Our destination for the weekend trip in Latvia is to a much lesser known, off the beaten path area in Latgale – the counties of Balvi, Viļaka and Kārsava. We will be exploring the hiking and nature trails in Viļaka and Kārsava, and spend more time in the city in Balvi. Both of us are locals in Latvia, so this will be a chance to read about a road trip in Latgale from local’s perspective!
We start our trip on a Friday evening around 7pm, and about half way through we are surprised by a huge snowstorm, which is a rarity the past few years. The last 10-15 years the amount of snow has been decreasing steadily every winter, but it seems this year is a pleasant return to childhood, as winter looks just like when I was a little kid! Luckily, the brief white-out and having to drive 40 km/h is over soon and we get to the hotel only about half an hour later than expected. So don’t be discouraged by snow when coming to Latvia – usually there is not too much of it and it rarely snows for a long period of time!
Where to stay in Balvi, Viļaka or Kārsava counties: near Balvi you have Dvīņu mājas. Near Gulbene (which formally is outside of the region of Latgale) is Dīķsalas and the Vecgulbene manor, where we stay, as due to some kind of rally event everything else was fully booked! It is a bit longer drive to the sightseeing spots, but this hotel has a restaurant, spa and you can book room & breakfast.
Where to eat: “Velves” in the basement of the Balvi museum, “Lāča ķepa” in hotel Balvi. If you stay in Vecgulbene manor, they also have a lovely restaurant.
What to wear: winter temperatures in Latvia are usually around -5C. It is rare to get anything colder than that (but could happen – a few days in winter it could drop to -20 at night), and often it might be warmer. I personally think that a little below zero is the best temperature, and there is more chance of sun! It is best to wear layers. I wore a similar outfit as I did when visiting Svalbard, and I have a detailed article describing the layers. If you walk fast and a lot, it would even be too hot, so best have something you can take off or open. What I wore to my Latgale road trip thermal merino underwear & socks, two wool sweaters, winter pants and a jacket, a hat, a scarf, waterproof winter boots, double gloves and reusable chemical hand warmers.
What else to bring: thermos or a thermo cup is a nice idea, you can ask for hot water at the hotel in the morning. Some snacks too, as off-season most of the places around here are closed and if you don’t want to drive for an hour to eat something, have it with you!
How long to stay for: this itinerary is for two full days and nights – leaving Friday evening from Riga and getting back late Sunday night. If you have more time, include Lubāna wetlands, city of Rēzekne and/or Daugavpils. You could easily spend a week or more here!
Arriving at the Hotel
We arrive to Vecgulbene manor around 11pm, and the hotel parking lot is full, as well as restaurant is still serving meals and we hear laughter. Someone is just coming back from the spa area and the place is very much alive. The manor consists of two master houses, the neo-renaissance White castle, which is not yet renovated, and neo-gothic Red castle. The current look is from the 19.-20th century. The hotel is located in a renovated horse manege.
As we want to be at our first sightseeing spot – Numerne bank – for sunrise, we go to sleep almost right away. The kind receptionist girl gladly offers to serve us breakfast 30 min earlier at 6:30, so we can be on our way. The breakfast is a full proper breakfast – eggs, sausages, bread, yogurt, fruit, porridge, juice, coffee & tea.
Nature Park of Numerne Bank
It takes about an hour to get to the Numerne Bank Nature Park, and since the road to the parking lot is snowed in, we leave the car on the side of the main road. Normally, you should be able to park within 400m of the watchtower, but as the snow is quite deep, it is best to leave the car and walk the remaining 2.5km on foot. Entrance to the park is free.
The park, created in 2004, is a Natura 2000 territory, build to protect the unique biological & geological diversity of the area. There are four lakes, pine forest and a bog. When you climb the 20 m tower, you can see all of that around you, as the tower has been built on a hill and offers much better views than you’d expect! If you came later in the evening, there are two star watching chairs to enjoy dark sky without any light pollution. As we walk around the tower in the forest, we notice how quiet it is at this time of the day, and we only see animal footprints in the snow. Deer, foxes and other animals have been active here!
Once we are done at the tower, we walk a bit to the art installation “Fire”, a monument made of wooden planks in the shape of fire, encouraging to think more about nature and its conservation, and it is one of five in the region. Hiking back and forth and spending quite a lot of time at the top, three hours have passed by quickly and we must head to the next stop!
Stompaki Bog – Partisan Settlements
It takes a while to find the next object, as we had the wrong address in the GPS. If you enter “Stompaku purvi”, which is name of the bog, the navigation will take you to a small road in the middle of the bog.
