Into Latvia

Saturday 30th August 2008, Sigulda, Latvia
The dual attractions of the shower in the Arabella suite and free access to wifi from the soft leather sofa in the hotel foyer meant that it was around 11am before we finally set off this morning for our 200 kilometre drive towards Riga, the capital city of Latvia.

Near the border with Latvia we stopped at a village supermarket clutching 28 Estonian krone which we needed to spend before leaving the country. Having bought bread and pâté for lunch we still had 4 krone left – around 20p - so handed it to the young lady on the checkout. We waved our empty purse saying "goodbye Estonia, hello Latvia" by way of explanation. She took the money and handed us the Estonian equivalent of a Kitkat in exchange.

And so we left Estonia, crossing into Latvia along a quiet country lane with no border formality. Almost immediately it felt different! We found ourselves in a real village where the houses, still mainly of wooden construction, were gathered around a definable village centre with a bank, a bus stop, a stall selling lottery tickets, a little shop, a school and benches beside flower beds. We'd seen nothing like this in Estonia. Children and young people gathered around the bus stop and there was a steady stream of people passing across the village square.

We found the bank and drew out some Latvian money. We were unsure how much it is worth but it seems that £1 is only worth 90 cents of a Lats (plural is Lati) with a euro being around 70 cents.

We quickly picked up the die-straight main Riga to St. Petersburg highway, the most important road in the country. To our amazement it was practically deserted and the surface was similar to those found on minor side roads in rural England. If we thought roads in Estonia were bad, those in Latvia are even worse! Fortunately we were not in a hurry so were able to weave around some of the worse dips and bumps but generally we bounced from one undulation to the next, swaying and shuddering as we went. Our initial destination, Cesis, lay off the highway and we took the earliest opportunity to turn down a side road, hoping the heavy lorries would not have caused so many indentations on the byways. Soon though, the road petered out completely despite being marked as a major road on the map. With nineteen kilometres of potholed dirt track and broken up gravel to contend with Modestine and Jill announced they were turning back.

The main St Petersburg-Riga highway, Latvia

We eventually reached Cesis by a different route. It turned out to be a very pleasant little town with a mediaeval castle and a nineteenth century one built alongside. We spent a happy afternoon exploring the streets of run-down old houses as well as the two castles. In the older one we were given candles in jars to light our way up the spiral staircase in the tower. There was also a ladder to climb down into the dark depths of the dungeons. EU Health and Safety Commissioners will have a field day when they eventually get around to visiting most of the historic sites in the new member countries. In the newer castle we opted for the main staircase to climb the tower, we'd had enough of spiral ones for a while. The main attraction seemed to be a display concerning the local brewery. Cesis is apparently a well known brand of Latvian beer.

Castle, Cesis, Latvia

Castle, Cesis, Latvia

Memorial in the castle grounds, Cesis, Latvia

Tower of the new castle, Cesis, Latvia

View from the tower of the new castle, Cesis, Latvia

Cesis seems a laid-back sort of town that has been largely spared from the destruction of WW2 and the reorganisation of the Soviet regime. Gradually the buildings are being restored but there remains a daunting amount still to do. Fortunately the tree-lined streets and massed flowers to be seen everywhere mask the decayed window frames and crumbling plasterwork of so many of the buildings.

Restored monument to independence, Cesis, Latvia

Down in the park below the castle all the young people of the town were rehearsing for a dance spectacular they were putting on this evening. We watched, both amused and impressed. Where in Britain would you find teenage boys prepared to give up their Saturday afternoon and evening to cavort around the stage dancing with girls and young children? Everyone was really enthusiastic and it was a delight to see them all working so hard together to get it right for the evening performance. It was lively and colourful with an unbelievable amount of energy expended by the young people as they went through their lively dance routines.

