Difference between revisions of "Latvia"
Revision as of 23:27, 28 April 2014
Latvia (Latvija) is a European state which is situated on the coast of Baltic Sea. One of the three Baltic states, Latvia is bordered by Estonia to the north, Lithuania to the south, Russia to the east, Belarus on the south east, and the Baltic Sea on the west. The most famous travel spot is the capital Riga, a World Heritage Site. There are also many other great places to see, both urban and rural, such as Liepaja with its unique former secret military town of Karosta and a magnificent beach. Kuldiga with Europe`s widest waterfall and Cesis with its medieval castle ruins are also interesting. Tourists can also enjoy the wild beauty of Latvia's unspoilt sea coast, which is 500 km long and consists mainly of white, soft sandy beaches. Forests, which cover approximately a half of Latvia's territory, offer many nature trails and nature parks.
Latvia is a famous ancient trading point. The famous route from the Vikings to the Greeks’ mentioned in ancient chronicles stretched from Scandinavia through Latvian territory along the river Daugava to the Kievan Rus and Byzantine Empire. Across the European continent, Latvia’s coast was known as a place for obtaining amber. In the Middle Ages amber was more valuable than gold in many places. Latvian amber was known in places as far away as Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire. In the 12th century, German traders arrived, bringing with them missionaries who attempted to convert the pagan Finno-Ugric and Baltic tribes to the Christian faith. The Germans founded Rīga in 1201, establishing it as the largest and most powerful city on the eastern coast of the Baltic Sea. After independence in 1918, Latvia achieved considerable results in social development, economy, industry and agriculture. It has always been a multicultural melting point, where foreigners and locals worked together and brought prosperity to the country. On June 16, 1940, Vyacheslav Molotov presented the Latvian representative in Moscow with an ultimatum accusing Latvia of violations of that pact, and on June 17 Soviet forces occupied the country. Elections for a "People's Saeima" were held, and a puppet government headed by Augusts Kirhenšteins led Latvia into the USSR. The annexation was formalized on August 5, 1940. During the time of the Iron Curtain, Latvia was a province of the Soviet Union, but the concentration of heavy industry was enormous. Contacts with the West were regulated. The Baltic region had the reputation of being the most urbanized and having the highest literacy rate in the Soviet Union. Latvia gained independence on September 6, 1991. Between 1991 and 2007 the country saw unprecedented economic growth. However, the global recession and the banking crisis hit Latvia brutally, and severe economic contraction and destructively high unemployment have returned.
Because of a tribal past and divisions between occupying nations, there are regional differences between parts of Latvia which are interesting to explore.
The best time to travel to Latvia is from June to mid September, when it is warm and plenty of local food is available. January and February are the coldest months. October and November have autumn rains and daylight is short.
Half of Latvia is covered with forests which are rich with wildlife. There are many lakes, especially if you go to Latgale region. There are deep river valleys with some sections having sand cliffs on their banks. Heavy industry halted a long time ago, so most places are ecologically clean.
The highest point in Latvia is Gaizinkalns , at 312m (1,023ft) above sea level, just west of the town of Madona.
There are some cultural and social differences between regions, for example, traditional dress is different from region to region. The Latgale region has its own unique culture and language - Latgalian.
Latvia is a member of the Schengen Agreement.
There are no border controls between countries that have signed and implemented this treaty - the European Union (except Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Ireland, Romania and the United Kingdom), Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland. Likewise, a visa granted for any Schengen member is valid in all other countries that have signed and implemented the treaty. But be careful: not all EU members have signed the Schengen treaty, and not all Schengen members are part of the European Union. This means that there may be spot customs checks but no immigration checks (travelling within Schengen but to/from a non-EU country) or you may have to clear immigration but not customs (travelling within the EU but to/from a non-Schengen country).
Please see the article Travel in the Schengen Zone for more information about how the scheme works and what entry requirements are.
SJSC Latvian Railways  operates trains to Riga from Moscow or Saint Petersburg, Russia with stops at Rezekne and Jekabpils, as well as trains to/from Tallinn, Estonia via change in Valga. In addition, trains to Daugavpils and Rezekne are available from Saint Petersburg, Russia and Vilnius, Lithuania.
If you travel by train via Daugavpils to connect to/from Riga you might need to stay in Daugavpils overnight for the connection. Therefore, for travel between Riga and Vilnius, it is better to take a bus or plane.
If you have a driver's licence issued by another country of the European Union, you can use it continuosly. Residents of other countries have to obtain a Latvian licence after 6 months; however, it involves only a theoretical exam, which can be taken in English, German, French, or Russian.
