Though perhaps younger than some of the cities of the Mediterranean, Riga, the capital of Latvia, has over 800 years of history – with most of that history turbulent. Latvia’s location along the Baltic Sea has long made it an important strategical spot for centuries. In the Viking era, the fearsome Scandinavian warriors often came to the Baltics during their annual raids, though the Baltic raids weren’t considered as good as those of England or France. In medieval times, German and Teutonic knights and Swedish kings stamped in and out of Riga and Latvia – really the Baltics in general – taking control of it or simply raiding it in times of need. In more recent times, the Soviets laid claim to this little Baltic nation, in its quest for control over trade and military might in the Baltic Sea. From above, we see a forest of Gothic spires rising above Riga, and below down at street level, we see a beautiful rainbow of bright colours and Art Nouveau façades adorning each street, square and alleyway. Riga is an easy place to wander and explore – Art Nouveau architecture rears up randomly throughout the city, narrow alleys wrap themselves around unique buildings, small streets open up into large squares home to impressive churches, guildhalls, markets, mansions and other magnificent edifices. It is perhaps for this splendid blend of styles, creativity, history and beauty that Riga Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Huddled on the banks of River Daugava, Riga is a town recognised for its architectural beauty and rich culture. As the capital of Latvia, and one of the three main cultural centres in the Baltics region of northeast Europe (the others being Tallinn and Vilnius), Riga is a blend of old world charm and cosmopolitan busyness. Architecturally, it is composed of a medieval city Old Town, unique art nouveau facades and gothic and baroque spires, such as this one here. Perched atop St Peter’s Church at the heart of Riga, the 130-metre-high baroque steeple is the city’s tallest spire. This steeple dates back to WWII when the church was rebuilt after the city was torn apart during the war. This new structure was based on a former tower erected in the 1720s, replacing a previous structure that was struck by lighting in 1721 which in turn replaced one that collapsed in 1666. In fact, at one point in the late 1690s, St Peter’s Church was the highest wood building in the world! The oldest version of this spire dates all the way back to the end of the 15th century, while St Peter’s Church itself was consecrated in 1209 (though little remains of that original construction). The basilica we see today is from the 15th century in all of its baroque and gothic fashion. In 1997, Riga’s Old Town was added to the list of UNESCO world heritage sites – among the sites called out for their particular beauty, heritage and culture was of course St Peter’s Church.
Pro tips: A stone’s throw away is the famed House of Blackheads, a unique baroque guildhall. Pick up one of the Like A Local maps which shows streets and iconic sights but also less-known sights recommended by local citizens as well as food recommendations. One such recommendation is a lovely teacup-sized family-run restaurant, Varzoba, located very close to both St Peter’s Church and the House of Blackheads. Not sure what to get? Let them choose! You won’t regret it.
The small town of Sigulda and its environs seem to collect castles and manors. For starters, the most famous is Turaida Castle, its golden-red towers jutting out of the woodland following the stunning Gauja River Valley – a perfect place to hike. On the far side of the cable car opposite Sigulda, there’s the crumbling ancient ruins of Krimulda Castle paired with the crumbling not-so-ancient ruins of Krimulda Manor. And then of course, in Sigulda town proper, find the Old Castle of Sigulda – now in ruins – just across from the New Castle of Sigulda. The first New Castle of Sigulda was constructed in 1878 by the wealthy Kropotkin family in the popular Neo-Gothic revival style that swept the continent throughout the 19th century. The castle/manor lasted only until WWI when it was partially destroyed. As was wont, restoration started after the war was over, though Sigulda’s New Castle got a complete makeover – it had now become the Writer’s Castle, inspiration for authors, writers and poets of all kinds (romantic ideal, eh!?). Such an idyllic nature didn’t last. In WWII, it was taken over by the Germans, used as a military headquarters, only then to be tossed over to the USSR after the war’s end. It wasn’t until the Baltic states (Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia) finally got their hard-won freedom that Sigulda’s New Castle finally housed part of the Latvian government – home to Sigulda City and District Councils. Though closed to tourists, it’s worth a stroll through the beautiful grounds to enjoy the castle and the views. Plus, the old castle of Sigulda is not far off!