Song and dance beneath the castle, Cesis, Latvia

There is a campsite near the town, down by the river in the surrounding national park. It looked very basic but was recommended by the local tourist office. It cost the same as we've been paying in Estonia at the hotel last night. It had no flush toilet, just a hole in the ground and a seat. There was no more than a rusty cold water tap with dirty cold showers across the long grass two fields away! Late as it was we asked for our money back and moved on towards Riga. We'd another site Ian had found on the internet here at Sigulda in the heart of the national park. It's far better though more expensive and still quite inadequate by western standards but we have electric hook up. It's actually a canoeing centre and the site manager has been trying to persuade us to give it a try. It's been so chilly – but dry for a change – that it holds no appeal. Nearby is popular for winter sports and the Olympic bobsleigh championships were held here. There is a ski lift to the top of the run and in summer, a bobsleigh on rails to come down again, emulating that of the winter run. It might be worth investigating this further tomorrow.

River Gauja near our campsite, Sigulda, Latvia

Local lovers use the bridge across the river to plight their troth. To judge by the evidence this seems to include consuming bottles of champagne, burning candles and attaching specially inscribed padlocks to the parapet.

Lovers' mementos on the bridge over the river Gauja, Sigulda, Latvia

Monday 1st September 2008, Sigulda, Latvia
We are still here in the national park and had such a full day yesterday we had no energy left for blogging. We preferred instead to eat out in a snug a little wooden pub with a grass roof – similar to some of the houses in Norway – and enjoy a couple of Latvian beers while watching hardy youngsters making the most of the chill evening sunlight on the nearby summer bobsleigh run. Relaxed and sleepy we decided to escape the evening chill watching the DVD "Cider with Rosie" with mugs of hot brown tea inside Modestine. (The colour of the tea was due as much to the iron rich content of the water here as to the strength of our Earl Grey. We have been assured it is drinkable and so far we have survived.)

It seems very hilly here in the national park but this is because the river Gauja has gouged a deep ravine through the soft Devonian sandstone leaving steep, forested banks to either side. We are camped on the river bank, way below the pleasant leafy town of Sigulda situated on the flat plain above.

Despite rain during the night, yesterday dawned bright and sunny. We set off for a short stroll through the woods along the river valley, planning to move on to Riga at lunch time. However, we followed a side track and eventually ended up in the centre of Sigulda, puffing and panting from the steep climb. We have become quite unfit with the flat boglands of Finland and Estonia coupled with the wet weather that has deprived us for so long of any good walks or bike rides.

Sigulda seems to be more of a park than a town with wide areas of neatly kempt grass and tree-lined roads with blocks of flats or individual houses randomly and widely scattered. The result is that we never quite worked out where the centre is supposed to be but assume it generally surrounds the Stalinist neo-classical railway station. Everywhere has a slight air of decay but generally, perhaps because of the sunshine, seems less run-down than most of the towns we have seen in the Baltics so far.

Soviet style station building, Sigulda, Latvia

In the supermarket we bought spinach tarts for lunch, assuming they would be like the ones we had in Greece. No way. These are far less appetising though very cheap. They are dry and appear to have sugar in them as well as spinach! (We had the same surprising experience with the pretzel sticks we bought in the pub to accompany our beer last night, coated not with salt crystals but sugar and poppy seeds!)

At a nearby café we sat outside in the sunshine with a coffee before discovering the pleasant Lutheran church – one of the very few to have functioned continuously throughout the Soviet period from 1944- 1997. We discovered the town produces brightly coloured walking sticks for those visiting the national park and near the church there is a disused massive air raid shelter in the town in case of attack from the wicked west. It is now abandoned and preserved as a winter nature reserve for east European bats who cannot otherwise survive the harsh winters here.

Ian discovers Baltic walking in Walking Stick Square, Sigulda, Latvia

Walking sticks on sale, Sigulda, Latvia

Former air raid shelter, now a bat sanctuary, Sigulda, Latvia

New Palace, Sigulda, Latvia

Castle seen from New Palace balcony, Sigulda, Latvia

We also discovered why the town is so popular at weekends. Apart from chair lifts and bogsleigh runs, if you are so inclined – and many are – there is a Tarzan trail through the forest canopy where you can descend the ski slope at speed hooked to a series of zig-zag cables, there is a human catapult where you are hooked to four enormous elastic bands which are pulled taught and then released, sending you spinning over and over high into the air where you bounce around screaming until they let you down again. There is also a huge Ferris wheel – Latvia's answer to the London Eye, which we did try and enjoyed though realised how high we were when it went over the top. Finally there is a cable car across the ravine to an old palace at the top of the far bank. At weekends it doubles as a venue for bungee-jumping above the river. We used it though for its more sedate purpose. It saved us climbing right down to the valley floor and up the far side. Compared to prices in England all these attractions were very cheap and they offered half price for pensioners - though we saw none wanting the bobsleigh, Tarzan trail, human catapult or even the bungee jump!

