Latvia: A Fleeting Glimpse of a Baltic Parkland pt.2

by Dr. Denise R. Ames

As can happen on cruises, the weather often does not permit docking at scheduled ports. Unfortunately, this was the case with docking in Riga, Latvia. The port was just a distant speck viewed through the gray skies, churning sea, and mist as we sailed by. But, Latvia was one of my lectures on the cruise, and I did lots of research for the program. Thus, I would like to share with you what I found out about this captivating country, even though I did not personally experience setting foot there.

Small farms—a departure from large-scale, Soviet style, collectivized farms—are still important to the national economy of Latvia and includes 29% of the total land area. Approximately 200 small farms are engaged in what they label “ecologically pure farming,” what we say in the U.S. as organic agriculture, which means using no artificial fertilizers or pesticides. 

Train built in Riga during the Soviet era

Latvia had a well-developed infrastructure and educated specialists before becoming part of the Soviet Union. After Latvia was annexed to the Soviet Union in 1940, Moscow decided to base some of its most advanced manufacturing there. During Soviet rule, Latvia manufactured trains, ships, minibuses, mopeds, telephones, radios, electrical and diesel engines, textiles, furniture, clothing, bags and luggage, shoes, musical instruments, home appliances, watches, tools, aviation, agricultural equipment and a long list of other goods. It even had its own film industry and musical records factory (LPs).  

GDP Growth 1996-2006

The newly built factories, however, did not have enough skilled people to operate them. Thus, an influx of laborers, administrators, military personnel, skilled workers and their families migrated from the Soviet Union to fill the jobs in Latvia. This migration decreased the proportion of ethnic Latvians in the republic. By 1959, about 400,000 people arrived from other Soviet republics and the ethnic Latvian population had fallen to 62%. The use of the native Latvian language was restricted and Russian was favored as the main language.

Old Town Riga

Latvia has continued its high economic performance since independence. Privatization from Soviet collective ownership is almost complete. Virtually all of the previously state-owned companies have been privatized, leaving only a small number of large state companies. It joined the World Trade Organization in 1999 and the European Union in 2004. In 2014, the Euro became the country’s currency.

Art Nouveau building

The Latvian economy grew by 5.6% in 2012 reaching the highest rate of growth in Europe. However, unemployment remains high. Also, troubling is the labor productivity level in Latvia, which is one of the lowest in the EU.

Riga, the largest city in the Baltic region, boasts of an impressive Old Town that has been designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. Drawing hordes of Western Europeans visitors around the year, Riga reveals in its cultural treasures for all to see.

Riga’s Christmas Tree

Riga’s Old Town has a stunning array of historic buildings, oversized churches and cobbled lanes. Best of all are the many sunny squares filled with beer gardens and street cafes, which in summer throng with the cosmopolitan clatter of locals and tourists. In winter Old Rīga does its best impression of a scene from a Christmas card – which is fitting for the place where the very first Christmas tree was erected.

For fans of Art nouveau architecture and design, there’s simply no better destination than Rīga. The city’s architects were enamored with this trend when it swept Europe around the beginning of the 20th century and, despite wartime damage, over 750 art nouveau buildings remain.

Gaze up as you wander the streets and you’ll see a great many facades decorated with the swirling nature motives, bare-breasted goddesses and mythological creatures typical of the style. If you want to delve deeper, visit the period apartment which serves as the Rīga Art Nouveau Museum. For art nouveau furniture and fabrics, head to the Museum of Decorative Arts & Design.

Much of the old town was either destroyed by fire or ransacked by the Germans in World War II and remained in ruins until it was rebuilt in the late 1990s, mainly to make Riga attractive as a tourist destination. Since independence, public and private investment have funded ambitious new projects. 

I would like to wrap up this blog by showing some of the natural beauty of Latvia in their impressive National Park system. They have five national breath-taking parks.

Guija National Park

Devonian sandstone cliffs in Gauja National Park, Latvia’s largest and oldest national park

Venta Rapid in Kuldīga 

It is the widest waterfall in Europe and a natural monument of Latvia

Ķemeri National Park

It is home to mires, natural mineral-springs, muds and lakes that are former lagoons of the Littorina Sea

Slītere National Park at Cape Kolka

It includes several Livonian fishing villages off the 
Livonian Coast, Cape Kolka is the northern tip of Latvia in the Gulf of Riga. 

Rāzna National Park 

This national park was created to protect Lake Rāzna, the second largest 
lake in Latvia, and the surround-ing areas. 

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