In attempting to understand some of Latvia’s traits and culture it occurred to me that if someone asked, how I would describe the British culture and people? I would start my reply by saying clearly all Englishmen still wear bowler hats, love the queen and we all get blind drunk when we’re on cheap package holidays abroad. The Welsh love sheep and only eat leeks. The only food you can buy in Scotland is haggis, malt whisky comes ‘oot the tap’ and all the Scots wear tartan skirts..! But, parking the stereotypes for a moment, how would you describe typical British culture or the traits of the average man or women in the UK?
Thus excused, what follows is my attempt at describing Latvians and their culture as seen through the limited exposure we’ve had whilst travelling through the country and is therefore necessarily anecdotal.
Kohuke – Is a dairy confectionery bar we discovered in Estonia. In Latvia the popular brand we’ve seen everywhere is Kārums. It is prepared with sweetened and pressed curd cheese, it’s usually covered in a chocolate coating and comes in various flavours such as vanilla, strawberry, mango, chocolate, or caramel. It taste a bit like a chocolate-covered cheesecake bar. By the way we’ve got a fridge full.
Interesting Latvian facts – Before coming here, if Richard Osman had asked me, I could have named the Baltic capitals. I knew all three states were once part of the Soviet Union and that they all vote for each other in the Eurovision Song contest. (which may have helped Marie N win for Latvia in 2002).
Ok fact No 1
Latvia was once ‘Lettland’ and Latvians were the ‘Letts.’ This is because the natives were Letts, up until the 13th century, when the Livonian Brothers of the Sword (knights from Germany, and yes- a real title) came in and took over.
Gauja National Park
Is the largest town in the Gauja National Park and the natural gateway to explore the region. We stopped off for coffee and cake and were immediately confronted with a change (compared with Estonia) in Covid rules. At first we thought you weren’t allowed to eat inside (we later found you could, provided you could show your Covid pass). So take away cake from one shop and outside coffee from another!
The sculpture is called “Through the centuries”. The old man carrying a lamp, one of the symbols of Cesis. According to the legend, “long ago, in ancient times, When the townspeople went to bed, the man walked all the streets with his cudgel and lantern – and the people knew as long he walked the streets, the town would be safe and peaceful.
Thanks to reviews on Camper Contact posted by the likes of Jason and Julie from Our Tour we found a well equipped campsite around a lake at Camping “Apaļkalns“. With a lakeside pitch, electric hook up, beautifully clean facilities and a washing machine so we stayed put for two nights.
Here’s another fact Latvian are the tallest women on the planet. The average female comes in at an impressive 170 cm. (Lesley is 160 cm)
The sandstone outcrops, rocks, cliffs and caves are among the park’s major attractions. The reddish sandstones were formed around 360 million years ago (when according to National Geographic they were shipped over by a Devonian firm from just outside Exeter?
Here’s some more facts
- Latvia is sandwiched between Estonia (north) Lithuania (south) and a border with Russian to the east.
- With half the country covered by forest, Latvians are a nation of foragers. Especially fungi & berries..
Using Komoot we thought we’d mapped out a good bike route. We did find some nice parts but an indicated path turned out to be a sandy jungle track, where we had to fight through undergrowth and fallen trees. It was somewhere during this struggle that Lesley lost her front mudguard. We came across this foragers car. The badge on the grill looks like A3nH, any suggestions? a Moskvitch 2140 perhaps?
Leaving the campsite we decided it might be fun to take the Ligatne Ferry. After a 10 mile (milk curdling) drive down a washboard gravel road, we arrived at the river crossing. However the angle of the ramp to drive onto the ferry was way too steep for Margo’s rear end! Had we attempted it, we’d have grounded the chassis on the ramp, whilst her front wheels would have been on the ferry and probably making it impossible to reverse off! – Not good.
And some more facts
- Latvians cherish their independence.
- Latvians are still very much pagans at heart. They worship nature by jumping over bonfires at Midsummer Eve
Getting to chat to fellow campers is generally easy, especially when (still not awake) I tripped over their electric cable and broke the plug. After a joint repair effort we managed to fix the cable and normal anglo-german relations were restored.
Our ride from Artūrs campsite was a real mix of town cycle paths, park roads, a tricky MTB section and forest paths. This was complimented nicely with soup & potato pancakes lunch stop at a cafe half way round.
