Pine-fringed beaches, bogs, wetlands with therapeutic mud, medieval castles and winding valleys. Definitely not a list I would have rattled off, if asked to think of Latvia. Yet this is what I came across the moment I ventured outside Riga. Further reinforcing the notion that to see a country’s true gems, you need to venture outside its capital city. This certainly was natural beauty I never expected to find. The best part? Most of it is an easy day trip from Riga.
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from a Latvian beach, having grown up in Sri Lanka. So when I walked along Pludmale and Jurmala beach for an hour I was pleasantly surprised by the vast stretches (sometimes up to 50m wide) of powdery white sand which met dense green pine woods.
The beach itself was beautiful, and the water pristine (but cold) once you waded a few metres into the sea and crossed the seaweed near the shore. It’s a great place for a walk, to relax, enjoy the sun and Latvia’s beautiful coastline where the air is infused with the aroma of pine trees. The local residents were certainly making the most of it – going on gentle strolls, jogs, cycling or just sunbathing. I was lucky to have visited before peak summer hit when it can get a bit more crowded (by Latvian standards).
Apparently during Soviet times, Jurmala was a top holiday destination for big wigs in the Communist Party. It also became popular as a spa resort in these times – with its fresh coastal breeze, swaying pine trees, spring water and mineral-rich therapeutic mud. Its popularity as a spa destination is slowly back on the rise after a period of decline over the last few decades.
When I reached the town of Majori, I turned inwards from the beach towards the station to take a train to Kemeri National Park – home of the Latvian bogs.
Take the train from Riga Central Station, get off at Bulduri station, and walk to the beach | Duration: ~30 mins | Ticket price: €1
There are a few nice cafes in Bulduri. Kafijas Sturitis was one that did good coffee and wasn’t too pricey. They’ve got outdoor seating to enjoy the sun & free wifi.
Kemeri National Park
Would mineral springs, centuries-old therapeutic mud and bogs come to mind when you think of Latvia? It certainly didn’t for me until I went to Kemeri National Park. Having arrived by train at Kemeri station, I was eager to start hiking through some of the most beautiful landscapes and wetlands in Latvia. There are several trails to choose from – I picked the one by Lake Sloka. Walking along the lake as the sun slowly starts to set and getting lost in its vastness makes you understand just what a small spec you are in this big world. My favourite part? The 7m tall bird-watching platform floating in the middle of the lake. I felt like a kid again running up and down the floating bridge that connects it to the mainland 😉
The Bogs and Wetlands of Latvia
Have you ever seen or heard of a bog? The first time I heard about one was probably while reading The Hound of the Baskervilles. A bog, I learnt, is a wetland that accumulates dead plant material. The decomposition of this material is slowed down due to the water-logged conditions. So this gradual accumulation of decayed plant material in a bog plays an important role in trapping and storing carbon that would have otherwise been released to the atmosphere; “a carbon sink”.
Kemeri National Park’s old raised bogs, swamps and lakes were created about 8000 years ago when the sea retreated to its present position. On my wish list for next time is to visit the Great Kemeri Bog Boardwalk at dawn, when it’s enveloped in a shroud of mist that gently clears as the sun’s rays pierce through creating the illusion that just for a moment, you were in a magical land.
Train from Riga Central to Tukums 1 or Tukums 2. Get off at Kemeri. From here, ~45 min walk to National Park | Ticket price: €1.80 | Duration: 1 hr
Directions: Cross the railway tracks and head south for the boardwalk in the Kemeri Raised Bog or go the other side for Lake Sloka. For the more adventurous, from Lake Sloka you can extend the hike all the way to the beach!
I would never have imagined Latvia to be a land of mosquitoes and insects, but apparently in summer time, the bogs and swamps tend to be quite the breeding ground – so come armed with repellant!
Sigulda and Gauja National Park
Ruins of medieval castles nestled in a forest, with the beauty of a river flowing through? Welcome to Sigulda – the gateway to Gauja National Park.
I set off on a 5 hour hike into Gauja National Park: ‘Best Viewpoints of Gauja Trail’ – to see old medieval ruins, and to walk along the river. If bunjee jumping happens to be your thing, you can do that from a cable car here. I instead went down a series of stairs down the valley, seeing lots of deadwood and decaying trees with moss, and crossed the Gauja River by bridge.
What perhaps felt most extraordinary in the middle of the national park was the Krimulda property – bought by Prince Johann Georg von Lieven. The Krimulda Manor House couldn’t be further from the dreary Soviet architecture that I would have (mistakenly) expected in Latvia. Interesting fact: the Manor House and its summer pavilion now function as a mini-hotel and hostel – so you can stay here!
“People come, struggle and go away whereas the majestic and mysterious aura of the Krimulda Valley was and will always be. Nightingales will continue singing their sweet songs, thunder will peak and its echo will be heard from bank to bank and the river will tirelessly mill its waves, washing the bank and forming new riverbed again and again.”Duke Paul Lieven on Gauja National Park
The remainder of the hike along the river from Krimulda back to Sigulda was the most picturesque part of the journey. I’m a massive fan of walking along clifftops, so the 80m high Pikenes Cliff covered with oak and maple trees and the Velnala Cliffs with ancient pine trees (that grow above the dark Velnala cave, which I could never find a path to) were a treat. I got so distracted here, and at the pedestrian bridge where I got lost in another world admiring the landscapes, that I forgot to keep an eye on the time. I ended up having to speed walk all the way back to make sure I didn’t miss the bus back to Riga!
Bus from Riga Central Bus Station – there’s about one every hour during the day. There are also about 8-10 trains a day that take a bit longer, but are a tad cheaper | Bus ticket price: €2.50 | Bus duration: 1h 15min
My Latvian Phrasebook
I was spoilt in Latvia since almost everyone spoke English. But I forced myself to practice a few phrases with my host family and when I saw other Latvian people whether that was in supermarkets, train stations or in the city centre. It always helped the conversation start with a smile.
- Hello/Goodbye – Sveici
- Please/you’re welcome – Lūdzu
- Thank you – Paldies
- Good day/afternoon – Labdien
- Good morning – Labrīt
- Good evening – Labvakar
- Good night – Ar labu nakti
- Cheers! – Priekā!
- Yes – Jā
- No – Nē
- Taxi – Taksometrs
- Bus/coach – Autobuss
- Shop – Veikals
- Police – Policija
- Hotel – Viesnīca
- Sorry– Atvainojiet
- Left – Pa kreisi
- Right – Pa labi
- Straight – Taisni
- Back – Atpakal
- Where is? – Kur ir…?