Set alongside the green waters of the Gauja river, Sigulda is Latvia’s castle country.
The small and tourist-friendly town is a base from which to visit three separate sites, on either side of the river and linked by a cable car. Our guide book (Lonely Planet – others are available, of course) promised crumbling ruins, sweeping views and an atmosphere rich in folk lore and fairy tales.
On a very hot August day, 33 degrees in the shade with a real feel of 38 degrees in the high humidity, we gamely (foolishly?) set off to discover the delights, sporting walking boots and sprayed head to foot in mosquito repellent.
The guide book (you know which one it is by now) suggested a 6km hike taking five and a half hours, beginning in the centre of Sigulda.
The route was short on detail but we expected a good level of local signage, and firstly headed up an extremely steep path from the river to the town, set on a bluff high above. Halfway up through the forest of virgin pine trees the path had capsized, and we picked a way gingerly along the hillside’s edge. It was to be the first of the day’s challenges.
Sigulda’s new castle turned out to be the local council’s headquarters, in a turreted building begun in the late 1800s. We didn’t see much of it as it was under scaffold and workman were busy flinging parts of it down and into waiting skips.
We ventured a little further to the town’s original medieval castle built in the 1200s by the vicious sounding Order of the Brethren of the Sword, German crusaders on the order of the pope to convert the pagan country.
The castle was ruined during the Great Northern War in the 18th century and rebuilt in the 20th. Studying the small print of a notice we discovered that due to the dire nature of the castle’s ruins and a lack of information about its original layout, the architect simply designed what he saw fit.
Today’s medieval castle boasts a large outdoor stage and tiered seating along the battlements. It was hosting a summer of pop acts, A-ha, Rita Ora and Dire Straits amongst them.
The short cable car ride across the Gauja was expensive but enjoyable. One single car journeys back and forth and so inevitably it was packed and sharp elbows jostled for the best photo opportunities.
The views were charming, but not spectacular, as we had been led to believe. Red-brick Turaida castle (our destination) was almost hidden by dark woodland and the ruins of medieval Krimulda castle were nowhere to be seen.
We meandered along to stately Krimulda Manor, a rather decaying neo-classical mansion that at some point had been used by the Red Cross as a hospital for patients of bone tuberculosis.
It looked shut up now, despite our guide book describing it as a current rehabilitation clinic. Two toothy gardeners toiled at the flowerbeds under the hot sun.
Confused by a lack of signage we eventually found the ruins of Krimulda castle not five minutes away, as it turned out.
One river-facing section has been rebuilt with gothic brick arches, looking a bit incongruous, the rest of the castle was lost underground somewhere. Undeterred we meandered on, tripping down a series of steep wooden steps that pitched down the hillside back to river level.
Aiming for the largest erosion cave in the Baltic, but by now with seriously low expectations, we peered into an abysmally small cave decorated with the usual graffiti and initials. Surely this wasn’t it?
Around the corner we found ourselves in an organised tour group of baseball-hatted and parasol-toting Japanese tourists.
Newly disembarked from a luxury coach they were excitedly snapping selfies next to the compelling carvings of names and endearments dating back to the 1600s which were carved into the giant red sandstone walls of Gutmana Cave.
The group charged back to their coach, and we followed. The guide book advised us to ‘head up to Turaida Castle’ and an information board suggested we follow the road, which was steep and busy with coaches and hire cars being driven too fast.
Setting off along the river to find an alternative route we eventually gave up when it was clear we were heading in the wrong direction, so we back- tracked and ventured along the roadside jumping with reluctance (tick parasite alert!) into the long grassy verge every time a tour bus flew by.
Simon spotted a wooden walkway leading into the dark woodland and we eagerly clambered along it, then confusedly up and down it for a couple of steep miles.
We saw one other chap and he was visibly relieved to see us. Eventually we arrived at the car park of Turaida Castle – in a different town and not even in Sigulda – where the Japanese group had clearly finished their tour and were boarding their luxury coach, again.
Hot, tired and not a little frustrated we wanted to end the day on a high before tackling the journey back home. Turaida Castle is a complex of parkland and museums, loosely tied around a medieval theme, and the castle itself proved to be a reconstruction.
Digging deep we found the energy to climb the winding staircase of the main tower, thoughtfully lit and easily manageable, for views across the ‘ruins’. The late afternoon’s cooling breeze at the turret was most welcome. So too was the number 12 minibus that arrived on time and whisked us back down hill, and then up again, to Sigulda’s town centre.
Floating back down to our riverside campsite on a chair-lift was a treat. Below us shrieking children plunged hectically in small toboggans along a steel rail, and others scrambled about on zip wires and wooden jetties in the tree tops.
Tarzans, an all year-round sports centre supported by Latvian and local boy bobsleigh hero Nils Janson, was full to bursting with thrill-seeking families. We’d run out of energy by then but enjoyed the noisy and adrenaline fuelled atmosphere. It was an unexpected end to an interesting, if a bit baffling, day.
Both of us considered the guide book with a cold eye that night…