Cesis shapes up to celebrate its 800th anniversary

  • 2004-05-06
  • By Tim Ochser
RIGA - After the Baltic states broke away from the Soviet Union in 1991, the Moscow-issued statues of Lenin were the first and most obvious symbols of the old regime to come tumbling down.

Some went walkabout. Some were hastily bundled into storage. Some were even transformed into works of art. But in the tiny Latvian town of Cesis, however, Vladimir Ilyich can be found in a particularly interesting place.
Having once occupied a plinth in the heart of the town, Lenin's chronically patinated statue now lies prostrate in a huge open crate in the picturesque grounds of Cesis Castle for all to see. It's a fascinating juxtaposition of two wildly different historical symbols and an intriguing illustration of how Cesis is using its history to overcome its history.

History regurgitated
The story of Cesis is like that of so many other small towns in Latvia. After the break up of the Soviet Union, the town's population saw a dramatic decrease, and it fell into severe economic depression. With little local industry (most of which is based in the nearby town of Valmiera), little outside investment and an exiguous state budget, the town struggled in just about every sense of the word to survive throughout the 1990s.
However, the town has undergone something of a dramatic transformation over the last few years. Walking through the town center, one is immediately struck by how pleasant it is. The architecture is charming, the atmosphere tranquil, a sense of the rich surrounding nature palpable. People stroll about at a leisurely pace and exude a sense of well-being. To someone from Riga, it's hard to resist using the word idyllic.
So what's changed? What, apart from the carefully renovated and restored facades and the nicely trimmed public lawns, actually makes Cesis any different than it was, say, 10 years ago? Perhaps the answer, to paraphrase a line from the movie "Dogville," is in a subtle change of light.
Cesis is at the heart of Latvian history. The town was established almost 800 years ago, when the knights of the Livonian Order started to build a castle there, the well-preserved ruins of which are now serving as the focal point of an energetic drive to put the city firmly on the tourist map.
Martins Malcenieks is the director of the newly formed Cesis municipal agency, the Vidzeme History and Tourism Center, which was established to develop the various parts of the castle complex and to develop tourism in Cesis as a whole.
"Our agency is responsible for the development of the whole complex," Malcnieks explains. "Of course, the main idea is to attract EU funds, but we are also working hard to attract sponsors and to participate in different project tenders. So far we have attracted more than 200,000 euros through the PHARE program for tourism infrastructure development."
But, no matter how pretty the town might be or how scenic the surrounding landscape is, it's not easy for a small town like Cesis, with a population of around 17,600, to attract the sort of investment needed to build up an appropriate tourism infrastructure, a problem which Evija Ozolina, the manager of the Cesis Tourism Information Center, readily acknowledges.
"It's like a vicious circle," she says. "There's not really much for tourists to do here. So potential investors are reluctant to open up new bars, restaurants and cafes because they say there's not the market for them. But tourists won't start coming here in significant numbers until we can offer them more in the way of services."
Tourism has certainly been increasing in Cesis, approximately at a rate of 10 percent year on year. But the problem, according to Ozolina, is that nearly all of the tourists visiting Cesis are day-trippers.
"The majority of our visitors are Latvian because it's a tradition for them to come and see the castle and our annual festival. But from the point of foreign tourists, there's not much for them to do in the evenings. Most foreigners who come to Cesis base themselves in the countryside because they want to enjoy the peace and quiet. So we're trying to work with local entrepreneurs to think more in terms of tourism. We want foreign tourists to use the town as a base from which they can explore the region," she says.