Coasting to a different beat

  • 2009-08-27
  • By Philip Birzulis

IT'S NOT STONEHENGE: Cape Kolka marks the start of the coastal tour through fishing villages and Soviet relics.

RIGA - Most visitors to Latvia only get near the seaside at Jurmala. But the country can boast almost 500 km of shoreline, much of which couldn't be more different to the bling-sprinkled resort near Riga.
You won't find any waterslides or mojitos on the bit between Ventspils and Kolka. In fact, this stretch of Baltic coast is so undeveloped that there is just one shop along its entire 84 km. Its tiny fishing villages are mostly connected by unpaved roads. It's so remote that Estonian mobile networks dominate on the beaches, a reminder that the island of Saaremaa is so near that you can see it on clear days.

Some may read this description and think it would make a perfect solo holiday destination for their mother-in-law. However, people who spend time exploring the quirky history and natural beauty of this backwater have a universal tendency to fall in love with it. So before dropping granny off you may want to reconnoiter the place yourself.

Long live the Livs
Language can be a touchy issue in Latvia. It may therefore come as a surprise to discover that this region is officially bilingual, though not in a Latvian-Russian, Latvian-English or other combination you might expect. Rather, on all the area's signs pride of place next to Latvian goes to Livonian.
The Livonians (or Livs as they are sometimes known) are Latvia's most ancient residents. Speaking a language related to Finnish and Estonian, they lived for thousands of years across the country. Unfortunately, a combination of low birthrates and persecution by the various foreign powers ruling down the ages meant that by the 20th century they were reduced to occupying the northwestern corner of the land.

The Soviet occupation of Latvia was the final nail in the coffin for this nation of fishermen. Small boats were outlawed and the men had to work on trawlers in the bigger ports. And the region was virtually cut off from the outside world. As the western border of the USSR, it was closely guarded both to keep the capitalists at bay and to prevent citizens of the worker's paradise from making a dash for Sweden. Bunkers, landing obstacles and other ruins of this empire are scattered along the shore. In the dunes near the village of Pitrags lies a collection of abandoned rocket casings. Not real ones, but dummies used to deceive American spy planes about the true nature of the Soviet military presence.

But while the occupation left cruel scars on the human inhabitants by restricting building, fishing and the movement of people, it paradoxically did Mother Nature a big favor. Though no longer entirely pristine, the beaches are less littered than elsewhere in Latvia and are visited by rare seal species. The 10,000 hectare Slitere National Park, a green barrier between the coast and the farmed hinterland, is an immensely rich ecosystem for plants, fungi, mammals, insects and birds. The fishing is good, and if you can't be bothered hooking worms yourself, the smoked flounder sold by villagers is tasty.

The Livonians themselves have been undergoing a revival since Latvia reestablished its independence in 1991. There are sadly only a few elderly people left who have spoken Livonian since childhood. But a group of young people is studying the language, songs and traditions of their Liv ancestors, and they hold a camp near Mazirbe, the biggest village, every August. So the vowels of this ancient tongue can still be heard amongst the crashing of the waves and the squawking of the gulls.

Top to bottom
Public transport to the coast is limited to a few buses a day, so driving is a better option for getting there. Alternatively, increasing numbers of travelers are choosing to cycle through the area, and if your teeth survive the bumps on the dirt roads you will have done your fitness a great service.

Cape Kolka in the north is a good place to start a journey, both practically and metaphorically. This is where the Gulf of Riga and the Baltic Sea proper meet, and if you stand with a foot in either patch of water, you will discover that the former is a few degrees warmer. There's plenty of Soviet military concrete left scattered about, including a communications facility now used by the Latvian army. Of more general use is the lighthouse perched on an artificial island a few miles out in the sea. The local sandbanks have made this stretch of water the biggest graveyard for ships in the Baltic. In recent years, careless vacationers trying to reach the lighthouse on foot during low tide have drowned when the waters suddenly rose, so caution is highly advisable if you're going for a paddle. The large stone monument dedicated to those lost at sea is not a joke.

After a stroll through the adjacent nature trail, journey a few kilometers south to Vaide, one of the first of the traditional Livonian villages. Here you will find an old country home with one of the biggest collections of animal horns in Latvia. Lovers of furry critters need not curse it, however, because the old forest guard who runs the museum says that he has picked them all up in the surrounding forests, not through hunting.

Further down, Saunags and Pitrags are nice places to visit the beach. Despite efforts by some newly wealthy Latvians to privatize chunks of seaside land, the law gives everyone the right to access the water, and this is mostly respected in practice. In this regard, Latvia is vastly more enlightened than some Mediterranean countries with their fun-crushing private beaches, and it is to be hoped that this will not change.

Next, the village of Kosrags is the best place to see what real Livonian fishing villages once looked like. This pretty hamlet with 18th, 19th and 20th century timber houses is a protected site where even the old men resting by the roadside look like they have stepped out of a different era. There's a camping ground and guesthouse to take it all in at the leisurely pace it deserves.

While hardly a bustling metropolis, Mazirbe is the biggest village in the region and home to that solitary retail establishment mentioned earlier. This is also the site of the Livonian Cultural Centre. Built just prior to World War II with the assistance of other Finno-Ugric nations, it houses a moving exhibition of photographs from the turn of the century. The captions are only in Latvian and Livonian, but you hardly need the words to delve into the faces of the local people, their nets and their boats, to feel the sadness of a way of life that is gone forever.

Mikeltornis is another pleasant village, and a stroll through its well-tended cemetery offers another glimpse into a lost world. Don't miss a chance to climb up the impressive lighthouse for panoramic views of miles of sea, forest and beach.

A different but also breathtaking view is on offer just south of Irbene village. After hitting a rare patch of asphalt, turn left into another paved road going seemingly into the forest. Just past an abandoned Soviet housing project, you will spot an enormous radar dish that looks like a still from a space movie. This Soviet facility monitored Eastern European airspace, while today it is used by a scientific outfit from Ventspils. Although you can't clamber all over the thing, you can get pretty close and scratch your head at the weirdness of it all.

From relics of the Evil Empire to natural splendors, there is enough here for a few days sightseeing. But the best thing to do in this part of the world is nothing very much at all. Plant yourself on some sand with no other human in sight and delight in the beautiful emptiness.