There are so many beautiful places to visit in Latvia – the country is so much more than just the capital city, with many hidden gems and off the beaten path locations to enjoy! For our “let’s explore our own country” trip this time, we picked Kurzeme, so hopefully you will find this guide by a local useful and inspiring to spend more days in Latvia and venture for some nature walks outside of Riga!
This weekend road trip itinerary is suitable even if you like to spend a lot of time in one location, so take time to enjoy!
The plan for this road trip was to visit the following places:
- Dunika bog path and Lukne hornbeam forest
- Pape nature park with wild horses, birds and beautiful lighthouse
- Puseni dune in Bernati nature park
- Embute nature park with the historic valley
Nearly all of these are close to Liepaja with the exception of Embute nature park which we visited on the way back home in Riga. If you are visiting in spring, you may want to include Kuldiga in your itinerary as the fish are jumping over the widest waterfall in Europe to go up the river for spawning!
The costs and the length of the trip:
Entrance to all of these parks is free with the exception of a few trails to Pape nature park where you need a guide (should be arranged in advance, find out more about the trails here), This is done for safety reasons so people would not pick orchids or disturb the animals, but other trails can be visited for free and unguided.
In these two (and a half) days we drove about 700 km. Some roads are dirt roads but you do not need a 4×4, a regular car is fine, we drive a sedan.
Where to stay in Kurzeme:
We stayed in Chill Inn in Bernati, a beautiful charming guesthouse, at the time of our stay the prices in spring (off-season) where around 35-50 euro per room with breakfast, parking included.
Where to eat in Kurzeme near Liepaja:
Initially we thought we might need to go to Liepaja for meals, but we heard about this amazing cafe “Bernatu Dzintarins” in Bernati, and it did not disappoint! During the day we lived on gas station Circle K snacks, in the evening we went to the cafe and it was really good! Note that they only accept reservation for one table per night for big groups, it does get crowded and you might need to wait a bit to get a table. But the service is fast and the food is good, so it is worth to wait!
The Drive to Kurzeme
We start the drive from Riga at around 7 in the evening and when we are near Liepaja I notice how clear the sky looks – I feel like I can see every single star! Soon we are at Chill Inn and for a while there we get concerned if maybe we are too late – as the place seems dark, only a few decorations illuminated in the buildings. It is a storm outside, so all we hear is wind and crashing of waves. But soon the guard comes to pick us up and shows us the room. We go to sleep right away, as we want to wake up for the sunrise.
Dunika Bog Path at Sunrise and Lukne Hornbeams
The morning comes quicker than we would have liked to, and it is time to wake up and go. We don’t have time for breakfast and head out, as the weather forecast for this weekend is not great and the only chance of sunshine is this morning. The closer we get to Dunika bog, the more grey it seems. It just feels like one of those days to sit at the fireplace and drink hot tea! But we have wanted to visit this place for years, and now is our chance!
Dunika nature reserve was created in 1977 to protect the hornbeam forest, and only later the bog area was added to it. Nowadays it is an important territory for birds, it is included in the NATURA 2000 and EU protected areas list. The bog is 7000 years old, and most of it is the raised bog, which is like an enormous sponge that absorbs the rain water. Why is it important to have bogs? The bog works as water filter and it also prevents flooding. Interestingly, the bog has 7 m of turf and it takes a really long time to regenerate – only 1 mm a year! Due to the location of this bog, it can hardly be called very popular, but it has the longest bog trail in Latvia and one of the longest in Europe. It is not circular, so you either have to walk 4.5 km there and then back, or arrange for a pick up at the other end of the trail.
As the sunrise is approaching, we see the sun in a “window” of clouds for whole three minutes before it disappears. Small pine trees surround us and a straight pathway as far as we can see. We feel a bit sleepy and it is all grey, but we don’t despair just yet and continue to listen to the birds – geese and swans – flying over our heads. During the night, thousands of birds stay here, mostly geese, on their way North! We also see a hiding place for an ornithologist or a photographer near one of the larger lakes, someone must have spent the night here! There are not too many bog lakes here, but judging by how few trees grow around us, it must be very wet and one should definitely stay only on the pathway! Local stories say a tank once drowned here, but noone has been able to find it. The only archaeological discovery from here is of 1936 when 9th century jewelry was found, the best preserved object from that period.
Soon we start noticing a little bit of “structure” in the sky – and some rays of sun over the nearby forest. A few moments later the totally grey bog transforms into warm shade of yellow and brown – such a change! We are glad we haven’t given up! We do not go til the end of the trail, as the weather is good and we want to use the opportunity to see the hornbeam forest in good light, so we head there. It is the northwesternmost hornbeam forest in Northern Europe and the only of such kind in Latvia. Some trees are over 200 years old and 2m in circumference. The forest is 11ha large. In the 18th century hornbeams were more common in Latvia – the wood was used for shipbuilding and various mechanisms.
Driving on the small forest roads to the other end we don’t see many people. Soon we are near the hornbeams – a beautiful fairytale green, as they are covered in moss. Two orange squirrels disappear behind a log. It is sunny, feels much warmer and we can’t stop feeling joyful for being here. So we park the car at the parking lot and head out on the trail to the other side. The smell of forest – pine trees, moss and earth. It is a beautiful walk on a beautiful day!
