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Multi-sensorial and intellectual experiences 

A tremendous rebound in only two decades, since the end of the old Soviet and communism era, by a small Baltic country with huge human, cultural and natural treasures.

The birth of a market-oriented economy, combined with the growth of tourism, resulted in a successful balance between tradition and modernity and it is remarkable and exciting for the traveler.

A country on the move 

For Canadians and North Americans, today, Latvia is a destination that is off the beaten track, even though it has all of the required infrastructure. Chances are that the popularity of this country will rapidly grow among tourists.

A real experience, thrilling in many ways; this is what we had in Latvia, more specifically in the regions of Latgale and Vidzeme, as well as in Riga, the capital.

Our tour combined four themes, each of which could become the object of a thematic tour considering the scale of what we saw and experienced in terms of surprises and enjoyments.

We are talking about cultural tourism that includes crafts, Art nouveau, modern art, history and architecture; agro-tourism as well, with numerous organic farms where one can taste the production and spend the night; excursions in virgin nature, in forests and on spectacular bodies of water, and even religious tourism, since the cult places of five religions cohabit in each of the cities.

Boldness of body and mind

We could evoke the human richness, the tremendous generosity of this country’s hosts – the best cheerful crushing handshakes we ever received! – the inexhaustible energy at work and the very high education level (master and doctorate) of our hosts and guides.

The Latvian people are perfectionists and so resilient, considering all the occupations their country went through, in the hands of major European powers such as Russia, Germany, Sweden and Poland.

Of course, traces of each of those cultural and architectural influences can be found and the traveler can also be in contact with the vestiges of the Soviet era, sometimes through a serious look and sometimes with humor: amongst others in an old and vast anti-nuclear shelter that was abandoned suddenly and in which everything just stayed in the same state, except for the secret documents, of course!

Castles and legends everywhere 

We came upon at least one medieval castle/fortress in every district (Balvi, Kraslavas, Ludzas, Preili) and each city in the region (Sigulda, Daugavpils, Rezekne, Valmiera, Césis, Ligatne and Ludza, the oldest city in the region). In fact, there are more than 150 of them.

Some are still well preserved and can be visited inside. For example, the Césis Castle was the official residence for the masters of the Livonian Order from the 13th to the 16th century. Among other curiosities, a very narrow stairway was illuminated with candle-lamps, allowing one to reach the summit of one tower of the castle while a tunnel led downstairs to a dungeon. On the same land, we can also visit the “new castle” where the Count Siever lived with his family until the beginning of World War One.

The Turaida Castle or “God’s Garden” in Sigulda is an imposing red brick structure with a main tower pointing to the sky at the summit of a hill, giving it a magisterial character. The castle and its outbuildings were erected between the 13th and the 17th centuries, before being destroyed in a fire. What we see and visit today, including the high tower, is in fact a recent reconstruction. Its ramparts are worth a long, contemplative walk and its magnificent gardens of contemporary monumental sculptures by the artist Indulis Ranka, on the Dainu Hill, are worth many photos.

Nearby, Gutman’s Cave is the widest and highest cave in the Baltics, with its walls covered with inscriptions left by lovers going back to the 17th century and where the legend of the Rose of Turaida began. This legend, along with many other ones that are shared during the tour, is about quid-pro-quo, disillusioned love, betrayal and honor.

The New Sigulda Castle, built in the 19th century, now houses the Regional Council, after having served as a residence for many rich families, among which was the Kropotkin family.

Other castles only display fragments of ancient walls, such as Ludza Castle (15th century), the Krimulda Castle, a fortress of the 14th century, and the Rezekne Castle, in the seven hills city that served as a base of combat until the 16th century to fight the Russians and the Lithuanians. In all cases, from their strategic location on hills overlooking a river, we can enjoy stunning panoramas.

For those fascinated by military history, the Daugavpils Fortress is the place to spend a whole day.

Very knowledgeable guides with undeniable communication abilities even use their talent as singers, dancers or storytellers to keep our interest while entertaining us. But those guided visits are never superficial. History is taken seriously in Latvia, with good reason, since the country has been the scene of so many historical events and reversals.

Characteristic features in the landscape 

Architectural characteristics of the houses and public buildings are to be noticed. Some facades are inlaid with small colorful stones; most traditional houses built in the 18th and 19th centuries are made of wood and many round cobblestones streets can still be found. The wood around the windows and doors are carved in a lace-like fashion or with Latvian symbols.

