Exploring the inner beauty of Gauja National Park
Only an hour’s journey north-east of the Latvian capital of Riga is the beautiful area known as the Gauja National Park (Gaujas nacionālais parks) which is the largest national park in the country. The park takes its name from the river, the Gauja which flows directly through the park. The two towns to check out here is Sigulda (on the southern edge of the park) and Cēsis (which lies in the heart of the area). Now you (the reader) are probably wondering what there is to do here. Well, here is my lowdown on why visitors should take a day or two to explore the park whilst checking out Riga.
The park is easy to reach by road and rail. By train there are departures which often go to Sigulda from the central station in Riga and takes one hour. Sigulda will probably be most visitors first point of call due to all the main points of interests nearby. Trains do go to Cēsis but not as often and takes two hours. By road, car journeys take an hour to Sigulda and there are fast non-stop buses (as well as slow buses) to both Sigulda and Cēsis from Riga’s main bus terminal.
The starting point for the Gauja – as mentioned, this is the gateway to the national park. A short walk away from the train/bus station (they are both located at the same place), signposts will lead visitors to places of interest nearby. Walking northwards passing small parks and lots of wooden buildings, the first place to check out is the beautiful Sigulda castle (Siguldas jaunā pils) on the outskirts of the town with its Neo-Gothic facade. Since the castle was built in the late 1800’s, several different owners have lived here but since Latvian independence, the Sigulda Regional Council are based here.
Nearby is the cable car which takes visitors across the valley (over the Gauja river) where visitors can take in amazing views of the area. Latvia is known for its forests, lakes, rivers etc but the most beautiful scenery is from this area and the best place to view it is from the cable car.
Disembarking from the other side, there are plenty of hiking trails to the settlement of Turaida. On the way there is the ruins of Krimulda castle, which dates back to the 14th century but was destroyed during a war in the 1600s.
Also on the way and near the riverbed is the Gutmanis cave which is the largest cave in the Baltics. Inside, inscriptions can still be seen from the 17th century. Drinking the water from the small stream which flows through here is suppose to be healthy and legend has it that the water could increase the lifespan of people once swallowed.
Up the hill along the main road is the settlement of Turaida, another main spot in Gauja National Park. Here lies the Folk Song Park and Turaida Castle which are definitely worth hitting up. Starting off with the castle (which is about a ten minute walk from the entrance of the Folk Song Park), the castle overlooks the river and valley down below, so once climbing the steps of the tower, the view is truly amazing and one of the best in the country. The castle has stood here since the 1200’s and is mostly built with red bricks. Over the years the castle defensive system was improved with further towers added. As the castle was expanding, living accommodation was added, however in 1776, the castle was abandoned after a huge fire and fell into ruins. Now only parts of the defensive wall and some buildings such as the two towers remain.
As mentioned, the castle lies in the heart of the Turaida estate, otherwise known as the Folk Song Park which is a huge park with many sculptures dotted around the place and are fantastic to look at (whilst doing this, check out the hiking trails through the woodland and head down to the river from here, there are beautiful).
The church in the grounds dates back to the 1750’s, is one of the oldest in the country and still looks the same as the day it was built. Nearby is the memorial to the Rose of Turaida. What’s this you say? Well, near the church underneath a tree is the grave to Marija Greif who was a maiden from the village. Her life turned into a story called the Rose of Turaida, which is based on some documents found in the mid-1800s, which described her murder in the nearby Gūtmanis Cave on August 6, 1620.
Basically what happened was that in the early 1600’s, Swedish troops stormed into the valley and captured the castle. After the battle, a local known as Mr Greif found a small girl in the castle grounds (as well as loads of dead bodies laying about). He took her in, brought her up and named her Maija. Many years later, Marija grew up (of course) and turned out to be very beautiful. Because of this the locals called her the Rose of Turaida. Eventually she fell in love with the gardener named Victor Heil and he lived in Sigulda castle nearby. They used to meet up for secret meetups at the Gūtmanis Cave before they eventually got engaged.
However there was another man in the village named Adam Jakubovsky who lived in Turaida castle. He also proposed to Marija but she rejected him so he became a very jealous guy and decided to get her by deceit. To do this, he wrote a note (and made out that it was from Victor) and told her to meet at Gūtmanis cave. So on the day when Marija was at the cave, she understood that she was deceived. Marija decided it was better to die than remain faithful to her fiance. Wearing a red silk scarf around her neck, she told Jakubovsky that it would protect from the sword cut and told him to kill her. He tried and Maija fell down at his feet. Eventually Victor found Marija at the cave and he rushed to Turaida for help. Back at the cave with some locals, a gardener’s axe was found and therefore suspicion about Marija’s murder fell on Victor which lead to his arrest. However the events were changed again when the truth was eventually told in court and Victor was released. Marija was eventually buried at the edge of the graveyard at the church where Victor planted a linden tree on her grave.
The last place to check out in the Gauja national park (which probably has to be done on another day trip) is the town of Cēsis. The most popular spot to check out is the castle which is the oldest settlement located in the town on Riekstu hill. This fortified wooden castle has stood here since the early 1200s and has had many changes and add-ons to the buildings over the years. Next to the castle is the castle park which was designed in the early 1800s and has a charming, romantic feel to the place. There is a beautiful pond with beautiful plants dotted around the place and an excellent place to take a stroll.
So there you have it guys, these are the top places to check out in the Gauja National Park for day trips when exploring Riga. Have you been to the national park? If so, what is your amazing experience or what advice can you give? I would love to hear your views.