Pro tip: The cable car across the valley goes once an hour. Buy your ticket and then use the rest of the hour to walk around Sigulda’s castles and perhaps even pop in to the church to see their collection of button art. If you’re planning to walk from Krimulda to Turaida once you cross the gorge, be sure to wear good footwear.
Red brick towers peek out of the forest to climb their way towards the heavens. Turaida Castle, a little-known medieval fortress erected in the early 12th century, is a Latvian national treasure, to the degree that when the castle was left to be reclaimed by Mother Nature, the Latvians pumped finances into saving it. A Teutonic castle made of red brick much like Poland’s immense Zamek Malbork, the crumbling Teutonic Turon Castle in central Poland or even Lithuania’s island fortress Trakai, Turaida Castle itself seems as if it was pulled out of a magical storybook and nestled into the forgotten woods of the Gauja River Valley deep within Latvia. Reached either by winding backroads or by a combination of foot and cable car through the quiet Latvian forest, the castle is set in one of Latvia’s most incredible backdrops. Turaida Castle was the home of the lovely Rose of Turaida, a love story with a not-so-happy ending. While the castle itself evokes thoughts of knights and princesses and dragons, a hike through the surrounding valley with the enchanted castle looming in the distance is one memory you will never forget.
More Amazing and Beautiful Castles in Eastern Europe
Art Nouveau (‘new art’) was a style of architecture, art, sculpture, and design popular from roughly 1890 – 1920. Though it swept across Europe, it was particularly popular in Riga, Latvia, with some 40% of the buildings built with Art Nouveau in mind. Inspired by flowers, trees, leaves, water, and other natural elements, Art Nouveau buildings twist and turn; they flow, they spiral, they cascade – they are alive. Riga’s Art Nouveau was less extravagant than that of France’s or Spain’s. But nonetheless, Riga overflows its borders with the simplistic, Romantic version of Art Nouveau. Much of it has survived to this day despite the turbulence of the 20th century, and the city centre is now a designated UNESCO site. By simply meandering and keeping one’s eyes turned upwards, the observant traveller will come across this forgotten cache of treasures hidden away in the Baltic gem that is Riga.
Supposedly one of the Baltic’s early form of tourism was pilgrimages to this cave. It all started with a legend, a story, dating to the age of castles and knights and villains. Once upon a time, there was a princess who lived in a castle called Turaida. There was another castle, not so far away, where a handsome young man lived, and in the middle, there was a cave–pleasant kind of cave–where the lovers would meet to plan their marriage. But there was also a villain, and he wanted the princess for him. So, one day, he went to the cave to convince her to marry him. When she refused, he threatened to force her to marry him. She told him she would trade his hand for a magic scarf that was impossible to pierce by blade. Of course, he didn’t believe her, so she let him test it…on her. Of course, it didn’t work, and of course she knew that. But I guess suicide was considered a better option than a forced marriage… but the story doesn’t end there. Even though the princess died, our prince from the other castle tracked down the villain and avenged her death, and spent the rest of his days caring for their castles and protecting her cave. People started coming there, leaving their marks (coat of arms) in the stone. You can still make a pilgrimage there, hiking from Sigulda all the way to her castle’s ruins in Turaida. In the woods along the way, you can make a detour in order to pay homage to the Rose of Turaida and her infamous cave…
Riga, along with the rest of the Baltics, are surely one of the most beautiful and interesting places you’ll visit. The people in the Baltics are not only friendly, fun and adventurous, but they are strong, brave, resilient, and when they put their minds together, there is no stopping them. On August 23, 1989, they proved exactly that. Roughly 2 million people took to the streets, grasped each others’ hands, and formed a human chain that linked the three Baltic capitals: Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn. For over 675.5 km (419.7 miles), the Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians stood hand in hand, briefly becoming one identity to show the intense solidarity that existed–and still exists!–between the three states. It was designed to show the world their united desire for independence as well as the illegal occupation of the USSR, and even though Moscow tried to retaliate, only a few months later, Lithuania was a free state. Latvia and Estonia followed not long after. Can you imagine a chain of human beings that stretched across three countries, for almost 700 km? Can you imagine the effort, the initiative, the planning, the teamwork that the Baltic Way took? How about the feel of another person’s hand in yours, grasping it as if your life depended on it? Can you feel the shivers go up and down your spine? The Baltic solidarity and determination is an amazing feat. It is a beautiful thing. It is what happens when three nations work together in a peaceful protest to accomplish a common goal. If that isn’t a reason to visit, I don’t know what is.
