Lucy Daltroff travels Latvian paths less travelled in her guide to northern Latvia.
“ We don’t have any real swear words in Latvian” was the surprising information from our guide. If we have to swear, we borrow Russian words”. It was my first visit to Latvia and this linguistic quirk, immediately underlined to me the nation’s complex history with Russian as well as German, Swedish, and Polish-Lithuanian rule!
I started my trip in the capital, Riga. A confident city, looking forward to its future, and gaining from the fact that more Baltic cruises are visiting here than ever before. I couldn’t stay long though, as the purpose of my trip was to discover the less known parts of the country in my Guide to Northern Latvia.
Sixty-two miles northeast of Riga, Valmiera has a population of 25,000 and is readily accessible by bus, train and car. Not much has been written about it, so I was curious as to what I would find. It’s very charming, dating from 1283, when one of the symbols of Valmiera was built:- the beautiful St. Simon’s Church, with its 15th-16th century burial plaques of the city’s notables.
Altogether the city centre is a blend of medieval and modern architecture, with cobblestone streets, old churches, and well-preserved houses and with modern art installations installed in the centre. Valmeira became a strategically important Hanseatic city in the 13th to 15th centuries where money, languages and ideas were exchanged, and visitors can explore the remnants of Valmiera Castle and uncover more of the town’s past, in the main museum.
Today, it prides itself in being very green and it feels a most dynamic place, making the most of both the surrounding woodlands and the Gauja River which flows right through the centre. As the hometown of two Olympic medallists, sport is important here.
Jānis Daliņš, was the first Latvian to win an Olympic medal for his country, and his name has been given to a fantastic multi-facility stadium which would be the envy of much bigger cities. The most recent Olympic medal winner, Maris Strombergs, a double gold BMX champion, later inspired the construction of the Valmiera BMX track.
I spoke to the popular and successful mayor, Jānis Baiks, whose enthusiasm is contagious and who has many plans to expand the city and get it more well known internationally. He told me, as part of the sports tradition and as a safety measure, every child between the age of 6 to 10 has compulsory free swimming lessons. Culture is also important here.
They are presently building a new theatre, but meanwhile I was privileged to see rehearsals of the production by the Latvian writer, Jānis Pliekšāns. (As everyone seems to be called Janis I was relieved to hear he was actually known by his pseudonym “Rainis”.) The play was “Joseph and his Brothers” and there was a real frisson in the air to get the production perfect for the opening night!
Alūksne, (Ah-looks-ney) is on the popular A2 highway, or for railway enthusiasts, a short ride on a narrow-gauge railway line steam locomotive running from Gulbene. It is a picturesque town of just 6000 inhabitants, surrounded by small lakes and forests that are close to both the Estonian and Russian borders and dominated by a large lake.
The area is one of the least populated parts of the country and the magnificent landscape is best seen by climbing a wooden tower in the local park. It’s quite a challenging ascent, but well worth the beautiful panorama from the top. At the bottom a small tourist information centre explains some of the environs.
In 1694 a Lutheran clergyman and local resident of the town, Ernst Glück, was the first to translate the Bible into Latvian, and in 1990 his modest home, with its green metal roof, was turned into a bible museum. On display are bibles from different ages and in 40 different languages.
The curator is a mine of information, enthusiastically explaining every question asked. Even more astonishing is that in this house, Glück raised a young orphan, who became the household’s scullery maid. She was called Marta Skowrońska but during the Great Northern War, the Russian army raided the area, and took captive, both Gluck and young Marta. Who knew then that she was to eventually marry Peter The Great, and after his death became Catherine 1st of Russia?
On day two, our guide, Ilona, arranged a lake trip on a homemade, but sturdy, raft, where we sampled some delicious local produce while being serenaded on an accordion. The experience was so magical that many of us burst into spontaneous dancing.
On the journey we passed traditional boathouses with accommodation above, popular places for tourists to stay during the summer. Those who want to romantically impress their partners, can organize their own choice of music to be played when they pass under one of the main bridges. What a simple and lovely idea. Ilona told us that in the winter the ice on the lake is so thick that motorbike races are held. A concept that was quite hard to imagine on a warm autumn evening.
There is something really special about the town of Valga/Valka and that is its location, which accounts for two languages, and two different cultures all in the same place. It is on the southern border of Estonia and the northern border of Latvia. Or as one of our party put it. “It’s a great place. You can stand with one foot in Latvia and one in Estonia. Where else could you do that?”
Images (C) Lucy Daltroff, Māris Šļivka, Ainars_Gaidis.
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Hotel Bahnhofs has recently been refurbished and is well organized and sparkling clean.