There are several small airports available across Latvia, two in Riga - Spilves airport and Rumbulas airport and in biggest cities of Latvia however there are no intercity flights in Latvia operating these days.
International car rentals are represented in Latvia. There are many offices in Riga, including some at Riga Airport. Cheaper car rental offices are also available.
Drive with the headlights on all year round. Winter or all-season tyres are required for the winter period (December 1 to March 1). Many gas stations are self-service and operate 24/7. Gasoline with octane ratings of 95 and 98 is available, as well as diesel fuel.
You can browse the car rental companies list at the Riga International Airport website .
It is advisable to go by train instead of bus from Riga to the following towns: Jurmala, Tukums, Jelgava, Salaspils, Jekabpils, Daugavpils, Rezekne, Sigulda, Cesis and Saulkrasti. Check the official Latvian Railroad (Latvijas dzelzcels) website or  for timetables. If you are going to other cities, there is most likely only a couple trains per day or there are no trains going at all.
Trains are usually cheaper and you don't need to worry about having no seat. Trains are usually crowded on peak days of summer.
Remember that sometimes the name of station differs from the name of town. For example, you might need to go to Krustpils station, if traveling to Jekabpils, and going to Majori (city center) or Ķemeri (going to the national park), if going to Jurmala.
Buying a train ticket before you board the train will avoid an extra fee and language hassles of buying a ticket on the train. Ticket offices at smaller stations can open late and close early, and also close for periods during the date. The schedule is posted at the ticket office. Don't buy a return ticket unless you have confirmed there is a return train at the time you need. Tickets can be purchased in advance online or from any station. If you buy them online you still need to collect them from a station.
There is a vast network of bus connections around Latvia. Buy a bus ticket at the bus station or on bus when boarding. If you have luggage, ask the bus driver to put it in the trunk. It depends on the bus company, if they will charge extra. There are express bus connections to major towns, which can save time considerably.
On Fridays and Saturdays buses could be crowded in the outbound direction from Riga. Bus time tables are available at the Rigas Autoosta  site, and at . If going by bus on Friday from Riga or coming back to Riga on Sunday it is highly recommended to book ticket in advance (available only of booking for route from starting station of bus) at the cash desk of bus station or online at . You can buy ticket up to 10 days before departure.
If you are going from Riga to Jurmala during summer, a very romantic way is to travel by river cruise boats: dominantly two-deck motor boats with capacity for around 60-100 people. They usually depart from Riga center in the morning and go back in the afternoon. There probably still is also a river cruise service from Riga center to Riga Zoo. Ask in the tourism information center for more details and prices.
It is advised to cycle around Riga in the early morning when there is less traffic, although one should be careful when choosing this time due to reduced drivers attention. Expect heavy traffic from 5 PM to 8 PM. No left turn allowed from middle line. However, it is highly advised to choose by-ways and less densely populated roads due to hazardous traffic. It is vitally important to wear reflectors; reflective belts, bands and bright coloured clothing are advised, as well as having the bike equipped with strong front and rear lights. Generally, cycling is still not very safe in the country, especially during the dark hours. The only "real" bicycle path is existing from the old town of Riga to the Sea resort of Jurmala. But the country is fast developing local cycling routes. The international bicycle project BaltiCCycle  may provide you with a lot of information and help.
Hitchhiking in Latvia is generally good. The roads around Riga present the largest obstacle, unless the city is your destination - there is no clean "by-pass" road, and a considerable amount of local traffic makes hitching very difficult. The easiest way to get around Riga is to find a "cross-country" lift at the border with Estonia or Lithuania. License plate numbers/countries of origin are your friends.
Latvian' (Latviešu valoda) is the only official language and belongs to the Baltic language group of Indo-European languages and its only closest relative is Lithuanian, but it is very different anyway, so most likely Latvian will sound completely foreign for you and it is hard to guess what written words mean, even if Latvian uses Latin alphabet, just like English. However, some words are borrowed from other languages and it is not hard to understand that Restorans means Restaurant, but what about Veikals? It means Shop. The language has complicated grammar, the most complex being usage of verb prefixes and suffixes, which can change the meaning completely, as well as many kinds of participles majority of which do not have equivalent in English.
The pronunciation is more or less easy; however there are some complicated rules for some letters like e and o, and any foreigners trying to speak Latvian have an accent, because it is really hard to speak perfect Latvian. In Latvian, there are three pitch tones and sometimes the meaning of the word changes if you change the tone, e.g. loks can mean leek or bow, depending on the pronunciation tone. Zale can mean a hall or grass, again depends on the tone you use. The easiest part is the stress, which is almost always on the first syllable. Latvian is spoken natively by only 1.5 million people in the whole world, most of them of course in Latvia, but also in Ireland, UK, USA, Russia, Brazil or Australia.
