Fog. Thick, thick fog. It’s so thick it has a muffling effect. The noise of soft snow crunching underfoot is stifled, deadened. And all the other sounds… There are no other sounds. No wind, no ruffled leaves, no tinkling brooks. No people. No tourists got off the train with me. No locals are walking the city streets. No cars are driving by. A children’s playground I pass is iced over, covered in a slight dusting of snow. Sigulda is still, silent, eerie.
I shouldn’t be surprised by the absence of people; I have a knack for turning up in empty places. Even in Europe. I’m sure throughout the year Sigulda is thick with tourists, but midwinter, early morning, when the fog is thick and the snow freshly fallen, it is a grave, forsaken place.
Emerging from the mist, a kilometre from the train station, on the edge of the vast pine/spruce forest that is Gauja National Park, is a prim, modern castle. Or perhaps just a large gothic house. In fact it is Sigulda New Castle, originally a family home, now the headquarters for the Sigulda Regional Council. Pretty, but one glance and you have taken it all in. And, despite being constructed in 1881 in the neo-gothic style, it seems to have taken on some of the blandness of all council buildings.
Sigulda New Castle
Just behind the New Castle things get much more interesting. Immense stone walls, ancient fortifications, a deep moat. It’s the old castle of Sigulda, built in 1207 by the Livonian Brothers of the Sword.
In the middle of the moat, attached to a footbridge, is the ticket booth. A small glass window reveals a brown-cardigan-wearing staff member slumped over a desk. I tap on the window. The young lady wakes, opens eyes bleary with sleep, sells me a ticket. Her room is heated; warm air teases my face. Then the window closes, and the young lady slumps forward again, her head dropping onto her folded arms.
Sigulda Medieval Castle
The old castle, like the town of Sigulda, like the surrounding roads, like the spruce/pine forest, is empty of people. It doesn’t seem right. A place like this, empty. But there you go. It is.
I climb the castle walls. These have been rebuilt many times, most recently in a major restoration project that concluded in 2012. The Livonian Brothers of the Sword, also known as the Militia of Christ, were a group of German warrior monks that banded together to convert the irreligious masses living east of the Baltic Sea. Sigulda was one of their strongholds, but not for long; the knights were defeated in battle in 1236 by the Samogitians (a pagan ethnic group inhabiting western Lithuania), which led to their lands being seized by the Teutonic Order (a Catholic military force).
At the rear of the structure, where the ground drops away towards the Gauja river valley, is a medieval watchtower, also rebuilt.
From the top there are views over the Gauja valley to Turaida Castle. Or there would be, if this cursed fog would lift. Turaida Castle, which dates back to 1214, was also built by the short-lived Livonian Brothers of the Sword. It’s next on my itinerary.
But how to get there from here?
From the watchtower I can make out an assortment of paths leading into the pine/spruce forest. Some are completely iced over.
I opt for one of the relatively ice-free paths. It leads into a gully, then up a little knoll, then stops. No view from here; too many trees in the way.
Movement in the forest. White blotches on fawn hides.
The deer look at me. They are shy, concerned by my presence. They remain in place just long enough to confirm that I will come no closer, before resuming their journey, picking their way silently through the forest.
I return to the watchtower and choose another path. This trail, unlike the last, is largely comprised of stairs and landings, and it is all iced over. Stairs seem to attract ice.
The descent is treacherous. I look for trees to grab hold of, leafy patches to leap to, soft snow to tread on. Sometimes it is safer to walk beside the path.
Gauja National Park, Sigulda
In the bottom of the valley, adjacent to the Gauja River, is a two-lane road linking Turaida Castle with Sigulda. The path along the road is wide, and ice-free. Some kind soul has salted the trail.
The valley floor is unforested. Here, amongst scattered individual trees, lie park benches, picnic tables, ponds, carparks; all snowed in, all iced up, all closed for the winter. Manicured parklands in the summer months, full of frolicking families, running kids, feasting adults. In winter these pleasure grounds are empty, abandoned.
I head for Turaida Castle, following the river, heading away from Sigulda. A cleft in the cliffline, about half way to Turaida, piques my interest. It’s Gutman’s Cave.
I tramp through the snow to the cave, my ankle-height walking shoes disappearing with each step in the knee-height snow. Closer to the cliff the snow becomes ice, a huge patch of bare ice that I must skate across.
People have been coming to Gutman’s Cave for centuries. They come to drink the spring water that trickles along the edge of the cave – a mouthful of which is purported to cure no end of ailments. Graffiti adorns the cave walls; names, badges, coats of arms. The dates inscribed into the wall go back to the 1600s.
Should I take a sip?
Ordinarily I wouldn’t. Not this close to civilisation, not when there is the opportunity for farm animals, and humans, to wander in and foul the water. But Latvians love their spring water. You can get bottled spring water here that ranges in taste from metallic to swampish. All are supposed to bolster your vitality some way or other.
I’m tempted to have a taste, but I just can’t do it. I walk away, a little disappointed in myself.
Practical information on reaching Sigulda:
Sigulda is 50 kilometres outside of Riga and can be easily reached by train. Trip time is 1hr 15min.
Read more on Gauja National Park here.