Dark medieval tales beneath the brilliant yellow leaves of Sigulda

  • 2008-10-16
  • By Monika Hanley

LEGENDARY: Castle ruins and beautiful scenes abound in Sigulda's lush forest and enourmous caves.

RIGA - Just an hour from Riga by train lies nature's playground, a true fairy tale of colors, smells and sights 's but only for a few more weeks. Sigulda, one of Latvia's most-visited towns, is famous for its natural beauty. During the fall, Sigulda is at its busiest as flocks of tourists and locals come to see the leaves change colors from brilliant green to dazzling yellow and red.

Unlike most tourist towns in Latvia, which are popular in the summer months, Sigulda's tourist season begins when the leaves change and seemingly never ends.

Sigulda is good for young and old and is guaranteed to get your adrenaline pumping and reinvigorate your mind. In addition to bobsledding, ballooning, bungee jumping and skiing, Sigulda is home to a handful of explorable (and free) castles, including the famed Turaida castle, whose tower, on a clear day can be seen from the forest.

Because most sites are connected by wooden paths and winding wooded staircases, the town gives visitors the feeling that they are the first to be there and discover the natural wonders.

The top sites to visit are Turaida castle and Gutmanis cave, as well as Latvia's only cable car.
Although Latvia is famous for its many limestone and sandstone caves, one of the biggest in the Baltics is Gutmanis cave, named after a healer who cured people with water from its depths 's splashing some on your face will allegedly get rid of wrinkles. One of the cave's most interesting aspects is the old-time graffiti carved into the cave walls, dating all the way back to the 16th century. Hunters' coats of arms are also carved into the front of the cave.

Legends abound about this cave, but the most famous is the Turaidas Rose, a  tragic love story around the time of the Swedish-Polish war. Legend has it that two evil deserters lured her to the cave for less than honorable purposes with a letter written by her lover. When she found out about their intent she made a deal with them. In exchange for her virtue she promised them a magic scarf she wore that would protect the men from all injuries. To prove her point she asked the men to try and strike her with their swords 's which they did, killing her but maintaining her purity. The full story is written on the outside of the cave.

Turaida ("God's garden" in Livonian) Castle, a Livonian Brothers of the Sword stronghold, with its majestic tower, offers a wonderful view of the entire Gauja river valley for an entrance fee of two lats (three euros). The simple grave of the Turaidas Rose is on the Turaida Museum Reserve, where her lover buried her, planted a tree and then disappeared in 1620. Period-costumed museum guides are more than happy to explain everything in detail to visitors and provide amusing tales of ancient events in the castle. The Daina Garden is also located on this reserve; it's dotted with statues and figures immortalizing the epic heroes featured in traditional Latvian songs for which it's named.

Sigulda is definitely worth a visit at least once a season to experience the true splendor of the Gauja River valley. The area is ever-changing, and its magic keeps people intrigued.

Trains leave every hour from Riga's main station and the attractions are well-marked and easy walking distance from Sigulda's train station. It is advisable to pack a picnic, as there aren't many stores and picnic areas are plentiful beneath the colorful leafy canopy.