Latvia: Extremely Underrated

Old Town, Riga

There was a time I panicked about lost time – time spent static, in one place; not travelling, not seeing the world as I should be. That I would be sending a family member off to an exotic land, yet somehow not on that trip.

Coming to the UK has been a gateway to all the things I would never have done. Luxembourg was one of them, and Latvia is another.

Within a second of googling “inspirational travel quotes” there would be twenty thousand results, each more inspiring than the last. But I think none can be properly understood by those who do not travel.

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you did not do than by the things you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbour… Explore, dream, discover.”  -Mark Twain

When I went to Luxembourg, I went alone. Alone I climbed hills, crossed bridges, walked through ruins. A part of me was kind of proud that I managed it all alone, I managed to do something most would deem embarrassing, alone.

But Latvia was a different experience, because I had someone with me. Well, two of my dearest friends with me. One was Sarah, one of my oldest friends, and the other Julia, my best friend in Durham, born and bred in Latvia.

I always liked to visit a country where I have friends, because that’s when I know I’ll get to experience the real Latvia, in a sense, not the catered-to-tourists’ version that most tour agencies and tour groups show us.

Airbnb’s tagline resonates with me: ‘Don’t go there, live there’. Although I did not use Airbnb in Latvia, I think it makes a lot of sense – you can’t say you really experienced a place unless someone who grew up there brings you around.

The woods behind Julia's house.

The woods behind Julia’s house.

Latvia is extensively underrated, maybe because no one knows it well enough to want to visit. I was only in Latvia for three days. In a way I wish I was there for longer, because Latvia was breath-taking. And I don’t use “breath-taking” to describe every country I go to. I mean, there were some parts of Latvia that is more functional than tourist-catered – but which country doesn’t?

When I start telling people about Latvia, I always start off with “I was in three action movies in three days.” It’s true, and it was only possible because someone who grew up in the country showed it to me.

Julia showed me the alternative side of Latvia: the lighthouse at the edge of Latvia, separating the Daugava River from the Baltic Sea; she showed me the forest behind her house where there was a Jewish cemetery commemorating the lives lost during the Nazi-Soviet Pact in World War II, and the Germans put their prisoners of war deep in the forests of Latvia, Estonia and other countries in the Soviet Union. Of course, we had to go into the Old Town Riga, the city centre, where the roads are winding and the buildings are majestic. Latvia is so incredibly beautiful, especially the area by the Baltic Sea.

The Jewish Cemetery.

The Jewish Cemetery.

Our first action movie was set in Old Town Riga, where we might well have been in a James Bond. Our second was by the lighthouse, where the waves from the Baltic Sea crashed against the groyne so high that when they broke it washed over the pavement and people behind it. We could have been shooting Jaws. It was also the setting for a horror movie when a ship came in through the bar between the two lighthouses and Julia screamed out in excitement and I almost fell into the river. The scene of the Jewish cemetery in the middle of the forest could well have come from The Hunger Games. It was all so incredible, and all impossible to find without Julia around.

If you think Durham is cold, you are profoundly, immensely wrong. Never has the phrase “I’m freaking freezing” been exclaimed so frequently, and never has it been so accurate. After being in Latvia, Durham’s weather is a breeze (yes, pun intended).

The waves crashing in from the Baltic Sea.

The waves crashing in from the Baltic Sea.

And of all the other things incredible about Latvia, when Julia invited me to her house, cooked dinner for me, and her mother, a lady who barely knew English, spoke to me in a language she is unfamiliar in, and gave me a hug that took my breath away, a hug that made me think perhaps she loved me like her own daughter, that’s when I knew Latvia was the right place to be.

You know, they always said that you’ll go further and faster if you go alone. That is true, but what is the point if all you can do is go fast and go far, while never remembering what really happened, or even an impression of the places you’ve been to? No, that’s not travelling, that’s scanning the area.

Yes, perhaps a person would grow more, grow faster when they travel alone, but it’s always better with a friend. They are the ones who can show you around; they are the ones who explain to you all that you don’t know; and they are the ones to fill in the missing gaps in your stories because Latvia was freaking freezing and you were busy cleaning the snot off your nose.

“Not all those who wander are lost” – in Latvia my friends were the ones who guided me home when I was.

The Daugava River runs through the centre of Riga.

The Daugava River runs through the centre of Riga.

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