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Travel: Living life the Latvian way

Edgars, mixologist at the Gimlet Bar, Riga, Latvia.
Edgars, mixologist at the Gimlet Bar, Riga, Latvia.

Latvia has been on my bucket list since I became friends with a Latvian student, Svetta, some years ago and learned a little about the country, and so I jumped at the chance to finally visit in person.

Just over two-and-a-half hours away by direct flight from Edinburgh to the capital, Riga, this small Baltic country is nestled between Estonia to the north, and Lithuania and Belarus to the south – and its enormous eastern border neighbour, Russia.

Arriving a little later in the evening, we headed straight for the hotel, The Grand Poet in the old town, with views over the neighbouring park, and within walking distance to landmarks such as the National Opera House, 13th Century buildings and historic monuments.

The Grand Poet hotel suite.

The hotel’s stunning architecture, lavish suites and superb food meant the trip started off with some real five-star luxury.

A quick sauna and dip in the pool the next morning, along with a light breakfast, set the day up nicely as we met with our guide, Juris.

An older image of the zeppelin hangers that now house the city market.

We headed to the old town and the wonderful market area, made distinct by the fact that each market produce type (fruit and veg, bakery, meat, dairy and sweets) was housed within it own massive zeppelin aircraft hangar. It was quite an impressive sight.

It was also my first sight of a sauna hat – a new one on me, but apparently it’s a thing.

“Everyone wears them,” our guide assured me. I suspected it was just a prank on tourists but Latvians take their saunas very seriously, as I was to find out.

Sauna hats for tourists.

After a visit to St Peter’s Church and Riga Cathedral, next stop was a nearby restaurant, the Three Chefs, for lunch where modern food was served and veggie requests quickly and cheerfully dealt with.

Veggie requests included a beautifully presented goats’ cheese dish.

A six-course tasting menu is available for €65, and includes some lively choices such as hamachi ceviche, Baltic herring with horseradish, kohlrabi, cucumber and sunflower oil – or even ostrich tartare, if that’s your thing.

The menu may have been cosmopolitan here but the Latvian attachment to local herbs was obvious, especially at the Gimlet Nordic Bar, our next destination.

Another elegant cocktail from Edgars.

Here, mixologist Edgars wowed and dazzled with a combination of Latvian and Nordic flavours using wild herbs, berries, beetroot, pines, wild cherries, carrots and radishes, with kombucha brewed on the spot, in our drinks.

As we tried several, accompanied by a charcuterie and cheese board, we became more adventurous, making suggestions for flavours, which Edgars flamboyantly rustled up in two shakes of a cocktail mixer.

Tastebuds buzzing, it was an evening to remember.

Silver birch covers much of Latvia.

Next day we headed to the countryside to visit the resort town of Alūksne (Ah-looks-ney).

Beyond the city boundaries, remnants of the Soviet-era occupation of Latvia scar the landscape, decayed buildings sitting side by side with energetic, revitalised Latvian structures.

Frozen Aluksne Lake.

Almost 50% of the country is covered in trees. Nature and outdoor living are extremely important to Latvians, and Lake Alūksne sees thousands descend on the area in the summer and for winter sports when the lake is frozen solid.

“Yes, we race motorbikes across it with skiers attached,” our guide tells me matter-of-factly. I can’t believe I’ve never seen this.

TV presenter Māris Olte.

We were also fortunate enough to meet biologist and TV presenter Māris Olte at Ērgļu Station – a kind of pop-up restaurant housed in an old train station.

Māris on the forest walk.

On a walking tour through a forest with him, we saw serene silver birch, rivers and acres of wild garlic, which we picked to be quickly whipped into a dip for bread on our return to the station.

Fresh wild garlic dip.

Highly knowledgeable, engaging and enthusiastic, Latvian landscape came alive as he described the seasons, food and wildlife in detail.

With clean air, forests, good food and a cheerful disposition, our final night at Ziedlejas, a traditional Latvian sauna and bath house, was the perfect end to the trip.

Hidden in the Sigulda countryside, Ziedlejas reveals the deep-rooted culture within Latvia where saunas are key to wellbeing. Families enjoy them together and in the cities, people use them as commonly as we might use a gym membership.

The ice pool dip.

The location was beautiful. The cabins had floor-to-ceiling windows set in the midst of nature, with a minimalist, Japanese design, a space-saving table that disappeared into the floor and a fold-down bed.

Pirt masters.

The sauna – or pirt – had two masters (with sauna hats) and once disrobed we were taken to a large circular room with a central stone stove. Lying on a bench, the pirt masters set about their work with birch branches, massage and a honey, salt and soda scrub, creating a full detox and cleanse.

Four hours later I emerged feeling like a new person. And maybe a little lightheaded.

Pastries, sweets and desserts at a Riga cafe.

The next morning we headed into Riga once more for coffee and a chance to try some much-loved pastries (layered honey cake and Riga cake with apple, buttercream and cinnamon) which we watched being made in store.

They were unbelievably indulgent, utterly gorgeous and a perfect way to say goodbye to Latvia.

Making pastries in a Riga cafe.

A visit to Latvia is superb value for money, with a lively, contemporary city life matched with a genuine appreciation of nature and outdoor living. I’ll definitely be returning – and with my own sauna hat.

Travel Facts

Flights from Edinburgh to Riga: Air Baltic and Ryanair.

Grand Poet

Rooms from €144 per night

Ragnar Glamp

Cabins from €155 per night

Ziedlejas sauna bath house

Glass room from €130 per night

Pirt: Cost of one person €220, three or four people with two pirt masters, €400

Video and gallery

Cabin at Ragnar Glamp, Kokesne.
Ragnar Glamp cabin.
Normunds, jewellery maker, at Baltu Rotas.
Colourful market goods.
Interior architecture of old Latvia at Castle of Sigulda.
Māris prepares forest food.
Pastries in Riga.
Stāmeriena Palace.
Normunds at work.
Ceramicist Uģis Puzulis.
Birch branches for sauna.
Plukt tea.
Plukt tea.
Plukt tea.
Views across Riga.