Tag Archives: Latvia

Food of the Baltics

We’ve mostly been cooking for ourselves and have been getting our food from markets and supermarkets probably about 50/50. The supermarkets are similar to the kind that you find in town centres in the UK – reasonably sized, but not huge, they generally have a deli counter, meat counter and fresh bread/pastries/cakes as well as the usual shelves and fridges of packaged stuff.

Market hall in Riga

Fruit and veg at Riga market

Buying bread at the supermarket in Sigulda

The Russian market in Tallinn

Pork seems to be the meat of choice in the Baltics. On our first night in Riga I had a really good pork and onion casserole, but there are lots of sausages, salamis and hams too. Pork is so popular that outside the covered market in Tartu there is a statue of a pig marked up with its butcher’s cuts!


Lots of smoked fish in the markets – mostly salmon and herring (I think). Fresh fish are sold with heads intact (the smaller ones by the scoopful). We haven’t seen much in the way of shellfish, but there has been quite a lot of caviar, or other fish roe – something I’m expecting even more of as we move into Russia. In Tallinn, we also had salted herring which was delicious – something like very good sushi but served with rye bread!


The first time we bought a loaf of bread in Latvia it had caraway seeds in it. Mmm interesting, we thought, but let’s try to get a plain one next time. It didn’t seem to matter whether the bread was from the market, or sliced from the supermarket, brown or white, they almost all seemed to have caraway seeds. In Estonia, there’s lots of rye bread, but with the exception of one loaf we managed to avoid the caraway seeds :)

Buckwheat is a staple carb in the Baltics (and Russia and other areas of Eastern Europe too I understand). We’re really liking it’s slightly nutty flavour and have used it as a side as well as in a pilaff with caramelised onions and mushrooms inspired by this recipe. And yes, Andrew did eat and enjoy the mushrooms! :)


Fruit and Veggies
Seem to be pretty typical of northern Europe in winter – potatoes, roots and some excellent apples. Obviously you can get bananas, oranges and lettuce too they’re just more expensive.

A special mention goes to the pickles. Lots of gherkins (pickled cucumbers) and lots of pickled cabbage too, some of it quite plain and some highly spiced, almost like kimchi.


Sweet stuff
In the interests of research, we’ve also been checking out the region’s cakes :). We had some amazing apple strudel and chocolate cake on Easter Monday at the wonderful Mr. Biskvits cafe in Sigulda.

And Andrew found a real locals cafe in Tallinn which served Estonian doughnuts – not as sugary and made with a proper yeasty batter so they weren’t as uniform in shape or texture as commercial doughnuts. They were sold by weight, and at approx €0.25 each we had to have a second round!


Latvia Round Up

One of the travel podcasts that I listen to, the amateur traveler, has a number of summarising questions that he asks at the end of each interview. We decided that it might be nice to do this for each country or region that we visit.

What photo takes you right back to Latvia?
The frozen sea at Jūrmala – something that hadn’t even occurred to us that we would see.

Summarise Latvia in three words.

  • Forests – Latvia seems to be covered in pine forests and from our experience they’re full of wildlife
  • Architecture – from the Art Nouveau in Riga to the wooden buildings at the Ethnographic Museum and the castles in the Gauja National Park
  • Cold

You really know you’re in Latvia when….
…you’ve gotten off the train at the wrong stop. This happened to us again, thankfully we were both off the train (just) before the doors closed. To get from Latvia to Estonia by train you have to get the Latvian train to the border town and then change onto the Estonian train. We both heard the announcement say ‘Valga’, the border town, and then there was a very faint announcement in English about having your passport ready so we got our bags together and jumped off, the train then started to move away and when we looked around we were at a station seemingly in the middle of nowhere… So we had to get a taxi to Valga which was just 5 minutes up the road (fortunately we’d kept a Latvian 5Ls note back ‘just in case’ so we could pay the taxi driver). Of course by this stage we’d missed the connecting train so we had to get the bus to Tartu.

What one item should you definitely pack when going to Latvia?
A good pair of gloves!

Sigulda, Turaida and Cēsis, Latvia

From the Hostel Hospital in Sabile, we headed back through the capital Rīga, stopping in the wonderful markets for a bite to eat, before continuing east to Sigulda in the Gauja valley national park.

Julie tucking into potato cakes and chicken casserole, while Andrew bought what looked like a beef burger but turned out to be made of liver!

