The lush nature of Latvia has something to offer everyone: deep forests, picturesque rivers and lakes, a pretty coastline and the great diversity of flora and fauna inspire everyone interested in nature.
Ten percent of the land area of Latvia is under nature protection. The area is divided into more than 700 protected areas, including four national parks. The Slitere National Park is the smallest among them. It is located on the northern tip of Courland and emerged in 1999 from a protection zone established in 1921. The second largest is the Kemeri National Park. It was founded in 1997 and, with its moorland, is home to many animal and plant species, especially birds. Probably the most famous national park, however, is the Gauja National Park east of Riga. The deep forests and the impressive glacial valley of the Gauja are worth seeing. The river meanders leisurely through the landscape, cutting deep into the surrounding rock and creating a bank landscape with cliffs, grottos and caves. This is complemented by numerous cultural monuments – a great combination! The impressive park should not be missing on any tour of Latvia.
In addition to the well-known national parks, there are numerous nature parks and reserves, most of which are equally worth seeing. In Kurzeme, about halfway between Riga and Cape Kolka, lies the Engure Lake Nature Park. The lake is the third largest in Latvia. Many mudflats and water birds breed here and can be observed from observation towers, and there is also an ornithological station. Nature trails lead through the beautiful landscape (including an orchid trail), and boats can also be rented.
A stroll through the woods may open up interesting animal encounters for nature lovers. Elk, wolves, bison, lynx, beaver, wild boar and deer are found in Latvia. Even the European brown bear is at home here again, even if the probability of encountering one of the twelve specimens currently counted is likely to be low.
Since Latvia is an important station for bird migration, travelers interested in ornithology can look out for migratory birds on observation towers in many places. The nature reserve Pape in the southeast of the country is very well known for this, as is Cape Kolka in the Slitere National Park.
Customs and traditions are important aspects of Latvian culture and still play a major role in society today. The Midsummer celebrations are a cultural highlight in the course of the year and are celebrated extensively. The old Latvian folk songs called Drainas are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Oral transmission of Latvian mythology and national identity was possible through them. The song festivals are also an important pillar of Latvian culture. Every five years, Riga becomes a stage for a traditional music festival. Countless people use it to express their national consciousness and also maintain tradition. The first song festival was celebrated as early as 1873. The next song festival in Riga will take place from June 30th to July 7th 2013 – definitely worth the trip!
Architecturally, Latvia has a real cultural treasure with its beautiful mansions and castles. The baroque palace of Rundale is probably the best known among them. The order castles, which are an expression of the country’s eventful history, must of course also be included in the ranks of important buildings. Some of them can be admired in Cesis, Sigulda and Ventspils.
From the field of handicrafts, the belts from Lielvarde are a specialty. The belt, woven from wool, has up to 22 ornaments and is part of the traditional Latvian folk costume.
Latvia’s settlement history probably begins in the 3rd millennium BC. When Finno-Ugric tribes immigrated to what is now Latvian territory. The history of seafaring begins around the 9th century AD, the old Baltic tribes (Kuren, Semgall, Latgallen, Selonen) have always been strongly connected to the sea. In the Riga History and Maritime Museum you can marvel at an oak ship from the 12th century, which was discovered during an excavation in the old town of Riga.
Foreign rule has shaped Latvian history: Poles, Germans, Lithuanians, Russians and Swedes have alternately received power over the territory or parts of the Latvian territory. A time that has left its mark in Latvia is the time of Christianization by the Order of the Brothers of the Sword and the Teutonic Order. In the 13th century the Order of the Brothers of the Sword seized power in large parts of Latvia. Architectural contemporary witnesses are the many order castles, some of them only preserved as ruins, which can be found throughout the country. The Baltic peoples put up bitter resistance.
The rule of the Teutonic Order came to an end when Tsar Ivan (the Terrible) invaded in the 16th century. Danes, Swedes, Poland-Lithuania also fought for the Latvian territory. The so-called Livonian War raged from 1558 to 1561. A checkered history in which Latvia and individual provinces of Latvia were repeatedly ruled by other powers.
From the 18th century, Russia took over more and more power over Latvian territory. In 1915 the German army intervened and claimed Livonia for itself, in 1917 Riga was conquered. Latvia’s efforts for independence in 1918 were not tolerated for long, and Soviet Russia took power. Germans and Soviets alternated in rule until Latvia was finally under the influence of the Soviets after the Second World War. Collective farms were founded, tens of thousands of Latvians were deported to Siberia and, in return, Russians were resettled in Latvia – the Russification policy was promoted.
From the 1980s, the national Latvian identity was revived, there were strides for independence and then the “Singing Revolution”. In 1989 two million people formed a chain from Tallinn via Riga to Vilnius and demonstrated for the independence of the Baltic states. In 1991 Latvia finally achieved its independence from the Soviet empire and since then has made great strides, oriented towards the West: In 2004 Latvia, like its Baltic neighbors Estonia and Lithuania, joined the European Union, according to Countryaah.com.
In addition to the Latvian population (62 percent), a large number of Russians live in Latvia (27 percent). This fact goes back to the Russification policy and resettlement measures on the part of the Soviet Union in the years 1940 to 1990. Besides many other nations there is a Belarusian minority (three percent) and about two percent Ukrainian population. This means that a large proportion of the population belong to an ethnic minority, which leads to the problems that are often associated with this: integration problems, discrimination and language difficulties.
Latvian is the official language in Latvia. Latvian is one of the Indo-European languages and, along with Lithuanian, is one of two Baltic languages that still exist. Due to the high proportion of the Russian population, Russian naturally also plays a major role.
Latvia has been a parliamentary democracy since independence from the Soviet Union. It is headed by the president, who takes on representative tasks, signs laws and appoints or dismisses the government. The prime minister is in charge of government and heads the cabinet. There are currently 17 ministers in the cabinet. The Latvian Parliament has 100 members and is elected for four years. Latvia has been a member of the European Union since 2004.
While the majority of the population in western and central Latvia can be assigned to the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the Roman Catholic faith plays the main role in the east. The population of Russian descent, on the other hand, follows the Russian Orthodox Church.
Before the Second World War, Judaism was an important religion in Latvia, today only about 10,000 people belong to the faith.
Especially in the very east of Latvia, in Latgale, there are still some Old Believer congregations, also known as Starovery in Latvia. This branch of faith emerged in the 17th century as part of a church reform by Patriarch Nikon. Opponents of this reform founded the “old faith”. They were expelled from the Russian Church and persecuted.