For a comparatively small region, Kurzeme’s coastal landscape is remarkably varied. In places there are high sand dunes, elsewhere grassy fields that stretch to the sea – wonderful landscapes for exploring whilst on vacation. Here its possible to walk along beaches for kilometres without meeting a single soul. Kolka Horn, Kurzeme’s northern-most point, is well worth a visit. A shoal 1-2 metres deep and 6 kilometres long separates the Baltic Sea from the Gulf of Riga.
On windy days, waves from the open sea meet those of the gulf in an enthralling spectacle. The Kurzeme coastline is still home to Livs, ancient founders of Latvia. Their fight for survival today is a subject of international scientific study. Of the 182 registered Livs, only about 10 still speak the Livi language – the least number of people to speak a native language in Europe. Their 14 remaining villages are a must see.
The city of Venstpils is a bustling ice-free port, the largest in the Baltics. Its well-kept streets and neatly painted buildings will delight the visitor curious to see Latvia’s past in the present. There is also much to see in Liepaja, in southern Kurzeme. One third of the city is occupied by the Karaosta, once the naval base for powerful Russian warships during the Soviet Occupation. For 50 years it was a closed zone for Westerners. This, along with the bunkers and fortifications built during the Tsarist reign offer interesting and almost spooky viewing. Liepaja is also a musicians’ city.
The largest church organ in Europe can be found in St. Trinity’s Church, which hosts many concerts. Liepaja also hosts the annual rock concert “Liepajas Dzintars” (Liepaja Amber). Kurzeme has many small towns worth visiting. Talsi, the town of nine hills, offers splendid views from the banks of its two lakes. One of the most picturesque towns, Kandava is located on the shore of the Abava River. In 1996 the World Foundation for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage included Abava River Valley in a list of 100 unique and endangered areas of cultural significance. Kuldiga is considered to be the most beautiful example of a 16th-17th century town. Nearby is Ventas Rumba – a series of rapids that have carved one of the widest waterfalls in Europe – 270 metres wide! Kurzeme is easily reachable from Riga and can be toured in a day. Those who remain longer will experience a truly unique view of life.
This is a fisherman’s paradise and a good destination for anyone who enjoys water and nature. Twenty-five kilometres from Rezekne, sheltered by hills, lies Lake Razna, the second biggest lake in the country. Forty-five kilometres from Rezekne is the particularly beautiful Lake Ezezers with more bays and islands (36) than any other lake in Latvia. Other scenic areas are the Daugava River Valley between Kraslava and Daugavpils, with steep banks up to 40 meters high, and Daugavas Loki,
Latgale’s close historic, economic and cultural links with Eastern Slavs marks a unique historical evolution influenced by Slavic cultural elements. There is a very strong Catholic presence in Latgale. The many crucifixes seen along the roadside testify to the deep faith of the region’s inhabitants. At the end of the 17th century Aglona developed into a centre of Roman Catholicism.
The Aglona Basilica and Abbey, located between Lakes Cirisa and Egles, were built between 1768 and 1800. Both buildings were renovated for the Pope’s visit in 1993. Aglona has become an international centre of pilgrimage for people celebrating the Assumption of the Virgin Mary August 15th. The famous altar painting of the Madonna from the 17th century can be viewed during the service.
The region is almost embraced by the Baltic Sea, with a coastline of dramatic changes and contrasts. Within a short distance north of Latvia’s sophisticated capital, Riga, buildings give way to white sandy beaches and the attractions of Jūrmala, a spa town. Travelling northward, the landscape changes to stony, prehistoric beaches, often ravaged by wild seas.
Travelling inland along the path of the River Gauja leads into the so-called Switzerland of Latvia – Sigulda, and the Gauja National Park, an area of pristine wildlife, medieval castles, legendary caves and picturesque hilly landscapes. Sigulda is Latvia’s skiing destination and home to a thrilling bobsled run open in winter and summer. A cable ride across the valley offers a glimpse into a primeval landscape.
Vidzeme is proud of its many ancient cities. Those interested in history will not be disappointed. Valmiera, Cēsis and Limbaži were once bastions of the Hanseatic League. Cēsis Castle, built for Livonian knights in the 13th century, is well preserved and exudes the magic of a bygone era. Near Cēsis, on a small island in a lake, can be found the 9th century ruins and restored buildings of the Āraiši Lake Castle. A stone’s throw away, nature beckons.
The unique sandstone bluff of Zvārta on the Amata River and the Ērgļu Cliff are just some of many scenic spots in this region rich in natural and civilized history. For those looking for entertainment, Vidzeme offers a busy events diary, including the Valmiera Rock Festival which attracts large crowds in the summer from Latvia and abroad. For a very special experience try the narrow-gauge railway-line Gulbene-Alūksne, the only one in Latvia that still makes its regularl scheduled run.
Zemgale, the smallest region, occupies central Latvia, and is well known for its many historic monuments, palaces, manors, and castles.
The region is also birthplace of a number of Latvian presidents, Janis Cakste, Gustavs Zemgals, Alberts Kviesis and Karlis Ulmanis The many distinctive castles and manor houses nestled in forests or exposed on hills offer the visitor a tangible sens eof history. In Bauska its possible to literally travel along a path of history, from the 9th century through the Medieval to the Baroque period.
Bauska lies in southeast Zemgale, where the Memele and Musa Rivers meet. On the hill between the two rivers stands the ruins of a Livonian Order Castle which hosts the Ancient Music Festival in the third week of July. Close to Bauska is Rundale Palace.
Designed in the 18th century by the world-famous architect Rastrelli, who was also the architect of St. Petersburg’s Hermitage, Rundale Palace is an outstanding blend of Baroque architecture and Rococo decorative art. Not far from Bauska are three other palaces built after 1795 – Mezotne, Kaucminde and Bornsminde. In the city of Jelgava, which lies at the edge of the Zemgale flatlands on both banks of the Lielupe River, is Jelgava Palace, the most spectacular Baroque palace in the Baltics. This Palace was built in 1738-1772 under the supervision of Rastrelli, in what at that time was the capital of the Courland Dukedom. Since 1939 the palace has been home to the Latvian Agriculture University. Nearby is the Academia Petrina, a rare example of late Baroque architecture of the 18th century, which today houses the Jelgava History and Art Museum.
Many other castles and manor houses testify to the Golden Age of the Courland Dukedom. The many castle mounds offer splendid views of a gently undulating countryside. Tervete must also be explored, a scenic forest park imbued with legends. Tervete is known as a nature park with the oldest and tallest pine trees in Latvia. A museum commemorating the famous Latvian writer, Anna Brigadere (1861-1933), is also located at Tervete. Place names in the park have been inspired by literature: the Park of Sunny Moods, the Forest of Elves and the Fairy-tale Forest. Magically sculpted images of characters and contemporaries of the writer inhabit the park making this a wonderful place to visit and photograph.