Pape Nature Trail – Wild Horses, Birds and Lighthouse
The moment of sunshine does not last, and the rest of the day is all grey. But at the Pape nature park it does not bother us, as we see the wild horses and auroxen near the fence. We have heard that sometimes visitors complain they arrive here and don’t see the animals, if you would like to see them, you should book a guided tour and then you will definitely see the herd, irrespective of where they are on that day. Spring may not be the best season to appreciate what these grass eaters are accomplishing, but actually the impact on the environment is unbelievable – back in 1999 when the first herd was brought here, there were no orchids in the area. Now every season new ones are discovered here, as the plants return to the meadows. June and July are the best month for seeing the orchids, and you can only see those with a guide, as orchids are protected species.
Spring is excellent season for birding in the area. We are no professionals so we don’t see to many (although we hear them all the time). We climb up the watchtower and all we see are red blooms of alder. When we are ready to leave, we finally see some cranes, dancing in the yellow reed filled field. Pape nature park can be considered a corridor of sorts for birds – you can nearly all of the species of birds from Latvia and often see previously unseen ones, and there is a ornithology station for bird research. Why are the so many birds? The lake and the meadow at the sea is a place for birds and bats to rest and eat. During the one night in migration period you can come across 800-1000 bats from the 16 species that fly through this area!
Finally we stop at the Pape Lighthouse. Last night was very stormy so we hope to see something washed up at the beach, but it seems the opposite – everything that was on the beach seems to have washed in. The water is nearly boiling with power of the waves at the lighthouse and the wind is very strong, one can barely hold a conversation, truly rough beauty in this place! Despite the weather we are not the only people at the beach – we meet a family of Lithuanians collecting trash on the beach. They own a cottage nearby and want to make sure the beach is clean – so that everyone can enjoy. Driving through Pape we feel at times as we are in Lithuania, as all the signs and names of the guest houses are in Lithuanian. It is quite far to Riga from here, but nearby Klaipeda!
We walk at the lighthouse for about an hour, listening to the waves, jumping between the tiny stones and seeing how rivers of sand flow between the windbreaker stones, covering our foot marks completely. This is a place to enjoy solitude.
It will be getting dark soon and we are feeling really hungry. Someone recommends us to visit a nice little cafe “Bernatu dzintarins” and we are glad we do! Seems all of life of the town is right here! When we arrive, all tables are taken except a tiny one, where there is enough space for coffee cup and cake tray. But soon another table becomes free and we move. Good that we do, as doors just keep on opening and new people keep pouring in! Someone comes to enjoy the modern variation of the salted herring baked on paper, someone for some ribs, and another one to eat the famous Pavlova (which we had to take to go, as there is just not enough space in our bellies!).
Sunday Morning Rituals and Visiting Pusenu Dune
Sunday we finally begin as one should on a proper weekend – with a beautiful Latvian-style breakfast. Cottage cheese, fresh bread, some pumpkin pancakes, sausages, eggs and so much more that we can barely eat a third of everything! There is just the two of us staying here at this off-season time, and we get so much food! The owner of the guesthouse is surprised we have visited Dunika bog “most people have not heard about it, how did you know to go there?” But we feel like we have always known about this place and wanted to visit it!
Sunday morning weather, unfortunately, looks exactly the same as previous afternoon – it rains and rains and it is very grey. But while we are getting ready to head out to our first destination of the day, the sky clears up and soon the day starts looking better! We do a quick walk in the guesthouse garden, first flowers peeking through and listen to birds. If you close your eyes, it really is even more spring like!
We first head to Pusenu Dune in Bernati nature park. We are first to arrive, but soon not the only ones. During the next fifteen minutes, seven more cars arrive some have Latvian licence plates, some have Lithuanian (who are again picking up trash around and making sure it is clean for everyone).
Quick walk through the forest, climb up the pathway and we are there. Several hundreds of years ago, due to a forest fire exposing the sand, the dune moved – and buried around 80 houses. Now it is again fully covered in trees and grass, after the excavation works have finished in the Soviet times to obtain sand. It feels very green for this early spring, and at times almost like a painting!
Ancient Curonian Valley at Embute Nature Park
On our way to the next nature path we pass the smallest city in Latvia – Durbe. There is a beautiful alley of trees near the highway and we stop. Curious eyes look at us from the passing cars, but we enjoy walking around a bit and seeing the old trunks. There are also 14th century castle ruins nearby, but we have seen those before so we decide to use the daylight for the nature trail.
We turn right from the main highway in the direction of the Lithuanian border and reach Embute valley, which also has the highest hill in the area (hills are not much of hills here – everything above 50 m in Latvia is basically considered a mountain!). There are church ruins at the entrance to the park (built in 1684, bombed during WWII), medieval castle (built 1285 and burnt down in 1918) and wooden swords and shields, as a monument to the ancient Curonian heritage. It is thought that there used to be a sacred Curonian site before Christianity, and a Curonian castle. Embute was mentioned in old texts in 1243 and it’s meaning is “The pot of the mother”. But in even more ancient history, Embute area was the first place where the glaciers receded. This place is about 100 m above the sea level and there are many hills, glens and streams.
We are surprised by the scale of this park – numerous picnic tables, restrooms and barbecue pits. Yet not a soul in sight. First we go over the bridge and up the hill. The ground is full of oak leaves and a few maple leaves. This must be an incredible place to visit in autumn! And summer too, as the signs on the pathway indicate a great plant diversity. For example, Embute nature park has the largest population of tritons in Europe!
Soon it is time to finally head home – we have only covered a small area of Kurzeme during these two days. So many more places yet to explore that we haven’t had a chance to yet! Pathways, trails, bogs and untouched nature – an area of beautiful, unspoiled Latvian nature!
We thank Latvian Investment and Development Agency Tourism Department for support in making this article reality.