On the beach in Jurmala, the historic resort town a few minutes by train from central Riga, a visitor will typically find, on any given afternoon from May to October, strolling groups of women – wearing high heels, skin-tight dresses and clutching expensive handbags, their hair frozen in intricate curls and sparkling whorls and their faces deep in layers of makeup – and, behind them, their respective husbands – clad in natty suits, dapper ties, and shiny dress shoes, their hands crossed solemnly behind their backs – slowly strutting up and down the sand, deep in conversation and seemingly oblivious to the children screaming in the crashing surf to their left and the groups of half-naked volleyball players and sunbathers to their right.
Back in Old Riga, an observer can watch as the neighborhood's winding, cobblestone streets – hardly impassable even for the most inebriated nighttime reveler – regularly fill up with roving bands of tourists out for an afternoon tour, dressed in multiple layers of very professional-looking hiking gear: wide-brimmed hats, polarized goggles, polar-fleece jackets, detachable waterproof pants, thick wool socks, rugged alpine boots, mountaineering backpacks, walking sticks and insulted water packs with attached sipping tubes.
In other words, there are various ways to dress for a day outdoors. But whatever your choice may be – practical gear more suitable for a trek up Mount Everest or snazzy attire straight out of a wedding scene on The Sopranos – the Ligatne Nature Trails, in the Gauja National Park, can accommodate a range of sartorial and recreational tastes, providing an excellent spot for a day spent enjoying Latvia's greatest asset: untouched natural beauty.
A short, forty-five minute drive from Riga up the scenic Vidzeme Highway (which cuts northeast across the Vidzeme province in Latvia toward Pskov in Russia and is also called the “Pleskavas soseja” or Pskov Highway), the Ligatne Nature Trails are tucked into one of the most scenic parts of the country, the 91.745 hectare Gauja National Park, established in 1973 as the first national park in Latvia. The trails are one of the park's most popular features, and certainly offer the best way to enjoy the sylvan beauty of the rolling hills that flank the Gauja River, which begins at the medieval town of Cesis, snakes up to the Estonian border, and then winds back down to the Baltic Sea.
Meandering through the hillsides in a five-kilometer loop, the nature trails also double as a nature preserve, home to a range of different animals – including bears, wolves, bison, elk, wild boars, foxes, owls, lynx and deer – who live in enormous open-air enclosures, where they are free to roam the forest by day and sleep under the stars at night. A series of newly renovated wooden viewing platforms, railings, bridges, walkways and steps brings the visitor as closely as possible to the animals, at times just a couple of meters away, giving the strikingly real sensation that the species are being encountered in the wild.
Ligatne is a great area for hiking
Hikers can pause and watch the pair of wild boar, trudging behind one another like lovers, stopping to touch noses; or the lone wolf, trotting through his territory in neat, concentric circles; or the sleepy bear, plodding from his den to the nearest feeding trough; or the stately bison, staring into the distance with an all-knowing, pensive gaze, as if he were alone on a wind-swept prairie. There's even an “insect hotel” : an innovative structure made of twigs, clay bricks and rocks, designed by a group of schoolchildren and ostensibly home to a variety of resident bugs and other local creepy crawlers.
More adventurous hikers can stray from the well-marked paths and walkways and trek through the thick underbrush that abuts the trails, where the terrain has been left relatively untouched. Families with children can take frequent breaks at the multiple rest areas, which are equipped with picnic benches and are spaced throughout the length of the trail. And the artistically inclined will enjoy the twenty-meter-high lookout tower on the southwestern corner of the hiking loop, which affords stunning views of the endless kilometers of treetops in the surrounding park- a see of radiant green in the summer; vivid red, orange, and yellow in the fall and snowy white in the winter. But if you're the ultimate weekending "urbanite" and prefer not to leave the comforts of your car for fear of sucking in dizzying doses of oxygen, Ligatne provides an asphalt, scenic route for automobiles, so you can turn up the stereo, munch on take-out burgers and sip on frosty sodas and enjoy the bounty of untouched nature, safari-like, through the protective window of your car.
At the entrance of the trails, hikers will find a large parking lot and a very modern visitor's center, completed in August of 2008, which features bathrooms and infant changing rooms that rival some of those found in Riga's fanciest restaurants, complete with heated floors and enormous mirrors. Nearby, horses are available for rent from a local breeder, who will go with riders on a truly rugged off-road tour of the area on horseback. But all you will really need for as good hike is a craving for fresh air, a wish to enjoy the local flora and fauna, an imaginative interest in the animal kingdom, and a hankering to move your legs a bit – all of which you are sure to feel as soon as you speed away from the city and catch sight of the lush, well-tended forests that line Vidzeme Highway.
Whatever your preferred style of travel – in a chic suit or in hiking gear, swathed in worsted wool or ensconced in lightweight fleece – the Ligatne Nature Trails will match your taste for fashion and for fun. And, by effortlessly merging the features of a park and rugged nature, a nature preserve and untouched wilderness, the trails offer a delightful afternoon of equal-opportunity recreation, no matter what your choice of locomotion – car, horse, cross-country skis, mountain bikes, hiking boots or leather loafers.
The Ligatne Nature Trails are located about 75 km. from Riga, in the village of Ligatne. If you are coming from Riga, take the Vidzame Highway, which is a natural extension of Brivibas iela, the main thoroughfare in central Riga. After you reach the town marked “Augsligatne” (about forty-five minutes from Riga) follow the signs from the highway to the nearby trails. The park is open seven days a week, from nine a.m. to five p.m. (closing one hour earlier on weekdays). The cost of admission in one lats for adults; children enter free of charge. Please note that dogs are strictly prohibited on the nature trails.