An hour or so after we leave Tartu we enter Latvia, through the border town of Valga. And it shows, the difference is striking. Not so much in the countryside before and after, which is flat, lots of woods, the occasional farmland, and not very attractive. But the roads deteriorate notably, the towns we pass through look a lot poorer, and the roadside café’s are no longer slick affairs with uniformed waitresses, but – the one we stopped at – a small wooden building in a yard, with a couple selling not only coffee and homemade cakes, but also their own catch of lake fish, smoked, their own salamis and cured hams, and a whole lot of other unrelated products. A few tables on the veranda, a pregnant dog, all very local indeed, and so much nicer than formica furniture.
We had lots of ideas for stops on the way to Riga, but in the end we limited ourselves to the castle at Cecis and to what is called the White Dune, Balta Kapa, north of Riga. Somehow, we tend to take much more time than our original planning enthusiasm allows, which means skipping a thing or two, three.
Cecis castle, thankfully, we didn’t skip. Whatever you have ever imagined when thinking about a medieval castle, Cecis has it. The castle is surrounded by a moat, now dry. Many of the walls are in ruins, of course – that is how you imagine a castle – but the outline of the building is still clear. Two of the towers are proudly standing – perhaps a bit patched up over time -, and what is more, you can climb all the way to the top, along narrow, circular stairs. These are dark, so at the entrance you are given a candle light. Really! And it works!
We spent an hour wandering the castle grounds, climbing the towers, enjoying the view from the top floor. And we were the only ones, we had the whole place for ourselves. Fabulous. A boy’s dream.
Like the Vijandi castle in Estonia, the Cecis castle was built during the Livonian Crusade of the 13th century, initially in 1213 by the Brothers of the Sword – you remember? -, but the basis of the building of today stems largely from reconstruction by the Teutonic Order in which the Brothers had been absorbed, after a Prussian design. At the beginning of the 16th century the castle was further reinforced, with extra towers, only to be badly damaged in 1577, after having been besieged by Ivan the Terrible during the Livonian War (1558-1583), one of those wars between an emerging and expanding Russia and the Swedes. Further Russian demolition had to wait until the Great Northern War (1700-1735), again between Russia and Sweden, at the start of the 18th century (the war that firmly established Russia as the dominant, occupying power in the Baltics, at the expense of Sweden).
We briefly stopped at Sigulda, but after Cesis, no castle was going to match that, and in any case, Sigulda castle was closed for repairs. So we continued to Balta Kapa, heralded as ‘striking pine-covered cliffs that loom above a pristine white-sand beach dissected by a glistening stream and affording sweeping views of the Gulf of Rīga’. Hmmm. The dunes here, and dunes are no cliffs, have been formed long ago, and have since been stabilised by vegetation, mostly pines, to the extent that they are hardly recognisable as dunes anymore. The views are nice, not necessarily sweeping, and the infrastructure makes this a walk in the park: wooden walkway on top of the dunes, the occasional look-out platform, and in several places comfortable stairs down to the beach. Providing for a nice-enough and pleasant late afternoon activity, helped by beautiful weather. But not exactly overwhelmingly spectacular.
So, to Riga. Where we arrive early evening, for the next few days.