Latvia—like its neighbours Lithuania, Estonia, Poland, etc—was once a part of the Russian Empire, and the Russians, as you know, are orthodox. Therefore, in the years 1867-83, the Russians got to work constructing an orthodox house of worship in the centre of Riga, Latvia’s capital. Built in the Neo-Byzantine style, Riga’s cathedral still stands proudly in the in downtown Riga. While other ex-Russian satellite nations have torn down their cathedrals (*cough Poland cough*), Riga still has one right in the centre. Despite the mostly-negative impact of Russian occupation of the Baltic States, it is important to remember and recognise all aspects of history—and to appreciate culture and beauty. Because the Nativity of Christ Cathedral is beautiful! Russian Orthodox cathedrals usually are. The biggest Orthodox cathedral in the Baltics, it was commissioned by Tsar Alexander II. The church was briefly a Lutheran cathedral—and later a planetarium in the early days of independent Latvia—but since 1991, it has been restored to its original design. And now today, it resembles a delicious gateau enough to make my mouth water…!
Ruins always hold a certain charm–reminders to us that even the best eventually crumble and nothing lasts forever. And yet–they are romantic too, inspirations for artists and poets, writers and songwriters. And the more remote and less well-known they are, the more charm they seem to percolate. To reach the ruins of Krimulda Castle from the train station in Sigulda, one must first cross the desolate yet beautifully scenic Gauja Valley–in a cable car! Step into this adorable little yellow car, and spend the next twenty minutes dangling over the gorge, eyes glued to the window as the turrets of Turaida Castle rise above the treetops. As you land on the right bank, delve back into the solitary Latvian woods via a quiet hiking trail at the edge of the ruins. The odd way of reaching this remote place you never even knew was there–such as the Krimulda ruins–only makes it that much more…amazing. Built in the 14th century by Prince Liven, the castle of Krimulda was constructed on the right bank of the Gauja River Gorge. At the time, the gorge marked the frontier between the lands controlled by the Archbishop of Riga (including Krimulda and Turaida), and the Order of the Brethren Sword (what a name!), where Sigulda is currently located. The first year of the 17th century, during the Polish-Swedish war, the Swedes took control of the castle…so, rather than lose control of it, the Poles burned the castle to the ground, leaving it to become the ruins we see today. What a life people lived back then.
What little girl doesn’t dream of becoming a princess? What little boy doesn’t, at one point or another, dream of becoming a knight? Even as we grow up, castles – especially the unexplored, wild, and overgrown castles – retain something romantic, as if the castle holds some sort of magical power. But as they say, it’s the journey, not the destination, that counts. And the journey to reach Turaida Castle is nothing short of adventurous! Starting in the town of Sigulda (where one obtains the highly-detailed map), you continue through the other ruinous castle to Gauja River Gorge, which you cross via cable car to arrive in the ghost town of Krimulda. There, you find a small path leading through more ruins, and continuing on past the Gutmanis Cave, through the woods before breaking out into a small clearing to view your prize—this beautiful brick castle circa 1214, brought to life by the Archbishop of Riga. Today, Turaida Castle remains one of the most important ruins in Latvia – but also one of the most interesting to visit. So if you’re feeling brave next time you visit Riga, forsake the car, forsake the bus, and take to the trails. This age-old journey leading through these ancient sites is well worth it.
Just the thought of a quiet village located on a cliff in the woods of Lativa is a bit eerie. Throw in a creepy old decrepit manor house, a windy grey sky, leafless trees, and the fact that you are totally alone in this abandoned corner of Latvia and can hear every single noise the world tosses your way, and suddenly you’ve got shivers on your spine (and that’s not just because you’re too cheap to turn on the radiator). Built in 1822, the Krimulda Manor House seems like it hasn’t seen much care ever since. Well, nothing in Krimulda has, which is just a small collection of houses barely qualifying as a village crossroads. (Though there are some small ruins of an old castle there, which are actually quite fascinating.) The Manor House however, is another story. Built by persons called (wait for it…) Counts von Lieven, in neo-classical style (aka creepily curving roof and huge scary porch with peeling columns style), its peeling paint, faded facade and creaking shutters scream Scooby-Doo-esque frights. The fact that it is now a sanatorium…well, that ends that. Creepy, creepy. Needless to say, I consulted the map, found the trail, and practically ran for the safety of the woods.
