Just an hour away from the capital of Latvia is the small town of Sigulda. While often a day trip for visitors to Riga, I opted to spend a few days there to better explore the region. Boy was I glad I did, as I soon came to realise that Sigulda and the Gauja Valley were a cornucopia of sights, both historical and natural. I ended up with a pretty packed itinerary moving between cool medieval castles, scenic panoramic views and some really neat natural landmarks. Allow me to take you through all the there is to see and do in the vicinity of Sigulda and the Gauja Valley.
A natural place to start is with the town of Sigulda itself. Found 53 kilometres northeast of the national capital Riga in the region of Vidzeme, Sigulda is a modest town lying on the edge of the dense Gauja National Park. This town of 16,000 people has often been dubbed the “Switzerland of Vidzeme”, because of the sandstone formations found in the nearby valley. Despite its small size, Sigulda is actually quite spread out and almost feels like it lacks a town centre. Wandering is advisable as you get to explore the pleasantly serene streets of this intensely green town.
One of the cuter spots in town is the small park filled with giant walking sticks and mushrooms, resembling something out of Alice in Wonderland. The park owes its theme to the fact that locally crafted walking sticks used to be the most popular souvenir for visitors to Sigulda and the Gauja Valley.
The history of Sigulda is inseparable from that of Sigulda Castle. However, when I speak of Sigulda Castle I am in fact actually talking about two different castles. That’s right, two for the price of one! The castle complex actually consists of the New Castle and the older Medieval or Livonian Order Castle and they present a nice contrast. The castles are found in the northern end of town, overlooking the Gauja Valley below.
Approaching from town, you first reach the Sigulda New Castle and after entering the gate to the grounds you’re met with quite the sight. In summer, the gardens are in full bloom and there is a real burst of colour along the path leading to the castle. The New Castle actually appears as more a hybrid of a castle and manor house, which makes sense as it was only built in 1878. While once a manor house for a local duke, it now hosts the Sigulda Regional Council. It was sadly destroyed during World War I but later reconstructed in 1936-7 in the Neo-Gothic style. There are several outdoor information boards that tell you about the castle and also a terrace with a sweeping view of the nearby valley.
Behind the New Castle, you will soon be faced with the Medieval Castle and small bridge leading up to it. This historic castle built in the early 13th century, belonged to the Livonian Brothers of the Sword. The Livonian Order were known as “warrior monks”, German crusaders who had travelled to the Baltic region to fight and Christianise the local pagans. Yes, the Crusades didn’t just happen in modern-day Israel/Palestine but all across Europe!
Anyway, it was from this castle that these crusaders controlled the entire Gauja Valley and for centuries remained a pivotal regional stronghold. After getting caught up in the war between Sweden and Poland in the 17th century it sustained damage and quickly lost its significance. Thanks to frequent tourism throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, the castle has undergone both archaeological excavation and renovation. Visitors today are hence able to walk along the old castle walls and climb up its towers for views through the treetops.
Also found in the castle complex are several elegant ponds and some old buildings that now serve as workshops for various local craftsmen. One in particular is found in the old brewery and you can find what is known as sand art. Only the Medieval Castle requires an entrance fee of just 2€.
This impressive valley lies at the heart of Latvia’s oldest National Park. It is through this rocky, yet lush valley that the Gauja River flows. As a vital trading route historically, it was bound to attract settlers but thankfully human impact has been minimal on this breathtaking valley. The Gauja Valley and wider park is renowned for its high level of biological diversity and home to over 900 species of plant, 149 of birds and 48 of mammals. The region is protected and there are conservation efforts going on to preserve the region’s flora and fauna.
For visitors to the valley there is plenty of things to do. A perfect way to start and get a bird’s eye of view of the valleys is by taking the cable car across from Sigulda. A journey across costs 7€ one-way and lets you look both down and along the valley. It also beats walking all the way down into the valley and working your way up the other side. Apparently, for those looking for a big more adventure, you can even bungee jump off special cable car trips! I wrestled with the idea but decided I already had plenty to see. Maybe next time!