Besides Latvian, Russian is spoken fluently by most of the people (70% of people speak it as a second language according to the Eurobarometer poll of 2005), since Latvia was part of the Soviet Union, and in fact some places like Daugavpils have Russian as the majority language. It is also possible to get by with English, especially in Riga.
When thinking of Europe, the small nation of Latvia is probably not one of the first countries to spring to your mind. Buried under the big no-go blanket of the Soviet Union, it has yet to be properly discovered by the large tourist crowds. If you manage to make it there, however, you might just find yourself most positively surprised by the charms of this Baltic country.
Latvia's dynamic capital, the historic city of Riga, is a great place to spend some time. It boasts a truly lovely old quarter, full of magnificent Jugendstil architecture, winding cobblestoned lanes and many steeples. Yet, it is a modern, metropolitan city with a vibrant nightlife and a strong economic impulse, to the extend that the rise of modernist buildings is threatening the old town's World Heritage listing. Riga's vibe gets under many travellers' skins, perhaps for the strong contrasts between old and new or maybe because of the seemingly painless blend of Latvian and Russian cultures, as almost half of the city's inhabitants are of Russian origin. To get a sense of the city, wander through its large, manicured parks, stroll through the historic quarter and then kick back in one of the many cafés or outdoor terraces. Among Riga's best sights are the impressive Riga Cathedral, St. Peter's Church and the bustling Central Market.
Although Riga is by far the country's main tourist destination, there are a bunch of other places well worth a visit. At just 40 km from the capital is Sigulda, with the nicely reconstructed Turaida Castle, an interesting castle museum as well as the deep Gutmanis Cave. The town is beautifully located in the Gauja valley and has been called the "Switserland of Latvia" for its steep cliffs and banks. It's known for its winter sports opportunities and makes a great base for explorations of the fine nature around it. The coastal city of Liepāja is known to Latvians as "the city where the wind is born", for the sea breeze it constantly enjoys. It has a nice beach and a charming town centre with a colourful mixture or architectural styles, from wooden houses and spacious parks to Art Nouveau and concrete, Soviet-era apartment buildings. Liepāja's neighbourhood of Karosta was built in the late 19th century as a naval base for Tsar Alexander III and was later used by the Soviet Baltic Fleet. Its splendid sea side panoramas, former military prison and fortress remains now make it a popular tourist sight.
Cesis is one of the country's oldest towns and has a charming centre with cobblestoned lanes, historic wooden building and a few impressive castles. Kuldīga boasts Europe's widest, though at two meters high unspectacular, water fall. It's part of the Venta Rapid, one of Latvia's natural monuments. Despite its limited hight it's still a nice sight and the town itself is worth exploring too. The colossal white Cathedral of Aglona is a worthwhile day trip from Daugavpils, the second largest city in the country. Jelgava has two fine sight in its baroque style Rundāle and Jelgava palaces.
There are many interesting and old castles around Latvia. The Association of Latvian Castles, Palaces and Manors has links and photos on their website. Note that sometimes castles are reserved for private occasions.
Sports and outdoor activities
Due to low population density, large parts of Latvia are covered by forests and wetlands and there are many national parks and nature preserves. The largest one is the densely forested Gauja National Park in the River Gauja valley. Slitere National Park has the stunning beach of Cape Kolka, where the Gulf of Riga meets the Baltic Sea. Latvia is popular for bird watching. There are also many trekking opportunities at all difficulty levels, from short walks in old parks up to several day camping and boating trips. It is popular to go for a stroll in the autumn to watch the different shades of colour, when the trees turn red and yellow. Popular places for such activities are Sigulda and Vidzemes Augstiene.
There are a lot of possibilities for winter sports - snowboarding, cross country skiing, downhill skiing etc. Major ski facilities include Ramkalni, Baili, and Zviedru Cepure. Some of the slopes are open late at night. They are not accessible via public transport.
As rivers get more water from melting snow, kayaking down rivers is among the favorite pastimes for young people. It usually gets warmer after Easter.
Latvia has one of the longest sand beaches in Europe. In July and August the water is warm enough to swim comfortably. The sea has a very slow slope. As a best natural beach is listed the coast southwards from Liepaja because it is a coast of open sea (not a gulf) with cleaner water, brighter sand, and not too many people, because it's not close to massive population. With stable air temperature 30°C, water temperature is about 20°C, which is very refreshing when you take an intensive sunbath. You practically don't need to wash after swimming, because the salt level is pleasantly low.
