Latvia 2017: Nov 4th

The day didn’t start brilliantly with me not opening my eyes until an hour later than I’d planned. Trains to Sigulda go at 7.54 (far too early) or 10.38 and I’d anticipated hanging around town for a while. Nope. Up, fling stuff in bag, run for bus, hurl myself across town, buy ticket with 20 minutes to spare (in which to top up my picnic collection) and off I went. 

Sigulda is a popular little town 30 miles north east of Rīga and it takes nearly an hour and a quarter on the train. That’s an average of just 24mph. A lot of Latvia between Rīga and Sigulda is just forest – pine and birch mostly, I think, with bits of bog in between to break up the monotony and the occasional tiny town built around a factory. 

Sigulda was easy enough to spot – I’d spent over an hour deciphering the announcements so I could understand when it was time to jump off (not doing a Predeal here, not again) and also, it was the first time I’d seen mown grass, real tarmac roads and buildings that looked like they’d survive a brisk wind since Rīga. And even so, the guidebook wasn’t wrong when it described Sigulda as looking more like a park with apartments scattered gently over it. 

I walked through the trees to the playground, past Key Square, called in at the Lutheran Church and then found the castle complex. Sigulda itself has two. The new (18th century) one is a manor house with a slightly ridiculous crenellated tower on top, the old one is the ruins of a medieval Livonian Order castle. It cost €2 to go in and it was worth every penny. 

It’s a ruin. They’ve restored part of the gatehouse & south wall and they’ve stuck a wobbly wooden top on the north tower and there’s a big stage in the courtyard for the annual open air opera festival. And there’s a view over the Gauja valley – possibly not at its best in November, all grey trees with no leaves, cloudy sky but a view to Krimulda Manor on the other side and the red brick Turaida Castle. And the cable car! My guidebook said that had already stopped for winter but there it was! I walked back up to the church, across the road, which dives down into the valley here, you have to cross it at the top, and down to the cable car station. I arrived just as it was leaving so I had to wait half an hour for it to return and prepare to go again and in that time I saw two people go zip lining on the cables. They hang from each side of a big red canopy, slide down the cable and stop in the middle, hanging high above the valley for at least five minutes. I couldn’t figure out how they get back up the wire. What happens is the cable car comes along, with a sort of spring-loaded lance and pushes them back as it returns to Sigulda. And yes, I thought about doing the zip line. 

I crossed the valley. It takes just under ten minutes and it’s not a valley like anything I’ve ever seen before. And yet it’s not quite a gorge. It’s wide and deep. 

Krimulda is the creepiest place I’ve ever been. The ruins of the old castle in the woods next to the station are good. I opted not to follow the two mile Serpentine Road to Turaida – not along a deeply forested ridge on my own with the dark barely two hours away. A shame because Turaida Castle looks nice. And Krimulda is not. It’s basically the mouldering remains of a manor house and its surrounding buildings. But it’s all deserted and crumbling and hidden in the wood. There’s a crumbling but once good-looking wooden Swiss house. A lady came over on the cable car, prowled around, looked at the remains of the back garden, tried the side door – and then went inside! Oh no. No no no. 

The Manor itself may be a rehab centre. But I think that was a project and an idea that never worked. I don’t think anyone’s there now. I fled very quickly back to the safety of the cable car and back to the real world in Sigulda. It seems it actually functions as a hotel/hostel these days and had good reviews on booking.com. If I’d accidentally booked it, no way would I have even gone up to the door. I’d have been back to Sigulda, on the train back to Rīga and home as quick as possible. The place is pure nightmare fuel. 

I bought a walking stick. Only a miniature one. Walking sticks are a thing in Sigulda. I think they used to make them and walkers visiting the national park would buy them and now it’s such a favourite souvenir that they constructed a walking stick park. My stick is thin as bamboo and only about a foot long but it’s got the traditional red and green decorations and it’s very pretty. 

It had been drizzly over in Latvian Horror Land but as I walked back through Sigulda to the station, the sun came out. I sat and watched the train arrive, waited for the back to become the front and for the Sigulda lights to become Rīga lights and headed home. The train was a lot quieter than it was this morning. Still very slow. 

I came home on the trolleybus, ate and headed out to see Rīga by night. Well, not true night. It was ten past six. And there were already quite a lot of severely drunk people. Rīga, for some reason, has more emergency vehicles with lights and sirens than anywhere I’ve ever been but now it was dark they felt a bit more sinister. So did everything. There’s no real reason to be nervous but it occurred to me that I was apprehensive about being in this city in the dark in a way I don’t remember being anywhere else. Does it feel too Stereotypical Scary Russian? In a way, maybe. By the way, when you get off a bus or buy a ticket or get a door held for you, you say thank you in Russian, not Latvian here. Or sometimes French for no reason I can fathom (Well, unless it’s the Russian aristocracy thing). So I went down to the stop by the river and took the tram across the bridge. Tomorrow I really must walk it, just once, but I have a bus pass and it’s so easy to hop on a bus or a tram. 

Now I shall go to sleep and have nightmares about Krimulda. 

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