Līgo 2020: To Estonia and Back

Līgo 2020: To Estonia and Back

When I started writing the last Līgo post, I realized that I would not be able to tell about the entire holiday in just one entry, so this is the prequel to Līgo 2020…

With a five-day vacation in the middle of June, we decided to take a road trip. We knew we wanted to visit Alūksne, but from there we were not sure. I did a search on Airbnb for nearby places to stay, and we found Misso, Estonia where there was an affordable apartment near a lake.

I told my cousin Ginta that we might be driving through Smiltene on the way, and she invited us to meet at Ranka Manor. Suddenly, the trip was taking shape. We planned a quick visit to see Rita’s sister and her father, and we were ready to go!

I rented the trusty VW Golf from EZRent, Arnis dropped the car off on Saturday morning, and we were on our way.


Sigulda Chimes

We took the A2 highway out of Riga into Vidzeme where we started our trip by stopping in Sigulda for lunch at the Cat House (Kaķu Māja). Every time I stop in Sigulda I am impressed by the natural beauty. We ate at the cat-themed restaurant in the center of town after walking through a gorgeous park. Sigulda is a family-focused city, and the evidence is that everyone I saw seemed to have at least 3 kids!

Then we drove to Priekuķi where we met Rita’s sister and nephew. We had a quick pit stop at the shop where she works and then were on the road again.

Rita’s childhood schoolhouse


Rita wanted to visit Ape (pronounced OP-ay… not like the monkey) where she had gone to school as a child. We drove cross country near Rauna and through Smiltene until we came to the small village of Ape. It was graduation day and we saw and heard people in the distance getting their diplomas. Ape’s one cool feature is this lovely little river that flows through it and the Witch Cliff (Raganu Klints) that is carved in the limestone bank of the river. Rita and Max went for a little swim as I relaxed watching the clouds float by. It was a perfect afternoon.


Fancy Estonian Tower (10,000,000 Kroons!)

Then we made our way across the border into Estonia where we found the tiny town of Misso. So far, I have been to three places in Estonia with lakes and all of them are pristine.

One funny thing about the border between Latvia and Estonia is that apparently liquor on our side is cheaper, so we provide “Alcohol Tourism” or “Alcoholism” (as I like to call it) for Estonians. Even on this tiny border where there was no town or village, there was still an alcohol outlet. I thought it was some kind of border patrol station, but nope… just cheap booze!

We met our wonderful hostess at the flat which was in an old Soviet-style block building. Rita hypothesized that this used to be an agrarian community, and when you looked out the window, you could almost imagine a giant Soviet collective farm stretching out in all directions. Now it was a kind of summer getaway with some nice fancy homes on the lake.

Our host said we could walk to the lake two ways… go left then right or right then left. We chose the first option and walked down a road to a dock where we swam in crystal clear, refreshingly warm water. However, after the swim, we realized we were on private property when the owner came out to see what we were doing. She was very nice, but we still felt quite embarrassed.



Rita and I walked around the tiny town and found the public beach next to a torched ruin of an old school. She loved the wild fields of flowers and Hanna loved being free. Max was tired and went back to the flat to relax.

We also went to the other entrance of the lake (right then left) and found this interesting park with a giant swing, big enough for about 4-6 people to stand on along with some rowboats that I really wanted to borrow.

All our good intentions to do more swimming were washed away by time. That was the only trip to the lake we would take. We passed the time that night by playing Estonian Alias. The idea was to pick a word on the card that we didn’t know, then each of us guessed the definition. The closest guess to the real meaning got a point. Rita dominated!

Estonian Brunch

The next morning, we overslept and visited the local shop so we could make our own Estonian-style breakfast. The Estonian dark bread is really delicious as is their cheese. Highly recommend.

Our next stop was Suur Munamägi, the highest point in Estonia and all the Baltics. Latvia’s highest point is Gaisinkalns at 312 meters. Suur Munamägi is 318 meters. You would think that Latvia would pool her resources to add 7 meters to the top of our hill to gain that title. Estonia shows off a bit with their fancy stone tower which even has an elevator. Too cool! It cost them 10 million krooooons!

I loved the winding road up to the tower, but on the way back down, it really slowed us down, and now we had to hurry to try to meet Ginta and her husband Armands at the Ranka manor. We still had to stop in Alūksne!


Alūksne and Rankas Muiža

So, we drove to Alūksne where we visited the giant cemetery. Then we hurried across Vidzeme to meet my cousins at this incredible manor house.

At the Manor

Ranka manor is another one of those sweet surprises that seem to come up frequently when traveling through Latvia. This is a Swedish estate that has been renovated and turned into a private museum and restaurant. Armands and Ginta were patiently waiting for us as we were about an hour late (sorry guys!).

The grounds of the manor were something out of a fairy tale with little walking bridges over a lake, a castle ruin, and trees that seemed to speak of the history that this place has seen.

The highlight of the visit was a walk around the grounds followed by our waitress performing an opera solo in the small church on the property. I have no idea how or why we earned this special treat, but she sang beautifully and we were absolutely thrilled by the recital.

Our final stop was to visit Rita’s biological father in Vecpiebalga, and then a drive through the picturesque countryside of Vidzeme all the way back to  Riga. My favorite thing was not having to worry about driving in the dark because it just never seems to get dark in Latvia in June. This has both is pros and cons as you might imagine!

Oh wait, my favorite thing was the sloppy gas station burger after a long day of driving. It was not gourmet, but it was satisfying! Thank you Circle-K!

All-in-all, it was a wonderful road trip with lots of little adventures on the way.

Enjoy some more photos!

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Side Note: If I had one piece of advice for Latvia, it would be to make your speed limits less frenetic. On one road through Ogre, the speed limit goes from 50-70-50 in about a 100 meter stretch. Why? I don’t know. But without Waze, I would have no idea how fast to go 80% of the time. I know that those speed cameras must be a huge revenue for the state, but come on. Just make it easier to drive!

Side Note 2: This was my second trip to Estonia. The joke is that you know you are in Estonia because the roads are smooth. I definitely noticed it on our way to Misso. The road in Latvia was rough and bumpy, and then once we crossed the border, it was very nice. I wish it were not the case. However, I still think Latvia is a beautiful country with a lot going for it. Let us focus on the positive!

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