Friday, August 30, 2013

Baltic Roadtrip Day 1. Sigulda and Turaida Castle.


Bird's eye view of Turaida Castle.

After our visit to the Latvia Ethnographic Museum, we followed Ieva's itinerary and drove our way to the town of Sigulda. The main road signs in Latvia are pretty good and we arrived into the outskirts of Sigulda in no time. Our goal was to make it to Turaida Castle but we first had to find town center which turned out to be a different challenge. Ieva had instructions which we did our best to follow - back to navigating using landmarks! 



Surprisingly, we made it to the center of town quite easily. There was a big parking lot which looked like it was adjacent to the bus or train station so we pulled in and parked.


As we got out of the car, we noticed a big map of the town - very helpful to give us the lay of the land though these days my memory is not as good as it used to be. In my younger days, I could look at a map and remember a route. These days, I look at the map and if I'm lucky, remember a spot or two. So sad to be getting old :-(


Across the parking lot was a small bakery, Misters Biskvīts.  It's bright orange awning caught my eye.   It was lunch time so we decided to check it out. We headed inside and checked out the menu and of course, Bro had to scan the baked goods in the display case. I decided that a plate of pasta would be perfect - skip out on any pastry. Bro opted for the same so we placed our order at the counter and headed outside and found ourselves a table.


As we were waiting for our food to come, a woman approached us. Yes, we do stand out like sore thumbs. In the few days we've been here, I've not seen any other Asian faces around. Turns out she was visiting from Hawaii and apparently, she comes to Latvia quite often - staying with friends. Of course, we asked about what there was to see/do in Sigulda and she gave us some suggestions - the cave, the castle. All on our intinerary. We wished each other safe journey as she left us.

Waiting for our food.

Bees were buzzing all around us - probably attracted by the sweet smells emanating from the bakery. Here, food comes when it comes and you learn to be patient. As we waited, we pulled out the guidebook to figure out how to get ourselves to the castle. Several options were available. First was to drive all the way there. Second was to walk all the way there. Third was to drive to the cave and from there walk to the castle. Fourth was to drive to the cable car and then take the cable car across the river and then walk from there. Of course, I was attracted by the fourth. Who doesn't want to take a cable car if they have the chance? From our table, we could actually see the road sign that pointed the way to the cable car. We couldn't have found a better spot to eat if we really tried!

In due time, our dishes came and as expected, the portions were pretty sizable. I was ready to eat! Maybe it was because we had the walk through the Ethnographic Open Air Museum and burned off the calories.

Driving through the pretty countryside of Sigulda. 

Happily full, we got back in the car and made our way on the road that we hoped would lead us to the cable car. We drove a short distance and we could see the cable car above our heads; the river was straight in front of us. Tried as we could, we couldn't find any turn off or road or sign or parking lot or whatever to tell us how to get to the cable car. We eventually gave up and headed for Plan B which was to park at the cave and walk up.


Now, cave we found. We pulled into the lot and there was a small information office. I figured we needed to buy entry tickets but we actually didn't. Instead, we got walking directions to the cave. Oh, I love caves and I hadn't read anything about one in my pre-trip planning so I was really curious about what we would see.

The cave.  Hmm....

We followed the path which took us to a underground walkway that took us across the main road that we had just driven on. We continued to follow the path which wound its way through a pretty little patch of green space. The path dead ended at what I would describe as a dent in a hill. This was the cave.

What? This isn't a cave! It's a dent in a hill. I was expecting a cave, with caverns and tunnels and the whole bit but this is a cave according to Latvia. Need to adjust my expectations. 

There was graffiti carved over every inch of space of the stone wall.

Very strange.

Not much to see so we left after a few minutes, heading back along the path that we had come from.

The caves were not much to look at but the park in front was a pretty green space.

Just follow the sign?

Now, how to get to the castle from here.

I figured we would just continue along the path leading away from town - the direction the sign was pointing us in. So that's exactly what we did. We had absolutely no idea where the castle was relative to where we were at the moment but it was a nice path and a beautiful afternoon for a stroll. Then, the path crossed the main road and led us to a camp site where it dead ended. No signs to point us in any direction. What the ?? We decided to back track to the main road and follow that. Only problem was there was no walkway or sidewalk of any sort. We were basically walking on the shoulder of a busy road. Not exactly the stroll I had been looking forward to but no choice. The road was an uphill walk. I commented how it was flat in the rest of Latvia and the one stretch we had to walk on was up a hill. Sheesh.