After checking into our hostel, which I would describe more like the best bits of a Swiss chalet (under floor heating), a university halls of residence (5 separate rooms, 2 WC’s, 2 showers and a common lounge), and a ground-floor apartment than a hostel, we had a mediocre meal at the local recommended eatery, before heading to the hostel’s bar for a jar and some pool


Our first day in Sigulda, we took the generous and friendly advice of the girl at the tourist information office, and took a taxi to Līgatne. Just outside the little town, in a levelled area of pine forest, there’s a health and recuperation centre..


.. but 9m underneath it, is a secret 1980’s Soviet-era nuclear bunker!

The 2,000sq meter bunker is completely self-contained. We opted for the English guide, and had both the guide – Mattis – and the bunker to ourselves!

Almost everything still works. There’s a comms room that looks similar to my days working in telephone exchanges at BT (though the kit is a bit older)


A map room (one of 3 rooms you’re not allowed to take photos in – as it has the locations of every Soviet bunker in Latvia in it), is fascinating as it details fallout radius, death-tolls, and the people, food, and machinery movements needed in the event of nuclear attack.

Next was the recording studio, meeting rooms and offices, and then a room that was operated and sealed by the KGB until the early 1990’s.. once a week their lead-lined phone with lines that couldn’t be tapped would ring direct from KGB headquarters in Moscow..


After the KGB room, Mattis demonstrated the air circulation equipment – the bunker draws air from outside through blast-vents that close automatically when hit by a shock-wave. The bunker has scrubbers to remove smoke and particulates, circulating the air within, and finally, there are racks of tanks that look like torpedoes full of oxygen that can be included in the airflow, extending the time the officials can survive underground once the vents are closed.

But what powers these loud air turbines? Mattis took us down a long, curved corridor to the engine room..


Inside, (again, no pictures were allowed), we were confronted by a pair of V12, 581bhp Soviet T-54 Tank Engines, sat on concrete beds in the middle of the engine room floor. Mattis took great delight in starting one of them up, and revving it a little bit ;o)

Damn, those engines are LOUD!

Each one is capable of powering the bunker alone, and they’re still used to power the neighbouring buildings during bad weather – 60% of the immediate region’s power can be controlled by the bunker.

The penultimate stop in the tour was the canteen – where entry includes a typical 1980’s Soviet-era lunch of meat-filled dumplings and sour-cream, washed down with a glass of squash..


And finally we saw the most important room, the office of the most senior official in the bunker. He had 3 direct lines: 1 each to the other 2 most-senior officers offices, and a red one direct to Moscow. Our guide handed me a large but comfortable period leather jacket for a very serious phone call..


The next day we decided to visit the castles of Sigulda and Turaida.

The weather, it seems, had other plans, as it was snowing pretty heavily before we set off, and got worse as we explored the excellent Sigulda castle remains


I couldn’t resist the invitation to try on some of the armour in the keep:



To get to Turaida castle, there’s a handy cable car that crosses the Guaja valley. At this point we decided to turn back – even if the cable car had been running, the visibility up the valley was poor, and we were getting cold. Time to retreat for coffee and cake in the wonderful Mr. Biskvits cafe.


On the 2nd of April, we both made it to Cēsis, just not at the same time.

Wednesday the 3rd, we decided not to try Cēsis again, and instead resumed our castles tour, starting at the cable car. If you’re so inclined, you can bungee-jump from it.

Crossing the Guaja Valley in the Cablecar

Old Krimulda castle

LOTS of wildlife – we counted 6 different woodpeckers, and one of them pooped on me!


View east up the valley, with Turaida castle on the left

After a lovely, leisurely walk up the valley (which was a little hairy at times on the snow-covered steps), we made it to Turaida castle, which has been in and out of use since 1214.

Turaida Castle, viewed from what would have been the far end of the drawbridge

The far tower has been restored, and you can climb the narrow stone staircases all the way to the top for stunning views:


Between the exhibits detailing the castle’s many uses throughout history, there was the opportunity for a spot of archery. We joined the queue behind two of the few other tourists in Sigulda, to find out they were from Peterborough!

He had a couple more shafts than I did, but it didn’t matter as although neither of us had any prior experience, he hit the bullseye with his 5th arrow to win the best score of the season. I scored 7/40 – 2 arrows hitting the points – and came away with second best score of the season. Not bad, until you know that this was the first day of the season..

I’m currently reading the 3rd book of the Conqueror series, and to think the Mongol warriors under Ghengis could hit gaps in moving armour from a pony at full-gallop, steering it with their knees. Wow. I was pleased that every arrow hit the board at 15 paces.