Colonnades and monumental stairways of the manors of the Latvian bourgeoisie, corner fireplaces made of ceramics and decorated with rich figures, colorful flowers and plants are also notable.

Active in nature

The two big stars of this region are the River Daugava (350 km in Latvia) and the River Gauja (460 km). The latter and its surrounding areas are enclosed in a national park, and is therefore a preserved area. Those serpentine rivers attract canoers on their waters, wilderness camping enthusiasts on their beaches and hikers of all caliber and endurance on their banks and protective red rocks as well as on their wooded sandstone cliffs. Worth noting: no motor vehicle is authorized on the water, ensuring quietness and the quality of the water.

Finally, is anybody ready to go bungee jumping from the funicular in the Gauja National Park? A 42- meter jump above the river awaits you.

For more prudent tourists, there are three possibilities: a short cruise from Valmiera during which the captain tells chapters of the history of the city and comments the “Goat Rapids” on the Gauja. If you have chosen to board a canoe instead, you will feel an adrenaline rush. The third excursion: escalating the stairs over 220 meters of the vertiginous observation tower Eglu Kalns, in the Daugavas Loki Nature Park, to see from afar the city of Daugavpils, with a promenade and picnic in the Stalkers Rest Park.

Handicraft and traditions

In all cities, we are shown how daily utility objects are made with their forms and colors. In particular, at the Ludza Craftsmen Center, at the one in Latgale, at the weavers studio in Dubna, at the Dzindras studio in Malta, in the Balvi and Berzpils museums. The main creations are black pottery, wooden bowls, woven sashes, blankets, woven clothes and rope shoes that are worn in the flourmills or the bakeries.

Those objects often show geometric figures bearing varied Latvian meanings: family happiness, safety for the house, connection to God, keeping bad spirits away, strength and achievement, energy from the sun for the fighter, wisdom, etc.

Latvia has also developed technical and artistic expertise in glass blowing that is unveiled at the Glass Museum in Livani. 

Traditional costumes for men and women are mostly made of dark blue wool and the heavy brass head, neck and cuff accessories are given a predominant place with the guides, in museums as well as in castles where the art of war and medieval games are demonstrated. The Kroma Kolna Bruoliste group is well known in this regard.

We shared a touching moment on Lake Ludza, on a raft during a short cruise under a warm sun with music and traditional songs performed by a lady and two young violin and accordion players.

The archeological village of Araisi on a lake with the same name reproduces the daily life in the 9th and 10th centuries: around 15 houses on a wooden raft.

The village of Eglava reproduces the life in a lumber camp with its small houses that also welcome guests for the night. Everything there is to know about techniques, tools and wood products can be learned there.

The historic village of Ligatne, which grew around a 19th century paper mill, became an open-air museum with its buildings and busy cultural centre.

The walking stick from Sigulda, with its colorful patterns, is quite useful to use to explore the beautiful gardens surrounding the castles. It is also one of the souvenirs that is most sought after by travelers.

Art nouveau in Riga

In Riga, an essential stop, but so nice, is the City Hall Square with its House of the Blackheads, whose architecture is so photogenic. The building, erected in the 15th century, housed young unmarried merchants and members of the powerful Brotherhood of Blackheads.

An essential sector of the city is the Art nouveau district in downtown Riga. It is one of the most imposing concentrations of this kind of architecture in Europe, with 800 Art Nouveau buildings, mostly built on Elisabetes, Alberta and Strelnieku streets.

The Art Nouveau Museum, located in the apartment where the famous architect Konstantins Peksens lived between 1903 and 1907, shows the life at the time. On top of a superb winding staircase, every room displays furniture of the era as well as period costumes and the city life of the time.

Modern art everywhere 

Latvia has every reason to be proud of its traditions. But it does not prevent the development of a contemporary artistic movement, as seen in recent cultural halls, which are very modern in their architecture, installations, equipment and mostly in the creations and programs they showcase.

Examples: cinema, theater and concerts presented at the gigantic and all-new Gors Multicultural Center, the very chic Zeimuls Creation Centre in Rezekne or the Césis Theater. Without forgetting the monumental Contemporary Art Centre Mark Rothko (see our other article).

The Art Museum Riga Bourse presents a vast collection of international works of art from the 16th to the 19th centuries: paintings, porcelain, textiles, silverware, etc.

