When travelers think of the Baltic States (if at all!), it’s usually of Tallinn and Riga, the relatively well-touristed capitals of Estonia and Latvia. We loved Tallinn and Riga, but in our time in the Baltic States, we also wanted to get off the beaten path a little bit and discover parts of the region that weren’t as frequented by our ilk.
The issue was that we were on a fairly compressed time frame in the Baltics – we had to be in Vilnius, Lithuania by a certain day in order to catch our flight to Malta (ugh), so most of the rural, provincial parts of the Baltics we could see would be in passing. Luckily enough, many of the small towns scattered throughout the Baltic States, and especially Latvia as we would find out, are small enough to be walked in a couple of hours, after which you can be on your merry way to your next capital or abandoned Soviet military installation. Did I mention I loved the Baltics?
The first of our cutesy Latvian towns was Cēsis, located in the heart of Gauja National Park in Latvia’s Vidzeme region. Even at the end of August, in high tourist season, we didn’t see another tourist in the whole of the town. We had come from Kuressaare and Parnu that morning, where there were more tourists (maybe three or four?), and were giddy with excitement about being in a completely empty city. Driving through Latvia’s small towns was enchanting – the old wood and brick buildings (in varying states of disrepair) were beautiful and often ivy-covered. Cēsis was filled with these traditional dwellings, and had an extant medieval castle to boot.
We took about an hour to explore the castle grounds (there is a “new” and “old” castle in the town – the Old Castle the greater touristic draw). But it was wandering the streets that was most rewarding in Cēsis. It was laid back, gritty, and intimate. Dare I say economically depressed? It allowed us to look into the lives of real Latvians. It gave us a look that we didn’t get to see in the well curated streets of Tallinn just two days before. I am probably guilty of cultural appropriation to some degree – seeking these towns that aren’t as ritzy or showy as others (namely Riga, Sigulda, or even Jūrmala). The reason I do this, though, is because towns like Cēsis have less of a manufactured feel that those geared towards tourists tend to have – and it is this sense of authenticity, that real lives are lived in a place I am observing, that I find to be the most rewarding when I travel.
Another town that gave us this feeling was Kuldīga, in Latvia’s Kurzeme region. We had come directly from Riga, and were on our way to Klaipeda, Lithuania via Karosta, Liepāja. I had learned about it just a few weeks before our trip via an internet rabbit hole, and decided that we needed to stop. Other than the relatively flat topography in comparison to Cēsis, the two were remarkably similar. Similar wooden and brick buildings, similar lack of tourists. What we loved about the town was how green it was. Everywhere you looked there were plants and parks. Its lushness (and constant misting of rain) reminded us of home in the Pacific Northwest. Even the native plants were the same.
In fact, as it is a bit off the beaten path to get to Kuldīga, we had to take some smaller roads in and out of town – which meant driving through some really awesome tree tunnels that I’m sure someone spent a lot of time manicuring.
That said, there wasn’t much to differentiate it from Cēsis, until we randomly passed a decrepit building with Soviet flags hanging in the windows. Being a certified Soviet-o-phile, I knocked the door to the building and tried the door. It opened, and we entered what appeared to be a museum of Soviet memorabilia – JACKPOT!
We wandered in and met Andris, a middle aged man who had clearly lived quite a life, wearing a Speedy Gonzalez t-shirt. In stilted, but very functional English, he led us meticulously through the entire museum, room by room – even giving me former Soviet military uniforms to try on and pose for pictures in (like the Olde Tyme photo booths at state fairs – but one that I was actually keen to participate in).
After looking through his entire collection, he even took us across the street to another residence cum museum – a traditional Swedish style of home, I believe, that was several hundred years old. We didn’t get a complete explanation, as the proprietors were out of the country, but Andris explained what he could. We were more surprised by the fact that he walked us across the street, popped open the (unlocked) door, and let us in without any sort of hesitation. It made us think about how we, as Americans, aren’t willing to trust most people easily.
Both towns are 2 hours or less drive from Riga – Cēsis being closer. If you’re driving through the area, both are easy to hit if you are doing best of tours of the Baltic region. You’ll have to drive inland from the coast into Gauja National Park (an area that shouldn’t be missed when in Latvia, anyway) to get to Cēsis. There are also buses and trains that go to Cēsis from Riga daily. If you take the train, you’ll have the option to get off and explore Sigulda as well. For more general information, I recommend reading Lelde and Alex’s (of the blog, Life in Riga) piece on Cēsis here.
Kuldīga is a bit more off the beaten path. There are direct buses every hour or two, some running through Kandava – other buses run from Riga to Liepaja via Kuldīga, which would be a good approximation of our route. Heather at Ferreting out the Fun has written a post on it here – she took the public bus. We drove, and due to heavy road construction (throughout the entire Baltic region, actually – thanks, EU!), were rerouted many times before actually reaching Kuldiga. It’s not on any main highways in the country, so it takes some time to get there. That said, it is most definitely worth it!!