It’s not often that there are more highlights outside of a small country’s capital city than there are in it.
Latvia’s capital city Riga is quaint in an ex-soviet, medieval, tourist-hot-spot, type of way. Quite a lot like Estonia’s Tallinn, and Lithuania’s Vilnius, all three cities are places where the cobbled streets and colorful buildings bring medieval history closer, cities where you can gorge on sausage and immerse yourself in the more beautiful parts of European history. All very nice and postcard perfect, but I felt like I needed something a little different from my trip, so I chose to build my Latvian itinerary around the more gnarly, macabre and less ancient history, choosing to focus on the last 100 years, and seek out an understanding of Latvia today. It was truly educational.
Arriving into Riga, I decided to jump right in, feet first and head towards the excellent National Museum. Zipping along the cobbled streets was nice, but not what I wanted from this trip. The Museum housed 100’s of individual stories and photos from people who survived (or sadly mostly didn’t), the Nazis and the Soviets. Stories of fear, escape, and ones of heroism, where fighting for a flag and land inspired all walks of society, it’s almost unimaginable that today any one would risk their life, or be forced to die for such expected human rights, but of course people did, and this was the Latvian struggle, this was my intrigue.
Riga’s national museum is one of my favourites, the macabre displays are simple, numerous and understated providing a truly excellent foundation from which to understand and begin to explore. In addition to the exhibits, it’s also possible to walk through the old KGB HQ standing in cells where unimaginable things occurred, likely while I was watching TV as a kid, or jumping on a bus to go to school. Latvia’s fight for independence has been so long and hard that I’m honestly surprised that there is anything left to fight for. From a Nazi invasion that turned into a Soviet occupation Latvia is the very definition of a country that has been stuck between a rock and a hard place.
Leaving Riga to explore Latvian history further, I drove 30 minutes outside of the capital, my next stop on this mission of understanding was the Salaspils memorial, not the first Nazi memorial I have been to, in fact having left a myriad previous memorials heavy hearted, I almost didn’t bother, these can be hard visits, I remember a trip to Auswitch giving me restless nights.
Salaspils is a bit different, I could literally feel the memorials heart beat as I walked along the wide path into an open manicured field, with several poignantly placed, and very beautiful massive Soviet statues. There is a metronome beating that echoes through the entire site so as I stood awed by the strength of statues poignantly named ‘Humiliation’, ‘Unbreakable’ and such like, it was easy to find an unexpected emotion pushing its way from the gut to the throat. Almost amazingly these statues were built by the Soviet regime to commemorate the Nazi horrors that occurred there. Bizarre that the Soviets would care to remember, and almost ironic that a dangerous regime would build such an excellent monument in remembrance while at the same time torturing and killing their own people. Salaspils is a place that warmed my soul whilst simultaneously chilling my bones. Unique and excellent.
Further Outside Riga
Leaving the heartbeat of Salaspils, I headed out into the countryside, a perfect respite to breathe the fresh air, admire the wide-open spaces and forests that lined the Latvian roads. My next destination, a bog. A really big bog aptly named the great Kemeri bog. A thin winding boardwalk, winds its way through dark ponds that freckle a dramatic inhospitable landscape of grasses and plants that have adapted to low nutrient and oxygen conditions. It’s spectacular on so many levels. Hidden in this unusual visual beauty are animals and plants that I had never seen or heard of before, it’s really a place to be seen. Perhaps, more interestingly the bog also swallowed a bunch of WW2 tanks, and so as you walk along the wooden planks it’s easy to imagine the Latvian land taking on its own personality protecting the Latvian people, pulling the enemy into the dark smelly depths, fighting for freedom, fighting for its name; “I am Latvia”.
The crescendo of the bog walk is a tall wooden viewing point which, once climbed, affords views across the entire park. Framed by forest, it’s a view that absorbed me for a good 15 minutes drifting off into the fresh air and thought, and letting the unusualness of the place soak in, it is quite special. Following the winding boardwalk through the bog and through a forest back to the starting point, I bumped into a nice lady selling postcards, expensive trinkets and, most importantly, a cold drink.
I drove back from the bog feeling inspired, I had visited a museum that focused on the people and not the powers, where the protagonists were the ones that mattered and that helped me feel good about humanity. I had stood awed by a monument that was so strong and humbling, it had made the future feel cleared from tyranny, the Soviets had a way of doing that. I had breathed the air of the land which will endure and has always been there no matter what people do, bit hippie but that’s how I felt.
My Riga, Latvia Takeaway
Trips that take me away from the obvious tourist route require a little extra effort, but rather than leaving Latvia with a tummy bursting full of beer and sausage, and a camera field with yellow and pink fancy buildings, I left wanting to return.
So, if you have already bagged a few of Europe’s medieval cities and don’t need another culture fix, Latvia will almost certainly offer a jam-packed trip filled with thought provoking variety, and a sprinkle of cobbled tourist hotspots, and let’s say the less picture-postcard norm. Off the beaten track Latvia is dark, smelly, and fascinating.
Written by: John and Tara Newby
John and Tara got married in Antarctica, by a penguin. With a baby on the way they are currently traveling through Europe in a self-converted camper van. John has independently travelled to 163 countries, with highlights including horse riding in Afghanistan, a 32 state USA road trip, and swimming in the Congo River. Tara is Zimbabwean and her heart is in Africa, safari is in her blood. Since getting married, Tara has joined John on this life long adventure, their promise to each other; that lines across a map are more important than numbers. So, ticking off the whole world (193) can wait a while, until more lines are joined up and adventures have been had. The most exciting adventure of all, how to fit a newborn into a rucksack!
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