts over 800 years ago. It is one of the largest medieval churches of the Baltics but it also serves as a magnificent concert hall for classical and organ music performances. It is located in Dome Square which is the largest square in the Old Town. Seven streets meet here, making it a focal point for significant events. The square has a marked point where you can stand and see all three golden cockerels on top of Old Town’s churches.
Keeping wandering around the Old Town we reached the Three Brothers buildings which were named so because they were allegedly built by three men from the same family. However, each of the buildings was built in a different century – the 15th, 16th and 17th and each of them represents a different building style. The Three Brothers complex has been excellently restored to its former charm and today houses the State Inspection for Heritage Protection and the Latvian Museum of Architecture.
Our next stop was Our Lady of Sorrows church, a Roman-catholic church situated right next to Riga Castle. Riga Castle is one of the largest medieval castles in Latvia which has survived for over 700 years. Today it is the residence of the President of Latvia and unfortunately it is not open to visit. Very close to it, we bumped into St. Saviour’s Anglican Church, a very impressive neo-Gothic church with characteristic red walls.
It was late afternoon and walking made us very hungry. Some Greek students we had met in front of the Three Brothers complex recommended we tried Lido. And we did! What a tasty surprise! Lido is a cheap but of very good quality self-service eatery serving traditional Latvian food. Its buffet was full of exquisite local tastes and the atmosphere very cozy.
After refueling, we headed for the House of the Blackheads, the Latvian capital’s most magnificent edifice. The building was destroyed by bombs in the Second World War but was fully rebuilt in 1999. Its opulent façade featuring various architectural styles and artistic trends is a must if you visit Old Riga. The guy who was performing his cello in the square in front of the building when we arrived added a unique touch to its charm!
Still wandering in the bustling with life lanes of the Old Town we couldn’t miss the Cat House which is known for its two cat sculptures with arched backs and raised tails on its roof. Legend has it that the wealthy tradesman who commissioned the building was refused membership of the Riga Tradesmen’s Guild. Holding a grudge against its members the tradesman had two copper statues of angry-looking cats on his rooftop with their tails turned towards the house of the Great Guild, situated across the street. However, it was later ordered that the cats should be turned so as to face the House of the Great Guild.
It was almost seven, and Baiba would have finished with her meeting and would be waiting for us at Laima Clock. The rain that suddenly started didn’t daunt us. We once again entered the Old Town, but this time with Baiba, who would get us to a jazz concert in Trompete Taproom, a cultural pub and restaurant, where her second oldest son, Kristers, was playing with his band. Since the place was fully booked, she first took us to her favorite place, situated in a basement just across the street from Trompete Taproom. Its name was Folkklubs ALA Pagrabs and we totally loved it! Despite being situated underground, it has a beautiful, warm atmosphere and an exquisite decoration. It is a very popular place, serving some excellent local beer. The ideal place for some casual chatting! Baiba told us a lot about her family and her life. Personal details that I cannot write about here. Life moments that I feel blessed she has shared with us. ‘What a powerful woman she is!’ I thought. She kept on talking, full of energy and passion!
When Kristers’ concert was about to start, we just crossed the street and went to Trompete Taproom again. The place was full and the quartet played some excellent jazz! Unfortunately we couldn’t stay for long since we hadn’t made a reservation and we were probably occupying somebody else’s place.
Not to mention how tired we were after exploring the beauties of the Old Town. We left Riga in Baiba’s car and headed for Engure, a peaceful small fishing village about 70km from Riga.
Our home for the next three days would be their sauna house that Aivis zestfully built with the help of Baiba’s brother. A cute, wooden house in their garden next to their house, fully equipped, and beautifully decorated! Lying down in our bed we started thinking of how we would return their lavish hospitality!
After having breakfast with Baiba, we set off for Kuldīga. On the way we made a short stop at Bear Pub lake. Legend has it that there were dolomite mines and an incinerator here some time ago. Baiba says that the lake lies on the ashes of the incinerator, hence, its colour which is very unusual to see in the nature of Latvia.
Kuldīga is the pearl of Kurzeme, Latvia’s western region. It is an ancient town with unique, distinctive architecture that has never experienced the consequences of war. The most visited place there is Venta Waterfall which is the widest waterfall in Europe whose width can reach 270m during spring. Its height however is very short, just 2m. In April and October fish try to get over it to move further to their spawning areas up the river Venta. To catch these fish, Duke Jacob invented a unique method – fish were caught in the air! When trying to jump over the waterfall, the ‘flying’ fish themselves fell into the 40 baskets hanging along the waterfall and the fishermen only had to empty the baskets! Although it was April when we visited, we were not lucky enough to see the ‘flying’ fish that dozens of people were anticipating to see along with us. The view, however, was absolutely stunning!
