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Latvia

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Baltic states : Latvia
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[[File:noframe|250px|frameless|Latvia]]
Location
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Flag
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Quick Facts
Capital Riga
Government parliamentary democracy
Currency Latvian lat (LVL)
Area 64,589 sq km
Population 2,274,735 (July 2006 est.)
Language Latvian (official), Russian (widely spoken and understood, especially in Riga), Lithuanian, other
Religion Lutheran, Russian Orthodox, Catholic, Muslim, Jewish
Electricity 220V/50Hz (European plug)
Country code +371
Internet TLD .lv
Time Zone UTC+2

Latvia [1] is situated in Northern Europe. 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.

Regions

Map of Latvia
Statue of Rolands, Riga Old Town

There are four historical regions of Latvia:

  • Vidzeme - Northern part
  • Kurzeme - Western part
  • Latgale - Eastern part
  • Zemgale - Middle part

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 dialect.

Cities

  • Riga - the capital city with more than 800 years old history
  • Bauska - hosts old castle, yearly country music festival
  • Cesis - old town in the heart of Vidzeme, castle and deep river valleys
  • Daugavpils - second biggest town in Latvia. Features many factories and other industries
  • Jelgava - students' town
  • Jūrmala - recreational town, close to Riga. Popular holiday destination.
  • Kuldiga - small town where old buildings are preserved. Features widest waterfall in Europe.
  • Liepāja - town on the Baltic sea coast, which is always windy. Latvians believe that wind starts there and also famous Latvian musicans come from there. There is very interesting former secret military town called Karosta.
  • Ligatne
  • Rēzekne - hearth of Latgale district
  • Sigulda - popular town with many interesting castles and historic spots. Most popular attraction outside Riga for foreign tourists
  • Tukums - three regions of Latvia meet in the vicinity of Tukums city: Vidzeme, Zemgale and Kurzeme.
  • Valka - unique town on the border - that crosses the town centre - with Estonia. Due to the future plans it is close to regain the status of important cultural centre.
  • Valmiera - industrial town, hosting also active cultural and academic life. There is also a university and theatre here.
  • Ventspils - hosts one of busiest ports in Europe. It is possible to observe incoming ships.

Other destinations

Theme parks

Weekend break

Understand

Cesis castle in Vidzeme region

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 Ancient Russia 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.

At the 12th century, German traders arrived, bringing with them missionaries who attempted to convert the pagan Baltic and Finno-Ugrian 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 great numbers of Soviet forces occupied the country. Fraudulent 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 urbanised and having the highest literacy rate in the Soviet Union.

Since regaining independence in 1991, economic and social development has been fast even for Latvians and neighbouring Europeans. Latvia has joined the European Union in 2004.

Because of a tribal past and divisions between occupying nations, there are regional differences between parts of Latvia which are interesting to explore.

Climate

Stony beach in Vidzeme

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. You will probably not experience a very high comfort level while traveling in Latvia, so this is really a trip for active and self-motivated people.

Geography

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 [2], at 312m (1,023ft) above sea level, just west of the town of Madona.

Get in

Visas

For those permited for visa free entry

  • Citizens of many countries, including Australia, Canada, United States, Mexico, New Zealand, do not need a visa to enter Latvia for up to 90 days. (Full list of countries)
  • As of May 1, 2004, Latvia is a member of the European Union, so citizens of EU countries do not need a visa for 90 days in 6 month period. If you want to stay longer you will need to get a residency permit.
  • Health or travel insurance must be presented at border crossing points. (More Information)

If you need a visa, getting it is tricky. Visa costs are on the high side considering size of the country - 20LVL for single or 35LVL for multple entry. Applications will take 7 days to process, or can take as long as 30 days if additional information is needed. To apply, submit to the Latvian embassy or consulate:

  • passport with TWO blank pages
  • application form
  • 2 photos
  • invitation (actually, number of invitation, which could only be obtainable by someone else by going to Latvian Immigration Office in Latvia. It costs an additional 5 LVL for single entry and 10 LVL for multiple entry visa. It is valid for 3 months)
  • travel insurance and payment

By plane

Riga airport: RIX

To Riga International Airport, you can arrive from various European (London, Frankfurt, Amsterdam, Barcelona, etc) cities, Middle East (Tel Aviv, Dubai), CIS (Moscow, Kiev, Minsk) as well as North America New York City.

