In Latvia, a country where over 50% of the land is covered in trees, arboreal adventures are easy to find. And northern Latvia, especially the area centred on Gauja National Park, offers eclectic, sometimes unique, experiences just waiting to tempt visitors away from capital Rīga’s undeniable delights (and less delightful stag and hen parties) and into the woods. So if you hanker after some history, are bonkers for bobsleighing or just want to know what bogshoeing actually is, read on.
Go bobsleighing with champions
One of the main entry points for Gauja National Park, Sigulda is best known by international visitors for its castle complex. Ask a Latvian, though, and they will tell you that it’s also famous for the Sigulda Bobsleigh and Luge Track where local champions train and where you can put your winter sports skills to the test. The most daring can sign up for the bobsleigh. Travelling at over 110km per hour and experiencing up to 4G on the twists and turns, you complete the 1km course in under a minute – though your stomach might arrive a few seconds later. For something gentler, try the ‘soft bob’; like a padded child’s play area on ice, it’s a much less body-jolting option. Book in advance (the Latvian national team practises here so it gets busy) and look out for the Dukurs brothers, highly successful skeleton competitors (one is world champion), national heroes and regulars at this place.
Visit Valmíermuíža brewery
At the northeastern edge of the national park stands the town of Valmiera, and at the northeastern edge of the town is the Valmíermuíža beer company, producing some of the country’s most popular ales. Located on the site of a former manor house famed for its owner Pēterim Fridriham’s hospitality (something this brewery aims to replicate), the company was established in 2008. However, it spent a year perfecting its techniques before finally releasing its first beer, chosen by locals as their favourite out of three options. Tours take you round the brewery (book in advance), a restaurant is open daily throughout the summer (weekends only in winter) and a shop, housed in an 18th-century outbuilding, means you can pick up souvenirs – for something very different, try the distilled craft beer ‘digestif’ at 42% proof, or go for the non-alcoholic sodas which use natural ingredients from the forest (lime trees, lavender, herbs) as flavourings.
Admire artworks at Vienkoču Park Woodcraft Museum
Rihards is the genial host and master woodworker at the Vienkoču Park Woodcraft Museum, just south of Līgatne. Having worked in wood since a teenager he knows his stuff and is happy to point out designs and the tools used to craft them, taking wood from the surrounding forest and working in a sustainable, heritage-honouring way. You can stroll the park’s grounds to admire the sculptures, buy pieces made by Rihards, and even, if you time it right (usually in the summer), sign up for his annual woodworking course and make an extra special gift using nothing but traditional methods.
Walk through the Secret Soviet Bunker
Tucked away amid the birch trees of Gauja National Park is the Secret Soviet bunker, an unexpected reminder of the Cold War and the time when Latvia was under Kremlin control. Built between 1970 and 1982, this was where 250 of the country’s communist elite would be evacuated in case of natural disaster or nuclear war. Walking into the present-day medical rehabilitation centre (in need of some rehabilitation itself), you’re reminded that this building’s true identity was previously hidden from everyday Latvians behind the facade of a spa resort. Once through an inconspicuous door, you head downstairs, through a layer of concrete 5m thick, to be greeted by a quote from Lenin about looking after your state’s defences as you’d look after your eyes. From here, it’s an evocative wander through a selection of the complex’s 90 rooms, all containing their original furnishings and equipment. Peek at still-working radio transmitters; check out the map room where Germany is shown as two countries and Yugoslavia as just one; imagine eating in the canteen surrounded by Soviet propaganda; and pretend you’re on the red ‘hotline’ phone to Moscow in the office set aside for Latvia’s leader – the only room with a bed.
Give bogshoeing a go
Not your average hike would be the best way to describe this activity. Boldly going where nobody has gone before without getting very wet feet, you strap on your bogshoes (like tennis racquets as footwear and similar to snowshoes) and set off for a walk through pristine bogs. It takes a while to master them (treading on yourself is easy given their width) but it’s worth persevering to become acquainted with these landscapes. You'll learn about their creation, the wildlife and environmental benefits (like their tree neighbours, bogs trap greenhouse gases in the shape of methane) and enjoy an activity that people have been doing for around 6000 years. Plus, not sinking into but gliding over water up to a metre deep is cool. There are places to bogshoe across the country (bogs make up some 5% of Latvia) but only one company, Purvu Bridēji, offering the bogshoe experience.
Take part in a Latvian bath house ritual
There's no better way to round off a day exploring Gauja than in a traditional Latvian sauna. Strip down to your birthday suit (you can don swimwear if you prefer), put a snazzy woollen hat on (to keep the heat in) and step into the sauna. Once the sweat flows it’s time for a close encounter with some leaves as you’re (gently) brushed and beaten with oak, eucalyptus, birch or some variety of tree taken from the forest and dried. Take breaks, have a beer, repeat three times then step into the cold plunge pool (slowly, so as not to shock your body) or, if nature has obliged, run outside and make snow angels gazing at the stars. Bath houses are usually part of a Latvian rural home so to enjoy the experience in a traditional setting find somewhere out in the countryside: Lantus Guest House, north of Gauja National Park, is a fine example – beautiful wooden buildings in a lakeside setting with a bath house on site.