Cēsis – more castles and gorges

Wednesday 23 to Friday 25 August

Our first tour through Latvia was short – a single night in a soviet style hotel to break the long journey from Vilnius in Lithuania to Tartu in Estonia.

We returned to Latvia from Estonia travelling through countryside. For some reason the TomTom directed us on a route that avoided the major roads. We very much appreciated the back roads, where few trucks travel and roadworks hadn’t quite kept up.

Our destination was the main towns in the Gaujas National Park through which the Gauja River has carved gorges.

We arrived in Cēsis and found our accommodation. The best on offer was a small apartment which gave us a little room to spread out.

Rain was threatening, the story of our travels this year, so we dashed into the nearest cafe and stayed for dinner. It turned out to be very good. With all the rain it is quite cool, low teens, and this is summer!

We made our own breakfast, fresh fruit, muesli, yoghurt and bread and cheese.

It had rained all night, we kept waking to hear it tumbling down the drain pipe. Finally, around midday it stopped, and we could step out.

Cēsis is a quaint little town, under renovation like many others in the Baltic states.

We visited the castle complex, which is the main attraction in Cēsis. There are two castles, one old and the other new.

Construction of the medieval (or older) castle commenced in 1209 by the ‘Livonian Brothers of the Sword’, who were German ‘warrior monks’ who fought Baltic and Finnic pagans. Now the castle is just walls. We were given a lamp to use in the dark stairways. This was certainly a unique experience, navigating narrow circular stairs with just the light from one candle.

A gruesome tale came from the 1974 excavations of the western side of the castle courtyard. The remains of 3 women and 2 children were found at floor level under 3 metres of rubble. It is believed that these women and children sought safe shelter in 1577, rather than blow themselves up in a mass suicide, that was planned to avoid being taken prisoners by the ruthless forces of Ivan the Terrible.

In the castle grounds a medieval garden had been replanted, representing the fresh herbs used in foods, medicines and other domestic uses.

In the 16th century, the brother knights, part of the Crusaders, were resident in the old castle. They wrote, studied and built weapons. The villagers were responsible for the craft work, such as bakeries and smithies. The priest knights were responsible for religious well being of the village.

In the 18th century the Herrnhut brothers established by Nicolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf, a Christian Protestant established their first missionary in the Vidzeme (Middle Land) region in 1729. At this time Estonia and Latvia were the most educated territories of the Russian empire.

Count Sievers obtained the castle estate in 1777 and built the new castle. It famously contained the oldest brewery in Latvia – Cēsu Alus, which was built in 1878.

In 1949 the new castle was converted to an historical museum which gave us a lot of information.

We learnt about the Latvian flag and how important the red-white-red stripe is 2-1-2 proportions are important, where:

  • Carmine red symbolizes the readiness of the Latvians to give the blood from their hearts to defend their homeland.
  • White stands for the purity of the peace-loving Latvians

In the grounds of the castle we found a statue of Lenin which had been dismantled & stored. The statue was made by the respected Latvian artist Karlis Jansons (1896-1986), and although Lenin is out of favour, the work of Karlis Jansons is not. We found it an interesting diversion, as it adds to the current debate about removing confederate statues in USA and the discussion of Australia’s monuments to British ‘discovery’ such as Captain Cook’s statue in Sydney.

We finished our day with a walk through the castle grounds and to the Christ Transfiguration Orthodox Church, which was locked, then on to a hiking trail at the nearby Sarkanãs Cliffs in the Gauja National Park.