It started with a text and soon turned to a full-blown multi app conversation. With a history of division, colonialism and an independence that brought with it influences from the west, we were all fuelling the stoke for an adventure into the unknown. A week later, our newly formed crew from all corners of Blighty, touched down in 2014’s European City of Culture, Riga. Destination: Latvia. Words and Photos by Sam Mellish
We were in Latvia for a 5-day tour of the Baltic nation’s ski resorts. Thanks to our Latvian hosts, organised by the lovely Laila Abena from the tourist office, our schedule was initiated so we could see the very best of the Eastern bloc. Including a night in the cosmopolitan Riga. With us was Nauris Putenis, our very own Latvian- cum-Manc tour guide and sideways slayer – we were in good hands. The ex-soviet state, Latvia is bordered by Estonia to the north, Lithuania to the south, Belarus and Russia to the east and the Baltic Sea to the west, for all but Nauris, this was our first trip to the ex-USSR state. We were ready for anything.
Also onboard was Kev Mills of Warmwell dryslope fame and Sessions rider as well as Harry Winnard, a Snow Centre shredder of the highest order, TSA, Union and Capita rider. Our trip was cemented with a dirty Wetherspoons fry-up at an ungodly hour in Stansted Airport. Our flight was due to touch down in Riga, around mid- morning. Courtesy of the Latvian TO, they provided a pimping van for us to get around. Nauris had arrived a day early, and duly collected us. For the next 24 hours, we were to be hosted at Milzkalns resort in the west country. Having not really slept, Laila had pre-empted our appetite and organised a swerve to the seaside resort of Jūrmala on the Gulf of Riga. Driving past huge wooden houses with ornate carvings with decorative window frames and facades, giving a mid-American feel, we rolled into town wide eyed. Nauris gave us the low down that much of the area was being brought up by Russian oligarchs and rich Latvians. Fair to say, it was lit.
Before hitting the slopes, we made a quick visit to the beach, overlooking the Baltic Sea where we noticed a lady with victorian pram and a man stripped to his pants, ready for a dip. If it hadn’t been -1, I might have been tempted. But logic got the better of me and we opted for food. The TO organised a mother of a meal at the prestigious Restaurant Laivas. With more avocado in one sitting than a Hoxton trendy would eat in a week, we were all pretty stoked to be fed and watered before hitting the slopes. Located on the picturesque banks of the Lielupe, where silhouettes of men could be seen walking on ice, fishing for a daily catch. The restaurant was high class, combining traditional style with an industrial modern edge. Our three course meal consisted of a monstrous avocado salad, home made rye bread, melt in the mount pan seared duck and a sweat desert that contained Latvian delicacies such as fruit, rye bread and chocolate – which goes by the name of Rupjmaizes Kārtojums. On our way out, we got chatting to one the friendly waiters, who mentioned the previous week, temperatures had been as low minus 15, with fresh snow covering the country. Since then, the temperatures had risen and brought rain. Looking out of the south facing floor to ceiling windows, we could see the same men returning from the frozen ice with their daily catch. Anticipating snow at Milzkalns, we made haste.
Back on the road, it became clear how vast Latvia was. With over one third of the population living in Riga, the rest of the 1.9 million is spread out among the relatively flat countryside. We arrived in Milzkalns to slight snow. It was getting late, but Latvians do things by their own clock. The resorts have the unique perspective on opening late and shutting late. Perfect for the late riser, even better for those wanting to lap the hill post 9-5. Generally, the resorts we visited opened around midday, and shut at 10pm, (give or take an hour) relying on flood lit slopes after sundown.
For a 20 something year old, Nauris is wise. Not only is he sick shredder, he also drove us about, introduced us to the locals and generally played non-stop tour guide. An endless source of local knowledge and banter, he grew up in Valmiera, in the historic Vidzeme region, riding the nearby hills until he was a teenager when he moved to Manchester. Having always wanted to work in a snowboard shop, you can find him either at his local dome, Chill Factor, riding with the likes of the Booby Trap crew, or working at Subvert Board Store. Arriving in Milzkalns, not 5 minutes had passed and he was introducing us to Valters and Artūrs, two locals shredders.