Araisi Lake Fortress
Before leaving Gauja National Park we stopped off to see a fortress on an Island. The Araisi Lake Fortress is a recreation of the village that would have stood on the spot in the 9th-10th century. The remains of the original village were uncovered during the 1960s and 1970s. After much research the project to reconstruct the village-fortress was then started on site in 1993.
Walking around the wooded decked island you get a real sense of village life and an understanding of how the buildings and dwellings had been constructed. To me it seemed a bit bonkers to go to all that trouble to build a fortress on wooden platform on water. A much better location to defend would have been the medieval castle ruins site 200 m away.
sometimes often struggle with history dates and found a plaque in the visitor centre very helpful.
Stone Age 10,500 – 1800 BC
Iron Age 500 BC – 1200 (time of construction of the Lake fortress)
Bronze Age 1800 – 500 BC
MIDDLE AGES 1200 – 1561
Riga is the capital of Latvia and is home to 632,614 inhabitants, which is a third of Latvia’s population. Being significantly larger than other cities of Latvia, it is also the largest city in the three Baltic states and is home to ten percent of the three Baltic states’ combined population. It’s a busy place, with proper traffic jams!
After fighting the traffic, we managed to squeeze Margo in here. This small city centre car park is generally for cars only. With the barrier up we were halfway in when the woman parking attendant (owner) waved at us to say no. We smiled beseechingly and she relented and found us the perfect spot.
As we are curious to find out more about Latvians and their culture we’ve read that they have a tendency towards introversion. And of “personality types that get overstimulated easily and prefer solitude, quiet and reflection..” Maybe the Riga neighbourhood called Zolitūde (Solitude) is an example
We had a nice meal in Riga restaurant tonight and talking to the waitress afterwards I asked how she would characterise typical Latvians – She said the way she would describe them was grey, or a bit reserved. She went on to recall how when Covid first hit Latvia last summer everyone had to observe the 2m social distancing. But when the Covid restrictions were lifted people were really quite relieved that they could go back to 5m…!
Because we’d squeezed Margo into a city centre car park, walking to most places in the city was easy. Starting with the Art Nouveau district that had with lots of impressive buildings mostly owned by banks and foreign embassies along with the necessary restaurants and cafés. We couldn’t resist a coffee in this period café playing some laid back cool jazz. The waiter was obviously working on the not smiling at strangers stereotype. Apparently he was from the Zolitūde neighbourhood!
The city of Riga is on the Daugava river that rises in the Valdai Hills of Russia 600+kms to the east and flows through Belarus, then Lativia and into the Baltic Sea. Running parallel with the Daugava there’s a small tributary running through the length of the old town that is surrounded by a very attractive park. They say that green spaces are the heart of a city – this is a prime example of that. It was definitely our favourite part.
We enjoyed the wander through the cobbled streets of the old town and to ensure we had seen all the UNESCO World Heritage sites, we sought out Riga Central Market. Built in the 1920’s the four large halls were originally used as hangers for military airship and today are Europe’s largest market. Many of the outdoor stalls were selling a variety of wild berries (Lesley says the small ones were blaeberries?) some supplied by the foragers driving the Moskvitch 2140.
The House of Black Heads was designed as a venue for meetings and banquets hosted by the Brotherhood of Blackheads; a guild of unmarried merchants, shipowners, and foreigners residing in Riga. The house was known for its wild parties and the Brotherhood is credited with displaying the first public Christmas tree in 1510. A stone marker outside the building marks the location.
This building was one of the town’s many structures damaged or destroyed during World War II bombardments. The only surviving section was a medieval cellar discovered during the building’s reconstruction in the mid-1990s. The House of the Blackheads was fully restored in 1999.
Courtesy of http://www.atlasobscura.com
Following the recommendation of the waitress in our first night’s restaurant, we dragged our (shall we just stay in) selves out to the ALA Folkklub. The venue in the heart of Riga’s historic old town was a rabbit warren of underground rooms with a bar serving food & drink including many assorted flavours and styles of beers. It felt like the place to be for Riga’s 30-somethings. It seemed authentic, not aimed aimed at tourists and a window on a traditional Latvian folk dance night. With the young crowd enthusiastically packing the small dance floor twirling and birling to a whole variety of Latvian folk dances, a bit similar to Scottish country dancing.
Well dear reader, we’ve researched a bit, have read a little, talked to a couple of people, got a tourist information map (we didn’t do that in Riga) and followed the tourist trail. But I confess it feels as if we’ve barely scratched the surface or really have a better understanding of Latvia or Latvians.
Toodle Pip or Ejam prom
Dave & Lesley