Out of the bustling capital of Riga, Latvia boasts wildlife-packed forests and meadows. And what better way to explore these natural delights than on a yellow canoe bouncing down the River Gauja
Rich, dark and thoroughly indulgent, the hot chocolate clung to the inside of my tiny cup like treacle. It was an unseasonal treat for a warm and cloudless day in Riga, but it would have taken an iron will to walk past the neat stacks of glossy handmade chocolates at Emihla Gustava, the city’s finest maker.
Besides, the row of outdoor tables in the cobbled alley were the perfect vantage point from which to soak up the sights, sounds and smells of the twice-monthly gourmet-and-curios market in Bergs Bazaar, an upmarket shopping lane just off Elizabetes Street in a quiet and beautifully restored corner of the New Town.
Among the stalls elegant locals ambled, sampling cheese, stocking up on honey or stopping for a dainty snack created by one of Riga’s top chefs for the occasion. I sipped and watched, listening to the burble of Latvian voices mingle with the cry of seagulls wheeling overhead, and savouring the aromas of superb cooking.
It felt as though people had been shopping like this for decades, yet a mere 20 years ago none of this was here: no designer shops, no foodie delicacies, no pots of geraniums. In 1990, encouraged by the almost miraculous events elsewhere in Eastern Europe – especially the fall of the Berlin Wall – Latvia took its first official steps towards breaking from the Soviet Union.
Full independence came the following year – and the Latvians have never looked back. The only signs now of that recent history, among the gleaming 19th-century buildings that line the bazaar, were the stalls doing a roaring trade in Soviet memorabilia.
But there’s more to Latvia than its capital city. Outside Riga, the country is 40% forest, 10% marshland and 25% meadow – much of which hasn’t altered for hundreds of years, let alone in the past 20. This landscape of wooded river valleys and rolling hills dotted with castles and historic towns – rich in all kinds of wildlife and utterly peaceful – was the side of Latvia that I was eager to explore, and preferably not from a car.
Fortunately, there are more relaxing ways to see Latvia’s wilderness, and they’re all easily accessible from Riga.
This all goes to explain how, less than 24 hours later, I was in a sturdy yellow canoe paddling down one of Latvia’s four main rivers. It was a perfect day for a water-bound adventure, one of those soft summer afternoons you come across only in northerly climates.
On either side, the banks of the River Gauja were dense with trees: silvery crack willows shimmering in the breeze; tall spruce, like exclamation marks of darkness against the lighter greenery; and pines that lent their tangy scent to the warm air.
We drifted along to the sound of birdsong, water rippling over pebbles and the rhythmic splash of our paddles. Any more soothing and my friend Shirley and I would have dozed off.
We were in an area of Latvia where few tourists venture, the unspoilt countryside to the north-east of the capital. To be more precise, we were in Gauja National Park, around 920 sq km of forest, waterways and grasslands wrapped around the river of the same name. The park is laced with hiking and cycling trails, but we’d opted for the less strenuous river route, or at least part of it – the 37km section between the historic towns of C¯esis and Sigulda.
That would mean eight or nine hours in the canoe over an afternoon and morning, with perhaps time for a quick excursion along the way and some sightseeing at either end: a happy balance of culture and exercise.
If the afternoon was tranquillity, the run-up had been more of a scramble. After a late night in Riga, we’d been up early, snatching a quick breakfast at the station before leaping on a train to C¯esis, one of Latvia’s oldest towns.
Two hours later, we’d tumbled out into the winding cobbled alleyways. We were in the heart of the national park, but for now our attention was on the impressive ruins of the castle, around 800 years old. Two of the towers have survived centuries of invasions relatively intact, and we clambered up and down dizzying spiral stairs clutching the cool stone walls with one hand and a lantern in the other.But with limited time and the river stretching ahead of us, we couldn’t afford to hang around. After a speedy lunch at a café and some food shopping for supper, we were collected by our boat-hire company and taken to its base on the riverbank just south of Cesis to be kitted up.
The two-person North American type, built for stability rather than speed – was loaded with waterproof bags and boxes of camping and cooking kit. We grabbed paddles and lifejackets (not strictly necessary given the Gauja’s leisurely summer flow) and suddenly we were off, gliding serenely downstream.
Within minutes, we were in a different world – with us as the only human inhabitants. There were plenty of birds, however. I didn’t see quite as many as the 149 species that live in the park, but I noted a cobalt flash of kingfisher, a stork flapping languidly overhead and lots of inquisitive mallards.
We admired the scenery: not only wall-to-wall trees, but islands of reeds, sandy beaches and pinky-orange sandstone cliffs pock-marked with caves. With the help of our map-guide, bought locally, we worked out the names of some of the more obvious landmarks: at the Kuku cliffs (the tallest in Latvia at 46m), the water flowed quickly through rapids and we had to paddle in earnest for a change. We also passed the old hand-operated chain ferry at Ligatne.
It was gloriously uncrowded, but we didn’t have the Gauja entirely to ourselves. We were overtaken by a man in a kayak, trying to do the three-day journey from Valmiera to Sigulda in just one. Fishermen waved convivially from the banks, as did a group of locals who were hauling their log raft – once a common sight on the Gauja – up to a discreetly signposted campsite.
All too soon, we spotted the sign for our own campsite and, with some huffing and puffing, dragged the boat and everything in it up a log ladder to the top of the steep bank. The tent went up easily in our chosen tiny clearing in the woods, giving us time for a wander.
We found other campers in Camping Katrina, but no sign of the promised dry loo or the information board. According to our map, however, we were right next to the Ligatne Nature Trails, where animals such as bear, lynx and elk rescued from elsewhere in Latvia now live in a protected reserve. Sadly, it was too late to explore far; the wild boar and raccoon dogs would have to wait for another time.
After our supper of grilled meat, salad and wine, it was time to turn in. Sleep took a while to come; I kept hearing squeaks and rustles by the tent – was a beaver or otter foraging in our things? But suddenly it was light and time to get back on the water.
The weather was uninviting, damp and grey, but the sandstone cliffs were still impressive in the gloom, as were the fairytale turrets of Turaida Castle when they emerged on the horizon, heralding the end of our paddle on the Gauja.
Leaving our canoes at a campsite to be picked up later by the hire company, we had the rest of the day to explore the small medieval town of Sigulda.
After a relaxing lunch at a snug self-service café and some more sightseeing in the attractive town, we made our way to the Turaida Castle complex, a cable-car and bus ride away on the opposite bank of the Gauja.
From the top of its tallest round tower, I gazed out over the meandering, forest-flanked river where we had been paddling a few hours before. Later, there would be the train back to the bustle of Riga, a night in the city and a late-morning flight, but for now there was just a tranquil sea of rolling greenery and the river running through it.