Inexpensive national airline: Air Baltic. There are also other low-cost carriers Ryanairand EasyJet.

There are bus (0.30 LVL) and taxi (<10 LVL) connections to city centre. Only one cab company operates from airport, so look for red taxis on the ground floor near the parking lot. Journey times depend on traffic. Airport operates 24h hours. On departure hall help yourself with booklets about Riga.

If departing in morning allow yourself plenty of time to proceed through passport control as it can get crowded.

By train

SJSC Latvian Railways, 7216664, 7233397.

  • Train to Daugavpils and Rezekne are available from:

By car

You can use your car up till 3 months, if you are not resident in Latvia. After 3 months you need to register it.

If you have drivers licence from other country of European Union, you can use it continously. Residents of other countries have to switch their licence to Latvian ones after 6 months. It involves only theoretical exam. Exam is possible to take in English, Russian, French and German.

By bus

  • Eurolines, ph 371 7214080, fax 7503134, from Europe and CIS, online ticket reservation, booking through Eurolines agencies in Europe and CIS.
  • Ecolines from Europe and CIS, online booking.

By boat

Get around

Road in Vidzeme

By plane

Air Baltic flies from Riga to Liepaja International Airport in summer (May-September). It costs 18.60 lats from Riga to Liepaja and 10 lats from Liepaja to Riga.

Several small airports available across Latvia, two in Riga - Spilves airport and Rumbulas airport.

By car

International car rentals are represented in Latvia. Offices are in Riga and on the ground floor in Riga Airport. Cheaper car rental offices are available.

Drive with the headlights on all year round. Winter tires are required for winter period. Most of petrol stations are self-service and operating 24 hours. Two types of octan rating gasoline and diesel fuel available.

You can browse rental car companies list on Riga International Airport page.

By bus

There is vast network of bus connections around Latvia. Buy bus ticket in bus station or in bus when boarding. If you have luggage ask bus driver to put into trunk. It depends from company if they will charge extra for that. There is express bus connections to major towns, which saves time.

On Fridays and Saturdays buses could be crowded in the outbound direction from Riga. Bus time tables are available at the Rigas Autoosta site.

By train

Train connections route map

Useful to go by train if you need to connect to such towns as Jurmala, Saulkrasti, Jelgava, Ogre, Daugavpils.

Gulbene and Aluksne is connected by narrow gauge railway. There are several tourist spots along the route.

By bike

It is advised to cycle in the early morning when there is less traffic, although one should be carefulwhen choosing this time due to highly reduced drivers attention at this time. 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 highly hazardous traffic. It is vitally important to wear reflectors- reflective belts, bands and bright coloured clothing, as well as have the bike equipped with strong front and rear lights. Generally, cycling is still not safe in the country.

By thumb

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 Lithuania or Estonia. License plate numbers/countries of origin are your friends.

Talk

Latvian is an Indo-European language that shares comes from the Balto-Slavic branch of that linguistic family with Lithuanian. Both have some striking similarites with Russian and Polish, in addition to Germanic and Finnic-like pronounciation of words. The language is spoken natively by over half of the 2.4 million residents of Latvia. There is also a lot of Russian language spoken by the Russian ethnic community and it is still universally understtod in all of Latvia and a small Polish-speaking minority; many don't mind if you inadvertently speak Russian if you are cautious. In addition, English is also understood in urban centers.

