Once in a while it really hits people that they don’t have to experience the world in the way they have been told to.
– Alan Keightley
When we were planning this trip through Europe, we never had any intention of spending a lot of time in the Baltic States. Partially because we knew relatively little about them. Partially because they seemed so small that we could drive through them incredibly quickly. And partially because anyone you speak to who says anything about them only speaks of the capital cities. And had we just gone to Riga, I think we would have been in and out of Latvia within a day. Luckily, we decided we wanted to go on a tour of some of the smaller towns to see what the ‘Real Latvia’ was all about.
I realised, that in school we are taught all about World War II; we learn of the causes, we learn about the atrocities, we learn of the people who fought and the resulting repercussions. But we learn it from a very Western European approach. It makes sense, being from the UK, it is more important to us to know how the war affected our own people, and how our people were recruited to fight. It makes sense to learn why we were fighting. What pulled us into yet another war, a fight for another country. What we don’t learn is how the war affected countries like Latvia.
Eastern Europe was affected far more than people in the UK will ever know, for not only were they involved in the fight against the Nazis, they were also in a fight against Russia to be their own nations. They lost this second fight. They were swallowed up by Russia. And this was allowed to happen. For whilst we were fighting on the East against a German power that had invaded Poland in order to take it over, Russia was invading other nations. And actually taking them over. The people fought, but many were killed, or exiled to Siberia. People lost their families, people have been lost forever, no trace once they were exiled, nothing. I didn’t know this. I mean, it is something that you *kind of hear about*, Russians sending people to Siberia as punishment. But not something you actually learn.
We entered Latvia, and learnt a lot. Learnt about people, about history, about how little we actually know. The small towns of Latvia were a huge surprise. The first we visited, Cēsis, was an incredible mix of love and neglect. Buildings that looked like they should be in the tumble down suburbs of Paris: broken plaster work on the outside, rotting window frames, all painted in pastel shades. Inside these houses, restaurants and shops are cared for beautifully, yet from the outside they give off an air of abandonment.
The castle at Cēsis is quite honestly one of the most beautiful I have seen. Carefully preserved, set in landscaped gardens. Partial ruins mixed with full towers that you are able to climb. Parts of the castle are so dark that you are given a candle lantern on entry to help guide you. In another area, there is a ladder that you can climb down to get into the subterranean rooms. The castle has a wonderfully dramatic history. In it’s 800 years, it has been used as a defensive structure, and destroyed and rebuilt several times. During the Livonian War, the defenders of the castle blew it, and themselves (over 300 people), up in order to stop it falling into the hands of Ivan IV of Russia. It was rebuilt, when Sweden took control of the area, and again destroyed in the Great Northern War.
We travelled through the countryside, the landscape is generally flat, yet filled with beauty. Latvia is most definitely not a mountainous place – the highest point being only 312m above sea level, but it makes up for its lack of dramatic mountains with its forests, rivers and waterfalls. There are remnants of the Soviet occupation (secret bunkers, monuments, hidey-holes), there are tourist places (castles, brand new spa hotels, spoon factory), there are beaches (the centre of the universe and where the sun shines brightest – not just me, it’s on the tourist panel) but generally it is being able to see the real Latvia that makes this place special.
Having travelled through the country, Riga was our last stop. And frankly, the most disappointing one. Riga is all right, it was just wasn’t anything special in comparison to the rest of the country. You can see how the city is modernising and growing, how the old town is being taken over with chain restaurants, but in that it looses its charm: its uniqueness. It could be any city in any country. Of course, that is just my opinion. This brings me back to the opening quote. Everyone told us that Riga was the best, but I did not experience that. And I don’t have to. After all, I have found a lot of places beautiful that others have told me to skip. We all have to remember that our adventure and travels need to be personal to ourselves and justifiable only to each individual.
Overall, my advice for Latvia, head out of Riga – the rest of the country is far better.
Do you agree with my thoughts on Latvia? Where would you recommend me to go/see to redeem Riga?