Cesis, August 19, 2005 - Friday

Trip Start Aug 12, 2005
Trip End Aug 27, 2005

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Sunday, September 21, 2008

Another sunny morning found me in a bus to Cēsis. Cēsis, a town of some 18000 people, is the second oldest city in Latvia, probably right after Rīga, and is also believed to be the birthplace of the Latvian flag. However, what's more that makes it special is that it's cracked up to be the most Latvian of all Latvian settlements. Some 90 kilometres away from Rīga, it appeared the right place for a one-day excursion to me. As between Rīga and Cēsis there was a regular hourly bus connection in both directions, I didn't have to worry even about how long I'd stay there. Whenever I decided to go back, there would be something to return by.
Entire ride took me less than two hours. When I got off at a small bust station in Cēsis, it was a hot noon. The first thing that struck me were trees. A lot of trees. All over the place. The bus station was almost like a provisional stop in a park and people who were waiting for the buses, whether on arrival or departure, were just sitting around on low walls.
Cēsis itself is nestled amid the pine forests of the Gauja National Park, one of the things to see in Latvia. But I didn't plan to visit the park today. That was in store for the next day. I decided to devote my time only to the town this time, and I would go to the park from another starting point. As the second oldest town of Latvia, I considered it worthy enough to be a one-day filler, in a leisurely manner, with no rush and hurry. For example, construction of the first stone castle began here as far back as 1206. It was built by German knights and the town soon grew around the castle, enjoying as a member of the Hanseatic League a long period of prosperity. Then came the 17th and 18th centuries when the town arrived on a rather long streak of bad luck. Being dealt a losing hand for quite a while, it was almost completely destroyed, like so many other cities in Latvia, by wars and plagues. The city only began to recover in the second half of the 19th century when it was finally linked to Riga by road and by rail. Today again, Cēsis is a major Latvian destination for tourists who either want to relax in the Gauja National Park or soak up the spirit of the past in the shadows of medieval remnants.
However, I started off with more mundane activities. First I noticed right by the bus station a sports stadium quite in a state of disrepair. I headed there, sat on one of the benches in the shadow of the trees and opened my diary to write a short entry, just so that I make a note of arrival in a town I'd never been to before. After that, as it was hot, I was to first get something to drink. Hence I pootled around a bit in order to hopefully stumble across something. Soon I found a small shop, bought myself a bottle of water or two, and right by the shop spotted a market to boot. I nosed about it for a while should I possibly find a piece of fruit I might buy, but although it wasn't even one o'clock yet, the market was rapidly getting deserted. It surprised me a bit, but I'd seen it before in other smaller places, so there was no reason why Cēsis would be an exception. I decided there was nothing any more for me on the market, so I started with my sightseeing.
I went up the street called Noliktavas iela, generally in the direction of the Castle and its park, and first came across Maija parks or the May Park in translation. It's actually a very neat spot, created in the 19th century. Complete with artificial pond, sloping green terraces and a gravel path around the water, it's very pleasant and it simply lured me to stop by. The park was once known as the Alexei Park, a name given in 1904 in honour of the birth of Russian crown prince Alexei. But not only Alexei's times were gone, but also the times when things in general had been given Russian names in Latvia.
In the park, right by the water, there was also a nice, little piece of art, a sculpture named "The Battle with the Centaurs", a graduation work by certain Kārlis Jansons, a local sculptor, which over time grew into one of the town symbols.
Just a few steps further on, only across Lenču iela there was Pils laukums, the square with Cēsis castles, or the reason why most of the tourists were coming here. There were two castles just a step away from each other, the old or medieval one, and the new one. I decided to kick it off with the New Castle.
Cēsis New Castle was built at the end of the 18th century. There was this Count who purchased Cēsis Castle manor, which also happened to include the Cēsis Medieval Castle. And then, right on the premises, he had this New Castle built for himself. Right up to the World War I it served as his family's residence. And since 1949 the Castle has been home of the Cēsis Museum of History and Art.
