Rural Latvia around Sigulda
The next Baltic state in the row is Latvia, where we visit Sigulda. There is a beautiful old capital here as well (Riga), but we choose to visit the countryside. There, in the hills, are several old castle ruins to explore. Besides, it’s wintertime and Sigulda has some winter sports facilities, including a bodsled track.
Russian trainThe sleep train to Riga gets us in a Russian mood. It’s obvious that the train is Russian built, and there are conductors with long blue winter coats at each carriage. Our cabin only has 4 beds (the other 2 remain empty) so can sit and we get a nice cup of tea when we leave and just before we arrive. We like the train so much more than the bus…
At 5.22 AM we arrive in Riga. This is the metropolis of the Baltic states, which can be seen from the size of the railway station. Since we are not fond of big cities, and we would like to see some countryside. So we move on to Sigulda, a village with forests, castles, mountains, etcetera.
From the train we can see that Latvia is a bit colder then Lithuania. We see frozen lakes and everything is white. Consequently, the roads in Sigulda are slippery again and we search our route in the cold Sunday morning. Unfortunately, the little tourist office is closed and we have to rely on our Lonely Planet guide to find a hotel. But the map is not very detailed and we make a detour because the road has a different name in the guide. When we get there, we’re pretty tired and take a nap.
A lot of Pils in the coldOnce awake it is almost noon, we have to hurry if we want to do something before dark. On the map in the hotel we see a lot of Pils, even a Pils street. It appears that Pils is Latvian for castle and with some extra information, we’re off to see a few. When we pass a few ice skating boys we realize it must be really cold, minus 7 centigrade during the day, we understand later.
Pretty soon we arrive at the new castle of Sigulda, built in the 19th century. The ruin of the old castle still lies behind it. In the new castle is a fancy restaurant, where we enjoy a meal. Not even expensive, for Dutch standards.
After lunch we visit the ruins of the old castle, which includes an open air theatre. Obviously, that is not being used today. We continue walking through the forest and find some nice view points. We can look down in the valley where the river Gauja flows and to the other side where we can see the castle of Turaida. Dusk already sets in (at 3.30 PM) when we head back to town.
On our way back we see a Christian graveyard. From what we can see, there are a lot of people visiting the graves, although it’s a Sunday. But it’s obvious that people here are religious, something that was suppressed by the Soviets for so many years.
BodsledBack in the village we go to see the bodsled track. It’s an official track belonging to the international circuit. And on Saturday and Sunday in winter, tourists can make use of the track. When we arrive it’s dark but the track is lighted. Unfortunately, there is no bodsledding going on. Instead, a few skeleton athletes are practicing. We watch for a while and leave a little disappointed.
Looking for a place to eat is not very easy. It is the lowest of low seasons and the restaurants are either closed or not our idea of a nice place. But in the end, we find a nice dining place with good food for little money.
Castle watchingOn Monday, we take a bus to Turaida to visit the castle and walk back to Sigulda through Gauja National Park. At Turaida we have to pay 1 Lat ($ 2 or € 1,5) to visit the castle and grounds. But we feel a little deceived since most of the attractions are closed in this season, like the blacksmith, sauna, fish breeding and some expositions, to name a few. But the castle itself is enough of an attraction, despite the big difference between original and reconstructed parts of the castle. In the reconstruction, perfect brick stones are used, in contrast to the original.
From the castle, located at the edge of the rocks, we find a path leading down. Through the snowy forest we descend to the valley. At some places there are stairs, but elsewhere we follow some vague footprints in the snow. The beautiful route brings us to the river, where pieces of ice are flowing downstream. The road along the river leads us to a large hotel where according to our map a restaurant is located. But that’s either wrong or only there in high season.
We follow the road where large signs lead us to Gutmanis cave. Not very interesting, if you ask us. Instead, we enjoy the beautiful forests in the snow, where small streams are searching a route to the river. We take a steep path up instead, following signs to Krimulda. There is not much left from Krimulda castle, but there’s a nice little village, where we take a look before we take the cable car back to Sigulda. Again, we are the only tourists in the cable car, which is also used by school children.
Ski slopesBack in Sigulda we follow a route along the valley. Here we pass a few ski slopes. To our surprise, there are ski lifts and the slopes are being prepared. For fun, and to follow the route, we slide down on the slopes. Some winter sports after all.
We end the day with a few drinks and a meal in a fancy restaurant, at least for our standards. And, having seen most of the attractions in Sigulda, we decide to move on to Tallinn the next day.
Sigulda has beautiful surroundings and is well worth a visit. Tourism facilities however, makes us wonder. Apparently, the focus is on luxury tourism, instead of offering more choice. We have no idea how crowded the village becomes in summer, at least there are more activities then, plus some camping facilities. But in winter, a bit of choice is lacking, as far as we’re concerned. Nevertheless, we had a great time.