To explore Latgale is to step back in time and walk through the cultural history and traditions of Latvia. Not only learning about the different crafts and lifestyles that the region is known for, but also meeting the people who are actively weaving tradition into their daily lives.
Not just pledging to protect the region’s rich heritage, but people who actually walk the talk.
One of the things I found fascinating was the different textile patterns we came across as we combed the region from end to end. Similar to my Yoruba heritage in Nigeria, we have various cultural fabrics and patterns which allow us to easily identify which tribe its wearer is a part of. These Latvian textile patterns worked under the same context as well. From shawls and quilts to full folk skirts which women wear during special occasions, the colors are earthy and the raw patterns are quite rich.
Plus, in preparation for Latvia’s 100-year Centenary Celebrations , Latvians have pledged to each sew their own traditional folk attire from scratch.
During our road trip across this more remote region of Latvia, we made several stops along the way to meet with locals and artisans as well as learn about Latgalian crafts.
Glassblowing in Livani
Our first stop was in the town of Livani – home to the Līvāni Glass Museum which holds an impressive array of glass products and turn-of-the-century glass artifacts. The factory opened in 1887 and while it’s no longer there, we got to watch a local glassblower in action in his workshop as he worked within inches of a smothering kiln and hot flames, melting and molding beauty.
During our visit, we took in a couple permanent and temporary exhibitions including seeing the longest traditional belt in Latvia. It took 13 weavers from Livani district six months to create this 296 feet long belt which was presented to the town in celebration of its 80th year anniversary.
Traditional pottery in Krāslava
In Krāslava was where we met energetic potter Valdis Pauliņš who showed us how to make some of those beautiful Latgalian dark clay pottery we’d been encountering along the way. Pottery-making in the region dates back hundreds of years and the clay from Latgale’s riverbeds is ductile and clean, which means it is naturally free of debris.
From the moment we met Valdis, it was clear that he was passionate about this work. As he took his spot behind the potter’s wheel with his foot mechanically spinning the wheel as if a natural extension of himself, he was making it all look so easy.
Historical farmsteads in Andrupene
If you like open air museums, you might appreciate Andruprene, which is an ancient Latgalian farm dating back to the early 20th century. Complete with long cabins which have no foundations and are balancing on stones, there is also a granary, cattle shed, and blacksmith’s shed.
It’s a place to learn more about the history including traditional craftmanship and to dig into local Latvian specialties like cottage cheese pancakes, pierogis, and herbal teas.
NOTE – I’ll be writing more about the tastes of Latgale in a separate (equally) massive piece.
Preserving religion in Aglona
As a person of faith, our stop in Aglona was a spiritually fulfilling one for me. I could feel the energy in this part of Latgale as we approached the domineering basilica that juts out into the sky. One of the major Roman Catholic churches in Latvia, every year, thousands upon thousands of pilgrims from all over Europe come to this small town to celebrate the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary on August 15.
Within the church is an iconic 17th century painting called “Our Miraculous Lady of Aglona” which is said to perform miracles and have healing powers. There’s also a sacred spring on the property close to Lake Egle which keeps its drinkers youthful as well.
There are certainly many stories of the legend of Our Lady Aglona and here is one of the more popular ones:
Our Lady of Aglona
There are many legends about miracles in Aglona. One of them says that peasant Kristaps Mateisāns from Spīku village was once taking his child to Aglona to be christened. A fierce storm blew up as he was rowing his boat across Lake Cirisu and it rocked violently in the choppy waters. The peasant, struggling to navigate his boat, did not notice that his child had gone overboard. When he realized the tragedy, he cried out to the Lady of Aglona, and miraculously, his child emerged from the water near the shore, rescued by people on the lakeside.
Another memorable stop in Aglona was at Kristus Karaļa Kalns (The Hill of Christ the King) which has to be one of the most unique parks I’ve ever visited. This complex is full of over 50 sculptures depicting Jesus Christ and other celestial bodies and angels, Biblical scenes, Noah’s Ark, and the most picturesque church ever, complete with gardens representing paradise and artificial ponds.
We happened to stop by on a gorgeous summer day where the skies were blue and there were enough clouds to still make for some nice dramatic photos.
I imagine what that park must feel like on a dark thunderous day.
I imagine it’ll be a much-needed reminder of just how small we are in the grand scheme of life.
Traditional rituals at Veselības sala
There’s definitely a first time for everything and for me, it was at Veselības sala which is located along the banks of a lake deep in the woods of Rezekne. It is a guesthouse which offers traditional spa treatments and a 100% immersive raw food experience.
While there, we got to experience a three-hour long traditional Latvian hot sauna massage which involved everything from whacking with bunches of leaves to a honey scrub and scented oil massage given to us by Veronika who runs the place alongside her husband. They are both traditional herbalists who exist solely on raw food.
Not those commercial powerbars you find in supermarkets that tout themselves as “raw food”. These guys are the real deal. They eat only uncooked organic produce.
Our sauna was finished off by a dip in the nearby lake (which I personally skipped) as well as dinner of shredded cabbage and carrots.
I imagine I’d finally lose all the extra weight in just one week at this very small, intimate guesthouse if I’d stayed there longer. It might also be the perfect place to get some serious novel writing done against its tranquil lakeside backdrop.
If I don’t die of hunger first.
Turn-of-the-century elegance in Luznava
Luznava was one of those surprisingly pleasant stops which I’m glad we didn’t skip. Mostly because our tour guide Iveta was absolutely fabulous and such a wonderful ball of energy. And also, because we didn’t know there was a wonderful forest park surrounding the property which we got to explore as well. The heavily-wooded park was the kind where you would assume an elf could pop out of any minute. It had that mystical aura about it.
