Riga, capital city of Latvia is easily reached by plane, since it has the largest airport of the three Baltic states. This obviously draws attention of budget airlines and the associated influx of tourists who choose their travel destination by price. When Ryan Air started to fly to Riga, the city became a major destination for hen and stag parties. The number of Irish and British tourist groups celebrating the last night of freedom in the city center is stunning.
There seems to be some resistance from locals, since obviously these groups are visiting Riga for fun – not for culture. During my stay, I have seen a few drunk groups – but it was easy to ignore them. Not to downplay the issue, but there is enough room in Riga for regular tourists to stay focused on other values to see in this UNESCO World Heritage site. Riga also served me as a perfect base for a road trip through Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.
After spending one night in Riga, I hit the road for Sigulda. Situated on a scenic stretch in the Gauja river valley, the area is being called “Switzerland of Vidzeme”. Vidzeme literally means “the Middle Land”, which is the local name for this north-central region in Latvia.
The Sigulda castle ruins (and the newer castle) are located on a small hill, surrounded by lush forests. The Order of the Brothers of the Sword began building this castle in 1207, originally being used as a fortress. After the defeat of the Brothers of the Sword some thirty years later, the Livonian Order took care of the buildings. Eventually, the the castle was destroyed during the Great Northern War, except for a small section of the convent building and the main tower gate.
Located nearby, is the sculpture park “Dainu Kalns” (Dainu Hill). It was established in honour of Krisjanis Barons (1835 – 1923) who collected and categorized local folk-songs. During the singing revolution, Dainu Hill became the national symbol of independence. For several years, many folklore groups arrived here during week-ends to sing traditional songs, thus showing pride in their past and belief in their independent future.
Further north, the small town of Cesis, scenically located on a series of ridges above the river Gauja – overlooking the woods below – features some more historical castles and buildings.
The road trip through Latvia is very scenic and Latvian people are very welcoming. Although quieter and less eventful as other trips that I did, Latvia is ranking high on my list of countries to recommend – it’s definitely worth investing more time than just a stopover for a stag party.