Latvia: Northern Europe's hidden gem


When choosing a destination to travel to, the list, although extremely long, can be quite a challenge. I am soon to embark on a trip which will put me at the 99th country I have visited, so I sometimes think there is no place that I would be interested in going to. Then, once I arrive I am constantly surprised at the fascinating customs and cultures I find, and wonder why I had not selected the place earlier.

This was the case on a recent visit to Latvia, a country I had heard about but never really knew much of. Latvia is one of the three Baltic nations located on the Baltic sea (across from Scandinavia). It was part of the former Soviet Union, but has done well on its own since the collapse of communism. Their largest trading partner is Russia, and the product is lumber. With recent sanctions imposed by the European Union, trade has dropped significantly and tourism is beginning to take a larger share.

I entered Latvia from the south, by car. My driver spoke little English, but tried very hard to make sure everything was satisfactory. On these types of trips I pre-arrange local guides in cities. My very first stop was Rundale Palace. This unbelievably beautiful castle dates back to 1736, however, during the Russian occupation the palace was used as a school, a granary and offices for the Soviet Union. Now, however, it has been beautifully restored to its former glory and a half day excursion is well worth the visit, especially seeing the attractive gardens, which equal many found in European palaces.

I continued on and as soon as I entered the city of Riga, Latvia’s capital, I was taken with the cleanliness and character of the place. As we drove into the Old Town and stopped in front of an amazing building, which turned out to be my hotel, I was quite surprised at how beautiful it was. I don’t usually promote hotels in my columns, but this one, the Grand Palace was spectacular.

The old city is quite striking and dates back to the turn of the 13th century. Many of the buildings, although not that old, certainly date back to a bygone era. Depending on your interests, there is something for everyone in this very cosmopolitan city.

The Town Hall square is the centre of activities. Once a meeting place it is now lined with restaurants, boutiques and tourist shops. Many of the buildings were destroyed during the Russian occupation, but as part of the city’s 800th anniversary, a major restoration project was undertaken in 2001.

Among the many sights is the house of the Blackheads. It was destroyed during WWII, but has been rebuilt to its previous glory. The Brotherhood of the Blackheads was a group of German bachelors who were responsible for 300 years of building construction in Riga.

Among the many buildings in the Old Town, St. Peter’s Church is a must see. Towering high above the town, it is visible from everywhere. Another great place to do a little shopping and see some old architecture is the Convent Courtyard. A former convent, it has been renovated and is now home to many shops, galleries and a porcelain museum.

When visiting Riga, be sure to leave the old section and venture out into the newer part of the city. Many people do not and therefore miss great deal of the sights, which can be quite interesting, bordering on fantastic. One such locale is the Art Nouveau district.

This area makes up roughly one third of the buildings in the city of Riga. One of the reasons it exists is that Riga’s population grew by 88% from 1897 to 1913. Art Nouveau décor was all the rage throughout Europe and North America and in Riga, it knew no bounds. Today you can walk for blocks along beautifully restored buildings, most of which are uniquely adorned with art, sculptures and designs. Some are open to the public and well worth the entry.

Another sight not to be missed is the Nativity of Christ Cathedral. This Russian Orthodox Church was constructed in the 1890’s. It is the largest of its kind in the Baltic Region and was built during the Russian Empire and blessed by Czar Alexander II. During World War I the German occupation forces turned it into a Lutheran Church, but in 1921 it once again reverted back to Orthodox. In the 1960’s the Soviet government closed the cathedral and turned it into a planetarium, but in 1991, when Latvia gained independence from the Soviet Union, it was restored to its original splendour. Remember that ladies must wear head coverings, and absolutely no photography is allowed inside.

The Riga Central Market is another stop worth visiting. There is a large, open air market, but next to that are five hanger-type buildings, which house a variety of vegetables, fish and cheeses, each in their own structure. The uniqueness of the market is not the contents, as much as the buildings themselves.

The five massive structures were once used as German Zeppelin hangers and were moved 400 km. to their present location. The market is nearly 800,000 square feet with more than 3,000 vendors. Most of the goods are locally grown or made, and samples are plentiful.

A short, twenty minute drive from Riga is Jurmala, a seaside resort town, frequented more by Russian tourists than by Latvians. The natural curative features of water in this area were already well known more than 150 years ago and used as therapeutic retreats by the rich and famous. Nowadays endless golden beaches with salubrious air and the unique beauty of pine forests, attract many tourists. Jurmala is a cozy European town composed of houses surrounded by parks and forests.

Latvia and especially its capital city of Riga, is a fantastic place to visit. Be sure to leave at least 3 or four days for your stay, as you will not want to miss any of the interesting sights.

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