Latvia's second-oldest city marks first 800 years

  • 2006-07-12
  • By Paul Morton

RUINS: Cesis' castle includes remnants from the many civilizations that have colonized Latvia.

CESIS - First thought: Wow, Cesis is celebrating its 800th birthday this week. Second thought: Cesis doesn't look 800 years old. For the most part, this is a sleepy town, and there was very little evidence on July 7, when we visited, about a week before the major festivities were set to begin, that the town was readying itself for a huge celebration.

Still, Cesis is a place that has seen quite a bit of drama in its 800-year history. This is where a decisive battle ensured Latvian independence after World War I (an event memorialized in the town center by an obelisk-shaped Victory Monu-ment). It was a huge focal point of the Singing Revolution. And before that, it was a major link in the Hanseatic League during the Middle Ages. (See Q&A Page 14)

But other than a castle here that supposedly dates to the 14th century (making it about 100 years younger than the city itself), Cesis seems to look about the average age of Latvia. There are the lovely wooden houses we know to be unique to the Baltics. There are some minor Jugendstil buildings in the small city's old town. A short walk down Rigas iela can provide a pretty dense history of Baltic architecture.

There are some very new things as well. Take, for example, the town's pleasant rectangular fountain signifying the four winds. The sanctuary is well-placed in the shade of Cesis' many trees.
There's also a Super Netto, as necessary to a Latvian town's self-image as Wallmart in America, a board listing the historic town's many sister cities, and two black storks from the Lisbon zoo that hang out in a central pond. That's probably not something you would have seen in the Middle Ages.

From July 13 to 16, Cesis will be celebrating its huge birthday with a concert from the Latvian National Opera in the big castle here and, even better, a dance party featuring the likes of Lou Bega and - wait for it! - Right Said Fred. (Come on everyone: "I'm too sexy for the Baltics, too sexy for the Baltics, so sexy it hurts." Go and deflower that revolution, baby.)
There's a lot of construction at the castle right now. A young teenager in glasses hands me a yellow construction helmet to wear around the place. "It's a traditional helmet. There are several historical records depicting its use." One young girl has been employed to dress up in the costume of the Middle Ages and sit in the middle of a field with a quill pen and pretend to write in a diary.

A young man, looking every bit the young squire is sitting on a ledge reading a ye olde booke. It's just like Colonial Williamsburg. Tourism will find jobs for everybody.
There's a pond in front of the castle from where, supposedly, you can catch a sweet purplish red sunset in the summer. Unfortunately, there are some empty beer bottles in the pond. "Probably from all those people drinking beer and watching the sunset," one girl says to me.

Cesis has survived a lot in its past. It should be able to survive a few big parties as well.
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