North-east of Riga, an hour and thirty of ponderous train ride (and yet full strength, open wi-fi – get that British people!) through lush expanse of forest (and hardly anything else) lies Sigulda, less a town, more a vast estate, a playground better fitting into a ruritanial dreamland than real life. Its detachment and various oddities make it seem as though you are trespassing on a film set at times.
What’s the appeal?
Where do you even start with this? Three castles, a nature reserve, untouched deciduous forest, an olympic bobsleigh track open to the public, a cable car spanning the valley, an expensive and dangerous looking anti-gravity ride, manors, ruins, the largest cave in the Baltics (not very large), centuries old carvings, wooden churches and farm houses and a sense of almost impossible twee perfection at points.
The town itself is lacking a centre, but there is a generally agreed-on main street. Like quite a few places built heavily for tourism and car travel with no market square to speak of, walking around here takes a while to get anywhere, but in Latvia it always takes a while to get anywhere, regardless of your mode of transport (Bobsleigh excluded).
Sigulda is more a site of individual bits of wonder such as those mentioned above, and encompasses the nearby villages of Turaida with its ethnographic village and impressive brick castle visible from almost anywhere overlooking the river, and Krimulda, with a crumbling manor and farm houses overgrown with weeds and looking worse for wear, in the most charming way imaginable.
Sigulda is an exciting place to be, yet at times wistfully quiet and remote too.
What about the nightlife? Yes, we were quite worried about that too. It’s difficult to find anywhere open after 11.30pm at night, and on one occasion we were the only humans still awake in town, seemingly. The bar/restaurant/club/anything-you-like place Kakis is your best bet, with a friendly barmaid, pool table and various beer offerings including dark Mezpils and the rarer Piebalgus. Kakis was quite popular on specific days, utterly deserted on others. Some of the kids take the pool very seriously, bringing in cues in special cases – one guy even had a pool glove. Pool glove, indeed. Anyhow, other than Kakis you are restricted to hotel bars and some seedy looking Casino/Sports bars on the outskirts that were, frankly, too much to contemplate.
Beer? Yes indeed. Latvia takes its beer producing very seriously and churns out a range of beers all with a slightly different take on what you’ll be used to. Fruit and herbal beers are quite popular and the ubiquitous Aldaris is responsible for a lot of it, though there is some craft ale coming through in that tradition. Opt for the unfiltered lagers where available, and there are some enormously tasty brown ‘tumsais’ wheatbeers which were my favourite.
If you want a night off the sauce try Kvass, a very peculiar thick, sweet and slightly savoury beverage that gives coca-cola a run for its money in Latvia.
Extra-curricular? The ancient, ancient town of Cesis is further up the road into the oblivion/middle of nowhere that is rural Latvia. Expect a few steely stares from locals. Alternatively head back to the economic basket case, rip-off joints and stylish underground bar scene of Riga.