It started with a text and soon turned to a full-blown, multi-app conversation. The destination? Latvia, the former Soviet and now proudly European state that is bordered by Estonia to the north, Lithuania to the south, Belarus and Russia to the east and the Baltic Sea to the west. With a history of division, colonialism and an independence that brought influences from the west, we were all fuelling the stoke for an adventure into the unknown.
The trip was a 5-day tour of the nation’s ski resorts and with us was Nauris Putenis, our very own Latvian-cum-Mancunian tour guide and sideways slayer. 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 and TSA rider. We were ready for anything.
We touched down mid morning in Riga and picked up our hire van. First stop was at Milzkalns ski resort in the west of the country and having not really slept, the wonderful Laila from Visit Latvia had pre-empted our hunger and organised a swerve to the seaside resort of Jūrmala on the Gulf of Riga en route. 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. Fair to say, it was lit.
We made a quick visit to the beach where we noticed a lady with Victorian pram and a man stripped to his pants, ready for a dip. If it hadn’t been -1C, I might have been tempted, but logic got the better of me and we opted for a mother of a meal at the prestigious Restaurant Laivas. Located on the picturesque banks of the Lielupe, where silhouettes of fishermen could be seen walking on the ice, the restaurant was high class, combining traditional style with an industrial modern edge. The food and service were awesome. Our three-course meal consisted of a monstrous avocado salad, home made rye bread, melt in the mouth pan-seared duck and a sweet Latvian dessert called Rupjmaizes Kārtojums that contained fruit, rye bread and more. On our way out, we got chatting to one the friendly waiters, who mentioned the previous week; temperatures had been as low -15C with fresh snow covering the country. 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 and anticipating snow at Milzkalns, we made haste.
It was getting late and snowing when we arrived, but the hill was still open. Latvian resorts do things their own way, opening around midday and shutting around 10pm, relying on flood lit slopes after sundown, making them perfect for the late riser and even better for those wanting to lap the hill after the 9-5 grind. Latvian slopes are much smaller in comparison to our European neighbours, smaller even than the resorts you’ll find in the likes of Bulgaria, but big for anyone used to a diet of dryslopes and domes. It’s much more of a backyard vibe here – think three or four snow domes / dry ski slopes slapped on a hill and stitched together with a few drag lifts, but that doesn’t take away the brilliance of the place. Humble yet proud, Milzkalns 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 setback location, overlooking a picturesque lake.
For a 20 something year old, Nauris is wise. Not only is he a 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 Factore, riding with the likes of the Booby Trap crew, or working at Subvert Board Store. No more than five minutes after we arrived in Milzkalns, Nauris had introduced us to his friends Valters and Artūrs who both rode with us, demonstrating the park’s full potential. Harry and Nauris got stuck in on the down flat with some neat double combos. We were pumped on this resort and it was only our first day!
Following the early start, travel and shredding, sleep was looming but after a quick supermarket sweep of chilled beer, flat bread pizza and the biggest apples we’d ever seen, we got stuck into a local game known of Novuss back at Milzkalns hotel. “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 big counters”. Knocking back cold beers, men of all ages, and sizes, would walk between the games room and the sauna, red faced and wearing nothing but a towel around the waist, bellies full flung. Saunas are a big deal in Latvia. 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. Bed time.
Waking up the following morning and the previous day’s rain clouds had turned to snow overnight and Milzkalns looked very different in morning sunshine and fresh snow. The lifts weren’t due to open until midday and our breakfast wasn’t scheduled until 11am, but 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! We were soon handed hearty plates of cheese, bacon and pepper omelette. There must have been at least four eggs per serving and, washed down with fine Latvian coffee, we were pumped.
We explored Milzkalns all afternoon, blasting about resort, filming runs and GoPro laps. With the wind picking up, we ended the day hitting features with some sick gap to lip-slides by Nauris, Harry destroying the wall ride and Kev serving up some solid stalefish’s from the pole jam. Eventually the sun gave up and clouds rolled in.
Fuelled on a hearty lunch of pork, pasta and local salads, served about 4pm, we set about making our way to Ozolkalns, about three hours away. We had planned to try and hit some street spots during the trip and 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 and 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.