We caught the bus back to Sigulda with our fellow archers, then headed back to Mr. Biskvits to see if their dinner was as good as their cake.. yes it was :o)


Separated on the way to Cēsis

Cēsis is a billed as a lovely, archetypal Latvian town with a Medieval Castle and cobbled streets. We boarded the train from Sigulda at 11:47am, intending to spend an afternoon exploring its sights.

As it turned out, only one of us would make it.

At about 12:15, Julie says we’re near our stop, and we make our way to the end of the carriage as the train pulls into the little station. I stepped aside to let an elderly woman step onto the train, then hop off onto the platform. As I turn around, Julie isn’t behind me, as the woman had continued through to our carriage, and Julie had moved aside also – as Julie stepped out of the carriage the doors started to close and the train, not waiting for Julie or the doors, continued.



OK. No problem. I’ll wait in the station for Julie to catch the next return train to Cēsis, and we’ll continue our plans, just a little delayed.

I look at the station. It doesn’t say Cēsis. It says Ieriki.

Shit. I got off at the wrong stop.

No, wait – the train station at Jūrmala was called Majori, so this could still be Cēsis. OK, let’s scout it – the bus station should be the other side of the train station, and there should then be crossroads leading away from both towards the castle. The bus station looks like a car park and there aren’t any signs or stops visible. There are crossroads, but there are only houses on the corners, and the road away looks hardly used – there are no signs a bus has been down here.

Shit. I did get off at the wrong stop.

OK. Quick situation report. Cēsis can’t be but a few more minutes up the track, as we were just about to get off. I check the weather – midday, cloudy with bursts of sunlight. Good.
I’ve got a mobile phone, great, turn it on so Julie can reach me when she gets to Cēsis. I’ve got hiking boots on, warm clothing, a torch, penknife, lighter, small writing pad (which I could use to start kindling if needs), two packed lunches, 35Lats (about £30), a credit card, our hostel keys, and sunglasses. Great, put the sunglasses on so I don’t go snowblind.
The road parallel to the tracks veers off up ahead, so the best route is to follow the tracks themselves.

I got this.


The snow is about toe deep, and uneven underfoot because of the railway stones, but I’m making good progress.

Round the first corner, 2km ahead there’s a building on the left that could be a platform.

It isn’t.

It’s a small house set back from the tracks, the owner looks at me as I walk past – a wave is returned and he goes back inside. It’s a glorious day. I’m in the middle of nowhere, hiking trough a pine forrest in a National Park. Life is good. I reflect on the situation, and resolve to double-check before taking a course of action. I’m now thinking that was Cēsis, and I’ve headed off into the wilderness buoyed by my preparation and fondness for adventure.

Round another corner and I hear a train coming – I’d better get away from the tracks, so I head about 8 meters into the snow. It’s deep, thigh deep. After the freight train of oil drums and hoppers passes I make my way back up to the tracks, twisting my knee slightly in the process. This isn’t going to work if I’m injured. I winced the first couple of steps but I needn’t have, it was fine to walk on. Phew. I’ll see what’s round the next corner, and decide if I ought to turn back and wait for the next passenger train.

Next corner, no buildings. But there is a gantry with lights up ahead, and lots of railway signs – I see a car crossing the tracks up ahead – civilisation!


Just past the gantry I hear another train – this time it’s a passenger one coming towards me. As the banks are steep, I hot-foot it the 20 or so meters back to the gantry and hide from the snow-spray kicked up by the train by ducking behind the electrical cabinets. I wonder how dodgy I must look to the driver as I hide from the train.

Up ahead I see another car crossing the tracks. Perhaps there’s a village nearby? I spot a small
shelter set back to the right, it’s a station. Its name is Melturi. And there’s a granny-aged woman waiting for a train.


I say hello in Latvian, and read the timetables. Neither Cēsis or Sigulda are mentioned. I ask the granny “Cēsis?” and point down the tracks – first where I’ve come from, then further up the line. She gestures back the way I’ve come.

Shit. I got off at the right stop and Julie is likely on her way back there right now. Probably on the passenger train I just hid from.

Hang on, granny is waiting for a train, so I’ll wait for a train too. I sit down next to her. 5 minutes later and in perfect English, granny says “would you like to go to Cēsis?” Yes. Very much so I reply. She turns her little notebook to me where she’d written “autobus”, “2km” and “13:40”, above a cute little drawing of a bus. “Take this track 2km, there you can get a bus to Cēsis at 13:40.” I thanked her repeatedly in English and Latvian, and with 15 minutes to go, headed off once more between the pine trees.


