As Seen in…
Places to visit in Latvia and on our tours of the Baltics
Why visit Latvia?
At a mere 64, 589 km², and with a dynamic capital city in the resplendent edifices of Riga, Latvia remains a country which is decisively rural in its character. The 1.9 million inhabitants occupy the coast and relatively small, scattered urban centres whose heart are characterised by enchanting medieval defences and Russian-influenced church spires.
Beyond lies the lowland countryside, less than a third of which is farmed. Instead you will find amazingly wild forests – 56% of the landscape is coniferous woodland – and the bogland plains, comprising 12,500 rivers, 2,256 lakes and fens that are a nature lover’s paradise. Again, much of the 500 km coast has huge swathes of untainted dunes, saltmarsh and beaches, all a legacy of a country which has had a firm eye on the need for conservation since as early as the 16th century. Latvia’s 4 National Parks and scores of other conservation projects mean that an impressive 20% of the landscape is under protected status.
Species which are under sever threat across Europe therefore thrive here and Corncrakes, Lesser-spotted eagles, Eurasian otter, wolf, bison and beaver, and even lynx are regular sightings to those who tread away from the towns. Yet the human impact here has been considerable and successful too: the country finds its origins with the arrival of Baltic tribes who traded in the lucrative amber, the dominant of which was the Latgalian people. The integral importance of the Amber Road to Latvia’s development is seen in the fact that it stood astride the trade route from Byzantium to Varangia and so the 4 tribes became iron age kingdoms, building hill forts to cement their position and trading as far afield as Egypt and Greece. The trend towards Christian conversion came late to Latvia and in the end was forced upon tem by the German Teutonic Knights, empowered by the Papal crusade on the ‘pagan north’ in 1193.
The resulting Terra Mariana or Livonia, a crusader kingdom ruled from Germany ushered in a period of prosperity – Riga and other towns joined the Hanseatic League and the great fortifications at such as Riga Castle and Turaida were testament to the growing influence of the area. With wealth came empire builders and the succeeding centuries were dogged by foreign invasions from Poland, Sweden and Germany. This in its turn brought religious variety and Lutheranism (in the west), Catholicism (south) and Orthodoxy following Russian annexation in the east gave Latvia its rich array of ecclesiastical architecture whose spires and towers rise elegantly above the old centres.
Despite a series of only brief moments of independence, most notably in the 1920s, and the ethnic cleansing that followed German invasion in the second world war, Latvian ethnic culture – its vibrant dance, art, folklore and, particularly song – endured decades of Soviet repression and survives today. Since the 1991 referendum for independence, the traditional ways have nurtured and are robustly in evidence everywhere: in its hectic markets selling sausage, black bread, smoked fish and cheeses, in its cultural celebrations and, significantly, continual conservationist stance on preserving the landscape that is quintessentially and so memorably Latvia.