I’ve been told (by a student called Janis) that apparently, people smile outside of Riga. So now that spring has finally arrived, I decided to find out if this is true by taking a little day trip. After a quick flick through my Lonely Planet, I discovered that Cēsis is unofficially considered ‘Latvia’s most Latvian town’ so what better place to start?
Cēsis is located in the heart of the Vidzeme region, slap bang in the middle of the Gauja National Park. Various websites describe it as one of Latvia’s most beautiful towns and ‘so homely and cosy that a visit to this town seems like a holiday to a kind Latvian granny’. Hmm. Keeping an open mind, I set my alarm for 8, slept through it, woke up at 9 and set off for the bus station (only an hour later than planned) armed with a hefty handbag and an even heftier hangover.
I decided to buy a return ticket but was dismissively waved away from the first ticket window when I tried to pay by card. After a grunt and a twitch of the head, I gathered that the bank machine was around the corner so came back a few minutes later and tried again. Following a brief lecture about the return journey (‘You buy 19.10, you go 19.10 – no changing’), I was free to head for the bus.
I made a concerted effort to stay awake so that I could report on the scenery on the 2-hour trip. We passed some trees. Then we passed some more trees. Then we passed some more trees. I may have blinked and missed some trees but it was OK because then we passed some more trees. I gave up and busied myself with the page and a half of the Lonely Planet guide dedicated to Cēsis. This didn’t take long so then I looked at some more trees.
Finally the bus rolled into Cēsis at around 1pm. My first impression was not very favourable.
But with my open mind and optimism firmly in place, I set off towards the old town. I was greeted by this charming individual, drunk out of his mind and waving his arms around shouting at passers-by. I snapped a quick photo and ran away.
Sitting and looking at trees for two hours had given me quite an appetite, so I decided on a second breakfast before checking out the sights. Lonely Planet had recommended Cafe Aroma and as luck would have it, it was one of the first buildings I came to. I was rather surprised to find that it was also a clothes shop (Lonely Planet had omitted this fact) with fitting rooms located in the actual restaurant. I’m not quite sure what the reasoning behind this mish-mash of businesses is – go in for some eggs and come out with a monstrosity of an evening dress, perhaps?
Slightly bemused and wondering if the Lonely Planet writer was on drugs when he wrote the ‘Eating’ section, I ordered an omelette and tea and sat at a corner table between two big windows so that I could beam at all the locals passing by. My smiles were met with daggers. Some people even turned around specially so that they could glare at me through the second window. One teenage girl mimed shooting at me with her umbrella. Ah, the Latvian sense of humour…
Undeterred, I finished up and made for the main (only) sight in Cēsis – Cēsis Castle, which was founded in 1209. To get into the Castle, you have to enter through the adjoining ‘new Castle’, built in the 18th century, which houses the Cēsis History and Art Museum. I bought a ticket from the extremely friendly girl behind the ticket desk who restored my faith in the people of Cēsis. She explained what I needed to do while showing me on a little map. Go through the door, through the medieval garden, cross the bridge and enter the castle. Then you experience one of the highlights of the Castle tour – climbing the Western Tower.
She then said something I really didn’t want to hear ‘There is very dark and dangerous steps. But don’t worry, I give you lantern.’ Thinking that maybe her English wasn’t very good, I waited for her to hand me a torch. But no, it really was a lantern, complete with lit candle.
Feeling a little like Florence Nightingale, I took off towards the Tower. I had the whole place to myself so was able to laugh aloud at how stupid I looked without any other tourists thinking I was insane. The steps that lead to the entrance of the Tower wiped the smile off my face.
The girl at the ticket desk wasn’t exaggerating. The tower was pitch-black and each stone step around knee-height. Chanting ‘I really don’t like this. I really don’t like this.’, I slowly made my way up the winding steps, clinging to the lantern with one hand and the wall with the other, as some helpful soul had removed the rope intended to help you navigate the stairs from hell. I made it up the first flight and triumphant, emerged into…a room full of sand.
I inched my way up the second flight of stairs to be greeted by… yet another room full of sand. I figured I may as well keep going but the conclusion of the third flight wasn’t any better. Then, dusty and panting, I had to get back down the stairs again. Plan B was to go down on my arse but I managed to make it down in one piece on my feet, loudly praying that the candle wouldn’t magically blow out the whole time. It was with great relief that I stepped out into daylight and faced a sign instructing me to blow out the candle – it saves the wax I guess.
Safely back inside the History and Art Museum, I was instructed to put overshoes on before starting my tour.
And so, looking stunningly sexy in blue plastic, off I went. I spent around an hour wandering through four floors of artefacts and exhibits, paintings and restored rooms. It was interesting enough but looking through the windows, I could see that the rather ominous-looking clouds had cleared and the sun was now shining from a clear blue sky. I left and wandered around the Castle Park and lake. Some more people had shown up to enjoy the sunshine and feed the ducks. My only regret was that I hadn’t come in summer when the park would be in full bloom and the ducks wouldn’t be walking on ice.
After a brief look around the Exhibition Hall also located on the grounds, I walked back to the old town. Despite being described as one of the most beautiful towns in Latvia, I failed to see the attraction. Some buildings were mid-renovation and covered in green netting, but most were rough around the edges and crumbling. However, if you want a manicure, pedicure or haircut, Cēsis is the place to go. I think I counted around 18 salons and hairdressers dotted around the town. And in a town that you can walk around in 10 minutes, this seems like a lot.
A little peckish after my exertions in the tower, I abandoned the Lonely Planet ‘Eating’ section and popped into a cute little cafe called ‘2 Locals’ in the centre of Roze Laukums, facing the slightly shabby St. John’s Church.
Not feeling quite brave enough to try the traditional Latvian dessert featuring ‘cowberries’ (what on earth is a cowberry???), I ordered cheesecake and a cup of tea. Even though it was really more of a flan, it was utterly delicious, served with a smile and attractive enough to risk embarrassing myself by taking a photo of it.
After one last stroll around the town to see if I’d missed anything (I hadn’t), I walked back towards the bus stop. We left a little late due to another drunk Latvian who was a few santimes short of the bus fare. Due to my appalling Latvian, I could only make out a little of what he was saying but it was along the lines of ‘Stupid, stupid…can’t you speak?…shut up…Riga is my home. What am I going to do?…stupid, stupid…blinn…bleh’. Then he started crying so another passenger got up and paid his fare. He was still muttering ‘stupid, stupid’ to himself 20 minutes outside Cēsis.
The perfect end to the perfect day really. So were the people of Cēsis more friendly? Not really. Is it one of the most beautiful towns in Latvia? I hope not for Latvia’s sake. Did I enjoy my trip? Yes, I actually did. And I even made it back to Riga in time to buy wine – so maybe that was the perfect ending to the day.