This road is small and slippery in winter, so unless you are up for a different kind of adventure, best look for “Partizānu mītnes”, which means “Partisan settlements”, and is located in the same bog, but with a different road to access it. You will find it easily when driving from Balvi to Viļaka, a light brown sign on the side of the road. After 1.5km on the forest road, there is a parking lot. From there, continue walking on the main forest road for about 200 m and there is the entrance to the trail, the entrance is free.
This trail commemorates the military resistance groups that lived here in 1945. About 300 people stayed here, and there were 22 bunkers, a hospital, graveyard and a small church, and it was the largest partisan settlement in the Baltic states. Soviet forces had discovered this place and attacked on March 2nd, 1945. While partisans managed to fight the initial attack, they had to flee and luckily, managed to do that without significant loss of life. The people then joined other partisan groups in the region. The hiking trail is good for history (information on the info stand in Latvian, Russian and English) and seeing the views. The boardwalk has been recently renovated, so you can get to the island that used to have the bunkers with dry feet. If you continue walking a bit deeper in the forest, past the flagpole, you can get closer to the bog area, and see what Latvia is famous for – the bog looks especially beautiful at sunrise and sunset!
Soon it is time to get back to Gulbene, and we only stop in Balvi for quick grocery shopping at Maxima store and taking a few pictures of the Lutheran church. We eat dinner at Vecgulbene manor – prices are not too expensive – the most expensive dish was steak for 12 euros, other main courses cost about 8 euros and dessert is 3.50.
The next morning we sleep a bit in, waking up around 7:30 and getting out of the hotel around 8:30, just as the sun is rising. It is a beautiful sunny day, and everything is covered in fresh snow. The sunshine does not last too long, as the clouds at the horizon approach, but at least we get a little bit of sun! It is windy as well, wind blowing snow on the pavement, so we are are driving carefully. We first stop in Balvi to see the catholic church, the oldest building in the city, built over 200 years ago and renovated in 2004 and then proceed to the next sightseeing object.
Stiglava glen is a geological object, a 3-4 m tall sandstone formation originating 375 million years ago, and entrance to it is free. When you leave the car at the parking lot, you have to walk down to the river, from there turn to the right and go down the steps. This is the trail. It is more of a natural trail, so you will not see too many signs or any wooden planks to show you the way, so it is a chance to explore a very natural object. The sandstone is relatively well preserved and there are not too many carvings in it, which is not the case with more well known and closer to the capital city sandstone cliffs.
We walk around for quite a long time, exploring the area, and it is just wind in the trees and animal footprints guiding us on the lesser path of resistance in terms of snow depth. It feels like noone has been here for weeks, and it is a wonderful feeling! After two hours at the park, we are ready to head to our next location – “Balkanu kalnu dabas parks” – Balkani hill nature park. If you are here in winter, then best drive back to the main road from Stiglava glen, and don’t go straight from there as sat-nav might suggest, as the smaller road going directly from Stiglava glen is not maintained in winter.
Balkani Hill Nature Park – Walking and Skiing
This is the most popular tourism object in the area, as nowhere else have we seen this many cars! The parking lot is full of people, some are just getting ready to ski, some are just back! If you don’t have skis, it is not an issue at all! The rental costs 3 euros for adults and 1 eur for children, cash only. You can also get some tea here.
There is a 3.8km trail for skiing in daylight and 1.5km with artificial lightning for evening. Every year there are more trails open, and you can also walk in the beautiful spruce forest (entrance is free). They also have a holiday home on the grounds, so you can stay the night or organize a celebration here, but you should reserve in advance.
Third Time in Balvi
As the sun is getting ready to set and we still have a long drive ahead of us, we head to Balvi, to see the last church of the city – the orthodox one in the very center. The evening is clear and beautiful, and it feels much colder than before. Full moon is illuminating the sky and later we read that it was the wolf supermoon night. After seeing the church we stop by the city park to see the art installation “Air”, from the same concept as the one in Numerne bank. This one is the largest windpipe ensemble in the world!
At this point it gets completely dark and it is time to start the long drive home! Quite a few place we didn’t manage to see due to the lack of time – Kuprava ghost town (nearly abandoned town with many Soviet buildings), Šķilbēni manor, Viļaka lake and church. The days in winter are short, and having spent so much time hiking, the daylight’s gone. But you could easily plan a week long trip in the area, adding the Lubāna marshes to your itinerary, Teirumnīku bog or some of the larger cities – Rēzekne or Daugavpils! Latgale region is considered to be one of the most naturally beautiful areas in the country, and it is much more off the beaten path than elsewhere in Latvia, so definitely come and enjoy this natural wonderland!
We thank Latvian Investment and development agency for support in making this article reality.