See also: Latvian phrasebook

Do

Winter

Bridge over Venta in Kuldiga

There is a lot of possibilities to practice winter sports - snowboarding, cross country skiing, downhill skiing etc.Ramkalni, Baili, Zviedru Cepure. Some of slopes are open till late night. Usually need car to access.

  • International Ice Sculpture Festival in Jelgava, February
  • International Festival of Cartoons - Bimini in Riga, March

Spring

As rivers get more water from melting snow, canoeing down the rivers is favorite past time for young people. It usually gets warmer after Easter.

  • Easter - usually something is going on in town centers. Experience traditional Easter celebrations with swings and egg fight. Perfect time of the year to "indulge" in tradtional balzams - a sickeningly high alcohol content liquour, and for cultural pursuits such as seeing the amazing Riga Opera.
  • International Baltic Balet Festival in April/May.
  • Days of Art in Cesis, April
  • European Undertaking “Museum Night” all over Latvia, in May.

Summer

Latvian Song and Dance Festival
One of the key cultural events in Latvia, which started back in 1873 as singing festival. Now festival happenings involve choirs, folk dance groups, brass bands, folklorists etc. Competitions, exibitions, concerts, parade and joint concerts are some of cultural events. Riga is full with traditional cusumes and cheerful people from all Latvia. It is held once in five years. The next Latvian Song and Dance Festival will take place form 6th to 12th July, 2008 in Riga. Note: Latvian expats in US will held their 12th US Latvian Song Festival in July, 2007. If you want to have a glimpse what is all about, go to Indianapolis in July.


  • Jani - on the June 24th, Latvians celebrate a midsummer festival called - Jani. Before that Jani flea markets are held in mayor towns.
  • Country music festival - held annually in Bauska, around middle July for 2 days. European and US country musicans. Camping on the site possible.
  • Saulkrasti Jazz- yearly jazz festival, which is held at the end of July. Latvian and massive number of foreign musicans perform on the stage by the sea. Weekly concerts culminates in final concert. Saulkrasti can be easily reached from Riga main terminal by train.
  • International Music Festival “Riga Rythms” usually held at the begining of July in Riga.
  • Sigulda Opera Festival at the beginning of August, held in open air in Sigulda town.
  • Cesis Music and Art Festival. Medieval Festivity at the beginning of August. All things Medieval there - food, costumes, customs, etc.
  • Liepajas Dzintars- the end of August is the time for famous Liepaja music festival.

Latvia has one of longest sand beaches in Europe. In July and August the water is warm enough to swim. The sea has a very slow slope.

Autumn

There are many interesting and old castles around Latvia. Association of Latvian Castles, Palaces and Manors has links and photos on their website. Note that sometimes castles are reserved for private occasions.

It is popular to go for autumn leaves viewing, when the trees turn red and yellow. Popular spots are Sigulda and Vidzemes Augstiene.

Buy

  • Amber which is sold anywhere for tourists. If you are lucky, some could be found on the Baltic Sea shore after a storm.
  • Smoked (black) ceramics from Latgale.
  • Silver jewellery
  • Mittens with ornaments. Hand made and representing traditional culture.
  • Black bread gives more power than traditional bread. If bought just fresh and kept in a plastic bag, it might last well up to 10 days or more. It will go well anywhere in the world. Amazingly women like this bread more than men.
  • Melnais Balzams spirit enhanced with various herbs.
  • Laimas konfektes Asorti chocolate with different fillings.

Speciality shops are open from 8 AM till 6 PM of weekdays, 4 PM on Saturdays and closed on Sundays. Groceries are open all days till 8 PM and later. Supermarkets are open till 11 PM or 12 PM all days. Basically you can get everything you need in supermarkets - from sushi till grass cutting tractors.

There are ATMs all over Latvia and in Riga International Airport, even in some small towns.Tax free shops have their signs clearly displayed. Best rates offered for foreign currency are around central railway station in Riga on Merkela street. Banks will charge additional commission.