Due to rain, Milzkalns was closed when we arrived. The slopes are much smaller in comparison to our European neighbours, even smaller than the resorts you’ll find, due south, in the likes of Bulgaria. And to protect the snow, on shitty weather days, the resort simply closes. It’s much more of a backyard vibe. A few runs on a hill at best. Think 3 or 4 snow domes / dry ski slopes slapped on a hill and stitched together with a few pommers. Its really a micro resort at most. But that doesn’t take away the brilliance of the place. Humble yet proud. Milskalns has a few runs for the novice, two sick kickers, big enough to send it and a sick rail park to raise even a pro’s eyebrow. The rail park actually dominated about 1/3 of the hill, on its own set-back location, overlooking a picturesque lake. Officially closed, Valters opened the lift for us until sundown. Both Valters and Artūrs joined in, demonstrating the parks full potential. Harry and Nauris got stuck on on the down flat with some neat double combos. We were pumped on this resort. And it was only our first day!
We had not slept much in the past 24 hours. Harry made a 6 hour bus journey from the west country, Kev drove to London from Dorset, and I was up at about 2am, so sleep was looming. Yet curiosity got the better of us. After a quick supermarket sweep of chilled beer, flat bread pizza and the biggest apples we’d ever seen, back at Milzkalns hotel, we got stuck into a local game known of Novuss. “The game arrived in the Baltic countries by seaman wanting to play pool whilst at sea” explains Nauris. “Its like billiards, but instead of potting balls, we use counters”. Knocking back cold beers, men of all ages, and sizes, would walk to and from the games room, red faced and wearing nothing but a towel around the waist. Bellies full flung. Saunas are a big deal in Latvia. This was proved as in the adjoining room was full of locals drinking wine, listening to dance music, getting steamed. The height of the evening came when a local drunk guy came bounding in, wanting to ‘fix the pool table’ with what looked like bark stripped from a nearby silver birch. Needless to say, the table was no longer flat.
I woke to the sound of a tractor motoring outside. For a brief second, I thought I was back in Suffolk. The tractor was up early to move the fresh snow, now covering the whole resort. In contrast to the previous day, the rain clouds had turned to snow, and were nowhere to be seen. Milzkalns looks very different in morning sunshine and fresh snow. With the lifts not due to open until midday, and our breakfast scheduled
for 11am, the morning was looking promising. Nauris, the only one who stayed out and drank beer, opted for a lay-in. Leaving Kev, Harry and myself up and about looking for a session. It didn’t take long before we found fence’s to ollie, trees to jump and patches of powder to slash. All this pre-breakfast!
The resort kindly lay-on on breakfast and lunch for us in the resort cafe. Which is at the base of resort and the same location as the hotel. Hungry, Nauris translated and we were soon handed hearty plates of cheese, bacon and pepper omelette. There must have been at least 4 eggs per serving! With Harry not keen on eggs, Kev was straight in there and smashed both his and Winnards barely touched plate. Thats a lot of egg. Washed down with some fine Latvian coffee, we were pumped.
We were due in the next resort later that evening. With a three hour drive ahead of us, we explored Milzkalns all afternoon, blasting about resort, filming runs, a few go-pro laps. With the wind picking up, we ended the day lapping the park, hitting features with some sick gap to lip-slides by Nauris, Harry destroying the wall ride and Kev serving up some solid stale fish’s from the pole jam. Eventually the sun gave up and clouds rolled in. To put it into perspective, Harry likened the resort to Joe Sexton’s local Trollhaugen resort in Minnesota. A small intimate vibe with a sick rail line. I doubt the resort is much higher than 300ft.
Fuelled on a hearty lunch of pork, pasta and local salads, served about 4pm, we set about making our way to Ozolkalns. Our plan was to see if we could hit a few spots en-route. We noticed what looked like an abandoned skatepark, and stopped for closer look. The set up looked sick, although had a half finished / half destroyed feel. We hung around trying to figure out how the mini ramped worked, the best way to ride the smashed up bowl, when we noticed an angry lady with her massive growling dog. A dog so big, the lady had zero control. On the horizon, I noticed a few locals now out of their wooden homes in a ‘dawn of the dead’ visual coming our way. The man who’d previously been raking his lawn, didn’t look so welcoming. Sticking around clearly wasn’t an option.