Latvia's many spas are an excellent way to relax. Although widely available, the popular holiday resort town of Jūrmala has some of the best options, as well as a fine beach.
Latvia has the euro (€) as its sole currency along with 24 other countries that use this common European money. These 24 countries are: Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia and Spain (official euro members which are all European Union member states) as well as Andorra, Kosovo, Monaco, Montenegro, San Marino and the Vatican which use it without having a say in eurozone affairs and without being European Union members. Together, these countries have a population of more than 330 million.
One euro is divided into 100 cents. While each official euro member (as well as Monaco, San Marino and Vatican) issues its own coins with a unique obverse, the reverse, as well as all bank notes, look the same throughout the eurozone. Every coin is legal tender in any of the eurozone countries.
ATMs are widely available throughout Latvia (including Riga International Airport), even in many small towns. Tax free stores have their signs clearly displayed.
Banks will accept traveller's cheques with a fee, usually equal to the greater of 1% of the amount exchanged or €10.
Speciality shops are open mostly 08:00-18:00 on weekdays, until 16:00 on Saturdays and closed on Sundays. Groceries are open every day until 20:00 or longer. Most supermarkets are open until 23:00 every day. Convenience stores, such as Narvesen are mostly open 24/7.
The country offers plenty of varieties of bread, milk products, ice cream, sweets (loose sweets, made by Laima) etc. In the open air markets of Riga, Liepaja and other cities and towns, the local fruits, vegetables and mushrooms are a great option, such as freshly picked wild strawberries or blueberries from the forests, or some big strawberries, apples, rhubarb pie and a crunch made of fresh stalks straight from the garden. This is, of course, available mainly in summer and autumn season.
Latvian cuisine comes from its peasant culture, and is based on crops that grow in Latvia's maritime, temperate climate. Rye, wheat, oat, peas, beets, and potatoes are the staples; smoked bacon, sausage, and other pork products are favourites, smoked and raw fish is common. Many types of food are flavoured with caraway seeds, especially cheese and bread. A cheese similar to smoked gouda, but softer, is the cheapest and, arguably, tastiest variety. Latvian rye bread is heavy and flavourful, and goes well with hearty Latvian meals like pea soup, potatoes, and schnitzels. Restaurants in larger cities often offer stews in clay pots.
Latvian cuisine is typical of northern countries, especially close to Finland; it's high on butter, fat, and grains, low on spice except for caraway and black pepper. If you are from the Mediterranean, you might find it bland, but if you come from England or the Midwestern US, you're not likely to have trouble getting used to it.
A more exotic Latvian dish is a sweet soup made from rye bread (maizes zupa).
Some specific food in this area:
Other mentionable food and dishes:
Beer, the most popular alcoholic beverage in Latvia, is excellent. Beers, such as Aldaris, Līvu, and Senču can be bought almost anywhere but local people are very proud about local small breweries, try Bauskas, Tervetes, Piebalgas and some other beer. A special 'live beer' like Užavas can be found in selected pubs and restaurants. Don't forget to try the locally distilled Black Balsam (Rīgas Melnais Balzams). It's a strong (45%) infusion of various herbs, roots, and spices. It will cure your flu in no time. Add a few drops to flavor your tea, or a few spoons to lace your coffee, or in various cocktails. By itself it can be a very strong beverage! Wine is also grown in Latvia in small quantities. It is one of the most Northern places in the world where the wine can be successfully grown. Vineyards can be seen in Sabile  (in Latvian).
Some possible places to have a sip:
It is common to tip 10% of the bill depending on the service you encountered. Make sure you check the receipt, as some establishments automatically include a 10% tip in the bill.
Although you might not find plenty of 5 star hotels all around Latvia, you will find comfortable places to stay for a reasonable price. There are many hotels to choose from. Prices start from 20 LVL outside of Riga and from 40 LVL in Riga.
Network of youth hostels  is also developing. Dormitory rooms come around 10 lats, single, double rooms start from 20 lats and above.
Camping in parks is usually not allowed. As regards the stealth camping- most of rural land is private, but camping there is always possible; common sense is to ask for a permission of the owner, which in most cases will be gladly granted. However, if there's no such chance, but you decide to camp there nevertheless and are later asked to move, you have to. Paying a small amount of money (1-2 lats) helps in most such cases. Overall, camping outdoors on privately owned land is widely understood, common and accepted; however, staying in one place for more than two days, or really close to a home is not considered good manners. Follow the common sense of stealth camping.
