‘It’s the first thing they do,” said adventure guide Maris Resnis. “For Latvians, when they’ve got time off, a holiday, whatever… they go to the forest. In the Soviet period, the Cheka [Latvian KGB] didn’t like to come into the countryside, so people thought in the forest they could be a little bit further from them, be together, and maybe talk of freedom.”
Forty miles north of Riga, Sigulda is the gateway town for Gauja National Park. From here, Maris and I planned to walk two sections of the Meztaka forest trail connecting more than 600 miles of hiking routes across Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. Maris and I strapped on our packs and paid cursory notice to the trailhead’s interpretive signage. After all, who needed instructions when golden foliage of dense deciduous forest awaited?
“What about bears?” I asked. Brown Bears featured on the sign. Maris harrumphed. “I’ve been guiding [in] these forests for years, and I’ve never seen them. People ask, 'What do I do if I see bear?' I tell them: get your camera.”
A few yards into the trees, a jay tumbled from the leafy canopy and eyed us speculatively. “We don’t have big mountains, or big lakes. It’s not the Rockies. But forest we have," declared Maris. Almost 54 per cent of Latvia is forested (compared to around 13 per cent for the UK). From Sigulda to Ligatne the trail undulated in a modest Latvian way through deep forest, occasionally intersecting sandstone cliffs and the sandy channels of the 280-mile Gauja river.
As we walked, we discussed Latvians’ relationship with the forest. “It has ancient traditions, older than Christianity, and some are re-discovering these, including my father,” said Maris. He described Dievturiba, an early 20th-century folkloric movement registered as a religion in 1990. “For some it’s just old songs,” said Maris. “For my father it’s deeper: it’s about energy, the connection with the forest. Nothing is created or destroyed, it just changes form. Ninety-nine per cent of Latvians have these beliefs.”
Maris checked his GPS and indicated a left fork. Through thinning trees, the Gauja’s broad flow emerged. Startled, a flight of ducks took noisily to the air. “You know, trees are energy for us,” declared Maris. “But it has to be the right tree. Oak is good for us, linden for women. That pine over there, it sucks energy. Some think it’s crazy hugging trees, but Latvians do it anyway.’
As we arrived on the outskirts of Ligatne, the miles were starting to tell. Spots of rain hastened our stride along unmetalled forest roads to our overnight stop, a former Soviet military helmet factory. Happily, Zeit Café’s kitchen, catalysed by the triumph of capitalism, had evolved considerably. We slept soundly.
Next morning, we were joined by Mara Sproge, a key figure in planning the Meztaka route, which officially opened in September 2020. “Mostly we’ve had positive reaction,” she said. “We consulted with local people, explained the benefits to businesses, avoided angry owners and dogs – and then we hiked the trail ourselves.”
We passed darkened windows and the rambling, red-brick buildings of an abandoned paper mill, once the town’s main employer. Ligatne has reinvented itself. The wooden mill workers’ homes have become guesthouses for hikers (and those visiting the town’s once-secret nuclear bunker, the likely redoubt of Latvia’s politburo had a Cold War apocalypse come to pass).
The trail less travelled
Back in the woods, carved sculptures appeared by the trail. Some were animals others more ambiguous. “They’re part of a mythological trail,” said Mara. “Christianity is not that strong here. The traditional gods of the forest are remembered. If not consciously, people still ask for their help and blessings.”
For a while we followed the Gauja’s longest tributary, the Amata, a turbulent favourite of kayakers. Maris highlighted the river’s dangers. “I take raft trips. The level changes quickly here, by more than two metres. Every year around seven people die.” Instead of risking life and limb we took time to see the landmark of Zvartes Rock before stopping at Karlamuiza, an elegant country hotel surrounded by apple orchards.
Once part of an 18th-century Scottish merchant’s estate, lunch consisted of pumpkin, pork knuckles and apple complemented by dark beer. “We offer an exceptional opportunity to do absolutely nothing,” said owner Baiba Stepina.
For us, doing nothing wasn’t an option. Skirting fields of forage crops overseen by hunting towers, we were soon back in the forest. Sunshine broke through the day’s flat, misty light, and penetrated the larch canopy to illuminate glassy pools below Spogulu Cliffs. Ethereal black-and-white portraits gazed, Ophelia-like, from underneath the water, part of an art installation. “It doesn’t feel like it, but we’re close to Cesis now,” said Maris. As if on cue a single jogger appeared ahead, passing by without acknowledgment. Around the next bend trees gave way to a campsite and the town’s recreation area.
Deep and dark, colourful and light, old and new, Latvia’s forests define a landscape and people. I’d walked 30 miles, a fraction of the total trail and a ratio in direct proportion to my modest understanding of both. However, what had become abundantly clear was that a new generation of Latvians is searching out answers in these woods, from a period before Soviet occupation and Lutheran doctrine.
A hike through Gauja National Park is more than fashionable forest bathing. It’s much closer to a total immersion.
How to do it
Regent Holidays (regent-holidays.co.uk; 020 7666 1244) has a 10-day Baltic Fly-Drive holiday from £1,190 per person, including Gauja National Park. The price is based on two sharing, including return flights, nine nights accommodation in three or four star hotels with breakfast and 10 days car hire. Air Baltic (airbaltic.com, 00 371 67 006 006), WizzAir (wizzair.com, 0905 707 0000) and Ryanair (ryanair.com) offer flights to Riga from London and regional airports, from around £60 return. For more information, see baltictrails.eu and latvia.travel