After one wrong turn and a pit stop to fuel Harry on a Subway, we arrived in Ozolkalns, to the sound of the button lifts twirling. The TO had pulled out the stops here, we were staying in one of six cottages, located near the banks of the Gauja River, and a stones throw from the ski area of Ozolkalns. More importantly, next to the park. Stoked! Ditching our gear, we headed straight out to the local town of Cesis, where Nauris began showing us the sights. The boys were eager to hunt out a street spot. Set on rolling hills, Cesis looked like it could provide the goods. With the day winding away, we pitt-stopped at Maxima, the Latvian supermarket of choice. Picking up local beer and food. After a few hours of crawling the streets, conversations with Nauris’s mates, we came across a gem of a hand rail. Being the first street rail for both Harry and Nauris, the buzz was high for hitting this one. Kev, with years of knowledge gave the boys expert advice from drop in, wedge and landing. This was a rail to surely cement the team. Yet it was far from perfect. The run in involved a pull-in using shovels and brute force. At one point Nauris ran into the tree and smashed a shovel.On his first hit, Harry came a cropper and nailed his arse. But that wasn’t stopping either. Nauris smashed out some killer front boards and front lips, with Harry to follow with a sick backboard. Washed back with local beers, the day was long, but super productive. Think we rolled back to the cottages about 2am.
The next two days we explored Ozolkalns and nearby Zagarkalns resort. Waking to a dusting of snow, Kev was up and preparing to make a feature in front of the cottage. Listening to Rock FM, a band with the familiar sound of Led Zeplin were rocking out, and later announced to be Greta Van Fleet. If you’re a classic rock, or Led Zep fan, these young guns come highly recommended. Kev is a machine, by now shaping a hit so he could tail press the cottage porch. With the Ozolkalns lifts opening at 1pm, we hiked the park jumps and searched about for hits. Like Milzkalns, the resort is small, just a handful of runs, the longest about 500 meters, leading down to the glorious Gauja River surrounded by conifers and silver birch. Plenty to keep us busy for a good few days.
With lunch supplied at the hip Zagarkalns cafe, we made the short drive over the hill to the neighbouring resort. Zagarkalns vibes are slightly different. On first impressions, i’d say the hill is more geared towards families and learners. With an impressive cafe area serving traditional Latvian food from about midday until close (10pm). With a huge rental area, the hill certainly caters for numbers. Set in a bowl, with a few Russian styled apartment blocks set back from the slopes, like the other resorts, Zagarkalns is intimate. A solid line of rails and kickers is serviced by a quick pommer lift, perfect to plan your next line as you ride the lift. With about a dozen runs at most, the main slope has been elevated to give it extra purchase.
Fresh snow fell throughout the day. The boys hit the park, and we boosted about looking for features. One of Nauris’s friends, who introduced himself as 3-steps came along for the ride. But got scared when we ventured into the woods. When the locals don’t follow you into the tree line, you’ve got to ask questions! Getting dark, we filled up on Latvian chicken and prunes. Presumably to help us shit as we’d not seen much veg since arriving, and drove back to Ozolkalns for a much anticipate night shred.
Night snowboarding is fun. Blasting around the hill, we found the old toboggan run. Runs that intertwine between tree lines and fresh pow! The illuminations from night riding are worthy of a mention. The slopes were pretty much empty, allowing Nauris, Kev and Harry to dominate the winding, steeper runs of Ozolkalns. We had a good few hours slashing the pistes, coming up with ideas of things to shoot on, but nothing really came close to the picnic area roof. A feature of mild peril, the boys were all over it. With just 40 minutes of flood lit slopes left, we set up flashes and got ready for a night session. With an audience of the odd skier and a pisteur, the boys smashed out some solid gap to wall rides.
