July 29th, 2020
Latvia, officially the Republic of Latvia is the middle of the three Baltic states; is bordered by Estonia to the north, Lithuania to the south, Russia to the east, Belarus to the southeast, and shares a maritime border with Sweden to the west. Its capital and largest city is Riga. Latvians speak Latvian, one of the only two surviving Baltic languages. Russians are the most prominent minority in the country, at almost a quarter of the population. Latvia is a member of the European Union, Eurozone, NATO, the United Nations and several other international organizations.
Latvia was originally settled by the ancient people known as Balts. In the 9th century the Balts came under the over lordship of the Varangians, or Vikings, but a more lasting dominance was established over them by their German-speaking neighbours to the west, who Christianized Latvia in the 12th and 13th centuries. The Knights of the Sword, who merged with the German Knights of the Teutonic Order in 1237, conquered all of Latvia by 1230, and German overlordship of the area continued for three centuries, with a German landowning class ruling over an enserfed Latvian peasantry. From the mid-16th to the early 18th century, Latvia was partitioned between Poland and Sweden, but by the end of the 18th century the whole of Latvia had been annexed by expansionist Russia. German landowners managed to retain their influence in Latvia, but indigenous Latvian nationalism grew rapidly in the early 20th century. Following the Russian Revolution of 1917, Latvia declared its independence on November 18, 1918, and, after a confused period of fighting, the new nation was recognized by Soviet Russia and Germany in 1920.
Independent Latvia was governed by democratic coalitions until 1934, when authocratic rule was established by President Karlis Ulmanis. In 1939 Latvia was forced to grant military bases on its soil to the Soviet Union, and in 1940 the Soviet Red Army moved into Latvia, which was soon incorporated into the Soviet Union. Nazi Germany held Latvia from 1941 to 1944, when it was retaken by the Red Army. Latvia’s farms were forcibly collectivized in 1949, and its flourishing economy was integrated into that of the Soviet Union. Latvia remained one of the most prosperous and highly industrialized parts of the Soviet Union, however, and its people retained strong memories of their brief 20-year period of independence. With the liberalization of the Soviet regime undertaken by Mikhail Gorbachev in the late 1980s, Latvians began seeking Latvia declared restoration of its independence on May, 1990 and attained full independence from the Soviet Union in August 21, 1991.
The white stripe on the flag represents peace, while it also means independence. For Latvia, which has left the Soviet Union, this color and meaning have an important place. In the flag, the chestnut color takes more space than white.
Crossing the border into Latvia was uneventful as expected as we are still in the EU:
Diesel: 1.80 per litre – about $7 USD
EU License Plate Letter: LV
We drove about 20km to the small village of Mazsalaca where we found a dirt parking lot outside the town cemetery with a porta potty to spend the night.
Sidebar: as many of you know, we have been using maps.me as a source of offline maps and have sworn by this app AND have recommended to many people. A couple of months ago they “updated” the app and it became very user “unfriendly” to us and it didn’t do all the things it used to, namely open us from other apps where mapping is required (like iOverlander and park4night) so it became very frustrating. Fran wrote to them twice and voice our complaints to no response at all. No impressed. Well, on the FB Pan-American page that we still subscribe to, we saw others mentioning this exact complaint and learned that the original creators of maps.me had an app which was called “Organic Maps” and worked the way the former maps.me worked. Well we had to try and we are very pleased. One of the best parts was that it allowed us to “import” all of our bookmarks/pings into the new app. So now we just have to have some good free internet to download all the maps we want/need.
Driving through the southern countryside of Estonia and here again in Latvia, we see a lot of white and black storks who seem to make their nests atop power poles. We researched it a bit and apparently they began coming here to the Baltics about 200 years ago and make their nests in human inhabited areas – they like them up high hence the power poles. The nests can cause issues so around the country they have placed nearly 500 platforms on the tops of the poles to make it safe not only for the birds but to prevent power outages.
Our first stop in Latvia was the town of Cesis which has a medieval castle that you can visit and the parts inside are not lit so you used a candle lantern:
This was a cool way to experience what life must have been like for people who lived in the castle.
Cēsis Castle is one of the most iconic and best preserved medieval castles in the country. The foundations of the castle were laid 800 years ago by the Livonian Brothers of the Sword. The most prosperous period Cēsis Castle experienced was during its next owners, the Teutonic Order from Germany. The first serious damage was done to the castle during the Livonian War, when it was besieged by the army of Ivan The Terrible. In the course of the siege of 1577 approximately 300 people within the castle committed mass suicide by blowing themselves up with gunpowder. Cēsis Castle was still in use during the following century but it fell into disuse in the 18th century. Today the castle is a heritage site and one of the ‘must see’ destinations in the Baltics.
We made our way back to Minou, had brunch and drove into the capital city; as in the past we like visit large cities on weekends, more specifically Sundays due to less traffic and more importantly, free parking! As there are generally no campgrounds in the cities (unless there’s a port nearby) we have to find a large parking area that allows overnights. The one we had in mind (from park4night) turned out to be right on the street beside the river. While in theory “by the river” sounds great but the street there is quite busy and the parking was angled so it meant we were sticking into the traffic. Doug walked over to the next street over and found parallel street parking on a cobble street that was the same price – pay till 5pm on Saturdays then free till Monday 8am. We moved over there and it turns out there was a restaurant/bar right by us that had unlocked Wi-Fi! We got parked and as it was only about 3 we decided to take a walk to see the “Art Deco” buildings just outside of the old town (in the opposite direction of everything else we planned to check out. It was about a 1.5 km walk in the sunshine.