Nature lovers can take the opportunity to wander along walking trails that lead up and down the valley through fantastic, lush forest. After rainfall it actually feels like you’re moving through a rainforest half a world away. Another way to explore the forest is to rent a mountain bike and ride along the generally gentle paths. I wandered around both the higher and lower reaches of the valley and was surprised at just how diverse the areas were. Down by the river were wetlands with frogs chirping and yet higher up were thick forests with a totally different atmosphere.
One particularly bizarre – or terrifying, depending on your point of view – thing I came across was what can only be described as a sea of spider webs! Apparently one of the local species of spider weaves its webs across low reed-like plants and all these horizontal webs appear like a sea or carpet of spider webs from afar. Certainly somewhere where it’s best to stay on the trail.
At the other end of the Gauja Valley cable car is the small village of Krimulda. The village is a quiet and rustic place to walk through with some charming old houses. Krimulda belonged to Sweden until 1817 when the manor was purchased by Count von Lieven. There isn’t too much for visitors to see today but you can find a nice cafe at the Milly Cafe and also a convenience store in the centre of the village.
The main sight in the village is the historic Krimulda Manor House. The house dates from 1848 and was built by Count von Lieven in a Neo-classical style. Like most of the landmarks in the area, it sits on the edge of the valley with some great panoramic views. While the Manor House used to host a local museum, it now seems to function as a Rehabilitation and Recreation Centre.
Just outside the quaint village you can find ruins of Krimulda Castle in the middle of the woods. The castle dates from the 13th century and belonged to the Archbishop of Riga. It was destroyed in 1601 and slowly reclaimed by nature. The castle ruins are really quite atmospheric as they are immersed in the woods and feel like they’ve been hidden away from the world.
Across the Gauja Valley from Sigulda lies the equally enchanting castle of Turaida. The castle lies on the Turaida Museum Reserve which is home to a range of historical, archaeological and architectural landmarks, but the highlight is Turaida Castle. The castle was built as a counterpart to the existing Sigulda Livonian Castle in 1214 replacing a former wooden castle on the same spot. The name Turaida means “Thor’s Garden” in the native Livonian.
The red brick castle was improved upon over the centuries until a fire destroyed it in 1776. The castle was allowed to fall into ruin while manor houses and other buildings were built upon its grounds. It wasn’t until the 1970s that the castle received some much-needed restoration and allowed it to become the most visited museum in Latvia. There are some wonderful views from the renovated tower of the castle and there are a number of exhibits about the castle and region. Entry to the Museum Reserve is 5€.
A particularly nice part of the valley to explore is the banks along the Gauja River down near the Devil’s Cliffs. The banks of the Gauja Valley are known for their sandstone rock and the cliffs are the most interesting example of that. Here you can follow the bends of the river and admire sandstone rocks and small cliffs. The 15 metre high cliffs run for 250 metres along the river and are a just another example of the amazing diversity found along the valley.
Gutman’s and Devil Caves
On the banks of the Gauja Valley you are able to come across some fascinating caves. One such cave is Gutman’s Cave, the largest in all the of the Baltic countries. At the mouth of the cave are inscriptions on the walls by visitors dating from the 17th century. Tourists, sigh! The 19 metres deep cave is considered the oldest tourist attraction in Latvia. The cave is also the setting for one of the main local legends, the Rose of Turaida. The tale is too long to account here, so if you wish to learn about it feel free to read it here.
Along the Devil’s Cliffs you can also see the slightly more diabolical Devil’s Cave and Little Devil’s Cave. These smaller caves earn their name from their unusual appearance and tales of the Devil hiding within them, charring their insides black. The larger Devil’s Cave was once a site of pagan worship and is nationally protected historical and natural monument. Again, the caves bear inscriptions by tourists from the 19th century.
As I previously mentioned, Sigulda is a common day trip destination from Riga so getting there is quite straightforward. For those that don’t have a car, you have the option of either train or bus. Both take 75 minutes from Riga with the train costing under 2€ and the bus under 3€. Both bus and train schedules can be found here at 1188.
That brings us to the end of our look at the peaceful, yet extraordinary town of Sigulda and the wonderful Gauja Valley that it overlooks. If you have plans to visit Riga or Latvia in 2017, why not consider allowing a day or several to explore Sigulda and its remarkable surrounds.
Have you visited Sigulda before? What did you enjoy about visiting there? If not, what you most want to see there? Please share in the comments below.
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