Of Lakes, Trees and Fast Internet- Latvia

Since it was a World Cup period, it was essential that I was somewhere with the best internet connection to stream games (nothing else.) Latvia happens to have one of the fastest internet speeds in the world. The Baltic states in general, are quietly very technologically advanced, the best way of being good at something(my previous post on Estonia touched on how it is a startup paradise.) At 5:30 in the morning, I left my hostel in Tartu, eastern Estonia, and headed to the bus station. The bus arrived late in Riga; the capital of Latvia, and I had to rush to my connecting ride to Cesis in the northeast of the country. Through my short sprint I noticed the local babushkas at the market and a cab driver using Waze in Russian. Having never been to Russia, this was probably the closest to Russian culture I had witnessed so far.

Gauja Trail
The Baltic States are filled with natural beauty. I spent half a day walking the trails of Gauja National Park; one of four national parks in Latvia. Quiet and serene, it felt as if nothing was separating me from nature.
Gauja kayakers
Two kayakers on the Gauja River. Gauja National Park is not just a place to observe sandstone cliffs, recreational activities are popular. In the winter, ski resorts operate near the slopes and hills.

The country’s history and Russian influence is something to take notice. Like Estonia, having been annexed by the USSR from 1940 to 1991, Soviet influences can still be seen, not least the near 500,000 ethnic Russians who live in Latvia and the 37 percent of Latvians who speak Russian. Many signs and shops display Russian as a second language.

Cesis Castle Tower
One of the towers of Cesis Castle, the main attraction of the town of Cesis. It was built by the Livonian Order; Catholic knights in medieval Europe. The interior of the castle ruins are very dark but visitors can pick up an old fashioned lantern from a small stand before exploring.

Latvia is not the perfect destination for ravers and party animals, you won’t get the Amsterdam vibes in Riga nor would you see many Ibiza-ish beach parties along its 500 km Baltic shoreline. Nightlife in the Baltic states may not match those of Western European strongholds or the crazy Eastern European parties of Bucharest or Kiev but you need not shed your hedonistic self, Old Town Riga is as lively as it gets with restaurants and bars galore. For lonely self-deprecating nerds such as myself who have intrinsic desires to learn while on holiday, Riga itself has several interesting museums in the city centre which are either free or charges a small entrance fee. There is much to learn about the country’s fate during WWII and subsequent communist rule. For travelers with a taste for the alternative, Karosta Prison in Liepaja is a great place to visit. Built during Tsarist Russia, the former prison is now a museum but visitors can pay to spend nights there and be treated like prisoners. Basically, you can pay for people to treat you like shit and live in bad conditions.

Liepaja Beach
Foggy Liepaja Beach. Very quiet and peaceful, it was nice reading a book here.

 

Northern Forts
The Northern Forts of Liepaja. One of my favorite spots ever. Some distance outside the centre of Liepaja is an area filled with abandoned Tsarist Russian era bunkers. Attempts to blow the fortress up failed and today the ruins lie with the Baltic Sea in the background. Absolutely haunting yet beautiful setting for an afternoon or evening stroll.

Like its neighbors, Latvia’s abundance of beaches, forests and modern history makes for a versatile and wholesome travel experience but what fascinated me most were the sites of memory. The country’s troubled past lays bare for all to see, visitors have access to sites of mass murders and torture chambers.

KGB House
A cell in “The Corner House;” a former KGB prison and office. It earned its nickname because of its location on the corner of a street. Most people brought here only ever entered the main entrance once, they were either killed or sent to gulags in Siberia. KGB agents used torture methods to force confessions such as putting “prisoners” in “special” cells which were much damper or darker and without windows. A hidden room in the garage served as the execution chamber, the room was soundproofed to the point that no prisoners knew people were being killed in the compound. Life behind the Iron Curtain was tough for Latvians especially during Joseph Stalin’s reign of terror. Many people were sent to labor camps in the most inhospitable areas of Siberia for years. Some never made it back, others raised families in exile. Latvia, along with its Baltic neighbors restored their independence in August 1991.

 

Riga Ghetto
Remaining barbed wire fence of the Riga Ghetto district. During Nazi Germany’s occupation, Latvian Jews were removed from their homes in Riga and placed in this neighborhood. They lived in cramped, desolate conditions and were forbidden from leaving the ghetto. Outsiders seen feeding or helping them would also be killed. Around 24,000 Latvian Jews were rounded up in the nearby Rumbula Forest and killed by the SS in 1941. Only approximately 1,000 out of 50,000 Jews forced into the ghetto survived the Holocaust.

 

Beware

 

 

 

 

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