Banks will accept travelers checks with some fee as a percentage of sum. They will cash you in LVL in anycase taken their foreign currency exchange rate.

Before leaving Latvia, it is advisable to exchange Latvian lats back to foreign currency, unless you want to keep them as souvenir.

Eat

This is best thing that could happen to a traveler in Latvia - food.

Latvian cuisine comes from the peasant culture, and is based on crops that grow in Latvia's temperate climate. Rye, peas, beets, and potatoes are the staples; smoked bacon, sausage, and other pork products are favorites. Since Latvia is surrounded by the sea, smoked and raw fish is also available. Lots of things are flavored with caraway seeds, especially cheese and bread. A cheese similar to smoked gouda, but more soft, is the cheapest and, arguably, tastiest variety. Latvian rye bread is heavy and flavorful, and goes well with hearty Latvian meals like pea soup, potatoes, and schnitzels (karbonades). Restaurants in larger cities often offer stews in clay pots.

Latvian cuisine is typical for temperate and northern countries, high on butter, fat, and grains, low on spice. If you are from the Mediterranean, you will find it bland, but if you come from England or Russia or the Midwestern US, you won't have trouble getting used to it.

Koknese castle ruins

A more exotic Latvian dish is a sweet soup made from rye bread (maizes zupa).

Some specific food only available in this area:

  • Biezpiena sierins [6] - curd actually, but with sweet taste
  • Kefirs - specific dairy product (vegetarian)
  • Kiselis - served for dessert (vegetarian)
  • Griki - buckwheat, eaten as main course
  • Skabeti kaposti - cabbage in its own juice

Other mentionable food and dishes:

  • Smoked cheese - goes very well with wine
  • Eclair - cake with sweet cream inside
  • Eel - fish that looks like a snake, European eel
  • Frikadelu zupa - meatball soup with bullion (high fat)
  • Biesu zupa - red colored beetroot soup (vegetarian and non-vegetarian)
  • Rosols - salad with sour cream, usually non-vegetarian
  • Kotletes - meatballs served with potatoes
  • Gailenu merce - mushroom sauce, usually served with potatoes (vegetarian)
  • Siļķe ar biezpienu - herring served with cottage cheese

Drink

A view from Skyline bar

Many local beers are excellent. Aldaris, Līvu, and Senču can be bought almost anywhere. A special 'live beer' called Užavas can be found in selected pubs and restaurants.

Don't forget to try the 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 drink it neat.

Wine is also grown in Latvia in small quantities. It is one of the most Northern points in the world where wine is grown. Vineyards can be seen in Sabile (in Latvian).

Some remarkable places to have a sip:

  • Skyline Bar, [7]. On the top of Reval hotel in Riga, just perfect view on sunset, not good idea to go there if you are on budget.
  • Lido Recreation Centre,[8]. A restaurant complex in a huge wooden structure in Riga, children friendly.
  • Roka kafejnica, Stendera iela 18/20, tel. 3481555, in Liepaja. First rock cafe.
  • Krodzins "Riva" in Jurkalne, could be seen from Liepaja - Ventspils highway, a small pub near a waterfall and wooden bridge.
  • Raganas Kekis, [9]. The name means witch's kitchen. Located in Ragana village, in the Vidzeme region, which obviously means "witch" in Latvian. You will see it if you travel on direction to Valmiera or Limbazi.
  • Rossini, [10]. Near castle ruins and museum in Valmiera. Nice surroundings, serves Italian food.
  • Double Coffee, restaurants in Riga, they have wireless hotspots, but you need to buy Lattelekom wifi card. 10% service is added to the bill there.

Places serving Chinese, Indian, Italian, Japanese, Russian, Spanish, Vietnamese, and Ukrainian cuisine are also available in Latvia.

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.

Sleep

Country house

There are many hotels to choose from. Prices start from 20 LVL outside Riga and from 40 LVL in Riga.

Network of youth hostels is also developing. Dormitory rooms around 10 lats, single, double rooms starts from 20 lats and above.

