With an average speed limit of 70 kilometers an hour, Latvia is a slow travel destination in the most literal sense. Here, you shall not rush nor shall you leave the beauty of the local flora unnoticed. This is a place where you can leave your daily stress behind to exchange it for a healthy dose of peace of mind, carefully mixed together with a touch of wonder.
Latvia often gets skipped by tourists. Some of them do not even take the effort to distinguish the different Baltic countries from one another, let alone they would pay a visit to one of them. Because of their location – awkwardly squeezed between Scandinavia, Western Europe and Russia – it is what the Americans would call a flyover state. Yet, as is often the case with these destinations, that is not based on any valid criteria at all. On the contrary, thanks to its rich history and looked-over status, it is a country where you can enjoy both culture and nature at your own pace without being bothered by mass tourism.
1. Hiding away in the woods
Wanting to escape our daily lives for a bit, my boyfriend and I decided on staying in a little cabin located a bit outside of Riga – or so we thought. ‘A bit’ turned out to be 35 minutes yet that resulted in complete and utter calm amongst the wood, so we did not complain. Guest House Vecāķi proved to be the perfect base camp for all our endeavors. The refreshing swim during sunset in a nearby lake on the night of our arrival immediately washed away any remaining doubts and the tone for the rest of our trip was set.
When driving through Latvia, you will notice the country being specked with elements reminding of its Soviet past. From bus stops to water towers and memorials: they all are of a mastodon-like size as to make sure they will never be forgotten. In that way, they have clearly succeeded in their goal. The World War II memorial Okupācijas piemineklis in the outskirts of Riga makes for an impressive sight and standing next to it, I felt as tiny as never before. The emptiness of the surrounding area only emphasized the experience even more.
2. Swamps and ghost villages
Yet, as tempting as it is to forget about the nature surrounding all of these mastodons, we carried on and eventually reached our destination: Kemeri National Park. Although Latvia’s landscape is very flat, this certainly does not mean it is boring. You only have to take a few steps outside your car to realize this. On one hike, you encounter a variety of biotopes, which almost make you think you entered an entirely different country time and time again. Forests consisting of pines making their way to the sky slowly yet surely fade away. All of a sudden, you are standing on a wooden path crossing a landscape that could very well be featured in a Lord of the Rings move – you know, the one where Frodo, Sam and Gollum cross the Dead Marshes.
Small lakes silently lie beneath the blue sky, almost terrifyingly quiet. Now and then our paths crossed with one of the many birds populating the area but that is it. A desolate yet beautiful landscape, peaceful and disturbing at once. A bit further down the road, you will find wet birch woods and more open water, inviting you to pause for a minute and observe your surroundings.
The nearby village of Kemeri was once known for its healing mud baths and luxurious hotels – guests even came all the way from Moscow to enjoy the benefits of it all. It is quite clear that those times are long gone. Nature reclaimed the area, leaving visitors with an apocalyptic scenery. Abandoned homes, ruinous resorts and overgrown roads are the only witnesses left behind. That, and a slightly sulphurous smell. You might wonder why this town has never so far been used in any apocalyptic-themed movie. So did I anyway and I would not be able to answer that question.
3. Local fauna
If, besides from flora and some birds, you would also like to see some bigger fauna, drive Northwards from Riga to the Ligatne Nature Trails. In this wildlife park, you will get an overview of the local Latvian species. Think brown bears, lynxes, raccoon dogs and so on. During the 5 kilometer-long hike, you will get to know the animals from up close while also enjoying the magnificent park itself. Ligatne Nature Trails are part of the Gauja National Park, yet another Latvian treasure. There are loads of different activities across the area yet I would strongly suggest to pack a very effective insect repellent. You would not like to end up as we did – chased down a gorgeous meadow by a swarm of horseflies, trying to scare them away with a cap, only to finally flee back to our car. Just a little warning from me to you.
In my opinion, there is no better way to end a holiday than to catch a sunset on the beach. And that is exactly what we did at Vecāķu pludmale. If you are used to ever-crowded beaches where you can just barely find a place to sit, you are in for a treat. Here, you can sit wherever you want, reminiscing over your holiday that has almost come to an end. A beach like it is supposed to be.