Laying nude on a wooden bench, legs akimbo and my head resting on a neatly-tied bundle of linden branches, I’m being rubbed with Latvian honey by a stranger. Meanwhile, two women wearing sauna hats are gently stroking me with damp birch branches.
It’s not normally how I would spend my Monday evening.
But, in the name of wellbeing and self-care, I am happy to give anything a try.
While most of us are still reeling from a pandemic that left us feeling like life may never be normal again, in Latvia, positivity reigns supreme.
Driving through the tiny country, which shares borders with Estonia, Russia, Belarus and Lithuania, I’m struck by the odd combination of grey concrete, derelict factories, forests and sprawling lakes.
But Latvia is full of surprises. Besides, the Latvians must clearly be onto something. Here are a few ‘bizarre but true’ explanations for their cheery dispositions…
A cup of tea really might fix everything
"I don’t want to just make another product for the sake of business," explains Mara Lieplapa, CEO of Plukt Tea. "We don’t need more waste. We need to protect Latvia’s biodiversity, because there is so much of it here."
Wise words from the plucky 25-year-old, who runs a successful business in rural town Prauliena with her mother, environmental scientist and tea master, Liga.
As I enter the repurposed former local theatre, where Mara’s grandparents met and fell in love, I am enchanted by the jars of fragrant, colourful teas.
Sipping an oregano infusion from a ceramic tumbler (€4.50) I listen intently as Liga explains how wonderful it is for the female reproductive system. A slightly oily film may seem off-putting, but I’m told it is really a positive indicator of the rich herbal content within.
Other teas have equally potent ingredients. Healing fireweed, consumed by Second World War soldiers, features in a Nordic green tea (€9) which is light, aromatic and refreshing.
But the taste of the teas is just as important as their health benefits. Mara insists she wants people to relax and enjoy the teas, too.
Nature will nurture you
Nature is the number one tool for enhancing wellbeing. Close to the border with Estonia, Lake Alūksne is popular with families and water sports enthusiasts in the summer. In winter, adrenaline junkies race across the ice on skis, while tethered to cars.
But I’m here for more contemplative pursuits. Crossing a bridge, I make a wish (according to Latvian tradition), as moorhens quietly glide by, and hike for several miles through forests carpeted with wild garlic and sorrel.
"Sitting by this waterfall, for just 10 minutes, you will come away feeling like a different person," says biologist and guide Māris Olte.
He’s right. As water spills over rocks, I feel peaceful and content.
Be carried away by the sauna tradition
Ziedlejas is a wellness resort an hour east of capital city Riga. Offering three sauna experiences, it also has a beautiful lake and four gorgeous glass and aluminium cabins decorated with all the grace and minimalism of Marie Kondo’s front room (from €130 per night).
When you hear ‘sauna experience’, you are probably thinking ‘nice time sitting in hot, wooden room’.
Instead, I’m guided through a ritual of heat, honey and birch branch rubbing in a boiling room, finished off by plunging into an icy bath.
The whole process is nurturing and Inga, the sauna-master working on me, is gentle and reassuring. She stresses how important human touch is, and how we have all found life harder since the pandemic took it away from us.
There are physical benefits too.
Heat – aided by the use of branches – improves circulation, plus the sweaty sessions can also improve cardiovascular health and reduce stress levels.
Exhausted but happy, I relax in a net suspended over the lake as blue tits chatter overhead.
Fermentation for preservation
Kombucha has risen in popularity across Europe, and you’ll find it in almost every shop, bar and restaurant in Riga. A healthier alternative to soft drinks, it is being used as a mixer in Nordic cocktail bar Gimlet. Local and homemade, it’s just the tonic.
Barman Edgars pulls out a glass bottle of neon pink liquid. This strawberry kombucha, made on site, will be mixed with tequila to make a sweet and subtle margarita (€9).
Using seasonal, locally grown Latvian ingredients, Gimlet has found a magic potion for making their customers feel calm and welcome.
The love for fermentation in Latvia is certainly a delicious health trend I will be replicating back home.
How to plan your trip
Flights to Riga in Latvia are available regularly from major UK airports including London Heathrow, London Stansted, Manchester, Bristol and Edinburgh with Wizz Air, Ryanair and Air Baltic.
For more information on Latvia, visit latvia.travel/en