Camping in parks usually not allowed to spare grass. Most of rural land is private, but camping possible. If asked by owner to move, you have to. Paying small money (1-2 lats) helps in most cases.

If camping site is indicated (especially in Gauja National Park), camp there.

Learn

Museums in Latvia has list of museums in Latvia on their website.

Work

Not impossible (especially if you are an EU citizen), but you have to find company, which is willing to pay 35 LVL fee per month, work permit up to 170 LVL (once), fee for checking your documents of education 47.20 LVL (once). Salary should not be less than 246 LVL per month.

Job advertisments in Latvian daily newspapers like Diena Tuesday or Saturday edition, some of those ads are in English, German, Russian or French.

Stay safe

It is generally safe to travel around on your own, although petty crime exists. Things to watch out for are bicycles and things left in your car.

When visiting bars and restaurants in Riga - make sure you know the price before you order, follow your spending, so no cheating is possible.

Police of Latvia have page with advice for travelers.

Emergency phone number: Fire/Police/Ambulance 112.

If bitten by dog, cat or snake, seek medical help immediately. Most snakes are not venomous. Dog or cat bite has risk of rabies. Mosquitos carries no disease. Forest tick bite carries risk of encephalitis.

Stay healthy

There is no problem turning to any doctor or hospital to seek medical help, just pay an outside patient fee. However, it is generally difficult to seek a medical assistance in most rural areas due to reduced emergency services in these areas so the service can be slow and unresponsive; therefore it is a good idea to bring your own first aid kit. There also doesn't exist the air ambulance in the country so when exploring sparsely inhabited, deserted areas on your own, it's important to be self-prepared.

Very few drugs are available without prescription, bring your own if you expect to need them.

Don't drink tap water but instead boil it or buy bottled water; It will cost you just a two to three dimes.

Respect

One should be careful when mentioning Latvia in the context of the former USSR with Latvian speaking people. Latvia was occupied by USSR and any praising of Soviet (or Russian) practices is unlikely to be understood or appreciated by some Latvians. Many don't mind if you mistakenly call them Soviet; especially those above 25; In fact, those born between 1940 and 1980 insisted in being called that way rather than Russian, which is an ethnicity. It would take an opposite reaction if you tell the same thing to the Russian speaking people. So it is a very important question for all people in Latvia, so please, be respectful for all points of view. Very cautiously speak about it, it is necessary preliminary the nobility, in what language your interlocutor speaks.

It is very common to give up your seat for an elderly passenger on the public transport in Latvia. Always let the women board a train or bus first.

There are lot of dust bins on the streets and near shops. Throwing garbage on the street is unacceptable and is punishable. Also, pedestrians crossing against a red light are liable to be fined.

Contact

Latvijas Pasts is also reliable and a fast way to send letters and parcels (up to 10kg).

Most of GSM mobile phones will work in Latvia. Pre-paid SIM cards are also available and could be easy bought and topped-up at kiosks and outlets. Some SIM cards are capable of GPRS data transfer, although the setup of phone and computer will not be that easy. Zelta Zivtina of TELE2 costs as less as LVL 1. but you might experience some connection problems, especially during some big events (such as concerts). Another option is a much more expensive prepaid card OKarte with better GSM/GPRS/EDGE coverage in rural areas. Good alternative for cheap GPRS traffic and voice calls is a prepaid card Toxic. All of these comes with an English as well as Russian and of course Latvian guide book.

Internet spots are available in cafes, libraries and airport. Most hotels will provide free wireless access spots for laptops.

If you could not find free wireless spot, try Lattelecom WLAN. A wifi card is need to connect to Lattelecom WLAN. A WLAN area could be around any Statoil petrol stations. Internet at no charge is also available in most public libraries, some have free wireless access points as well.

To call from a public phone you need Telekarte. It costs 2,3 and 5 LVL. International calls are possible from every public phone.



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