Just passing through? Then use these guides

I have always been a fan of Lonely Planet’s insightful and at times irreverent style. But their guides to Latvia miss its essence, and not just because they cover several or more countries in one book. (One is the guide to Estonia, Latvia & Lithuania, the other is the condensed guide to Scandinavian & Baltic Europe). Much focus is given to the regional and superpowers that have overrun the Baltics throughout history. That focus extends to monuments to the past, where the guides spend more time on Salaspils and the Nazi attrocities there than on Latvia’s rich achievements.

Indeed, it reminded me of their television series segment on Latvia, where you saw more of Salaspils than Rundale, Cēsis, and Bauska put together—and the final impression was of a country bearing the sins of past tragedies, not a country proud of its cultural riches, its creativity, or its energy. By comparison, the Maritime Museum in Rīga, a veritable treasure trove of maritime trade and life, is merely mentioned as an interesting place to visit.

What struck me next, reading both guides, was how quickly Latvia has been changing. The Baltics-only guide was published in 1997 (an updated second edition was released in July of this year, but is not reviewed here); the condensed Scandinavia and Baltics guide appeared in 1999. The more recent condensed guide had a new and fairly comprehensive list of Web sites focused on Latvia. For the neophyte, that is one of the most valuable resources mentioned in the guide. It also deleted some of the more dated and not particularly accurate observations in the detailed guide, for example, the admonishment to bring one’s own bag to the market, as you otherwise have to buy plastic bags at a lat each and suffer having to carry around the pictures of naked women printed on them. I’ve been visiting Latvia at least yearly since 1991 and have wandered around Rīga taking hundreds of pictures. I’ve seen everything from Hare Krishnas to a woman walking her goat, but no naked ladies on plastic bags.

In other terms of accuracy, particularly in dealing with the fallout of the Soviet occupation, the guides seemed more focused on an outsider’s uninformed optimism than actually delving into the Russian-Latvian relationship.

Indeed, the guides are stricken with an outsider’s shallow perception of Latvia and Latvians, who allegedly are not as reserved as Estonians but not as outgoing as Lithuanians. That observation, and its repetition verbatim several times, fills out page space, but does little to fill out the reader’s understanding of, or appreciation for, the Baltics—either the people or the sights.

The whole attitude is of passing through somewhere to get to another (more interesting) destination, not lingering to savor the experience. The best example is the guides’ suggestion that visitors need not allocate more than two days for Rīga, as that is all you need to see all that’s worthwhile. Even every non-Latvian I’ve talked to who has visited or lived for a while in Rīga will tell you that’s barely enough time to scratch the surface! The how of traveling to Latvia is addressed quite well, but, in the end, we are left wondering why.

(Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on the SVEIKS.com site.)


Estonia, Latvia & Lithuania

John Noble, et al

Melbourne:  Lonely Planet Publications,  1997

Notes: Also reviewed is Glenda Bendure, et al., Scandinavian & Baltic Europe. Melbourne: Lonely Planet Publications, 1999.

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