A rare talent, a contagious passion

In Preili, our eyes were wide open in a boutique-gallery-workshop. Awe is guaranteed for all ages! It is altogether a treasure chest, a fairytale and Ali Baba’s cave… the big dolls made by Vladlena are one of a kind and entirely made by hand - their faces, hair, clothes, shoes. Unbelievably realistic, whether they represent dreamlike figures, movie stars, historical characters or today political personalities, they are quite affordable, often bought by the Government to offer as gifts for important visitors and can also be ordered online from anywhere in the world.

Comforting pilgrimages 

Latvians are persons of faith that practice a religion. Many places of worship gather Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Jewish and Muslim believers.

The Aglona Basilica attracts Latvian pilgrims year round as well as Catholics from the world over for the Pentecost and the Feast of the Ascension.

In Valmiera, one must-see: St. Simon Church, built in the 13th century, one of the oldest in the country.

In Ludza, the Way of the Cross, erected along the uphill sidewalk leading to the church, is not devoid of interest.

In Riga, the most popular churches among visitors are St. Peter, Ste. Gertrude, St. Alexander Nevsky and Our Lady of Sorrows.

Between B&Bs, manors and modern hotels

The region, being mostly a farming one, and home to mainly farms, also offer lodging possibilities.

Moreover, since the region was a prosperous area, many magnificent aristocrats and local leaders’ manors have been transformed into charming hotels. Worth noting is the Karlamuiza and the Dikli Palace.

At the hotel spa Ezeri in Sigulda, we enjoyed a modern version of the traditional Latvian sauna, which is offered very skillfully by the owner himself. This spa has all the conceivable equipment to offer all types of relaxation and rejuvenation for the body and face, as well as all types of massages that are popular today, including aromatherapy. 

The vast land of this modern hotel on a small hill offers a grandiose landscape of an adjacent lake and a garden overflowing with hundreds of colored bushes of flowers pierced with many small romantic ponds.

In Daugavpils, we stayed at the very elegant Sventes Muiza Manor, while near Lake Cirisa, we slept at the Upenite farmhouse.

At last in Riga, contemporary hotels such as the ones we stayed at, the Astor and the Avalon, offer all the amenities found in other capitals of the world.

Coup de Cœur for the black smoke sauna

Quite different from all other dry or humid saunas, the black smoke Latvian sauna is a more than centennial tradition practiced at the house or the farm. It is truly a family ritual, practiced regularly through life, from birth to death.

We experienced it at the Upenite Farm near Lake Cirisa, in the Latgale region.

At first, we left the huge country house to walk barefoot to the edge of the woods next to a lovely pond where an old wooden shack with a low roof stands. We then had to undress, leaving all clothes on hooks outside, before entering completely nude to meet the Master, who is nude as well. From the get-go, we have to leave our modesty, embarrassment and other inhibitions behind to enjoy - with a holistic approach - the natural elements that will be part of the ritual we will go through during the next 3 or 4 hours…! It is a total immersion in another world, both physical and spiritual, even though no words or talk are exchanged.

Inside the shack, a total absence of light and black traces left on the walls by the black smoke contribute to creating total blackness. We sit and sometimes stretch out on benches. The Master works hard during the whole experience: with fresh birch twigs that she dips in large tubs and shakes over hot stones, she increases the temperature to 90 degrees Celsius. Then, she uses the same twigs on our whole body, raising the temperature even more.

When we can take only so much of that, we ask to go outside to catch our breath and see the light of the sunset descending slowly on the pond’s fresh water, in which we dip with water lilies floating, ducks swimming and frogs croaking loudly around us. Then, wrapped in a soft linen sheet, we go back to the heat of the sauna.

This cycle will be repeated a few times, each time with an added ingredient and method, for example: a massage from head to foot with wild berries and their juice, another with a mix of honey and coarse salt; and another one with fragrant bread crumbs.

Halfway through the ritual, we take a break outside to drink a natural infusion and share our feelings with the very caring Master.

At last, we head to a small dining room in the basement of the main house, where a crackling fireplace, candles, tables and chairs wrapped in lovely fabrics, homemade delis and organic fruits and cheeses await us… before going to bed in one of the bedrooms that are offered to host guests.

The next morning, the Master, who also owns the farm, invites us for a walk in the dew to see her propagation and fruit orchard accompanied by the two dogs of the house: a big and a small one. Pure happiness!

Freshness and purity on the plate

One could say that the signature food in Latvian cuisine is rye bread. But it is homemade, fresh and warm, always served with different types of white organic cheese and artisan honey.