Thursday was our last day of riding. As it happens, the sun was blazing on a blue bird morning. Wanting to check out Nauris’s hood, we packed up our gear and headed into Cesis before the lifts opened. Nauris was at school in Cesis, and showed us his deteriorating school apartment, a soulless building with broken windows, it was a stark reminder of the countries post-soviet past. Reminiscing on days past, he told us “In winter, my apartment was so cold, temperatures were down to minus 15 – it was brutal”. Nauris knew the town well, in fact, he used to shred, and instruct, these local hills as a young nipper. Cesis is best known for its medieval castle, one of the best preserved in Latvia so i’m told. With its foundations laid 800 years ago by the Livonian Brothers of the Sword, i’m sure the dandy bro’s would have been stoked for us to shoot at the ancient grounds. Set against rich blue skies
and brilliant sunlight, we found line after line to hit and transitions to ride. Kev scaled the castle walls to acid drop. Nauris’s skate influenced cap to flat was killer. And Harry styled it out with some solid stair drops – all before lunch! We decided against hitting the Russian church in fear of having our knee caps blown off.
After a tourist loop around Cesis, led by our boy Nauris, we were all pretty keen for food, and washing it down with an afternoon of park laps in Zagarkalns. Just to give you some perspective on food costs. We were given a budget of €12 at the cafe, and a plate piled high with pork stew, mash potato and fries, coffee and a desert barely came to €6. We didn’t go hungry. The afternoon gave way to dusk and with it a postcard sunset over resort. As night creeped in, we hit the road for Riga, saying farewell to 3-steps and the resort.
Arriving in Riga, the TO laid on an epic hotel for our final night. Staying at the Radi un Draugi, translating to family and friends, the 4-star hotel is situated in the architecturally historic old town. The plan was to spend our final day hunting out street spots in the capital. With limited snow, this idea soon got canned. Instead, we spent the best part of 24 hours playing tourist in a small, yet buzzing capital. Its funny how the different personalities come out on these tours. Once checked in and sitting over a deep pan pizza, (not had one of these in a while) the chat began. Harry was stoked on his room, enthusiastically describing “The rooms are massive, mines got a balcony, a huge double bed and a desk big enough that I might even study some some law”. Studying Law at Exeter university, Harry is one bright spark. Nauris was getting in touch with his mates, keen on a drinking session. While Kev was buzzing over his pizza, knocking back a couple of local brews. The stoke was high.
That evening we hit up a small bar, about twenty minutes walk from the centre. It was good to walk through town at night, checking out the tourist sights without crowds. Nauris guided us to a bar called Local House. With a low key skate vibe, the bar is set in a large shed in a car park. Perfect for late night parties and general misbehaviour. We meet some local shredders, one guy who was once Latvian favourite on the World-Cup circuit. A blown ligament had put him out for the season, but as his coach added ‘You’ll be back smashing it next year – we’re just sitting this one out” Injuries are never easy. We played table football for a good hour and drank Riga’s fine beer with the locals. Muso’s, students, skaters and night crawlers all came and went. A perfect spot to get on the booze vibe.
Our tour host, Laila from the Latvian TO, meet us over a lengthy breakfast, and filled us in with all local tourist spots the following morning. Without snowboard options, we bounced about town, including the National Library of Latvia. In 2017, with the help of pro skater, Madars Apse and sponsors Red Bull, DC, the library was renovated so it could be legally skateable. Check out Madars instagram for the craziest six-kinked double hand rail outside the building. Again, Nauris was a constant source of information as we ambled about town. Burger joints, pool clubs – the man knew it all. We even drove out of town to a place Nauris used to go to with his family, and dare I say, ended up Ice Skating. But all good things must come to an end, and our 5 day trip was drawing to a close.
It’s far to say Latvia has infantry moved on from its ex-soviet days, and is now brimming with eastern promise. The locals were super friendly. Where ever we went, (ok, apart from that dodgy skatepark) we were made to feel welcome. Even
shredding an 800 year castle seemed perfectly ok. If you’re looking for a snowboarding trip with a difference, if you shred domes and ride the best of Britain’s dendix, a trip to Latvia should be on your radar. Pack a bungee for extra ping. The park laps are fun, night sessions are on and it’s great value. The resorts are tiny, but does size matter? My favourite resorts of all time is Sainte Foy deep in the Tarentaise Valley. At the time, when I did a few seasons there, it had just three lifts. So no, what you make it, is what matters.
A massive thank-you to Laila Abena and the Latvian Tourist Office for hosting us during our stay. And to all three resorts, and the Radi un Draugi. It was ace.