January was a great month of discovery for me! Like most people, winter sometimes starts to feel especially drawn-out, dark, and dull after the holidays. The sparkly, magical decorations of Christmas are put away. We head (sometimes grudgingly) back to work and school. Although the days start to get longer, it also feels like the increase of sunlight is pretty incremental.
To fight all of that, this past month I wanted to throw myself into the winter activities that I enjoy the most. Growing up in the snowy Midwest and being a proud Minnesotan, winter is equated with getting fresh air when outside cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, sledding, and snow camping. It is a season that I always have loved when I can fight the cabin-fever feeling and take part in those activities that are specifically seasonal. So, this January I was determined to discover for myself what winter activities Latvians enjoy. I found that through the process I not only learned more about the place that I live, but I joyfully invigorated my body and soul with some good outdoor time!
One of the first things that I had on my list of winter activities came from the recommendations of my Latvian peers and colleagues. Over the course of November and December I kept hearing that I must go to the Lido Outdoor Ice Skating Rink in Riga. By the time I got there this month I finally discovered what they were talking about. I was not disappointed!
The ice skating rink is located at the Lido restaurant complex a few miles from our apartment. A popular cafeteria-style eatery in Riga, this particular Lido Restaurant is the biggest of all of the ones in the metro-area. We had a delicious meal inside their big ski-lodge style building before heading out to their outdoor rink to rent skates and get on the ice. After an hour, we had quickly re-discovered how enjoyable ice skating is. Just being out on the ice with friends and loved ones was reminiscent of doing it as a small child. My friends and I commented that remember how to skate is like riding a bike — one you’ve learned how, it is always there.
Another “must-do” from my list was going to a Latvian hockey game! Cited as the most popular sport in the country, Latvia has a large range of types of teams allowing play for all ages. This past month we went to a European non-elite game between Riga’s Dinamo team and the Traktor Chelyabinsk team. I was particularly excited to attend a game because the love of hockey here is so similar to Minnesota. In fact, the most often-told reference point Latvians have when I introduce myself as being from the land of 10,000 lakes is they are familiar with the Minnesota Wild!
As soon as we got into the arena, the excitement was palpable. This love of hockey was so effervescent. We joke that we finally found the place where Latvians go to “let loose.” In fact, walking into the complex felt a little bit like being transported back to the U.S. as everyone was so invested in cheering their team on. How strange is it to be in the stands and hearing all the same “charge!” and “hey, oh, lets go!” chants. To able able to sing the lyrics of “YMCA” by Village People loud and proud — and in English nonetheless! Yet, the fun didn’t stop there as we learned some new cheers in Latvian too. The game itself was a great showdown between teams, although Riga Dinamo lost 1:2 in overtime.
Winter Hike in Engure Ezers National Park
For winter hiking, I was fortunate to have discovered a great group that leads hikes around Latvia and the Baltic region. Movement Spontaneous is an organization I was tipped off to by former Fulbrighters before I even arrived in Latvia but hadn’t had a chance to hike with yet. Luckily, they led a winter sunrise hike in January in Engures Ezers National Park. Located about 2 hours outside of Riga along the Baltic coast, this area is gorgeous and has hiking paths right along the seaside but also through the Latvian forest (meža).
To hike with a larger group was something I loved about Movement Spontaneous as it harkened back to my days of working at a backpacking outfitter, Christikon Lutheran camp, located in Montana. Through the structure of the group, it was so great to be able meet some new Latvians my own age and to explore the countryside with those that also enjoy being outdoors and being active. I found that it also was an advantageous way to learn about more hiking trails and tips for trekking in Latvia since the group serves as a local expert. This was evident through the hike itself as we found ourselves on remote trails that went through an ornithology research area, a farm with horses and cattle, and out to an observation tower on the edge of the frozen Engure lake.
During the hike, I was overwhelmed by the beauty that I’ve increasingly explored during my time here. I especially loved the section of hike that was along the coast, as time by the seaside is something harder to come by back home. The water that day was a slushy mix of water and ice and an ethereal cool-turquoise color. Looking out on the vast, wide waters that day, the sun beautifully reflected on broken chunks of ice and snow, it was unlike what I’ve seen before.
Besides ice skating, attending the hockey game, and hiking, the most recent winter adventure occurred just this past weekend when a group of friends and I went downhill skiing. After a fresh snowfall a week ago, the time was perfect to make a Saturday trip to Cēsis and Žagarkalns ski hill. After taking a bus followed by a taxi, we got from Riga to Cēsis in time for an afternoon in the powder.
We were surprised to find two things when we got to the hill. First, that that the hill didn’t have chairlifts but instead used platter lifts. Second, that compared to what we were used to, getting a lift ticket and renting skis was relatively inexpensive. After brushing up on our “pizza stopping” skills and teaching one member of our group how to ski for the first time, we got out on the runs. It felt so good to spend the day outside exploring the complex and stretching our legs.
Looking back on the month I’ve had, I am so happy that I was able to learn more about Latvia through sport and activity. We traveled both east and west of Riga to access some of the natural spots that are so accessible in this country. We found beauty even in the cold, dark days of winter. We laughed with friends, threw snowballs, drank mulled wine, appreciated good company, and stretched ourselves to be adventurous. And, in these moments it can be said that we found the true warmth that winter days bring.