This normally quiet town was bustling with life when we arrived due to the annual festival that was held on that day: the Flying Fish Festival! It is amazing how events like this transform places that could easily be described as dormant into sources of energy! People were literally everywhere, dancing, singing, performing! Children were acting in front of their proud relatives or rolling in huge balls in the river! Adults wearing the traditional local outfit were performing something like a standup comedy of which I could understand absolutely no word at all. Local craftsmen were selling their unique handmade products or patiently teaching young children how to create their own. Men dressed up as Duke Jacob were roaming around in their weird vehicles amusing children and unknowing adults like us. While wandering around the festival we unwittingly intruded the quiet lanes of the town and got a small taste of what it is like living there. I was impressed by how well-kept and clean everything was! The grass was freshly-cut and the walls freshly-painted, probably in preparation for the big event! How lucky we were to be there on that big day! Finding our way back into the festivities we could not miss tasting some local treats! I found out that pork is very common in their dishes and also tasted some mouthwatering dessert made of carrot!
At the end of our exploration and of Liepaja Street we bumped into the Duke himself! Duke Jacob, who was born in Kuldīga and ruled it to each peak. His memory is kept alive by this original, two-meter statue named Teleport whose front side is made of aluminum and symbolizes the 21st century and its back side is made of iron and symbolizes the 17th century, which is the time the Duke lived. It depicts Duke Jacob crossing time, leaving behind the past and entering Kuldīga of the present. It is very cleverly situated at the end of the historical part and the beginning of the newer part of the town.
That day was probably the hottest of our trip at 26 degrees Celsius! Baiba said that it was not normal for that season and that they usually have temperatures that high only in summer! Not to mention that the snow had only melted a couple of weeks before!
Walking wearily under the merciless sun we reached Baiba’s car again. I must have fallen asleep during most of the 130km towards Kolka Cape, exhausted by the heat. Reaching the cape we cherished the cool breeze! What a relief! Kolka Cape is the place where the waters of the Baltic Sea meet the waters of the Gulf of Riga. Baiba told us that the previous winter the water had frozen and you could see the ice of the sea overlapping the ice of the gulf! I would describe it as a very peaceful place where you can watch amazing sunsets and sunrises! Sitting at the horn-shaped edge of the cape I felt the sea breeze and tried to picture in my mind the infinite power of nature! Just marvelous!
On our way back home, we stopped to admire the strange White Dunes located far away from the beach! The municipality protects but at the same time shows them off having created long footbridges along the whole length of the dunes! Great job, I have to admit! But what is even better is the fact that this entire project is well-respected and maintained and not left in disrepair. People consider public property their own and their country is their home. They have lived under the Soviet occupation for too long and they now feel blessed to be independent. They love their land and they only want to live peacefully.
Our last stop before going back home was the village Roja where we had dinner. Deer for me and local fish for Baiba and Danis. Delicious!
The day had not ended yet! Today was Baiba’s parents’ 45th wedding anniversary and we were invited in their house to drink champagne and celebrate! For us, that was the highlight of this trip – meeting people, entering their life, tasting their food and seeing their every day routine. For us, this is what travelling is. It is neither the monuments, nor the cities. And Baiba let us enter her family, as if she knew us for ever, and talked to us about all those things you cannot read about in guide books or the Internet. She opened her house and she also opened her heart to us. Her mother, Sarmite, doesn’t speak English and we don’t understand Latvian, but somehow, in a magic, inexplicable way, we connected! Inta, her mother-in-law, was there too with her husband and Martins, Baiba’s brother, with his little son. We were all there, in their garden, drinking champagne from ‘the Soviet times’, maybe one of the very few soviet things left behind from that period….
After Baiba’s delicious breakfast we headed for Latvia’s Ethnographic Open-Air Museum located just outside Riga. Baiba told us that it was created by relocating whole buildings from the four regions of the country! Amazing! Every region has its homestead and several other buildings of architectural or cultural value represented here. We visited the pub, the bath-house, the storehouse, the mill, the smoke house for fish, the crucifix and many churches. The area is also used for cultural events, such as folk concerts and traditional and craft festivals. But it is so peaceful and quiet, that it is worth visiting it just to hike across its beautiful nature.
Latvia’s Ethnographic Open-Air Museum
Next, we set off for Turaida Castle in Vizdeme region. Its most dominant feature is the red-brick tower with the magnificent view of the meanders of the river Gauja and the picturesque valley stretching along its banks. In the grounds of the castle we also visited Turaida’s Rose grave which is quite popular. The story goes like this: (with the help of Baiba and wikipedia)
“Maija was found in the arms of her dead mother after a battle at the foot of Turaida Castle and was brought up by a castle clerk. She grew up to be very beautiful and so was known as the “Rose of Turaida”. She fell in love with Viktor, the gardener at the castle of Sigulda (opposite Turaida over the Gauja River) and they prepared to be married. Shortly before the wedding Maija received a letter from a Polish soldier called Adam Jakubowski who pretended to be Viktor asking her to meet him at the Gutmanis Cave, the couple’s usual meeting place. Adam had been captured by her beauty and intended to force her to marry him instead of Victor. Maija went to the cave with Lenta, the young daughter of her adoptive father. When she reached it, however, she realized it was not Viktor she encountered. Adam forced her to be his wife but Maija refused. She promised to give him her magic scarf that was impossible to cut through if he would let her go, and persuaded him to test its power on her. He struck her with an axe and she died, having thus saved her honor. In the evening Viktor went to the cave, found her dead body and was accused of her murder. But in court there appeared a witness called Peteris Skudritis, who testified that he had been commissioned by Jakubowski to deliver the fake letter. Lenta confirmed the course of events. Viktor buried Maija near the castle, planted a linden tree on the grave and left the country forever.
