Latvia

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Introduction to Latvia

Latvia is the small, flat and largely boggy meat in the sandwich between its Baltic neighbours. It packs a lot in though: start with Riga, its vibrant coastal capital, and move on to photogenic castles, music festivals and scenic river valleys.

Latvians are as keen on reinvigoration and nation-building as any newly independent nation. Visitors can witness first-hand the rapid transformation of a country that has only recently crept from under the doormat of history. This is one of those 'check it out before it's chockas' places.

Latvia's not a large country, and the centrality of the capital Riga - the biggest and most vibrant city in the Baltics - makes it an ideal base for exploring further afield. Several attractive destinations lie within day-trip distance. The less travelled parts of the country are equally rewarding to the visitor, from the dune-lined coast and historic towns of Kurzeme in western Latvia to the remote uplands of the eastern side of the country.

Full country name: Republic of Latvia

Area: 64,589 sq km

Population: 2.34 million

Capital City: Riga

People: Latvian 57%, Russian 30%, Belarusian 4%, Ukrainian 3%, Polish 3%, other 3%

Language: Latvian, Russian

Religion: Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Russian Orthodox

Government: parliamentary democracy

Head of State: President Vaira Vike-Freiberga

Head of Government: Prime Minister Aigars Kalvitis

GDP: US$20.99 billion

GDP per capita: US$8,900

Annual Growth: 3.6%

Inflation: 2%

Major Industries: motor vehicles, machinery, household appliances, pharmaceutical, food, textiles, agriculture

Major Trading Partners: Russia, Germany, the UK, Sweden, Finland

Member of EU: Yes

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Traveler Facts

Visas: Many nationalities require a visa, and a few require an invitation as well. Citizens of Andorra, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the UK, Australia and the USA can travel visa-free for stays of up to 90 days; citizens of many countries do not require a visa if they already have one for Estonia or Lithuania

Time Zone: GMT/UTC +2

Dialling Code: 371

Electricity: 220V ,50Hz

Weights & measures: Metric



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Events

The first national song festival in Latvia was held in 1873 and has evolved into one of the most emotive events on the calendar. It's held every five years and climaxes with a giant choir singing in a huge open-air amphitheatre in the national capital.

Big midsummer celebrations start on 23 June, when people flock to the countryside to celebrate amid the lakes and pine forests. Special beers, cheeses and pies are prepared and wreaths strung from grasses, while flowers and herbs are hung around the home to bring good luck and keep families safe from evil spirits.

Gadatirgus is a big arts and crafts fair held in Riga in the first weekend in June. The Baltika Annual International Folklore Festival, which has taken place in each Baltic capital in turn since 1987, is a weeklong affair of music, dance, exhibitions and parades usually held in mid-July. It's next due to be held in Riga in 2000.

Other music festivals include the International Festival of Organ Music, held in the capital in June; the Opera Music Festival, held in Sigulda in July; the Festival of Ancient Music, at Bauska Castle in July; and Liepajas Dzintars, a rock festival held in Liepaja in mid-August. Ascension Day, a big Roman Catholic gig, is celebrated between 14 and 16 August in Aglona.

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Best time to Visit

Spring and summer (April through September) are far and away the choicest times of year to visit. These months see better weather, more daylight, fresher food and plenty of folk festivals cropping up nationwide. The weather during this period is suitable for most outdoor activities - as long as you don't mind the slushy and chilly weeks at either end. Winter weather (from November through late March) can be extreme in Latvia, but this period also sees the most theatre performances and concerts and is a skiers' dream. July and August is the peak tourist season, when hotels are often fully booked.



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Currency / Costs / Approx. Spending

Currency: Lat

Meals

Budget: Ls1-5

Mid-range: Ls5-14

High: Ls14-20

Deluxe: Ls20+

Lodging

Budget: Ls8-30

Mid-range: Ls30-60

High: Ls60-100

Deluxe: Ls100+

Travelling in Latvia is pretty expensive, and accommodation is likely to be your biggest expense. Fortunately, overland transport is still relatively cheap. Travelers on a tight budget can get by on US$30 per day, though adding a few more sit-down meals and more upscale accommodation can easily double that. The cost of a luxurious lifestyle in Latvia is equivalent to that in any Western European country.

Cashing travellers' cheques can be difficult outside Riga, Daugavpils and Sigulda, though every town has somewhere to exchange hard currency. US dollars and Euros are the easiest to exchange, but other Baltic and Western European currencies aren't far behind. Most ATMs accept major credit cards, as do most shops, hotels and restaurants.

There's an 18% value-added tax (VAT) in Latvia, so be sure to check prices to see if it's been included. While tipping isn't compulsory, it's common to tip waiters 5% to 10% by rounding up the bill. If waiters 'try it on' by telling you that they don't have change, don't have a bar of it. There's some bargaining at flea markets, but discounts are likely to be minimal.

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Attractions

Riga

Unwary travellers are lured into Riga's winding cobbled streets flecked with snow and transfixed by swirling Art Nouveau architecture and warm bars with candles flickering in the windows. Just as you can't take the beauty of the Unesco World Heritage Old Town any longer, you look up to find a bewitching skyline of castle turrets and church steeples.

Riga straddles the Daugava River, about 15km (9mi) from its mouth in the southeastern corner of the Gulf of Riga. Discover the ancient German buildings strewn throughout Vecriga (Old Riga) or take in the spectacular aerial view from the spire of St Peter's Church.

Bauska

The principal attraction of the country town of Bauska is its castle, built between 1443 and 1456 as a stronghold for the Livonian knights. However, this imposing edifice was destroyed in battle several times during the 16th and 17th century.

The castle was always rebuilt - that is, until 1706 when it was blown up during the Great Northern War. This time restoration work didn't start until 1976. The castle museum now displays various objects found when archaeological excavations were made during the restoration.

Jurmala

The name Jurmala (Seashore) encompasses a string of small towns and resorts stretching 20km (12mi) along the coast west of Riga. With beaches, dunes and woodlands, plus museums, galleries, restaurants, pubs and inns, it's a perfect recipe for a relaxing break from life on the road. Better still, it's easy to reach and rarely crowded. There are several trains per hour from Riga and a special Jurmala-bound taxi rank in front of Riga's railway station. If you're driving into Jurmala, you have to pay a toll.

Kuldiga

This is the most picturesque and historic town in Latvia's Kurzeme region. Kuldiga was an important settlement of the Cours, as evinced by the remains of their ancient fortress, 2.5km (1.5mi) north of the town centre. There's a 17th-century town hall; an 18th-century granary; Roman Catholic, Russian Orthodox and Lutheran churches; a water mill built in 1807; a sculpture garden, and a regional museum.

Visitors to Kuldiga can fish and swim in the Venta River, which features a 2m (6ft) waterfall, a big deal in a country as flat as Latvia. Kuldiga is 150km (93mi) west of Riga. It's connected to the capital by bus.

Sigulda

Known locally as the 'Switzerland of Latvia', Sigulda and its environs boast a string of medieval castles and legend-laden caves scattered along one of the prettiest stretches of the Gauja valley. Sigulda, the main gateway to Gauja National Park, is a minor health resort and a winter sports centre. Little remains of old Sigulda Castle, but the 19th-century New Sigulda Castle, former residence of the Knights of the Sword, is now a sanatorium. Sigulda is 53km (33mi) east of Riga, and there are plenty of buses and trains to and from the capital.

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Sources: CIA FactBook, World FactBooks and numerous Travel and Destinations Guides.

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