Ask any Latvian what the most charming town in the small Baltic country is, and chances are you’ll hear the name Sigulda. Situated in the Gauja River Valley at the entrance of Latvia’s largest and oldest national park, Sigulda is a place steeped in mythos and natural beauty. More so than the historically Hanseatic Riga and the preened seaside of Jūrmala, Sigulda elucidates Latvia’s close connection to nature.
This sylvan region is home to a honeycomb of trails that thread through undulating hills and sparkling glades. On a calm summer day, when flecks of sandstone emerge from under the thick frock of forest foliage, locals stray down the riverbanks to unwind in sweet idleness. Through the looking glass of the serene Gauja, one loses sight of all problems.
On one side of the river is Sigulda’s small centrum—an exemplary European town of cozy wooden frame houses, cotton-candy façades, and neo-gothic manors. On the other side are the environs of Krimulda and Turaida, where medieval relics and soft tufts of primeval horsetail pluck at the heartstrings with their stories of love and loss…
Latvia’s oldest tourist attraction is here: since the 1500s, men have been engraving the walls of the Baltics’ largest cave. According to local legends, there once lived a chief of the Livs (a Finnic people indigenous to Latvia and Estonia) who suspected that his wife had been unfaithful to him. In his fury, he forced her to dig her own grave by the Gauja. The woman cried woefully, and her tears seeped through the ground and sprouted out from the grotto in the form of a spring.
At one point, the waters of the spring were held to be sacred, as locals believed there to be a benevolent deity residing by the cave. They left coins and pieces of clothing whenever they took the water, and the grotto eventually came to be known by Baltic German naturalists and ethnographers as “the Good Man’s cave,” or Gūtmaņa ala.
Several castles can be found in the surrounding area, with the most prominent of them being Turaida Castle. The red stone fortress is well known by all Latvians as the setting of another story—the tragedy of Turaida’s Rose.
In the 1600s, when Latvia was a battleground during the Polish-Swedish War, there lived a beautiful maiden named Maija in Turaida Castle. The adopted daughter of a Swedish clerk, she was betrothed to Viktor—the apprentice of a gardener in Sigulda across the Gauja River. At the same time, she was also the object of affection of a Polish soldier by the name of Adam Jakubovski.
Maija and Viktor were deeply in love, and every night, they met by moonlight halfway between Turaida and Sigulda at the grotto of Gūtmaņala.
When Jakubovski discovered this, he became jealous and sent a letter in Viktor’s name to trick the girl into meeting him there. Upon arriving and discovering the deception, Maija quickly realized what Jakubovski wanted to do with her. She pleaded the soldier to let her go, but he only pushed her against the wall, pinning her with his body. In desperation, she offered him something he couldn’t refuse should he set her free.
The silk scarf around her neck was magic, she said, and it granted invincibility to whomever wore it. Maija invited Jakubovski to test its power with his sword. And so he swung his blade at her, and the Rose of Turaida was cut to the ground. In the end, she kept her fidelity to Viktor, having preferred to die an honorable death.
For many years, the tale of the Rose was believed to have been merely a legend. But in the 19th century, uncovered court archives confirmed the murder of a Maija Greif which took place at Gūtmaņala Cave on August 6th, 1620. Today, newlyweds pass by Turaida’s Lutheran church and leave posies by Maija’s grave in hopes of knowing the same love and devotion.
Like the Gauja which bifurcates it, Sigulda sways to a slower pace of life. Those who take the time to stop and smell the flowers will not only find rich fields of golden buttercups and silver birch, but also the green heart and soul of a country, its people, and their stories.
Getting to Sigulda and Turaida
Buses and trains run from Riga to Sigulda on a daily basis; both take around an hour and fifteen minutes. Bus tickets start from €2.20 while a one-way train ticket is around €2.90. From Sigulda, it is an hour’s walk to Turaida. Alternatively, buses run several times per day from Sigulda to Turaida.