The picturesque ruins of Bauska Castle dominate a fortified hillock squeezed prosaically between two lush and green rivers.
At the confluence of both the Musa and Memele, the castle is in fact two separate fortresses. The first, built during the era of the Livonian Order forms the ruins, whilst the later 16th century castle of the Duke of Courland is fully intact.
We clambered up inside the partially rebuilt Livonian tower for views across the town and countryside. After days of searing heat and high skies, the afternoon was overcast, drizzling and muggy.
The ‘bread basket’ of southern Latvia showed itself to be largely flat and vastly arable, with great golden fields of cereal crops punctuated by industrial grain mills and distribution centres. The roads, as we had experienced them, were rough and as cyclists the local route into town was perilous.
Without dedicated cycle ways or even designated areas on the pavement (as in Lithuania) it was a case of pedal hard and keep your wits about you.
We bumped up and down high kerbs, narrowly missed being hit by traffic at pedestrian crossings and, once back on the pavements, appeared alarmingly invisible to packs of school children, trolley-wielding elderly ladies and pram-pushing young mums.
It was a relief to dismount and potter around the riverside. Since Latvian independence sent the Soviets packing, the legacy of decades of environmental pollution was able to be understood and dealt with.
Since 1990 the amount of factory pollution has decreased by 46% and waste water has dropped by 44%. Water and sewage reforms mean that the seas of the Baltic and the Gulf of Riga can now be enjoyed by swimmers and splashers alike. The remarkable transformation has been brought about largely through tax reforms and farmers’ willingness to change old practices, as well as private financing and EU investment.
At a local level in Bauska, the waters of the two rivers have been cleared and dredged of polluted plants and plankton. Proud signs detailing the relatively new inhabitants of the Musa river attest to its cleanliness. Vimbas, a sea fish which only spawns in fresh water, now breed in the rivers as well as water snails, mussels and mayflies.
Whilst the vimbas only live in the river for two years before swimming out to sea, the mayflies live just a few short days above the waters once they have hatched. That these creatures have established themselves in the Musa at all is a testament to how the local people have prioritised the needs of their damaged ecology systems.
Groups of families and friends strolled in rain macs along the river’s bank and silent fisherman crouched in camouflage under giant umbrellas.
The Musa and Memele are back to being enjoyed for their quiet waters and wildlife, and it seemed fitting to stumble across an outdoor theatre set amongst the sylvan woods not far from the riverbank and in the lee of the romantic-looking castle.