Latvia: in the middle of the biggest festival of the year!

Latvia: in the middle of the biggest festival of the year!

Back in Europe! With a child’s wonder we feel the first freezing raindrops on our bare arms. In Southeast Asia the rain was warm, apparently we have forgotten how cold rain can be. We regularly spend some time in our rain suits, but just as often we stand in amazement at the beautifully overcast and mighty dark sky. And if we’re not wearing our rain suits because of the rain, it’s because of the bloodthirsty mosquitoes and stinging flies. But first, an unexpected kick-off: the most important festival of the year in Riga, the Midsummer Festival!

The largest festival of the year in Latvia: Līgo & Jāņi (Midsummer)

We land in Riga, the capital of Latvia. To our horror, the boxes with the bikes are open on arrival, but fortunately it turns out that all the screws that had come loose are still in them…. Between a huge group of Spanish soldiers we put the bikes together and a moment later an Uzbek man comes and asks us with astonishment if we have really been to Uzbekistan with our bikes. For a few minutes we think we are back in the Far East.

But then we really feel that we are back in a cooler climate. The biking is much smoother than we were used to and suddenly we find that we have some energy left at the end of the day. Which is just as well, since the biggest holiday of the year is apparently just around the corner. According to tradition, the shortest night of the year, Midsummer (Līgo & Jāņi), must be spent staying awake until the sun rises.

Another tradition is the making and wearing of wreaths of wild flowers. Men wear hats or wreaths made of oak leaves. A lot of beer is drunk and cheese is eaten. Midsummer cheese is often homemade from milk, curd and lots of caraway. So, an unexpected traditional festival in a beautiful city, fun folk music, lots of happy people and lots of cheese. It is also obvious that Latvians love to sing, they seem to have more than a million folk songs!

The best welcome in Riga: Mario & Luigi during Līgo & Jāņi

In Riga, Laura welcomed us into her home for a few days. Her 2 young sons greeted us incredibly warmly in, to our surprise, fluent English. They invited us to play Mario and hide-and-seek in the garden. And they confidently tell us that this year they will break their record for “staying awake” during the upcoming midsummer night.

Laura is a Couchsurfing ambassador and regularly organizes group activities for couchsurfers who are currently staying in the Riga area. For Midsummer, she manages to get people from Latvia, Turkey, Mexico, India, Uzbekistan, Ukraine, Hungary, Syria and Sweden together in her garden. Everyone prepares a dish from their country of origin. We make pancakes and apple pie. The whole night is spent trying to stay awake, because that would bring prosperity. If you fall asleep, they say, you sleep all summer😅. Audrey doesn’t succeed and gives up around 3:30 a.m. (and still blames the jet lag 😂). Eloy perseveres with a few others! Olé, at least one person is staying awake this summer 🙂

Latvia’s largest national park

Then it’s time to leave Riga and get back on our bikes. After a few kilometers on a busy road, we enter the countryside. We ride through forests, along dirt roads and past an unusual cave to a campsite in the Gauja National Park. Latvia’s largest national park is huge at 917 km2! The wild campsites are managed by the government and are often located along a river, in this case the Gauja. The toilet in the parking lot in front of the park is closed, but Audrey found a faucet in the back of the building where we get water for cooking and washing.

Cooking turns out to be more of a challenge than expected. The stove we use for cooking turns out to be leaking gasoline. Repair is not immediately successful, so after a while we move on to building a campfire for cooking. Finally, at 22:30, we sit down to dinner. Then Audrey says something is staring at us from the dark bushes. When she gets a closer look, it turns out to be some kind of caterpillar that glows in the dark!

Cycling through Latvia

There is a big difference to cycling in Southeast Asia. With a total population of 1.9 million, a third of which live in the capital Riga, Latvia is very sparsely populated outside the cities, and sometimes you can barely see people or houses. And you certainly won’t have cell phone reception everywhere. Latvia is 1.5 times larger than the Netherlands, but has 10 times fewer inhabitants. Half of the country is covered by forest, and even more impressive, the amount of forest has doubled in the last 100 years!

As soon as the first raindrops fall from the sky, we are amazed because it feels like icicles pricking our skin. Apparently, after months of tropical heat, we have forgotten how cold rain can be. We quickly put on our rain gear, but the shower is gone just as quickly. Later in the day we see almost black clouds and hear thunder approaching. With nowhere really safe to hide and only tall trees around us, our heart rate and pace go up a notch.

The history of wooden houses

Today the weather is kind to us. We cycle through several small villages with traditional wooden houses. Some of these houses have been abandoned and returned to nature, while others are still in use. There are thousands of wooden houses all over Latvia, because people have been building with wood for centuries. The large forests and the availability of wood made it an important building material. At the time of the two world wars and due to decay during the Soviet Union, many houses were lost. However, Riga still has the most wooden houses of any European city, about 4,000 in total.

After a beautiful route through a pine forest with a narrow road in between, we came to a small lake in Smiltene. Families from the nearby village come and go to swim there. It’s an idyllic spot with a sandy beach and deck chairs, and although the water is very cold, the children and elderly splash about as if it were nothing! A little later Audrey sees a rainbow and it starts to rain. A beautiful sight and fortunately short lived. When everyone has left around 10 p.m., we set up the tent. We start to get used to the time and the different rhythm. In Asia it was already dark at 5 pm and we should have found a place to sleep by then. But here the sun is still high in the sky at 6 p.m. and it feels like we can ride for a long time. It doesn’t get completely dark until around noon.

Where nothing is as it seems, but everything is how it is 🙂

Latvia… Where people swim in icy lakes when the sky is about to explode. Where you expect to spend a beautiful evening outside, but at the same time the mosquitoes decide to have a bloody party. Where you can’t see a house for miles, but dozens of mailboxes line the roadside as the only sign of civilization. Where blue skies and thunderstorms appear as quickly as they disappear. And where you think there is no road, there is a beautiful road through the pine forest. Where you are surrounded by tall people, and the women are the tallest in the world! Yes, even taller than the Dutch. Where nothing is as it seems, but everything is as it is!

Some route details upon request:

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