Trip to Estonia and Latvia… First, Latvia


I really enjoyed reading Elizabeth Snouffer’s article “Eating Abroad with Diabetes–Hong Kong,” Catherine Price’s interview with world traveller Bridget McNulty, and Catherine’s posts  describing her own trips to Tokyo and Hawaii. So I thought I would follow the trend and write about my own first experience traveling with diabetes.

This summer, I went on a two-week trip to Estonia and Latvia to do research about my grandfather’s family. I had originally been given a grant to do this last summer, right after I had graduated from college, but then I was diagnosed with diabetes in early July. At that point, I couldn’t imagine traveling to a foreign country–I panicked even when trying to estimate the amount of carbohydrates in a Cosi sandwich. Luckily, the people at Penn who had provided the grant were understanding, and allowed me to wait a year before taking the trip.

I’m convinced that a major reason why Estonia and Latvia aren’t bigger tourist destinations is because they were behind the Iron Curtain, and so remain unknown to many Americans. They are both beautiful countries. I spent the first week of my trip in Riga, the capital of Latvia. Riga’s medieval old city is surrounded by rings of parks, constructed after the city’s medieval fortifications were razed in the late 19th century. Beyond these parks is Riga’s truly unique feature–a sprawling art nouveau district that UNESCO has declared a world heritage site. You can walk for blocks and blocks and only see incredibly rendered art nouveau facades.

One of Riga's many parks
Art nouveau architecture...

Before World War II, Riga was home to a large Jewish population that included my great-grandparents and their children. By coincidence, I found out that the hotel where I was staying was in the same neighborhood as the apartment buildings in which my great aunts and uncles lived. I walked to each one and took photos–the building in which my great-uncle Isak lived is now a Ramada Inn!

The Ramada Inn

I also got to see some of Latvia’s countryside. For two days I went to Sloka, a town about an hour away from Riga by train. Here, my great-grandfather’s family once owned a farm and raised horses. Architecturally, Sloka is now an incongruous mix of small wooden houses and looming Soviet-era structures. Although quite a few of the Soviet-era buildings are crumbling and dilapidated, many of the town’s inhabitants have no other option but to continue living in them. As I took the train back into the city, I looked out the window at the fields passing by and caught glimpses of people picking flowers to make into wreathes to wear on St. John’s Eve the next day.


After all my worrying, my diabetes-related challenges in Riga were few. Since I was only going to be traveling for two weeks, I brought all my supplies with me, in addition to prescriptions from my doctor in case I misplaced the supplies I had and needed to buy more. (I’m happy to report I never did.) My parents, who were curious to see the places their ancestors had lived, came with me for the first week of my trip. It was reassuring to know that, in case of an emergency, I would have two people with me who knew what to do. In addition, many people in both Latvia and Estonia are at least reasonably fluent in English.

Unlike some of the other ASweetLife travelers, I didn’t do anything especially physically strenuous. But I was walking all the time. Our hotel was half an hour away from the Riga’s center, we’d inevitably make the trip back and forth more than once a day–retrieving maps, going out to dinner, etc. And once we reached the city center, we would have to walk somewhere else. It felt great to get so much exercise without even trying, but then my blood sugar started to go low more and more frequently. Finally, I decreased my dose of Lantus, and the problem was solved.

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11 years ago

I am presently in Riga, Latvia and have been here for one month thus far…WAY easy of a place to be if any medical problems arise.  I first arrived here very, VERY sick (after being in Ekaterinburg, Russia for one month).  I sought treatment in Russia before leaving, but could not find a clinic that would even look at me since I had diarrhea (sorry for the details, but this is life).  After spending one week in Riga, and my symptoms the same as day #1…two-and-a-half weeks previous…I decided to see a doctor.  I asked the receptionist at my hostel to direct… Read more »

12 years ago

I just discovered your blog. I’m a Type 1 diabetic, age 24 diagnosed 1 year ago. My family is Latvian, my grandmother was born in Riga, escaped during WWII and moved to San Francisco after marrying my grandfather.  My sister studied abroad in Austria and spent time in Estonia and Latvia so I showed her you pictures and she said “Yea I saw that!” Thanks for sharing and I’m enjoying your posts!

Becca Kantor
13 years ago

Thanks all of you for your comments–Mike–very interesting that Latvia’s population is shrinking, I didn’t know that, although I did get a sense of the poverty especially when I visited Sloka. Catherine, so exciting that you might go to Estonia and Latvia this summer! Let me know if you do decide to go–I’d be more than happy to discuss.

Max Apple
13 years ago

hi becca
everything you’re writing is very good. having heard your estonia presentation i think you could have added some of the diabetic worries and concerns because everything personal enriches the narrative as long as it doesn’t become too clinical. i’m happy to be reading your posts.

13 years ago

I actually might be going to Latvia and Estonia this summer — I’d love to hear more of your recommendations of places/activities you particularly enjoyed. Great post!

Catherine Price
13 years ago

Hi Becca, Never thought I would know anyone else who’s been to Latvia. I was there on a Holocaust/heritage trip a two years ago.   It is a beautiful city and a relatively small one. I went out the first morning there for a 10K run and saw the entire city weaving through the streets (I used a map). I must say that although not the best thing for a diabetic I did enjoy the local beer. I don’t know if you know this but Latvia has a shrinking population (people are leaving) and in a EU happiness survey the… Read more »

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