No sidewalk, no signs, no castle, not good.  Julee not happy camper :-(

As we put one foot after another, cars whizzed by us on our left. Every now and again, I would look back as if that would stop a car from hitting us. I was definitely NOT enjoying this walk but Bro was insisting on moving forward. Worse yet, was we had no idea exactly where we were going or how far we had to walk. I was not a happy camper. If it had been just left to me, I would have gone back and gotten the car and driven to the castle. But, the conversation helped to distract me and before long, we had arrived. Yay! Good news is that the walk back is downhill all the way. Yay again!

Terracotta colored tower peeking above the trees.  Could it be the castle?

Bro bought out entry tickets and got us a map which we dutifully followed. The path we were end took us straight to the castle. It was a nice walk alongside woods and well manicured gardens. Along the way, we passed a small but ever so cute looking church and a sculpture garden. We made a note to visit both on our way out.






We also happened upon a small museum which we decided to step inside. All the items were described in Latvian but I figured they all must have had something to do with the castle or life in the area at the time the castle was actively occupied.




Just outside the museum, a young (married/about to be married couple) was having their photos taken. I can see how this place would make for a pretty backdrop.


We arrived at the red brick castle and the only thing to see was the surrounding landscape from the top of the tower.  The threatening skies quickly cleared up and we had bright sunny skies the rest of our visit.


I loved the traditional Latvian style uniforms of the museum workers.

I opted out of climbing up but energetic Bro did the deed.

The castle tower, museum on the left.

Bro looking out the window. 

Here are some of the photos he took of the views he saw from the window in the tower.

Me.

I didn't know I was sitting in front of some ruins until I saw this photo.

 I waited for him at ground level and when he peeked out of the tower, we both took pictures of each other. So cheesy. While Bro was checking out the scenery, I was taking photos of this building which I was guessing was probably the museum. I just thought the flags were so pretty.

The Museum.

The flags.

Bro was up and down the tower in less than 10 minutes. We next entered the building that I was guessing was a museum and in fact, that's exactly what it was. Lots of interesting items on display on several floors. But unfortunately, everything was labeled in Latvian so all we could do was look. Oh well. We went to all the floors and glanced into as many display cases as we felt like but it was a short visit to the museum.



The young couple was still taking photos when we walked passed them. We then arrived back at the sculpture garden. I wasn't in the mood to see modern art and Bro didn't voice any interest either so we walked on. We did check out the cute little church though - loved the rooster atop the spire.  Surprisingly, neither one of us took any photos of the interior - must not have been all that impressive, especially as compared to the beautiful little Lutheran church we had see in the Latvia Ethnographic Open Air Museum.


Right next to the church was a small memorial of some sort. We gave it a quick look see as well. Later I learned this was the grave marker for a young girl named Maija who was also known as the Turaidas Rose.


The bittersweet story of Maija, as described in Wikipedia:
"After a battle at the foot of Turaida Castle in 1601, the castle clerk, while searching for survivors, found a baby in the arms of its dead mother. He called the child Maija and brought her up as his own. She grew up to be very beautiful and so was known as the "Rose of Turaida". She fell in love with Viktor, the gardener at the castle of Sigulda (opposite Turaida over the Gauja River) and in the autumn of 1620 they prepared to be married. Shortly before the wedding Maija received a letter from Viktor asking her to meet him at the Gutmanis Cave, their usual meeting place. She went to the cave with Lenta, the young daughter of her adoptive father. When she reached it, however, it was not Viktor she encountered but a Polish nobleman or soldier called Adam Jakubowski who was lying in wait for her with the intention of forcing her to be his wife. Maija promised to give him her magic scarf, that had the power to make the wearer immune from injury (in some versions the scarf is impossible to cut through), if he would let her go, and persuaded him to test its power on her. He struck her with an axe and she died, having thus saved her honour.

