RIGA - Just when we started to doubt its existence, the sun has appeared once again in the Baltic. And after six months of living a mole-like existence, Latvians are crawling out from their burrows for some vitamin D. Thus begins the outdoor recreation season. And if all goes as experts predict, this summer Latvia will be swarming with more tourists than ever before. Every beer garden, park, beach and trail is sure to be packed with locals and foreigners alike.
But don't despair; if all you want is a quiet weekend away from Riga, there are a handful of recreational secrets that still exist. (That is until this article was published). There is no better way to escape the crowd than joining that elite group of extreme sports enthusiasts. And whether it's bungee-jumping, bobsledding or river rafting, the small town of Sigulda and the surrounding Gauja National Park is Latvia's recreational answer. Only 40 minutes outside Riga, this beautiful tourist town, referred to as the Switzerland of Latvia, is the perfect setting for adventure.
Dangling above one of Gauja National Park's deepest gullies is an old Soviet-era gondola. Once serving as one of communist Latvia's few tourist attractions, the rickety cable car scares away most visitors today. That is, unless you're extreme. For the mere price of 15 lats (22 euros), those brave enough can leap from the 50-meter high cable car via bungee. Or you could jump from a "safer" distance of 43 meters (as if a mere seven meters makes the fall less scary.)
While you're waiting for your turn to plunge, you may notice a colorful Ferris wheel protruding from the horizon. Odd as it may be, a 30-meter-high Ferris wheel does indeed crown one of Sigulda's rolling hills. Another relic from the Soviet era, the Ferris wheel offers an astonishing view of the Gauja River. Most of the time, the attraction's corroding bucket seats swing emptily in the wind, as almost nobody dares set foot in them. But the little old granny who runs the Ferris wheel insists that the ride is safe. She even gives each seat a whack with her wooden cane to "double check." At 30 santims a ride, it may be the cheapest death-wish thrill in Latvia.
If you're of a less daring breed who finds adventure a plenty in a lazy stroll through the park, perhaps you'd enjoy Latvia's National Botanical Garden instead.
Located in Salaspils, just outside Riga, this arboretum is the biggest in the Baltics. More than 16,000 plant taxa (species, subspecies, varieties, forms and hybrids) flourish within the park's borders. You can even buy a permit to fish in the garden ponds. And if you're up for some botanical garden rebellion, have a go without the permit.
Then there's Kurzeme's "Devil's Boats" (Velna Laivas). This reconstructed Araisu village in northern Latvia is a unique archeological site. The three so-called authentic "Devil's Boats" 's piles of stones in the shape of a boat 's were used as burial sites at the end of the Bronze Age. The natural structures are a rare phenomenon, found only on the east coast of the Baltic Sea.
Another slightly mythical site is the Gnome Forest (Rukisu Mezs) in Tervetes National Park. Deep within the forest's shady branches exists a land of gnomes. Although they're carved of wood, the mystic creatures are dispersed along dirt paths, chopping wood, drinking mugs of beer, working in miniature gnome windmills and sitting peacefully on giant mushrooms, pondering whatever it is gnomes ponder. The park even offers a map of the village, pointing out each gnome dwelling and mill. As cute an idea as it may be, unless you have a ferocious imagination or are under the age of six, you might be better off driving on by.
If none of these ideas have won you over, there's always fishing. In Latvia, fishing is a 24-hour past time, whether it's in a serene countryside lake or that lovely brown Riga canal. "But where will I find fishing tackle at three in the morning?" you might ask. Look no further than downtown Riga. At 25 Avotu St. sits a small, 24-hour fishing shop called Esma. Not only does the store accommodate those spontaneous midnight fishermen, it also serves cold grub for those stumbling home from the late-night bars.