I’m not sure how you feel about stairs, but I personally have mixed feelings. I’m really not a huge fan of stairs, particularly when there’s a lot of them all going UP. The problem is that they lead somewhere, and often you don’t know exactly where until you’ve climbed them all. Unfortunately, it seems that eastern Europe has no end of stairs for me to enjoy.
I decided to head to Sigulda, a small town in a valley about an hour outside Riga. It’s a beautiful place to spend a day – lush and green with plenty of forest, a number of old churches and a stack of castles. I had a map, and thought I’d explore the town and see the medieval and new castles before crossing the valley to spend a few hours hiking through the forest.
The town was very pretty and seemed quite empty. There were a lot of wooden houses and dainty gardens. The first place I visited was a little Lutheran church, all white with a red-tiled roof and a black roof on the slightly newer tower. The church was quite sweet – simple and plain, nothing extravagant. I climbed up the tower – about a hundred stairs – but the view wasn’t as spectacular as I’d hoped. The bell in there however is huge and must weigh a ton – it certainly hurt when I stupidly walked into it and whacked my head.
The best thing about the church however was the button-art exhibition they had in there. That’s right, button art. Pictures made entirely out of buttons…I’m already starting to think about what I could do with all my jars of buttons back home…
I made it to the New Castle, which was built in the late nineteenth century and called ‘new’ to distinguish it from the old castle. It wasn’t particularly interesting – maybe too modern a castle for my liking. It did have a nice garden though, and the iron gate was cute. I couldn’t get close to the old castle, as there was a lot of renovation work going on.
Outside the walls there was a little sculpture garden with people made of old metal things. Don’t ask me why, I have no idea.
I decided I would take the cable car across the valley and set about trying to find the place of departure. It’s not in an obvious spot and you have to walk through very residential streets. On the way I passed an odd playground with a bunch of candy-canes and what looked like giant mushrooms [although I think they were meant to be umbrellas]. Apparently it’s a traditional thing.
Taking the cable car across the valley was beautiful, gliding slowly from one side to the other enjoying wonderful views over the river, forests and the town, with church spires and castle towers peeking out here and there. On the weekends you can bungee jump from the cable car, just touching the water if you’re lucky. Unfortunately I was there on a weekday – it looks like it would be a great place to bungee jump.
Arriving at the other side I discovered that my map wasn’t as helpful as I might like. The aim was to wander through the forest for a couple of hours before heading to Turaida Castle Reserve where, you guessed it, there’s a castle. So I took a little track that appeared to head in the right direction, although I was a little concerned that it went downhill into the valley as this would mean that I’d have to go back uphill to the reserve. Still, it did look quite pretty so I took it anyway.
The path shortly became a meandering bike-path that I’d definitely prefer to be riding downhill than up. After about half an hour I came across a very long set of stairs and decided it would be quicker to go straight down them [and a little more interesting as they were narrower than the path] than continue winding back and forth down the serpentine trail. It was more than three hundred steps to the bottom, and there was no way in hell I’d be going back up them. Besides, I started the steps about halfway down.
Down in the valley, the track wound past some small lakes with reeds, frogs and flowers before passing a cave quite famous in local folklore. It’s called Gütmana Cave, and the legend goes as follows:
After a battle at Turaida Castle around 1601, the castle clerk rescued a baby girl from the arms of her dead mother and raised her as his own, calling her Maija Roze [May Rose]. Maija Roze grew into a beautiful young woman and fell in love with Viktor, a gardener, and they were to be married. However, as is wont to happen in tragically romantic stories, someone wasn’t too happy about this. A dodgy Polish nobleman, Adam Jakubowski, decided that Maija Roze was so beautiful that he had to have her, and sent her a letter [pretending to be Viktor] asking her to meet him at Gütmana Cave that evening. Maija Roze arrived at the cave expecting her betrothed, and instead found the evil Adam there waiting to force her to become his wife, and probably do all sorts of things that innocent young heroines shouldn’t be doing. Maija Roze tried to bargain with Adam, offering him her magic scarf that she claimed would make him invulnerable and protect him from injury. To prove it, she tied the scarf around her neck and invited Adam to try to cut her neck through the magic scarf. I’m sure you’ll be shocked to hear that the magic scarf failed to prevent the sword slicing through her throat and killing her.
The cave itself isn’t particularly big, but every inch of space is carved and inscribed with [primarily] the names of lovers over the centuries. It’s quite pretty, and just as I was leaving a little old man rocked up with a violin and started playing some suitably wistful romantic tunes.
After locating a young boy selling home-made castle shaped gingerbread and refilling my water, I decided it was probably time to head to the castle reserve. The quickest way there was straight up the road and up the big bloody hill. Thankfully no steps…yet…
I made it to Turaida Castle Reserve – basically an open air museum including the old castle, a wooden church, a manor house, a sculpture park and various other buildings dating back to different periods of the last seven hundred years.
So now we get back to stairs…
I’d probably only done around four hundred or so stairs, and three-quarters of them going down, so no issues so far. But at Turaida Castle Reserve it seemed that inside almost every old building was a museum…involving stairs.
I made it to the old Turaida Castle, which has been heavily restored. I don’t think that there is a room there that has not been turned into a museum or has some kind of exhibit…and just about every room is connected to the rest of the castle by, you guessed it, stairs. And a lot of them, as there are a lot of little rooms. A few hundred stairs up to the top of the tower [I counted at the time but have forgotten the exact amount. I know it was more than 250], up a narrow staircase that wound around and around. And then down again. Multiple floors in the main museum. Stairs down to and back up out of the dungeon, the kitchen, the cellars, the basement, the chapel, the turrets, everywhere. I was starting to get a little bit tired of stairs – I’d been walking for hours, I was starving and it was hot. I didn’t want to see another bloody set of stairs.
The problem, though, is if I see them, I just HAVE to see where they lead. What if they lead to something totally amazing? What if the one set of stairs that you skip just happens to lead to something really neat, like piles of chocolate, a portal to another world or the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything? And you didn’t bother to check. Now who feels like an idiot?
Stairs, those sneaky bastards, know that they just have to peek out around the corner and someone will be tempted to find out where they go, even if that person is exhausted and has walked up that many stairs that their knees start shaking at the thought of even another twenty.
I wanted to stop, I really did. I couldn’t face the thought of another set of stairs, but I didn’t want to spend the bus trip back to Riga wondering what I’d missed.
Turns out I wouldn’t really have missed anything. That last set of steps went nowhere.