In the evening Viktor came to the cave and found the body of his betrothed and was accused of the murder. But in court there appeared a witness called Peteris Skudritis, who testified that he had been commissioned by Jakubowski to deliver the fatal letter. Lenta confirmed the course of events. Viktor buried his betrothed near the castle, planted a linden tree on the grave and left the country forever. According to documents in Sigulda's archives the soldier was later caught, tried and hanged for his crime. From then on it has been customary for newlyweds to leave flowers on the grave of the Rose of Turaida in hopes of knowing the same eternal love and devotion.
"

Before we exited the Turaida complex, Bro made a quick pitstop to use the facilities. We headed back down the road towards the caves. For some reason, it felt like a shorter walk back to the car than when we walked to the castle. I wasn't complaining. I was just relieved to be back at the car. We had done quite a bit of walking today and I have to admit, my feet were tired - I was ready to sit for a drive.

Our next destination was suppose to be the town of Cēsis where we would see another castle.  We decided that one castle was enough for day so we opted to continue to the town of Valmiera where we would be spending the night. On this trip, I decided we needed to make sure we made it to the final destination of the day before night fall. It's already hard enough to read the street signs during day; I fear the difficulty of doing the same when it's dark outside. So, Bro navigated us back out to the main highway and on the road towards Valmiera. We followed the road signs to Valmiera and once we turned off the main road, read Ieva's instructions to get us to the hotel. Oh boy. Here's how they read.


We did pretty well; we actually made it to the church. Only problem was we couldn't turn left as the entire road was under construction. So, we had to come up with our own detour. Through a combination of instinct and incomplete map and my stellar (*grin*) ability to read road signs, we actually found the  Hotel Wolmar. Ok, reality was we had to do several u-turns to get to the street but we eventually made it!

The church, our navigational landmark.

Organizing this tour through Baltic Holidays took care of having to make all the hotel arrangements - definitely a plus. To check in, all we have to do is hand over the voucher. While Bro parked the car in the hotel's back parking lot, I took care of filling in all the requisite paperwork. We ended up getting a large room on the 2nd floor though it did overlook the main road. I figure Valmiera is such a small town, there wouldn't be much traffic, especially after it got dark.

After a few minutes to settle in (which included time for me to spread out my boletes and chanterelles to dry), we decided to head out for dinner. According to my guidebook as well as the receptionist, there was basically only one place in town worth eating at and it was conveniently located about 2 blocks away, across the street from the church that had earlier passed by.


Valmiera is indeed a small town. At the intersection where we were suppose to turn left to get to the church, we happened upon a small city park. Pretty little park with a small lake and fountain.


We took a seat on a bench. We were both tired. Next thing you know, an elderly woman and a young child (perhaps her grandson?) happened by. She had bread in bag and was showing the young boy how to feed the hungry ducks. He was absolutely adorable!



From the park, we made our way to the restaurant, Restorāns Rātes vārti, a surprisingly upscale place. I'm sure they had indoor seating but despite the chill in the air, we opted to eat outside; we had our jackets on. Our pasta lunches were still in our bellies so neither of us really wanted anything big to eat. We both settled on salmon appetizers.

Checking out the menu.

Bro's dish of potato latkes with raw salmon.

My salmon tartar.

You have to admit, it's pretty upscale plating considering we're in a small town in the middle of Latvia. I had the tartar and I have to say, it was very tasty. Bro had the potato latkes with the raw salmon which he seemed to thoroughly enjoy as well. For dessert, we shared a piece of apple pie. It was a very pleasant meal!

On our way back to the hotel, we came upon what looked like a shopping complex. We were curious so we headed in. Inside, we found a local supermarket which, of course, we had to check out.  It was interesting to see the foods they sell here.  I was particularly interested in checking out the sprats which Latvia is famous for. So many options to choose from. At this point, I was just checking things out - I figure we'll be back in Riga and I'll do my Latvian food shopping then. I did however pick up a bag of garlic bread.....the crunchy kind. Good for snacking :-)

Back in the room, it was the usual nightly duties. Tomorrow, we arrive into Estonia and we have to be at the Visitors Center in Soomaa National Park by noon but first we have to check in at the guesthouse that we'll be spending the night at. It's not a long drive but with our getting lost here and there, not to mention having to figure out how to get to the main highway from our hotel, we'll need to make a good head start so it will be an early wake up call tomorrow morning.

Goodnight from Valmiera!