The track passed a hotel – I made a mental note in case I needed somewhere to stay or to call a taxi from – and ended at a very major road. As I’d walked east on the railway, and north on the track, I crossed the road and waited for the next bus that went west – back towards Cēsis. As I’d missed the 13:40 bus by a couple of minutes, I now had 70 minutes to wait.

Time for a sandwich.


5 minutes later, a silver express bus to Cēsis & Rīga passed by but wouldn’t be flagged down. I’m at the right stop at least.

About 40 minutes later, a bus stopped and I asked for a ticket to Cēsis – the driver simply said “No” and shook his head. Confused that he mustn’t have liked to look of me, I got off. The bus clearly said “Cēsis, Sigulda, and Rīga” on the front. Weird.

10 minutes after that, another bus stopped. This time, as well as saying “No” and shaking his head, this driver pointed over the road to the opposite bus stop. Aha! But that doesn’t make any sense. Granny said Cēsis was west of here, not east. Maybe the bus route explains it. No sooner had I crossed the road, the proper Cēsis bus appeared.


The first sign I see from the bus reads “Cēsis 11km”. Holy shit, it’s miles away! It was a good decision to stop walking the railway lines.

At 15:10, 3 hours after we were separated, I arrive into Cēsis and the layout matches the map in my head and in the guidebook I’m carrying. First stop, the train station.


No Julie.

OK. I have the lunch so she’ll have been hungry – what about nearby cafe’s?

No Julie.

Checked all the bus stops, and the train station again. She’s not here. OK. What would she do. I’m 3 hours late, it’s a nice day, she’d likely have waited a couple of hours then gone to the castle.

So I went to the castle, hoping to see her on the way.

Got there. No Julie.

So I thought, well, I’m here, maybe she’s still inside, and I’d like to see it too, so I paid the entrance fee and walked around the castle and museum for an hour and a half, knowing that we’d planned to leave Cēsis at 17:10.


Just as I’m buying my ticket for the bus back to Sigulda, my phone goes – it’s Julie. She’s safe. On arriving at Cēsis she couldn’t find a payphone to call me and had gone as far as the castle but not inside to look for one.

Figuring I’d do the same, she got the first bus back to Sigulda where we were staying.

Later reunited and over a couple of beers, we swapped our versions of the day. From her silver express bus home, Julie thought she caught a glimpse of someone that looked like me, eating a sandwich at a bus-stop.


We’ve talked about how we could have planned for such a situation in advance, but nothing really springs to mind. We reasoned that getting separated while en-route somewhere isn’t quite the same as getting lost.

Having a cheap mobile phone each would have saved us both some time, but wouldn’t have made for a good story.

What would you suggest?

Pedvale Sculpture Park, Sabile, Latvia

Last Thursday, we visited the open-air sculpture museum at Pedvale near Sabile in western Latvia. The morning began with wildlife. On the 1.5 mile walk from the village to the museum a deer crossed the road in front of us and then within minutes of starting to walk around the park, we saw a bullfinch and two different kinds of woodpecker!




I don’t think that they’ve had many (any?) visitors over the winter as the man who runs it seemed slightly flustered to see us and forgot to charge us the entry fee.


The museum is run by Ojars Feldbergs, a Latvian artist, and the permanent collection consists of around 100 sculptures placed over 100 hectares of land. Most of the sculptures are made from natural materials (stone, wood, etc.) but some are made from reclaimed/recycled material. Our favourite was “MUNAMUNA” by Villu Jaanisoo, made from old TV screens.



Another favourite of ours was “Washday” by Liga Zimante. Situated by a stream, it made us smile.


Here are some of the others.

20130331-083629.jpg“The Path” by Karlis Alainis

20130331-083653.jpg“Butterfly” by Karlis Alainis

20130331-083709.jpg“Pedvale Totem No. 14” by Kardo Kosta

20130331-083726.jpg“The Makeover” by Liga Zimante

20130331-083745.jpg“The Sky Chair” by Villu Jaanisoo

For most of the way, the paths were hidden under snow and in some places it was ankle deep…


We were fortunate to have gorgeous weather on that day. In fact it was so sunny that we both got some colour on our faces. One thing we weren’t expecting to get in Latvia was a tan :)