Blogged by Dave
For our trip through Eastern Europe we knew we would only have a fairly short time in each country and so we’ve tried to identify two or three places in each country that allow us to see a bit of both the city life and the country life. Ideally each place should also be reasonably easy to get to and avoid any back-tracking. For Latvia we decided to spend our time in Riga, the capital, and Sigulda, a popular area for hiking and biking conveniently located on the train route from Estonia to Riga.
Latvia is famous for its many castles and Sigulda has the ruins of three in fairly close proximity. The area is known as the Switzerland of the Baltics, which only makes sense when you know that the highest point in the Baltics is around 300m above see level. What differentiates this area from the rest of the very flat Baltics is the deep river valley that runs past Sigulda and gives some mountain-like views. The three castles are all found on the edges of the valley, giving great views of the river below. We split our three nights between a glamping (glamorous camping) place near the river that we found called Glempings (http://glempings.lv) and a really good value hotel in town at the top of the valley – Livonija (https://www.tripadvisor.co.za/Hotel_Review-g274969-d602485-Reviews-Livonija-Sigulda_Vidzeme_Region.html). Glempings is a fairly long 3km walk from the train station, including a 400 step descent into the valley along wooden steps. It’s a wonderfully peaceful place and is really well set up, with comfortable tents, a small shared kitchen, and a nice area on the roof of the kitchen to chill in the evenings. There are several walking and biking paths nearby and it’s a nice place to start the Three Castles hike. The only problem we had was the long walk to get more beer! The comfortable guest house that we stayed at in town was really good value compared to other Sigulda options and is recommended if you want to stay in town.
The three castles in the area are a nice contrast to each other as even though they are all from more or less the same era, they have been subject to different levels of restoration. It’s definitely worth seeing all three, which can easily be done in a day. Other activities in the town include an adventure park and some chilled rafting, but we didn’t get a chance to try them out.
From Sigulda it is a short train to Riga, Latvia’s capital. It’s become a big tourist destination as a result of several low cost airlines flying to it, unfortunately bringing lots of hen and stag parties along. We stayed in an apartment outside of the old town, which is the main tourist area. Although the old town has some really beautiful buildings and an interesting history, we found it a bit too crowded and touristy, with lots of expensive restaurants and bars that appeared to cater entirely to the tourist market. There are several places outside of the Old Town which are worth a visit. We also enjoyed staying away from the tourist area, as the newer part of town is really pleasant. The Central Market near the train station is housed in five massive Zeppelin hangers from WWI and is the largest market in Europe. We also found a cool place on the other side of the river called Kalnciema Kvartāls that has free music concerts on a Thursday evening, with a few bars and stalls providing food and refreshments (http://www.kalnciemaiela.lv). They also do a food and drink market on Saturdays, but we had left town by then.
Some other interesting facts about Latvia:
On average they have the tallest ladies in the world. After spending some time there we suspect is is because they don’t seem to have any short ladies, rather than there being many really tall ladies.
Like all the Baltic states they have an unnatural love for sour cream and dill (I’m pretty sure that this is the fault of the Russians – see https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/aug/10/dill-russia-herb-pizza-sushi-soup-hummus-food-ruin). Be prepared to have these two items with everything.
Next stop: The final Baltic state, Lithuania!