Expat Expedition

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?

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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.

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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.

The Cēsis Town Crier?

The Cēsis Town Crier?

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?

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Aroma Cafe/Clothes shop

Aroma Cafe/Clothes shop

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.

The Lady of the Lamp

The Lady of the Lamp

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.

Health and Safety Latvian-style

Health and Safety Latvian-style

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.

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Inside the death tower

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.

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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.

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Cēsis Castle

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The ‘new’ castle

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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.

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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.

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Mmm, cake.

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.

Cēsis Victory Monument

Cēsis Victory Monument


About BerLinda

Adjusting to life in Germany, after living in Latvia for four years. Should be easy, right?
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45 Responses to Expat Expedition

  1. Anna says:

    Delightful! I feel like I can now cross Cesis off of my must-see destinations!

  2. restlessjo says:

    Well, it is a nice looking castle from the outside, and the cheesecake looked good. What more do you need from a day out? Thanks for the smiles. 🙂

  3. Antuanete says:

    Though it’s a bit sad to read that you found Cēsis disappointing (I’m born and grown in Cēsis), I have to agree that by now Kuldīga is in better shape, as there has been lots of renovation carried out in old part of town. The core of old town in Cēsis is something you better don’t see (and you actually didn’t), because it’s hopelessly old and worn out, and only some details (like door decorations) can tell what a nice place it has been a century ago.

    Lonely Planet has to be outdated to recommend Aroma Cafe; it was good some years ago but now there are better places (2 Locals was a good find!). Cēsis suffers, as most Latvian small towns, of decline of population, because young people (like me :)) go to Riga for studies and then don’t return. But the town manages to keep many cultural events; if you are at least a bit into contemporary art and music, I really recommend to come back in summer, when there will be Cēsis Art Festival (http://cesufestivals.lv/eng, no actual information currently, but it will come for sure).

    And one last bit of local wisdom 🙂 – cowberries are the same lingonberries http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vaccinium_vitis-idaea; don’t you have them in Ireland? Or, if you have, maybe use different name; I guess people in that cafe just used first word in dictionary and didn’t research further.

    • Expat Eye says:

      I just looked them up – seems to be more of a Scandinavian thing. We may have them in Ireland but maybe I just hadn’t heard of them! I’ll try them next time 🙂 I really liked 2 locals – really nice spot in the centre of the square and love that it’s all glass so you can people watch while you eat and enjoy the sun.

      I would like to visit again in the summer as I’m sure the town comes to life a bit more with all the festivals and I’d like to see the park in full bloom. It’s a really pretty spot. I think my Lonely Planet is from 2009 but Aroma Cafe was interesting in an unexpected way!!

      • Antuanete says:

        I guess lingonberries are not that popular because it’s nearly impossible to grow them in commercial way, as cranberries or blueberries are grown and then processed and consumed almost worldwide. But they are sweeter and more flavorful if compared to cranberries – try to taste them in August (as discussed in earlier posts, it’s possible without going to forest, local market is enough :))

      • Expat Eye says:

        Phew – I enjoy forests as much as I enjoy dark towers 😉

  4. I live in Australia but my Lithuanian friend told me about your blog. Hearing some of her stories, your post made me laugh out loud! 🙂

  5. Hee hee! I wonder if the writers who described it as a lovely place, were actually being held at umbrella-point while they wrote! I think you were very brave to take those tower stairs with only a lantern. Rather you than me. 🙂

  6. Lasma Kokina says:

    Haha, can I have you as my best friend? I was really laughing out loud while reading this. 😀

  7. I recall you’ve wrote in some of your previous blog entires that all your students do in their spare time is go to the forest 😉 Well, tree after tree and then some more trees is the very core of Latvia, so now you’ve spent some of your time Looking at ’em trees. Next you’re gonna join the vast ranks of forest walkers or something, girl 😉 . In a way one of the reasons I so much love this neighboring country is that she has so much of them forests and that those forests are pretty much untamed over there and like never ending. The second reason being for her long coastline with almost literary no people there if solitude is what one is looking for.
    Talking of Latvia’s ‘places to go’, I wasn’t all that much impressed with Cesis either. In that region I much more enjoyed Sigulda and its attractions – a castle or two, some really nice sand caves, cable lift ride. Nature combined with some architectural points are what make places work for me.
    Liepaja… well, that was almost a complete disaster when we came to visit. Even though that was during summer time, some of the tourist attractions were closed or we’re met by locals so unfriendly that we’d turn on the spot and go away. We’ve spent most the time in Liepaja near those broken forts and the old pier as those were like almost the only spots we did not get this negative vibes of ‘get lost off of here you damn tourists’. On my list of places to come visit again there won’t be a place for Liepaja.
    But I’d love to come back to Kuldiga at some time. I loved some of the architecture. The man made waterfall isn’t all that much impressive, but the bridge IS. And some of the towns buildings too. But the strongest attraction over there to me was those Riežupe’s sand caves. I liked it down there. The short tour was nicely done, and the guides did negotiate entrance fee. So a huge plus goes for Kuldiga both for architectural points as well as for some ‘nature’s best’.
    As for my plans for the future, I’m very eager to visit Rundale and Rundale’s castle. I heard this place is wonderful and it has a very impressive park compared to a Versaile’s park only on a smaller scale. Maybe this spring I will 😀

