Latvia. A true “tabula rasa” in terms of travel experiences for me. I have never in my life been to either of the three Baltic States Latvia, Lithuania or Estonia, but have been given a great deal of (positive) recommendations before. Thanks to my participation in the #NBEFinland Nordic Bloggers’ Experience, I have now been to Riga, as well as rural Latvia, together with a bunch of new-found, international friends meeting truly special, local people. Aija Gabrane, Latvia’s top chef. Janis Vanags, Air Baltic’s charismatic Head of Communications. Juris Dudko and his daughter Liene, who run a beautiful countryside spa hotel. A computer scientist, who in his “leisure time” doubles as a traditional sauna whisk master (more about this later).
“Let’s go (back) to Riga, and Latvia”, I tell my friends back home. “People are wonderful … and the value for money to travel there is really, really good – perhaps one of the best in Europe.”
Picture yourself landing in Riga. Latvia’s capital city, some 700.000 people strong, has a wonderful, welcoming atmosphere despite the chilly winter winds. The town’s origins date back to the 12th century, and I love tracing the remnants of various architectural styles as we stroll around town. Climbing the church tower of Saint Peter with its 360° views, we can easily see why Riga has been awarded special protection status by UNESCO World Heritage. Do not to miss a visit to the market halls of Riga: They are located in former zeppelin hangars and render a unique flair to an otherwise familiar market experience.
Around Riga: Just an hour north-east of Riga, you can enjoy the “great outdoors” of Sigulda, in Gauja National Park, and stay at the most warm-hearted home that is Malpils Manor.
I will never forget the warmth of Aija Gabrane’s laughter. The local chef at Malpils Manor international guest house, she herself cannot communicate with us in fluent English, but everything else is said in her gestures, warmth of expression, and swift movements as she gently directs us around her kitchen. Aija Gabrane is Latvia’s top chef – but we only learn about this from her colleagues at Malpils Manor House: Aija herself is much too modest to brag about her achievements. I take to her immediately – and love my cooking course & tasting experience with her. After a full day of exploring the Sigulda countryside, including another creative travel experience with “Balts Jewellery” at Sigulda Castle, me and my group defy the notion, “Too many cooks spoil the broth.” Check this out.
If spa is what you need (and trust me, you will love going to the sauna in Latvia during winter), look no further than Hotel Ezeri, again near Sigulda. The cottage sauna by the lake will leave you speechless with delight.
“Trust to master … He knows best”, Juris keeps reassuring me & my friends ahead of our first Latvian sauna experience. After travelling in Finland for the second time this winter, and being a true #saunalover since my early childhood in Austria, I thought I knew what to expect. However, as it turns out, Latvia, or indeed Juris and his team, have prepared a completely different type of sauna experience. A sauna that is deeply rooted in Latvia’s rural countryside traditions. There is scrubbing. There is steam. There is gentle whisking. There is ice swimming again, as in Finland yes, but also blissful sleep wrapped up in warm blankets following the ecstatic hot – cold experience that … well. Hard to put into words everything that we have experienced at Hotel Ezeri’s wooden cabin sauna & ice swimming hole, so I have made the following video for you to follow along:
(Feeling completely relaxed here with me?).
Check out my entire Flickr Photo Gallery of travel pics from Latvia:
Disclaimer: We have been invited on this trip by #VisitLatvia as part of our #NBEFinland Nordic Bloggers’ Experience. All opinions are my own.