We arrived in Ozolkalns to the sound of the button lifts twirling. We were staying in one of six cottages, located near the banks of the Gauja River and a stone’s throw from the ski area – and more importantly, right 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 pit-stopped at Maxima, the Latvian supermarket of choice, to pick up local beer and food. After a few hours of crawling the streets and 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.
We were set to explore Ozolkalns and nearby Zagarkalns resorts over the next two days: very close in proximity, but very different spots. 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.
We were due to have lunch at the Zagarkalns cafe, so made the short drive over the hill to the neighbouring resort. Zagarkalns has a huge rental area, and is set in a bowl, with a few Russian styled apartment blocks set back from the slope. The resort is more geared towards families and learners, with an impressive cafe area serving traditional Latvian food from about midday until close (10pm). A solid line of rails and kickers is serviced by a quick Poma 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 then drove back to Ozolkalns for a much anticipate night shred.
Night snowboarding is fun. Blasting around the hill, we found the old toboggan run that intertwines between tree lines and fresh pow! 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 and the sun was blazing on a bluebird 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 -15C - 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 brilliantly monikered 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 cab 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 retribution.
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 prices, a plate piled high with pork stew, mash potato and fries, coffee and a dessert 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 crept in, we hit the road for Riga, saying farewell to 3-steps and the resort.
Arriving in Riga, the Tourist Office had 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 and we spent the best part of 24 hours playing tourist in a small, yet buzzing capital. 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 and 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 but a blown ligament had put him out for the season. 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 Tourist Office, met us over a lengthy breakfast the following morning and filled us in with all the local tourist spots. 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 five-day trip was drawing to a close.
It’s fair to say Latvia has moved on from its ex-Soviet days, and is now brimming with Eastern European promise. The hills are fun, the costs are low and the locals are super friendly, so if you’re looking for a snowboarding trip with a difference, if you shred domes or ride the best of Britain’s dryslopes, then a trip to Latvia should be on your radar for a unique experience. 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 resort 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.
Description: Built on family traditions, Milzkalns is situated in the Engure
Municipality and is the largest and highest resort in Latvia with 1.6km of pistes.
The self-contained resort has plenty to offer, such as a hotel, cafe, sauna, kids facilities, rental equipment & servicing and instructors are on hand if needed. A dedicated crew of shapers maintains the two parks and the boys can shred.
Number of lifts: 3
Terrain Breakdown: 100% easy / 0% intermediate / 0% hard (There are
however some technical lines to ride in the park, and one good sized kicker)
Number of parks: 2
Opening Times: 9:00 - 23:00 (check online for daily updates)
Lift ticket price per day: €17 - or pay by the hour.
Description: Ozolkans boasts the longest runs in Latvia and is a self-styled serious ‘speed’ resort. With charming views of the Gauja Valley, conifers line the banks of the Gauja River – it’s beautiful. The snowpark is limited, yet super fun while night shredding is a must. Accommodation ranges from self-catering cottages complete with WiFi to a larger Forest House. Located near the historic town of Cesis, the resort is also well known for its sauna.
Number of lifts: 3
Terrain Breakdown: 80% easy / 20% intermediate / 0% hard
Number of parks: 1 Park & 1 Boardercross Track
Opening Times: 10:00 - 23:00 (Times vary so check online first. Closed Mon &
Lift ticket price per day: €12-€20 – or pay by the hour.
Description: Žagarkalns is a super fun resort, with a laid back family vibe, catering for beginners and intimidates alike. It has an impressive equipment servicing and rental arsenal, as well as dedicated instructors to teach both children and beginners. With two snowparks, the Children’s Park and the impressive SUBARU Freestyle Park – all levels of park rats will be stoked on the set up. It’s well worth eating at the onsite restaurant as the traditional Latvian food is great. Žagarkalns is located near Cesis.
Number of lifts: 5
Terrain Breakdown: 90% easy / 10% intermediate / 0% hard
Number of parks: 2
Opening Times: 12:00-23:00 (Times do vary so check online first)
Lift ticket price per day: €19-€22 - or pay by the hour.