Latvia, Nice Place

It’s a tagline that features on a souvenir range, and it couldn’t be more appropriate, because yes, Latvia is a nice place indeed. To tell the truth, it was never a place that had crossed my mind when considering where I wanted to travel in Europe. But as is often the case, this point of view changed drastically when I made friends with some Latvians. They are amazing, fun people and as soon as a good opportunity came up, I packed my bags and headed off to visit them. And it was one of the best things I’ve done in a long time.

It’s always a different experience when you explore a country with locals, and even more so when those locals are good friends. I swear there’s no better feeling in the world than turning up at an airport in a foreign country and straight away being greeted by smiles and bear hugs. I was half expecting them to hide and pretend they’d forgotten me, actually. Things like that have happened before. Thankfully, my friends had decided against this course of action and as soon as I was through the Arrivals Gate and the initial greetings, smiles and hugs were exchanged, we promptly bundled into the car. After quick stop at Macca’s for a midnight snack we were on the road again, destination: Valmiera, a small city north of Riga, where my friends studied.

The next day played out like many of our little adventure road trips in Salzburg had. We arranged a departure time, knowing full well we’d leave late, packed a picnic lunch to share and rugged up warm for a day in the snow. That was the day I learnt to cross country ski. Sort of. We drove to a little town on the coast, where we met our ‘guide’. The little old man proudly showed us his snow covered garden, before taking us down to the beach. It was the first beach I’d been to since September, and I had no overwhelming desire to jump into the water and swim. Mostly because the beach was covered in snow, and the water undoubtably would have been close to freezing. I think, for an Aussie, this is one of the only valid reasons for not jumping into the ocean whenever the opportunity presents itself. Other valid reasons being sharks, salt water crocodiles and pollution.

Getting back on subject, cross country skiing is kind of difficult. Especially when you have copious amounts of fresh snow sticking to the bottom of your skis and have somehow managed to swap your skis with those of your considerably taller friend. To put it simply, learning to ski with skis that are 10 cms too big for you is not a recipe for success. Needless to say, when we realised and swapped our skis back things got a lot easier. Moving from the beach to the road also helped. By the end of the day I could ski relatively well and had come to the decision that cross country skiing is awesome. If it was feasible, I would buy a pair of skis and take them home with me.

To top everything off, we finished the day with dinner at a traditional Latvian restaurant. I think it was then that I fell in love with the country. You see in Australia, food is expensive. In Latvia, not so much. For the three of us the total was 19.90 Latts, which converts to $40 AU. That’s for soup, a main course and a drink, all of which tasted fantastic. For a foodie coming from Australia, it’s almost too good to be true. A similar meal in Aus would cost about $20AU or more for one person.

Wednesday was somewhat less adventurous. Because semester had already started for my friends, they had a lot of work to do, so this was the first of four days spent in their university library. Which for me, wasn’t such a bad thing, considering I had my own share of work to do. In the evening we headed out to the local brewery to enjoy some good Latvian beer. Thursday played out similarly, but with the added joy of the arrival of two more friends, affectionately dubbed the Dad and Mum of what we like to call our ‘erasmus family’. Naturally, this called for celebration which for us meant food (a fondness for good food seems to run in this family).

The small reunion was perfectly timed. My Latvian friends didn’t have uni the next day, so another road trip was in order. We headed first to Gaujas National Park where we explored the Līgatne nature trails before driving to the nearby city of Cēsis. Our little family really thrives on mini road trips it seems, we had so much fun and that night only got better. You see that night was the university’s Valentine’s Prom. And wow. It was like one of those proms you see in American movies, with everyone dancing. Note the use of the word ‘dancing’ and not ‘grinding’. Dancing, as in twirls and dips and spinning. Why don’t Aussie dance like that? ‘And we danced on into the night’ is an incredibly accurate description of the prom, if you replace the word ‘night’ with ‘morning’. We weren’t in bed until 7 am.

Unfortunately Mum and Dad had to catch the bus at 9 am, so our reunion as short lived. But fun, and definitely not the last.

Saturday marked another first for me, when we went to one friend’s hometown and after a delicious home cooked meal, headed to a sauna. Saunas are strangely fun. I had never really understood their appeal before, but it’s rare for me to say no to a new experience, so when my friend insisted we go, I went with the flow. Now I get it. I can’t put it into words, but if you ever get a chance to go to a sauna, do it!

Another thing you should do if you get the chance is visit the capital, Riga. Which is what I spent two days doing. It’s by no means a big city, but that’s part of its charm. I was lucky enough to have another friend act as tour guide for me in Riga, and we definitely made the best of the short time we had. Our first day was spent at the Open Air Museum, and exploring the area around our hotel in the evening before heading to a show. The show was my idea, when I found out that the Umbilical Brothers were performing in Riga the night I was there, I immediately wanted to go (for the uninitiated the Umbilical Brothers are Australian comedians). The following day was an in depth exploration of the old town, my friend actually worked as a tour guide in Riga last summer, so I got the full deal. It’s a beautiful city, and rich with history as I soon learnt.
That evening I returned to Valmiera and the next morning it was back to the library routine. Meaning library during the day, and a small adventure in the evening. Or in my case, misadventure. Let’s just say it involved cross country skiing at night. Potentially awesome, but not so great for a person who only learnt a week ago and still falls over a lot.
The following morning I was in pain. But after some pain killers, I was in reasonable spirits so we were on the road one last time (for now anyway).  This time the destination was Sigulda,  hometown of my other friend, and he was keen to play guide. We visited a cave, a castle and the bobsled track with some time to spare for a cake stop at one of the local cafes.
After one more day in the library, it was time for me to leave, next stop Berlin. I had the best time with my Latvians (and Mum and Dad too of course), and really can’t wait until the next time we can see each other. Paldies Latvija, for producing such amazing people!
Līga, Ivo and Kristīne, again thank you so much for everything!!! See you in the summer time!
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