Panoramas Rats, Sigulda, Latvia

Cable car, Sigulda, Latvia

River Gauja from the cable car, Sigulda, Latvia

Cable car from the river Gauja, Sigulda, Latvia

The 19th century Krimulda palace overlooking the river on the far side was built for the Baltic German Lieven family who were dispossessed under local land reforms in 1920. The building was then used as a sanatorium for TB patients and is still in use today as a rehabilitation centre though has suffered and decayed badly over the years. Surrounding it is a little village of old cottages and cobbled roads. It was originally servants' quarters for those working at the palace and on its farms. It is delightfully rural and romantically decayed, though still lived in, with overgrown gardens of old fruit trees and vegetable gardens filled with cabbages and pumpkins, the garden paths edged with brightly coloured dahlias.

Krimulda Palace, Latvia

Outdoor cabins for TB patients, Krimulda Palace, Latvia

Late 19th century estate buildings, Krimulda Palace, Latvia

By now we'd obviously abandoned any idea of moving on to Riga and were having a really delightful day. So we set out through the woods along the top of the ravine towards the brick built mediaeval castle of Turaida a couple of kilometres away as the crow flies. However, crows don't need to walk down 304 steep steps to the river valley on the way. Our legs were quite shaky by the time we eventually reached the bottom and strolled along beside the river looking up at the castle showing through the woods ahead of us. We passed the sandstone Gutman cave, unremarkable by our standards but enough to gather a crowd of marvelling Latvians as it is the largest natural cave in the Baltics.

Turaida Castle, Latvia

Gutman's Cave, near Sigulda, Latvia

What goes down must go up again. The road up to the castle was tortuous and busy with weekend drivers. Seeing a track through the undergrowth we scrambled straight up the side of the ravine using trees and shrubs as hand-holds. Like Latvian roads however, this steep little track soon petered out and we were left scrambling around in the castle rubbish tip of broken ancient bricks. We clambered on, thinking it not one of our brightest ideas until we scrambled out onto the footpath inside the castle grounds where a typically smart Latvian lady in high heeled scarlet boots and strapless black top looked askance to see British pensioners pushing their way through the undergrowth! The lengths some people will go to, to avoid paying to get in!

The castle of Turaida has been very heavily restored and as we'd not paid to enter the buildings we confined our viewing to the grounds. It was built as a castle of the Bishop of Riga in the 13th century and, after surviving various wars, was finally destroyed when its gunpowder store was struck by lightning in the 18th century. It is now being restored using modern bricks which are beginning to outnumber those of the original construction.

Turaida Castle, Latvia

Of more interest were the beautiful lawns and gardens outside the castle walls where there is a very pleasant modern sculpture park of carved granite boulders. There is also a little wooden church with a wide, painted interior and simple baroque altar. Here we found a very colourful flower display of lilies, roses and dozens of jars of different kinds of dahlia. As in Uppsala, they are celebrating the anniversary of Anders Dahl.

Turaida sculpture park, Latvia

Turaida wooden church, Latvia

Turaida church, Latvia

Of course there is bound to be a legend to Turaida – based very much on fact for once. Back in the 1620s a young girl was in love with the castle gardener – they used to meet in Gutman's Cave. She is turn was loved by a Polish soldier who was a deserter. He killed her in anger and the blame fell on the gardener until, overcome by remorse, the Polish soldier hanged himself. In the grounds of the castle there is a memorial for the murdered young woman who has become known as the Rose of Turaida.

Monument to the "Turaida Rose", Latvia

There were 376 slippery steps down through the damp woods to regain the river and by now our legs were feeling like jelly. Which is why, once we eventually dragged our way back into the campsite and threw off our hiking boots, we decided beer, saugages and chips in the nearby wooden pub was the way to spend the evening. The young couple at the next table pointed out what we needed to ask for on the menu and we've also learnt how to ask for "one more beer please" in Latvian. We are going to be okay!