This was really quite beautiful; there were several blocks of these gorgeously ornate buildings.
With over 800 Art Nouveau buildings, Riga has one of the world’s greatest galleries of this joyful style. Alberta Liela is a street almost entirely created by Art Nouveau genius Mikhail Eisenstein, and his son film director Sergei Eisenstein was one of the founders of modern cinema.
We went back to Minou and decided to patronize the bar with the free Wi-Fi for an early happy hour and sat and enjoyed some of the Latvian beer and catch up on downloading, namely maps for our new app.
We returned to Minou to have a chat with Josh online – he caught COVID last week and is home alone isolating for a while so he doesn’t have the kids with him this weekend.
After dinner the music began at the bar and it was not super loud but enough to be annoying when we went to bed; fortunately, it stopped just after 11 but the traffic sounds were still around. Well, when we consider how many times we’ve slept in city parking, we can’t really complain too much. But that and the weather forecast helped us decide not to stay a second night.
Sunday morning to week a very pleasant walk around the city to see the sights:
The Riga Castle – no too impressive as castles go:
The building called the Three Brothers – three of the oldest houses in the city side by side which were old warehouse buildings. Each building was constructed in a different century the oldest in 1490. These buildings currently house the museum of architecture.
The freedom monument symbolizes Latvia’s independence, freedom and national unity. tT was unveiled in 1935 and was built entirely through donations from the people not funded by the government. The monument is dedicated to the soldiers who died in the battles for Latvia’s independence and is composed ot 13 groups of sculptures and bas-reliefs depicting symbols of the country’s history and culture.
St Peter’s Church is first mentioned in writings in 1209. The church was significantly expanded in the 15th century when it acquired a distinctly Gothic appearance. The baroque tower has suffered from many lightning strikes over the centuries. Unit WWII this church was the tallest wooden structure in all of Europe. During that war it was burned down and the final reconstruction took place in 1973 when an elevator was installed.
The Central Market here is one of the largest and oldest in EUope It as oringal two historical zeppelin hangers and from that five pavilions were created. The market began serving the public in 1930. Here we purchased our “country” souvenir, a kilo of fresh blueberries for €5 and Fran got a sort of lanyard for her phone to hang around her neck:
Before returning to Minou, we checked out one last building: the beautiful Blackhead building built in 1334. It was a place for various public organizations and at the time was the most luxurious and prestigious building in the entire city. The Blackheads were an association of young, unmarried merchants, goldsmiths and ship captains. The association became the tenants of the building at the end of the 15th century. Sadly the building was destroy in WWII but in 1999 it was rebuilt and regained its former glory.
Now above we mentioned the weather forecast. The reason that made us reconsider staying in Riga a second night was that the forecast was for a wet Monday and our next destination, very close by was Jurmala – a beach town on the Balti Sea. We wanted to be able to enjoy a walk on the beach at the very least if it wasn’t warm enough to take a dip.
To enter the “region” of Jurmala, you must pay an €2 “environmental fee” at a machine before crossing the bridge. You stop at a machine that’s like a parking kiosk and get a ticket using your license plate number. We knew of a few free parking lots close to the beach and enroute to one we found another that looked more motorhome friendly: large, flat and concrete. There were a few others there and we got a good spot near the edge like we like and took a walk to the beach about a block away.
Well it’s quite a lovely beach: nice soft sand, rather wide and very shallow for a long time.
The only complaint we had was the wind off the Baltic Sea – although not strong it was a cold wind – must have been coming from Sweden! 😉
It was only about 20C / 70F out and we were not hot but there were many people in their swim suits sunbathing and some in the water. Fran took a stroll in the water after removing her flip flops and it was a reasonable temperature and she said she’d go in except for fear of how cool that breeze would feel when she got out! Yes we are whimps!
We found a small beach bar to have a cold drink at and plan out our next few days. We’ve seen as much as we’d thought we’d see in this country and will move on to Lithuania in the next day or so.
We returned to Minou and Doug worked on a repair he’s been struggling with; he’s been trying to find Teflon tape to fix the gray tank hose that got damaged when the tire blew with no success. On our way into Riga, we found yet another hardware store to check and while it wasn’t real Teflon tape he thought it might work; so far so good.
Around 4 while it was still sunny but beginning to cloud over , we went out for another beach walk. The wind had picked up considerably but there were more people on the beach now. It’s supposed to rain tonight so we expect the clouds to keep building up for the rest of the day. Around 9:30 pm before closing the blinds, Fran looked outside and we could see a lovely red sky between the trees. We are back in the latitude of sunsets here at 56N.
As we drove south on Monday, we noticed less forest and more farmland and we actually took some dirt country roads to reach the border with Lithuania and encountered more road construction delays than we have had in a long while. As expected it was raining when we got up but long before we reached the border, it stopped but continued to be cloudy.
Total mileage in Latvia: 340 km / 211 mi
Fun facts about Latvia: