KULDIGA - It's commonly said among Latvians that the most beautiful place to experience the autumn is Sigulda. In fact, it's so commonly said that it has become a national cliche, alongside those surrounding storks, rye bread and a certain festival where lots of people sing and dance. So while everyone was heading off to Sigulda to enjoy the last days of this truly spectacular autumn, I decided to head in the opposite direction toward Kuldiga.
Kuldiga is one of Latvia's best-preserved or least-spoiled towns, depending on how you look at it. Located 160 kilometers west of Riga, it's an utterly beautiful little place, set amid the rolling hills of Kurzeme.
I arrived there on a Friday evening to find the place all but deserted. After coming from Riga, I had no problem with that. A few teenagers were happily strolling around, and a few elderly people were hobbling home from their local store. It's highly unlikely that a Thank God It's Friday restaurant would ever do much business in Kuldiga, especially on a Friday evening.
My first priority was to take care of my stomach, which was demanding food. I took it to one of only a couple of decent restaurants in town. Pagrabins overlooks a canal and is situated in the heart of the beautiful old town, just off Liepaja Street, which is the closest thing the town has to a high street.
Like so many hundreds of other provincial restaurants, Pagrabins has that sort of pseudo-rustic feel to it, with lots of wooden rafters and rusticated stone walls. But the menu was surprisingly impressive. I was so ravenous and excited at being in Kuldiga that I even decided to go against my principle of eating veal. I ordered a Greek salad, along with veal covered in parmesan shavings.
The salad was decent, and so was the veal, except that it was actually beef. I asked the waiter why the veal tasted so beef-like. "Because it's beef," he said matter-of-factly. Such are the all-too-common mistranslations of Latvian menus into English. But still, at least I didn't go against my principle of eating veal after all.
I then took a taxi to perhaps the best guesthouse I've ever stayed at in Latvia, and I've been to quite a few. Kausi Guest House is some 18 kilometers outside of Kuldiga. The taxi there cost a small fortune due, it was explained to me, to the rise in gas prices. But I quickly forgot all about the world's oil market problems in the face of such serene beauty.
Kausi is a magnificent little complex made up of converted barns and stables, complete with the comforts and quirks one would expect from a Latvian guesthouse. The owner, Juris, turned out to be an ardent jazz lover, and I ended up spending most of my Saturday night with him watching bad-quality videos of old jazz concerts over a drink of vodka. He even proudly showed me his collection of autographed photos with the likes of Duke Ellington, from when he played in the Soviet Union during the 1970s. But back to Kuldiga.
There isn't a great deal to do there, to be honest. But that's why I loved it. Latvian towns go all out to try and impress tourists, but the fact is you either like them for what they are or you don't. Kuldiga's pride and joy is its waterfall, which is said to be one of the widest in Europe. All tourists dutifully head straight for it, only to find a two-meter trickle of water that is frankly not going to take even a duck's breath away.
The real charm of Kuldiga lies in the fact that it is so untouched. The old part of town is full of winding cobblestone streets and beautiful houses that have so far been spared the homogenous make-over of what is known as "Euro-remonts" (Euro-renovation), an esthetic ideal that is frighteningly uniform from town to town and home to home.
Kuldiga is simply a wonderful place just to stroll about and enjoy one of the most beautiful autumns in recent years. The town also boasts one of the "longest brick bridges in Europe." For all I care it could boast the tallest birch tree in the world. It doesn't need to do anything to impress me other than exactly what it does: which is to take things very slowly on a Friday night.
For more info: www.kuldiga.lv