Indicated free camp sites can be found in Latvia, especially in national parks, you can easily camp there. Commercial campgrounds as small businesses are becoming more and more widespread.
So called guest houses and country houses (some on farms) are arguably the best places to stay at in the countryside, and usually for much less money than hotels and better quality than hostels, due to very limited numbers of guests and more personal oriented and specialized service (usually run by families). These come with full amenities and some follow the hotel star ratings. These also provide many recreational activities- from the Latvian popular ancient "pirts" sauna to horse rides etc. This is not only a good way to spend the night, but also an option to spend your holiday. However, usually, guest houses should be called up earlier than the day you plan to arrive, but this can vary depending on the place. Guest houses can be found fairly frequent throughout the country and are usually listed on tourist booklets.
Finding work is possible, especially if you are a citizen of an EU country; however, salaries are low. Job advertisements are posted in Latvian newspapers such as Diena in its Tuesday or Saturday edition. Some ads are in English, German, Russian, or French.
For information on obtaining a residence permit, see Office of Citizenship & Migration Affairs
It is generally safe to travel around on your own, although some petty crime exists. A thing to watch out for is bicycle theft, and it is advisable not to leave valuable things in your car. Mind the forest roads, collisions with wildlife animals can easily occur.
When visiting bars and restaurants in Riga, make sure you know the price before you order and follow your spending, so no cheating is possible. Beware of scammers who strike up conversations out of the blue and invite you to visit their favorite club or bar; this is often a favorite way for the mafia how to rob the foreigners, and the police are unlikely to help if you get scammed. The Police of Latvia  has a website with advice for travelers.
Emergency phone number: Fire/Police/Ambulance 112.
If bitten by a dog, wild animal or a snake, seek medical attention immediately. Snakes are not venomous in Latvia, except for the European Adder which is a possible death threat if no treatment is received within the next few hours after the bite. A dog or cat bite can carry the risk of rabies. Mosquitoes carry no disease and are only an annoyance in the summer months.
Forest ticks can be abundant from May-September, depending on previous year's weather, especially in brushwood/scrub areas, but also occasionally in town parks. Their bite carries the risk of tick-born encephalitis (infected ticks can be quite common, vaccination possible before season) and Lyme disease -- less common; delayed or inadequate treatment can lead to disabilities.
There is no problem turning to any doctor or hospital to seek medical help, just by paying an outside patient fee. However, it can prove difficult to obtain medical assistance in many rural areas, as the service can be slow and unresponsive; therefore, it may be a good idea to bring your own first aid kit. There are virtually no air ambulance helicopters in the country, except for the army, so when exploring sparsely-inhabited, remote areas on your own, it's important to be well-prepared for emergency situations. If you get to a doctor, he/she will probably only speak Latvian and Russian.
Few drugs are available without a prescription; bring your own medicine if you require it.
If you need to seek medical attention of a doctor, be prepared to pay a fee under the table; in Latvia, it is estimated that 1 in 4 doctors take "private donations" to see patients.
Tap water is safe to drink; however, most locals prefer to boil it before drinking. Purchasing bottled water is an alternative.
One should be cautious when mentioning Latvia in the context of the USSR to ethnic Latvians. Latvia became a USSR province after World War II, and praise of the Soviet (or Russian) regimes is unlikely to be understood or appreciated by Latvians, especially young ones.
It is very common to give up your seat for an elderly passenger on the public transport in Latvia. It is also considered polite to let women board a train or bus first.
There are many waste containers and trash cans on the sidewalks and near most stores. Littering is considered a very bad manner and may be fined.
Also, you do not need to specially greet, smile or offer help to people. Latvian citizens are not so easy-going in relationships. Friendship is seen as a very serious affair that develops in the long term.
The postal service, Latvijas Pasts  is reliable and a fast way to send letters and parcels up to 10kg.
Telephone & Internet
Any GSM phone that works in Europe will work in Latvia. For local communication, it is much cheaper to buy a local prepaid SIM card, which can include data as well as voice and text. These cards and separate renewal vouchers can be easily bought in gas stations, kiosks, or supermarkets. All brands are more or less equal in price and service. Popular brands include LMT , Tele2 , Bite . All prepaid SIM cards come with a manual in English, Russian, and Latvian.
Free wifi is available in many cafes, libraries, and the Riga Airport. Most hotels will provide free wireless access spots for laptops.
To call from a public phone, you need a phone card (telekarte) which cost as little as €2. International calls are possible from every public phone.