“Where should we go”, she asked. I scrolled around my google maps, “How about Latvia?” and that’s how we found ourselves in Riga, Latvia for a week.
Latvia is part of The Baltics – which consists of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Now if you don’t know where that is, don’t worry – we didn’t either! These tiny, lovely countries are located in Eastern Europe, bordering Russia. They were once part of the Soviet Union, and prior to that conquered by many a nations including Sweden.
We decided to spend our pre-Christmas week somewhere cold, and preferably snowy. Unfortunately, due to what seemed like Climate Change, Riga was not so snowy but nonetheless very Christmasy. According to historians, Riga is the city in which the first Christmas Tree was decorated.
First stop was to do a walking tour of the town to get orientated. We joined the free Yellow Suitcase tour, they leave everyday at noon from St Peter’s Church. Luckily for us, the church was only a stones throw away! On the tour they gave us a brief history of Latvia, and then showed us of the nooks and crannies of old town, the central markets, Stalin’s birthday cake, Central Station, Opera house and the freedom monument. We finished off with some great advice on good day trips to do from Riga and directions to a lovely vantage point for a bird’s eye view of the city (along with a nice cocktail – it’s at Hotel Radisson’s Level 26 bar).
We were surprised to find that the sunset at around 4pm that day, whilst we were sipping our Balsams (traditional hot Latvia drink, similar to mulled wine). But the city looked spectacular as the sun slipped behind its horizon.
The next day Cathy and I headed by train to Cesis, a small town located about 2 hrs away. We bought tickets for around 3.5 euros each at the Central Train Station, about 10 min walk from old town. When we arrived in Cesis we weren’t actually sure where or how we were to get around as we had no map. Luckily, by walking into town we found some signposts that directed us to exactly what we wanted to see: the Cesis Castle. The information booth gave us a map of the city with a walking trail around the town as well.
Visiting Cesis Castle required the use of a lantern, yes a lantern! With its own candle and everything. After a wrong start – we went into the wrong down and climbed down to find a tower rather than up… very hard by the way with a lantern in your hand, we found an old bridge that took us to the tower to enjoy the views of Cesis. A medieval town with many remnants of 18th century German influence.
After the Castle we proceeded to follow our new map for a do-it-yourself walk around town. First stop, a pond. We don’t know the name of the pond, only that it was the first real frozen pond either of us had every seen! So Cathy decided to touch it, and ended up actually peeling away chunks of it! For two Australians, this was beyond cool. Our walk took us to Cesis’ Old Town, and it was very old indeed. As we approached the main Christmas Tree of the town centre something magical happened, it started to snow! We were overjoyed, after all this is why we had come to this part of the world – to experience a wintery wonderland.
Next up – we headed to Sigulda, another small town located in the direction of Cesis, but only an hour or so away from Riga. The main purpose of our journey was to bob sled, yes you heard it right, we wanted to try first hand at cool runnings. But first, we thought it would nice to catch the cable car (built over 65 years ago!) and explore some of the woods.ob sledding was fun! We experience the good old G forces and reached a speed of 100km/h! The force of the turns we so strong our heads banged against the sides of the sled, but I guess that’s why they gave us helmets. It was such a unique experience and something neither of us thought we’d ever do.
Back in Riga, we checked ourselves into a day spa to recover from our extreme sports experience (bob sledding). Riga is known to have quite nice spas, and the one we chose (Opera Hotel & Spa) wasn’t too shabby. Unfortunately no photos, but we did enjoy a sauna, steam room, private pool and 2 hr relaxation massage followed by a three course light lunch. What a way to spend your holiday. We finished the evening off with visiting the Riga Christmas Markets and seeing the locals Latvian dancing.
Sunday was our last day, and it happened to be Winter Solstice – the shortest day of the year. This was to be the highlight of our trip – going to the Winter Solstice event in the Latvia Ethnographic Open Air Museum. We were keen to pull the Yule Log, an ongoing tradition since Pagan times which symbolised dragging all the negativities and miseries of the last year from house to house and then finally burnt to start the new year afresh and blessed. The event had lots of small stalls as well, where we proceeded to buy Latvian cheese and pastries. Dragging of the Yule Log led to a lot of singing and dancing with mummers (actors dressed in costumes) whilst everyone was dressed in their spirit animal costume – all of this to bring good blessings to everyone for the new year. We of course partook in all the singing and dancing and games. As the day ended we walked around the museum to enjoy the woods and lake, before the sun finally set at around 3:30pm.
Riga was beautiful, and although we could have spent a shorter time in Latvia to see Tallinn, Estonia we were glad we stayed to explore this small corner of the Baltics. But I’m adding Estonia and Lithuania on the bucket list now!
REGION: Eastern Europe, The Baltics
Currency: Euros (€)
Language: Latvian, Russian, English
Flights: Direct from London with Ryanair (2hrs); Direct from Moscow with Aerofloat (1hr 45min)
Accommodation: 45 € per night (via airbnb) – we stayed in Old Town Riga
Beer: 2.5€ for a pint
Winter Weather: expect -10⁰C to +6⁰C between November to February
Notes: We highly recommend buying some great winter (lined, snow/waterproof) boots in Latvia, as well as fur hats/beanies. Oh and try the gherkins, they’re fantastic.