In 1601, a baby girl, christened “Maija,” was rescued from the wreckage of the 1601 battle of Turaida. She grew into a beautiful woman known as the Rose of Turaida who fell in love with Viktor, the gardener at Sigulda Castle on the other side of the Gauja River. In order to see each other, they would meet in the middle, inside Gutmanis Cave. Into this pretty little scene, enter the evil Adam Jakubowski, a Polish soldier who had less-than-chaste intentions for young Maija after tricking her to come into the cave. Thinking quickly (and deciding that death was better than rape), she told him her scarf was magical and could resist sword-strokes. He didn’t believe her, so she proposed a demonstration–which, of course, killed her. Though Viktor was originally accused, Maija’s half-sister witnessed the incident and her testimony along with Jakubowsk’s friend’s information about the crime, cleared his name. Jakubowski was later captured, tried, and executed. However, Viktor was devastated, burying his beloved Maija under the Linden tree and inscribing her grave with “Love is stronger than death.” Both the grave and the inside of the cave are still popular pilgrimage sites. (As a side note, the carvings seen here are the coats-of-arms of those who’ve visited the cave, making it is one of the earliest sites of “tourism.”) Step inside this cave, listen to its history, become a part of its legend and feel the love that still resonates here 400 years later. Gutmanis Cave still holds its secrets.
Most people have never heard of pretty Riga, the capital of Lativa, a country that once again, many have barely heard of. It’s the middle state of the Baltics, snuggled between Lithuania and Estonia, speaking a strange language spoken by about 1.5 million people and related to Lithuanian and Old Prussian. Yet, one can’t help but fall in love with little Riga–with 700,000 residents, it is the largest of the three Baltic states. It is an old city (founded 1201), a former member of the Hanseatic League and a current UNESCO site–as well as known for it’s art nouveau. Following the impressive display of human collaboration in the Human Chain that linked the three Baltic capitals, the Latvians were finally independent in 1991. Outside of all that, Riga is just so European–probably because it has been relatively untouched. It’s unfortunate location on the continent meant that for some time it was swallowed by Russia and Germany. But as it is far away from the major European hubs, it Riga has been left as it is. Avoid the skyscrapers and commercial centres and ugly alluminan buildings. Here, whatever else has happened, at least the buildings are pretty.
Greeting you as you traverse forgotten paths through dark forests, turrets rise through the waves of golden trees like a fairy-tale castle. This is the beautiful Turaida Castle. To get here, there is (supposedly) a bus. But a far more enjoyable way to find Turaida Castle is to be mistaken for a German tourist at the Sigulda train station, be handed a map in German and told to follow it through the town of Sigulda, past the first, then second set of ruins, over the impressive Gauja River Gorge in a little yellow cable car, through the magnificent (if not eerie) woods, past the magical Gutmanis Cave, and finally, to the turrets of Turaida Castle itself. Built in 1214, demolished in 1776 by fire, then partially restored in the last decade, “Thor’s Garden,” as it translates to in Livonian, is a medieval castle on the Gauja River built by Albert, archbishop of Riga. It may still be an impressive place when arriving by bus or by car – but following the Sigulda train station’s tourist map, and exploring the region on foot in the journey described above is what truly makes visiting this castle a magical experience fit for a modern explorer time-travelling to the Middle Ages.
These ornate buildings were originally built in the 14th century as a guild for Latvian craftsmen and merchants. Of course it was bombed and demolished by the Germans and later helpfully re-destroyed by the Soviets, but happily, the proud Latvians rebuilt their iconic buildings. The strange name supposedly comes from the Nubian, St Maurice, who was the patron saint of the guild. Today, you won’t find any Latvian guild hall members but you might see another interesting specimen spilling out of these doors: the panicked, bewildered tourist. The House of Blackheads has been converted to a haven for lost tourists…namely, the tourist information office.