TUKUMS - Many times I have thought that it would be a romantic and fascinating project to visit each and every castle in the Baltics. I have planned the routes carefully in my mind over and over again, selecting the best combinations for weekend trips.
But I realize now that my hectic life wouldn't allow the time needed to devote to this whimsical accomplishment. If I visited only one castle or manor each weekend in Latvia alone, I would have to devote more than four years to the task. A short drive to the west of Riga, however, there are four castles situated fairly close to one another -each one is unique in style, age and detail. Ingrida Smuskova, coordinator at the Tukums Regional Tourist Information Center sat down with me to explain why these castles would be a great place to start my tour.
Smuskova tells me that up until the 1940s, there were still approximately 1,500 manor houses and castles in Latvia. Today approximately 215 are still accessible to the public 's some only from the outside. What makes the Tukums castles special? Smuskova explains that the town boasts four sites 's all within a 40 minute drive of one another. A sleepy town of 20,000, Tukums is situated 60 kilometers west of Riga. Beyond the hustle and bustle of Jurmala and off the main highway from Riga to Ventspils, it may not be surprising that this place often fails to make the average tourist's list of must-see spots. On a Sunday afternoon, you could bowl down Main Street (Pils iela) if the by-laws allowed and yet there is something happening here that is worth stopping to take a look at. Four historically noteworthy sites- Durbe Castle, Jaunpils Castle, Slokenbeka Manor and Jaunmokopils Castle 'sare found in this area and through the will of local government, the state and private enterprise, they have all experienced rebirth.
Jaunpils Castle is perhaps the best known of the four. Located in the town of Jaunpils, a half-hour drive from Tukums, this structure was built in 1301 and has a colorful history. This castle, once the most significant site in the entire region, has gone through redecoration, destruction, and fire. It has seen everything from baroque decoration to Soviet oil painted walls and has been a knight's fortress, a livestock testing station office and an apartment complex. Smuskova says the site has received PHARE funding for reconstruction and is recognized as a unique historical monument in Latvia. The medieval festival that is held there every August sees visitors from all over the world.
Jaunmokopils Castle, 10 minutes outside of Tukums, has a much shorter history but is just as fascinating. Commissioned in 1901 by the mayor of Riga as a summerhouse and hunting manor, this red brick structure is distinct in style and form. The site was used as a military hospital during the wars and was once used as an activity center for orphans. Controlled today by Latvijas mezi, the state run forestry agency, Jaunmokopils houses a museum dedicated to the flora and fauna of Latvia.
Durbe Manor, once home of the great Latvian author Janis Rainis, holds a special place in the hearts of Tukums residents. First mentioned in historic records in 1644, this modern day art gallery and museum has received a great deal of attention and funding from the local regional government for its extensive renovations. Smuskova smiles when she speaks of the dedication that the local government has to the site. "Durbe is special and the local authorities have devoted a lot of time and money into its revitalization. We have been lucky to have such a supportive administration." She explains that while almost 1million lats has been invested in the development of Durbe into a museum and local historical interpretive center, almost none of this money has been from outside sources. "There is huge local dedication to this project,' she says.
Slokenbeka Manor is rough around the edges, but worth seeing. This walled fortress is believed to have been built in the late 1400's as a defensive fortress against the invasion of Tukums. The thick walls still possess the thin slits through which archers defended the fortress from invaders. I felt something powerful here, a tangible historic energy that only these old buildings possess- so much history packed into such a small space. The site also houses Latvia's only road museum, which actually held my attention for quite some time despite my initial lack of interest in the subject matter.
Once I have made my tour around the four sites, I return to the Tukums Regional Tourist Information Center to talk to Smuskova once again. I learn that the tourism infrastructure in Tukums, as in the rest of Latvia, is developing rather quickly. Smuskova is candid about her wish to make Tukums a prime destination for tourists. "Why not?" she asks. "We have everything here-beautiful architecture, centuries of history and people who are devoted to making our region as accessible to the public as possible. This is what makes Tukums attractive. We have been working on making tourism a vital part of the economy and I think it's working." The castles, three of which have restaurant and hotel facilities, demonstrate the great will of local authorities to transform what were only a decade ago run-down and overused buildings to present day sites of historic and cultural importance.
My weekend adventure is complete. I can check off four names on my list of must-see Latvian architectural gems. As I make my way up the stairs of my drab soviet-style apartment complex, I note the complete lack of character that the building possesses. I console myself by planning my next adventure. Where to next weekend? Aizpute? Ludza? Koknese? Ventspils? There is certainly no lack of choice. I have four years of adventure ahead if I want. o