Built in the 20th century in an Art Nouveau-style, Luznava Manor is now an iconic fixture which holds several exhibitions and doubles as a location for weddings and events. You can also stay in its rooms which are said to be haunted. While there, I really didn’t pick up any negative energy except in one corner of its basement which had an exhibition going on. That corner gave me chills.
I asked Iveta if they’ve experienced anything in this particular section of the manor and they said not really. But again, the place is haunted so maybe “it” travels around.
Over the years, Luznava Manor has gone from being a school and military headquarters to a parish administration and library, and today, it is dedicated to promoting the arts as well.
Modern architecture in Rezekne
Our time passing through Rezekne en route to Ludza was quite brief. But we got to explore its most famous attraction which are 13th century hilltop ruins atop Castle Hill with a wonderful 360-degree panoramic view in every direction.
When I think back to Rezekne, architecture pops into mind. The slopping grass and sod-covered roofs of its visitor center and the Eastern Latvian center of creative services Zeimuļs. The center has one of the largest, greenest roofs in Northern Europe, especially the Baltic States and its towers, which are decorated with Latvian national patterns, were designed to look like pencils. The center is dedicated to activities for children and youth.
It was one of the most visually impressive modern buildings I’d ever seen.
Guardians of culture in Ludza
Ludza, Ludza, Ludza!…
What can I say about this memorable place? I dedicated a whole post to it which you can read here.
But just to summarize – It was in Ludza where I got to meet Līga Kondrāte and her husband, Ēriks Kondrāts, who run Ludza Crafts Center (Ludzas amatnieku centrs). They are actively preserving traditions and crafts such as pottery making, weaving, and sewing traditional folk costumes which date back to the 12-14th centuries.
Alongside a collective of about 100 local artisans whose work gets sold through the store, the place teems with folk costumes as well as handmade products made from flax such as “peternes” (traditional Latgalian shoes) and, baskets. Workshops are also run at the center so you can try your hands in making the wares as well.
Textile weaving at Skreine
One thing that was super striking about Latgale was just how proudly its residents not only displayed their traditional dress and handicrafts but how they lived every day to preserve them.
These are some of the ladies from the Skreine weaving and crafts workshop in Rugāji who showed me a few of their handicrafts as well as the huge loom which they use to weave different types of textiles.
Sheep farming in Rugāji
Talk about following your passions and what you love to do in life!
What would make a computer programmer leave everything behind in Riga to move out into the countryside to raise sheep?
Aivars didn’t have to explain any of this or his reasoning to me as I fully understood what passion meant. I too used to be a computer programmer before leaving everything behind to pursue my passions which include writing and photography.
One of my absolute favourite moments while exploring Latgale was meeting and spending time with computer programmer-turned-sheep farmer Aivars and his wife Mara, a teacher, on their Baķi sheep farm in Rugāji, Latvia.
They also own one of the most beautiful (and bashful) sheep dogs ever as well as dozens upon dozens of about the cutest little rabbits too. So many baby rabbits that I wanted to take one home to my kids as a pet!
It was also at Baki sheep farm where I captured my favourite photo in Latgale. It was of Mara feeding her goats and the pure joy that emanated from her when one of her goats got on its hind legs and rested on her shoulder.
It’s those spontaneous moments I live for as a photographer. And the more you travel and experience culture and lifestyles on a much deeper level, the more you can anticipate special moments.
Even though you can never pinpoint the exact time when magic will happen.
Interactive history in Balvi
Our stop at Balvi Regional Museum was a curious one, mostly because it exceeded our expectations in terms of what we thought we’d find there. We were expecting a small modest museum but were met with a full scale interactive experience that took us through the history of North Latgale, including the different crafts of the region.
From traditional music, folklore, customs, to chants, textiles, and crafts, there are video projections, innovative touchscreen displays, and audio experiences that could rival some of the world’s top museums.
If you ever find yourself in this remote region of Latvia, definitely check out the museum in Balvi.
Forestry heritage in Mezabeles
In what was, without a doubt, the hardest place to find during our road trip, looking for Mezabeles took us deep into the forest into parts of Latvia we never thought we’d explore in this lifetime.
Beyond getting lost down narrow paths with leaves brushing both sides of our car, we just weren’t sure where on earth we were going until we saw two wooden barn-like structures in the distance with smoke coming from a fire and immediately assumed it had to be our destination.
And we were right.
Because when we pulled up, we were met by the vivacious Aldis Puspurs who would be our guide through this living open air museum and cottage home of forest rangers, dedicated to the forestry heritage of the region. Aldis’ neighbor also came by to help us translate his words into English for us.
The name Mezabeles itself means “Forest Apple Tree” and it was more than fitting that we would find it deep in the woods, preserved in its original 20th century state, almost untouched. It was filled with memorabilia and traditional linens as well as a black sauna. Guests can actually spend the night out here in its preserved rooms, including sleeping in arguably the oldest wooden bed I’ve ever seen.
Also, remember the name Mezabeles as I’ll be talking more about it in my food post dedicated solely to the culinary tastes of Latgale.
Photo gallery from Latvia
You can view more photos in my Latvia image bank below.
I explored the Latgale region of Latvia as part of the #LatviaRoadtrip campaign in collaboration with Latvia Tourism and NordicTB Collective. As always, all thoughts, opinions, and travel content I share on here are my very own.