Latvia’s got personality: Enchanted forest guide Valters Medenis

With over half the country covered by trees, Latvia has plenty of woods to explore. But few are as intriguing as Pokaiņi Forest in Zemgale region.

Visitors flock to the 500-hectare forest 90 kilometers southwest of Rīga not just for the fresh air and hilly views, but also for the rocks. Pokaiņi is dotted with ensembles of stones which allegedly give off powerful energies which some believe can even heal physical and emotional traumas.

Some scholars believe that Pokaiņi was a pagan sacred site in prehistoric times, and the stones were put in place by ancient Baltic zintnieki (druids) for ritual purposes. It was forgotten for centuries, until in the late 1980s, mystic researcher Ivars Vīks identified Pokaiņi as an important point in a stream of bioenergy flowing across Europe. Vīks attracted a group of enthusiastic followers, who cleaned up the overgrown place and spread the word about its unusual character.

Today, Pokaiņi is managed by state forestry company Latvijas valsts meži. But the air of mystery remains. The magnetism emanating from the forest is said to be so strong that compasses go haywire and countless hikers have lost their sense of direction on the 15 km of trails.

Pokaiņi forest

For this reason, as well as to get a deeper understanding of Pokaiņi, it’s a good idea to hire a guide. And if you’re lucky, you might be escorted in Latvian, English or Russian by Valters Medenis.

Aged 27, Valters has had quite a journey through life to bring him to this spot showing tourists around the forest. Born in Rīga, at age 12 Valters moved with his family to the UK. While attending university in Brighton, his striking good looks got him into a modelling career, strutting catwalks in Paris, Milan and Asia.

A decade later, Valters wanted to reconnect with Latvia, and he took charge of his ancestral farm near Pokaiņi. One day, the park’s information center called him, desperately looking for a guide, and after some intense cramming, he led his first group.

Having studied psychology, Valters is as interested in observing his clients as they are eyeballing the sites of Pokaiņi. In his experience, most people come for a bit of thrill-seeking. But a minority are highly sensitive to the vibes of the forest. Some have cathartic experiences at the “Stone of Laima” (named for an ancient Latvian goddess), where wishes apparently come true, or at the “Stone of the Fathers,” which offers forgiveness for past sins.

Others claim to see visions of German crusaders and pagan warriors fighting in a valley where a battle took place centuries ago. And at the “Ziggurat,” a giant mound of earth which was possibly created by humans as a burial site, park staff have found traces of blood, suggesting sorcery is alive and well today.

Valters likes to keep an open mind about it all.

“I’m not saying it’s true or not, but I’m ready to consider all possibilities,” he says.

The guide’s personal favourite corner of Pokaiņi is a quiet hillside where he feels at one with the breeze blowing through the pines. Valters and partner Elīza’s son is named Vējš (Latvian for “wind”), and this force of nature is the key to Valters’ worldview.

“Even our breath is the wind, and breathing is at the heart of every part of life,” he says.

As a free spirit, he admits to letting life take him in all sorts of directions. He would love to travel the world some more, fondly recalling a month riding trains around China after a modelling job. And he admits “there’s not a lot of money in Latvia.”

Spring ceremony in Pokaiņi forest

However, putting paid to fears he would be lonely in Latvia, the Medenis family have made a circle of like-minded friends. On a recent weekend, a folklore group celebrated the pagan festival Meteņi in Pokaiņi, performing rituals to usher in the spring. In return for using the forest, the ensemble will return when the snow has melted for a working bee.

“The pagan culture is a lot older than Christianity, and you just don’t find this in the UK,” says Valters. “People in Latvia are so closely connected with nature, and it’s such a beautiful thing.”

This mixture of spirituality, ecology and community is in tune with Valters’ aspirations for his farm. He wants to grow food using permaculture methods, with works of art mingling between the crops. And to share the labours and the rewards with his friends.

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