    • Expat Eye says:

      I went to Rundale last year and it was a very nice day out! Having never been to Versailles, I don’t know if there is any comparison but the palace is lovely as are the gardens – worth a visit! You can skip neighbouring Bauska though – absolutely nothing going on there!! Kuldiga is next on my list so hopefully next month. Will definitely try to take in the caves as well. And yes, I guess if you like trees and walking among them, Latvia really is the perfect country!! 😉

  8. Bob Lewis says:

    Victory Monument? Who did they beat?

    • Expat Eye says:

      Maybe they won an ice hockey game 😉

      • Bob Lewis says:

        But I thought you said that the natives had difficulty in standing up straight! It’d be even worse on ice…..!

      • Expat Eye says:

        Nah, drinking, shouting and ice hockey go hand in hand!

      • The story about Ceesis was great but the comments are even better 🙂 I am falling out of the sofa with the laugh.
        Linda, my ex partner was Irish and when he came first time to Latvia, he said exactly the same thing about Latvia and trees 🙂 🙂

      • Expat Eye says:

        Ha ha! Thanks for the comment – again! 🙂 Ireland is known as ‘the Emerald Isle’ but really, we are nothing on Latvia 😉 There’s a song called 40 Shades of Green – it just wouldn’t do here 😉

  9. John says:

    The smaller towns in the Baltic states are mostly nothing special. Of the non-capitals, Tartu in Estonia is easily the best and worth a trip. Klaipeda would probably be second, especially in summer. Then Parnu, a day trip from Riga, again in summer. Kaunas has an ok castle. In Latvia, Liepaja and Ventspils are ok, Jelgava nothing to write home about. Ligatne and Valmiera are alright but no improvement on Cesis. Sauliai in Lithuania can be ok to go and see the hill of crosses but the actual town itself is bland. I also once spent a mind numbingly boring day in Panevezus to see a football game and ended up spending hours in the cili pizza there for want of something better to do.

    • Expat Eye says:

      I had a similar experience in Liepaja but I went in November which was a bit stupid! Everything vaguely interesting was closed so I spend a day and a half hopping from cafe to cafe with my book waiting for the return bus! Tartu is lovely I agree. Definitely the best so far. Will try to check out a few more places over the next few months!

  10. Pecora Nera says:

    I love the shouting drunk, we don’t have them in Italy.

  11. Ilzele says:

    Finding Cesis to be one of the loveliest towns is something typical for people from Vidzeme region. Coming from the Kurzeme region myself, I’ve never found it too exciting. When it comes to Latvian small towns my favorite is Kuldiga with its waterfall that’s supposed to be the widest in Europe and the lovely wood architecture.

    • Expat Eye says:

      Kuldiga was actually my first choice but the bus timetable didn’t suit me that morning! It will be my next trip – probably in May. I’ve heard good things about it!

  12. traveller says:

    I love your screaming drunks, we haven’t got enough of those here:) In fact we have none haha.

  13. pollyheath says:

    What a great post! I feel this is the inevitable outcome of visiting a small town — weirdness and drunk people.

    • Expat Eye says:

      It certainly was an eye-opener! I love the weird little things you discover – like that cafe – you couldn’t make that kind of stuff up! I’m sure small town Russia would be an experience!

  14. 1WriteWay says:

    Fun post and loved seeing all these pictures. Now I would have gone those steps on my arse! Really, I’ve done that before. Glad you got back in time to buy more wine. I’m sure you needed a glass or two by then 😉

  15. Gypsy says:

    What a great read! I was in Cesis right along with you, at least that’s how your writing made me feel. Hilarious! But why no pictures of trees?

  16. I too would have liked to have seen umbrella girl! Glad you enjoyed your day. 🙂

  17. Jude says:

    This may be my favourite post yet. I thought you were lying (a clothing store/restaurant, come on now) until the photos shut me up! If only you could have snapped angry umbrella gun girl!

    • Expat Eye says:

      I never lie! And I wasn’t fast enough to get a pic of umbrella gun girl unfortunately. She was quicker on the draw 😉 The restaurant/clothes shop thing is just bizarre to me. Thank god nobody came in to try anything on while I was there. Watching someone hopping about trying to wedge their smelly foot into a stiletto while you’re having your breakfast is not my idea of fun!

  18. Mmm cake…! Totally worth any a trip featuring scary stairs and roomfuls of sand in my book 🙂

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