Difference between revisions of "Latvia"
Revision as of 08:46, 12 November 2009
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. It is however higly recommended to go to many other great places, 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.
At 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 6th 1991. Between 1991 and 2007 the country saw unprecedented economic growth. However currently, due to the financial crisis 08-09, it is one of the worst performing economies in Europe. Latvia 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.
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 has joined the Schengen agreement, which means that you can enter on a European Union Schengen visa and there are no longer any ID/passport controls on the EU borders.
For those permitted for visa free entry
If you need a visa, getting one can be tricky. Visa costs are on the high side considering size of the country - 20LVL for single or 35LVL for multiple entries. 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:
'Riga International Airport  has direct flights to/from various European cities (London, Frankfurt, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Oslo, etc), Middle East (Tel Aviv, Dubai), CIS (Moscow, Kiev, Minsk) as well as North America (New York City).
There are bus (0.40 LVL) and taxi (<10 LVL, ask for a good price in forehand) connections to city centre. Red taxis  operate from the airport to the city center. The green Baltic Taxi operates from the airport to the city center for a flat fee of 9 LVL if purchasing a voucher from the Baltic Taxi booth inside the airport; the same voucher costs 8 LVL if purchased from flight attendants on board an Air Baltic flight (credit cards accepted). Journey times depend on traffic. Airport operates 24h hours.
If departing in the morning, allow yourself plenty of time to proceed through passport control as it can get crowded.
SJSC Latvian Railways , 67216664, 67233397.
Non-residents can use their cars up to 3 months without registration. After 3 months the car must be registered.
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 and Russian.
Air Baltic flies from Riga to Liepaja International Airport . It costs 18.60 lats from Riga to Liepaja and 10 lats from Liepaja to Riga. Sometimes there are huge discounts allowing to get from Liepaja to Riga for as cheep as 4 LVL. Liepaja has direct flights to Hamburg and Copenhagen, too.
Several small airports available across Latvia, two in Riga - Spilves airport and Rumbulas airport.
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 .
There are 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.
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 it belongs to the Eastern Baltic sub-group of the Baltic language group in the Indo-European language family. 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. Young people have as well limited knowledge of English or German .
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.
As rivers get more water from melting snow, kayaking down the river is one of the favorite past times 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.
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 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.
Speciality shops are open mostly from 8 AM to 6 PM on weekdays, till 4 PM on Saturdays, closed on Sundays. Groceries are open every day till 8 PM or longer. Most supermarkets are open till 11 PM every day. Convenience stores, such as Narvesen are mostly open 24/7.
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 some fee as a percentage of the sum.
Before leaving Latvia, it is advisable to exchange Latvian lats back to your foreign currency, unless you want to keep them as a souvenir. This isn't such a bad idea, since the Latvian Lat is one of world's most beautifully designed currencies, especially the many different types of 1 Lat coins and also the paper notes. Keeping Lats would also be a good reason to visit Latvia again. However, hurry up, since Euro will be introduced in a couple of years.
This is the best thing that could happen to a traveler in Latvia - the food. The World should learn about bread and milk products here. Latvia is very rich in this aspect. An average supermarket has by far bigger selection of most food products than those in the rest of Europe. Welcome to the country of real 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 the 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. Since Latvia is surrounded by the sea, 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. 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 small 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 are 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 ammenities 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.
Museums in Latvia  has list of museums in Latvia on their website.
Not impossible (especially if you are an EU citizen), but you have to find a company which will be willing to pay a 35 LVL fee per month, work permit up to 170 LVL (once) and an additional fee for checking your documents of education 47.20 LVL (once). Salary should not be less than 246 LVL per month.
Job advertisements in Latvian daily newspapers like Diena Tuesday or Saturday edition, some of those ads are in English, German, Russian or French.
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 Viper 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. A forest tick bite carries the risk of Lyme disease or encephalitis.
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.
Few drugs are available without 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. The current president of Latvia, Valdis Zatlers, previously a doctor in Riga, was found to be accepting these monetary exchanges from his patients, and was flagged by Transparency International, an anti-corruption organization.
Tap water should be boiled 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.
Latvijas Pasts  is also reliable and a fast way to send letters and parcels (up to 10kg).
Most of the newer GSM mobile phones will work in Latvia. Pre-paid SIM cards are also available and can be easily bought in convenience stores or supermarkets. Most companies provide GPRS/3G/EDGE data transfer. Zelta Zivtina of TELE2 costs as small as LVL 1. Another option is a much more expensive pre-paid card, OKarte  with better GSM/GPRS/EDGE coverage in rural areas. Good alternative for cheap GPRS traffic and voice calls is a prepaid card BiFri. All of these come with English as well as Russian and of course Latvian guide book.
Internet spots are available in cafes, libraries and airports. Most hotels will provide free wireless access spots for laptops.
If you can't find free wireless spot, try Lattelecom WLAN. A wifi card is need to connect to Lattelecom WLAN . A WLAN area can be found around any Statoil gas 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 a phone card (telekarte). It costs 2,3 and 5 LVL. International calls are possible from every public phone.