The first castles on the Latvian territory were built by our ancestors more than a thousand years ago, only these wooden structures, usually erected on castle mounds, have not been preserved. Using evidence from digs, a Latgalian lake castle has been built from scratch at Āraiši, replicating the way it was in the ninth and tenth centuries. In Lielvārde, the artist Agris Liepiņš has built Uldeven’s castle with his own hands, reflecting the style of a number of ancient Latvian castles.
The next wave of castle construction took place with the arrival of the German crusaders in the 12th and 13th centuries. This was a time when they built the first stone castles as fortifications for preserving their conquests. Many of them have long since been reduced to ruins – in Tērvete, Ludza, Lielvārde, Bauska and elsewhere – but the Riga castle has survived, albeit greatly expanded and rebuilt.
Truth be told, little has been preserved here from the 14th-century order castle. This was once the residence of the Master of the Livonian order, the Duke of Courland and Semigallia, the Polish Governor General, the institutions of tsarist Russia, and now, as during the first period of independence, it is once again the palace of the President of Latvia. When looking at the Tower of the Holy Spirit, pay attention to the flag: if the President is in Latvia, his standard will be raised on the tower; if not, it will be lowered; whereas, if a foreign leader is visiting, the flag of that country will be raised. Changing of the guard can be observed in front of the Riga castle. It also houses the National History Museum and the Foreign Art Museum.
In Cēsis, impressive ruins of the Livonian Order castle are on view. An order castle also can be seen in Turaida, containing a museum, and an annual running competition is held annually in the 38-metre-tall tower. In Ventspils, the former knights’ castle has been significantly rebuilt, it now contains a museum and a tasteful pub.
Only ruins remain of the Tērvete knights’ castle, but the local castle mound is all the more noteworthy because of a former Semigallian castle that was ruled by the chieftain Nameisis. A ring in the shape of a coiling grass snake has been named after him and is worn by many Latvians nowadays, as well as exchanged at weddings. In the war against the crusaders, the Semigallians remained undefeated, even though they lost their homeland; led by Nameisis, they went into exile to Lithuania in 1281 instead of choosing a life of subordination under the conquerors.
Latvian castles and palaces are also true gems of architecture. The most notable of them is Rundāle palace, designed in 1736 in baroque and rococo style on commission by the Duke of Courland by the Russian court architect Rastrelli. The palace has been restored, fantastic ceiling paintings, a collection of porcelain and antique furniture are on display there, and it is surrounded by a French garden with nearly 3,000 varieties of roses. Receptions by the President of Latvia are held at Rundāle palace. The other creation by Rastrelli in Latvia is Jelgava palace, where the inauguration ball of the former President, Valdis Zatlers, was held.
Jelgava palace is notable for another prominent individual: at the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries, the French King Louis XVIII sought shelter here following the French Revolution.
Another prominent name is associated with Latvian castles and manors: that of Baron Münchhausen, the famous storyteller, who shot ducks through a chimney, rode on a cannonball and, when drowning in a marsh, pulled himself out by his own hair. Regardless of what may have been the case, Münchhausen’s residence at the Dunte Manor is a historical fact. Having been born in the German lands, having served in the Russian army and after a brief stay in Riga, Lieutenant Hieronymus Carl Friedrich von Münchhausen married Jacobine, the daughter of judge and Baron von Dunten, in 1744. This is recorded in the church register of the Pernigel church of the Liepupe parish, and the most beautiful moments of the marriage that lasted 46 years were enjoyed nowhere but in Dunte.
Almost all castles and palaces house museums with an abundant range of historical artefacts; mediaeval fairs are held there which allow visitors to try out their bow and crossbow shooting and axe-throwing skills, find out about the secrets of artisans from blacksmiths, potters and other craftsmen.