Lucy Elliff, Scottish Natural Heritage
Although a trip focused on understanding the management of nature conservation in Latvia our hosts made sure we received a healthy dose of cultural history to compliment and broaden our understanding of Latvia and its people. A nation with a long complex history Latvia’s castles and medieval towns have so much to discover, a guided tour of Cesis old town and the castle was fascinating and filled with folk tales, legends and facts. Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia were previously known as Livonia, this was one of the last pagan strongholds in continental Europe, officially right into the late 1100’s unofficially surviving much longer after the Northern crusades finally brought Christianity to the tribal pagans. To put this into context Iona Monastery had already been established in Scotland for more than 600 years!
The history of Cesis and its castle reflects that of Livonia, conquered, capture, occupied and passed around bloody battle after bloody battle. Even just between the Teutonic Knights northern crusades set on bringing Christianity to the pagan in the 11th Century to the besiege of Cesis castle by the Russian Tsar Ivan the Terrible in 1577 (ending in a mass suicide) I could write pages and pages. In fact I already did, but this is the edited version! Despite the turbulent history Latvians have retained their national identity. Although the Republic of Latvia did not officially declared until 1918 many of the tribes during the Northern crusades of the 11th Century began to fight battles under the same red and white flag we associate with Latvia today. Independence as the Republic of Latvia was finally recognised in 1921 but as we all know the occupation of Latvia by foreign nations was not yet over.
The modern history of Latvia is as fascinating as it medieval past, but what of the Latvia of today. There are five large national parks dotted across the country; tourism is a developing sector one which the Latvians are keen to capitalise on. From the wetlands of Kemeri National Park through to the wooded sand stone valley of Gauja National Park the visiting tourist cannot fail to be impressed by the abundance of information signs, play areas, picnic spots, fire pits, boarded walks and walking trails which manage to make you feel welcome without compromising on the natural beauty of the landscape. I think all in the group would agree that we were excited about the accessibility of Latvia to a tourist with return trips already being mapped out. Nothing demonstrates this tourism infrastructure more than the Latvian Nature app, freely available and translated into English it enables you to maximise your visit to Latvia from the comfort of your pocket. Now I realise I sound as though I am working on commission but I am confident in saying that I do echo the feelings of the group as a whole.
Teirumnīku purva taka trial
Wherever we went in Latvia be it city, forest or country we were welcomed by friendly, helpful Latvian’s. This was truly demonstrated by our hosts for a night close to Valmeria in eastern Latvia, with the young apprentices of the family in attendance we were taught the intricate process of barrel making. A truly captivating, spectacular and at points beautiful skill which in Latvia is dying out, only three barrel makers remain in the country our hosts were determined to continue the tradition into future generations.