I entered the castle museum, got myself acquainted with history of the district of Cēsis, and eventually climbed to the top of the New Castle's Lademacher Tower. That was the place to go to for the view of the town and surroundings. It was a wonderful day and I guess I couldn't have a better weather for the climb up. Once on the top, I saw the ruins of the medieval Castle. I also saw the town with the St. John's Church, and beyond it all the forests of the Gauja National Park. And the flag flying from the tower mast proudly certified that Cēsis was the birthplace of the Latvian national flag.
Striking the New Castle off the list, it was now the old one's turn. It's said to be Latvia's most impressive and best preserved complex of castle ruins, and the most popular sight in Cēsis. Its construction began in 1207 by German crusaders known as the Livonian Order and it took some 30 years to complete. Throughout the centuries, the Castle shared its fate with the town of Cēsis, fending off assaults by Russian, Polish and Swedish forces. It took its fair share of beating and consequently it had to be rebuilt and expanded on several occasions. But wars and plagues in later centuries proved too much and after that it had never been rebuilt.
Inside the castle, or rather inside the Cēsis Castle Park, I could still see one of the last vestiges of Communism in Latvia. Once a proud Lenin statue that must have looked over some conspicuous and prominent spot in Cēsis and kept a watchful eye over political correctness of the locals, was now kept pretty unceremoniously in a wooden coffin-like box in a far-flung corner of the park. It didn't seem like it had put on any airs or graces of lately.
Also, in the castle ruins I could visit some underground dungeons and catacombs. In order to get a clearance for it, at the entrance you're first stopped by a girl with a long dark brown robe on, then she dispenses a few things like protection helmet and an oil lamp and you're away. I resembled a bit a tourist who tried to play a part-time miner, but it didn't matter. I knew that according to regulations I had to be protected and that was the purpose of it all.
When I left the castle, it was well past three o'clock already. Nice thing in places like Cēsis is that everything is close and you need not walk for miles around to get from one place of interest to another. So almost just around the corner there was Skolas iela where the St. John's Church or Svēta Jāņa baznīca was located. It was another thing built by those German Livonian crusaders in the late 13th century, testifying to the wealth and self-confidence of the citizens in the then flourishing town. Today the church allegedly contains tombs of masters of the order, but what was of more interest to me was the fact that its pipe organ is said to be one of Latvia's best concert organs. However, there was no way for me to try my hand on it. So I just walked around the church and moved on.
I rambled around the Old Town up and down some roughly cobbled streets which, outside the sight perimeter of Cēsu pils, i.e. the castle, looked pretty dilapidated, if nevertheless charming, and then I returned to Rīgas iela which became the town's main thoroughfare in the late 13th century and has ever since boasted of a rich architecture and history.
Yet, Cēsis is a small town and in spite of all of its historical riches, unless you start exploring its surroundings, and particularly if you skip the Gauja National Park, it soon gets difficult to find a reason to stay there forever. Unless you're called a citizen of Cēsis, that is. As I didn't belong among those, at one point I decided the time to return to Rīga had drawn near for me. So I headed back to the bus station. However, on my way there, I found something else that I had not seen earlier. It was the Victory Monument on Vienības laukums or Union Square.
The monument was first built in 1924 to commemorate the soldiers who fell in the Latvian War of Liberation, as one of the first monuments to those of the Latvian freedom battles. Then the Soviets in one of their more cheerful moments happily blew it up in 1951. After they had left, in the 1990s, the monument was restored, and then unveiled for a second time in 1998. And that was what I was now seeing.
Freedom is a medication for the heart, and not only for entire nations, but also for individuals like me. I always loved that feeling when I could go wherever I pleased, whenever I pleased. I don't know what it would be like if I could always live on the loose like that and whether at the end of the day it would turn out into a feeling of aimlessness. But for now it was a great feeling.
And it told me to now turn around and return to Rīga.
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