From then on it has been customary for newlyweds to leave flowers on the grave of the Rose of Turaida in the hope of finding the same eternal love and devotion.”
Intrigued by the romantic story, we continued towards Gutmanis Cave, Maija and Victor’s meeting place. Baiba proudly informed us that it is the biggest cave in Latvia! The truth is that it is the widest and highest cave in the Baltic countries, 18.8m deep, 12m wide and 10m high! It started forming more than 10.000 years ago and thus it is the oldest tourist attraction in Latvia. On the walls of the cave there are inscriptions from the 17th century and due to the story of Maija and Victor, which is similar to that of Romeo and Juliet, Sigulda, the nearby town, is known as the “City of Love”!
The day ended with guests! We had invited Baiba’s family to “our” house for some Greek treats! The truth is we desperately looked for something Greek at the supermarket, but in vain. So we thought, ‘We can improvise!’ We prepared some homemade ‘tzatziki’ and ‘tirosalata’ to accompany the delicacies they brought us. We also had the local drink ‘Riga Black Balsam’ which is a traditional Latvian herbal liqueur, extremely bitter and strong! Plus some greek wine we found at the supermarket and some local beer that Martins brought! Quite a multicultural dinner! Exactly what we love!
The day started with a visit to Engure’s Art School. Inta, Baiba’s mother-in-law, works there, and although the school starts lessons after 14.00, she welcomed us early in the morning to show us what they consider ‘Engure’s Jewel’. And what we saw was indeed a jewel! A school where kids learn music, pottery, painting, woodwork, crafts. A tastefully decorated school, clean and tidy as if it wasn’t used by children! In a small fishing village!
At the end of our tour, Baiba stopped in front of four pictures on the wall and told us that these four pictures have to be in every Latvian school. One was of their president, the second was of their national holidays, the third of their flag and emblem and the last of their anthem. I asked her to read and translate their anthem for me. And listening to Baiba translating with a trembling voice:
God, bless Latvia!
Our beloved fatherland,
Oh bless it, yet again!
Where Latvian daughters bloom,
Where Latvian sons sing,
Let us dance for joy there,
In our Latvia!
I felt moved too! I realized what ‘freedom’ and ‘independence’ mean for this nation and how deep their love for their country is! I realized that this country never started a war and even their revolution was peaceful! Baiba told us about the Baltic Chain, the peaceful demonstration that took place on August 23 1989, in which approximately 2 million people joined their hands to form a human chain that connected the three Baltic capitals: Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn, demonstrating their desire for independence.
Our next destination was the luxurious Rundāle Palace with the lush garden adjacent to it. I have to admit that it reminded me of Versailles very much but without the long queues and the hordes of tourists. Baiba told us that here they hold banquets for politicians who visit their country.
On our way back to Engure, which was about 120km, Baiba narrated stories of her childhood during the soviet period. What it was like living at that time. She told us that people were not allowed to celebrate Christmas and children wondered why they celebrated New Year twice! She told us about her very religious grandmother and the little cross that she had given her to protect her, defying the soviet law! And how her teacher got terrified of what might happen to her if the soviets saw it! She told us how she felt when she got her first pair of jeans and her first leather jacket, forbidden items for them before 1990! And she kept on talking and I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to remember everything when I went back home. But her narration was so intense that I remember every single detail of that 2-hour drive from Rundāle to Engure!
Before going home for dinner, we stopped at the little scenic harbor of Engure. Baiba’s father-in-law was there. We also saw her father’s boat, lying out of the water, waiting for its next fishing trip.
At home Baiba prepared some local dinner for us. Meatballs with boiled potatoes and cabbage and Cepelinai dumplings made from grated potatoes and stuffed with ground meat. Cepelinai is actually a Lithuanian dish but we hadn’t tasted it in Lithuania. To be honest, I preferred the Latvian meatballs much more than Cepelinai. Her mother visited us to bring us presents to take back home. “There is someone in Latvia who loves you” wrote the bracelet she gave me among other local items. ‘And there is someone in Greece who loves you’ I told her and she understood in spite of not speaking English!
Our trip to Latvia made me fall in love with this wonderful country and its beautiful people! Thank you Baiba for giving us the chance to see your country through your eyes! Labi ok davai ciao!…