A light snack that is appreciated at all hours of the day or evening: small loaves of bread filled with meat and onions.
One hour spent at the Bread Museum in Latgale is pure enchantment for the nose and mouth, but also the gracefulness of the young lady who tells us the whole history of bread and the values of the Latvian family.

On the meat side: pork is mostly enjoyed in many ways, but chicken, beef, lamb, duck and rabbit are also part of meals in families. For fruits: blueberries, cherries, blackberries, strawberries, raspberries, apples and firm and sweet pumpkins.

Crisp cucumbers and juicy tomatoes are served as vegetables. And even though all kinds of fish are offered, herring and caviar are the most popular.

A few restaurants where one can enjoy the local products: the trendy  Césu Wine Bar, located on the top floor of the new concert hall, at the Ludza Artisanal Centre; the gastronomic and panoramic Plaza in the Park Hotel Latgola in Daugavpils for its artisan cheese; Latgale Art and Trade Centre, in Kraslava, and the very sophisticated MUSU in Riga. And of course, in the organic farms where they are grown and produced.

A visit to Riga’s immense market, housed in old Zeppelin hangars, is worth the detour. Each hangar is dedicated to one type of food: meat, fish, fruit and vegetables, etc. Latvians eat fresh; proof is again in the crowd that fills those hangars.

In the gullet as well

Beer, ale or lager type, is very popular in Latvia and microbreweries have rapidly developed. One of them, the Valmiermuiza Brewery, has to be seen, for its modernity, quality, efficiency and other great ideas!

We visit the brewing facilities; its boutique filled with dozens of variations of its white, golden, red or brown beers and all products and accessories to accompany them.

A lovely room, as nice as those we usually see in wineries, is open for tastings and explanations on how to taste beers, the type of glass recommended for each variety, etc.

And the dining room adds to the surprise with its menu where, from entrees to desert, the main ingredient is beer, malt or hops. Sweet or sour dishes… even the ice cream! Delicious!

Latvians also love wine, but rather sweet, made with small fruits or a combination of dandelion/lilac. Apple cider is also appreciated. Tasting is a very nice experience in any one of the 330 Ligatne caves, where people used to store vegetables.


In Latvia, this expression is not only used for alcoholic drinks but also for therapeutic infusions.

We were able to appreciate with both eyes and our taste buds two medicinal plant gardens: “the old pharmacy” in Valmiera and the Kurmisi farm in the countryside of Kraslava.

Small pleasures to share with the small ones 

The Senses Park: an original path that puts enormous strain on our bare feet for a few meters. One has to walk on different elements, textures and impacts such as small rocks, round glass beads, cones, etc. Painful but safe! Another 3-km path also allows for walking and tree climbing. On the way, you might come upon a tree “dressed” in a folkloric or contemporary fashion by students or local artists.

Whatever our opinion may be on firearms, a visit to the Bullets Museum in Daugavpils is an interesting scientific and historic experience thanks to the well-preserved outdated installations, to the quality of the artifacts, some of them even funny, and mostly to the guide whose passion transpires in the details and anecdotes he shares.

The Aerodium near Sigulda will surely please the whole family. Wearing colorful combinations, astronaut style, goggles and helmets, caught in a wind stream of 200 km/h we experience the feeling of being weightless for a few minutes. “Experienced” ones can even venture in a few aerobatics with a qualified instructor.

The Adventure Park in Sigulda attracts youth of all ages with “soap box” cars and tobogganing runs.

Whoa! Considering all of this, Latvia was THE discovery of the year for me!


Sylvie Berthiaume

Translation: Christiane Théberge

This stay was made by invitation from the Tourism Offices of the following Latvian regions.




Modernity: The Gors in Rezekne

Césis Castle 

Vestiges of the Ludza Castle

Around Valmiera Castle

Sculptures at Turaida Castle 

Medieval Turaida

Tasting at the Juri farm

At the Eglava lumber village

Beautiful manor Sventes Muiza

On the river Gauja

Black ceramic

At the Glass Museum in Livani

Wearing traditional costumes

Walking sticks

Hotel Avalon

The smallest church in the country

Religious sculptures in a park

Vladlena's doll

Aglona Basilica

Art nouveau in Riga

Dikli Palace

Spa at Hotel Ezeri

Black smoke sauna

The pond at the black smoke sauna

Caviar at the Riga market

Valmiermuiza Microbrewery

Daritava wine tasting in Lustuzis cave

The Senses Park


























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