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Castles and manor houses
Even though Latvia has never been a mighty kingdom, we, too, can nevertheless be proud of ancient fortresses, grand palaces and enchanting manor houses. Surprisingly, hundreds of these witnesses to ancient times survive in Latvia, each of them with its own history, a special tale to tell, exciting architecture and uniqueness.
In each Latvian parish and town there is at least a more or less sophisticated manor house – if not a solid mediaeval knights’ castle or ruins of one – which is an important piece of cultural and historical heritage.
The first castles in Latvia were erected by the ancient Baltic tribes. Already more than 1,000 years ago, Curonians, Latgalians, Semigallians and Livonians built their wooden castles on steep castle mounds, which protected their inhabitants from enemies.
Most of them perished in the 11th to the 14th centuries when the territory of Latvia was conquered by the crusaders and the first stone castles of German knights and bishops rose up.
Many of them were built in the 13th to 16th centuries; they have suffered in countless wars, turned into imposing ruins a long time ago, but some, but in spite of the passage of time, still surprise us with their grandeur and the majesty of their ramparts. Such as, for example, Turaida castle, whose red walls rise above the entire picturesque Gauja valley, the now partially restored Bauska castle, or the fully restored Ventspils order castle. The most significant one of them all, Riga castle, still preserves much of its 1515 form and now serves as the residence of the President of Latvia.
Each castle has its own story, often replete with tragedy, for example, that of the Cēsis mediaeval castle. When in 1577, during the Livonian War, the castle had fallen under the siege of Ivan the Terrible’s troops, the residents of Cēsis, aware of Ivan’s cruelty, decided not to surrender and after five days and nights of exchanging fire resolved to go to their death. Three hundred noble men, women and maidens gathered in the castle hall and placed four powder kegs underneath it. They prayed to God, took Holy Communion, comforted one another and then blew themselves up. The surviving thick walls and towers of the Cēsis castle are still visible.
Once the tough middle ages were left behind, local gentry estates popped up like mushrooms after rain: the squires tried to outdo each other in terms of riches and might by erecting impressive manor houses that reminded one more of palaces while real palaces were being built by the Dukes of Courland. Take, for example, the Rundāle palace, designed by the Russian court architect Rastrelli, a gem of baroque and rococo on a European scale, charming us with its luxury still today. In the seventeenth century, fancy balls were held here, it was the palace of Biron, the Duke of Courland and nowadays newlyweds can dance their first waltz in the restored White Hall.
Many manors have also survived and regained their previous splendour. There was a time when they served as municipal seats, housing all of the local economic and cultural life. Dikļi manor was even the birthplace of the Latvian theatre when, in 1818, peasants produced and performed Schiller’s The Robbers in a threshing house. Nowadays the restored manors are a tasteful starting point for a journey around any Latvian region. In the castles and manors, you can spoil yourself with a massage or spa treatments. You can fish in the old baronial ponds, take a truly aristocratic meal in a tavern, sample wines under the vaults of the ancient cellars, go on a horse-drawn carriage ride – or a sleigh ride during winter, in a blizzard. To get a full impression of the Latvian castles and manors and the visiting options, see the following sections.