Nauru Travel Diary

From Houston to Sydney 2013

From Houston

to Sydney



Not the first time on this trip, the weather influenced our travels today.  The forecast was fairly dismal; heavy overcast cloud cover with rain at 9am, 11am, 2pm and from 5pm onwards.  The forecast turned out to be quite accurate.

We had wanted to explore the area of Latvia to the east of Riga, and to have flexibility in doing so, I arranged a car and driver rather than joining a group tour.  It turned out to be a very good decision.  The group tours to the valleys to the east of Riga take 10 to 11 hours, spend much of their time visiting shops and ‘waste’ an hour and a half over a group lunch.  Furthermore, they are quite inflexible in their itinerary, requiring participants to adhere to a strict sequence of visits and times.

By contrast, our experience, which was only marginally more expensive, provided us with a brilliant, young, incredibly well-informed and knowledgeable driver (Sergei) with fluent English who completed an itinerary that covered three times the number of places seen on group tours in eight and a half hours using his own 17 year old (but extremely comfortable) BMW sedan.  Furthermore, he was totally flexible with the timing, enabling us to linger where we felt like lingering, and to move on whenever we were ready.

Our negotiated itinerary included three destinations east of Riga: Sigulda, Cēsis and Līgatne.  At the end of the trip, when we returned to Riga, Sergei kindly added two extra destinations as his ‘present’ to us.

Our first stop was the beautiful small city of Sigulda, situated in the picturesque Gauja Valley.  This city has a population of only about 18,000 people, but is famous in sporting circles as having the only bobsleigh course in the former Soviet Union (although this honour will be diluted when the new bobsleigh course is completed in Sochi for next year’s Winter Olympic games).  Therefore, the course has been used by many Olympic teams for their practice as well as several international bobsleigh competitions.

Our first stop within Sigulda was therefore at the bobsleigh course, and we went up in the escalator to the top of the tower where the competitors begin the course.  It was quite a sight looking down on the course from this perspective.  The start of the ‘trip’ is 125 metres above the finishing point, which is 1.6 kilometres way.  Competitors reach speeds of about 125 kilometres per hour on the downhill slide, and I’m sure they can’t really appreciate the views that we could admire across the Gauja Valley this morning as they make their rapid descent.

Our second stop in Sigulda was at the Gūtmaņala Cave.  This is the largest of several sandstone caves on the Gauja River, and is noteworthy for the inscriptions (that some might label as graffiti), some of which date back to the late 1600s.  The cave is also the place where the famous Latvian folk tale of Maija, the “Rose of Turaida” ( is said to have actually taken place.

Our third stop in the Sigulda area was actually just beyond the city limits of Sigulda itself in Turaida.  Known as the Turaida Museum Reserve, this stop was an area with an old church, several houses and the grave of Maija, all of which focused on the partially renovated remains of Turaida Castle.  Pretty though the whole areas was, the castle was without doubt the highlight of this visit.

The simple history of the castle is that it was first built in 1214, then destroyed in 1776, and is now partially restored.  Its history is, of course, more complex than this, and it incorporates elements from each of the several foreign regimes that controlled Latvia in previous centuries, notably the Germans and the Swedes, as well as elements of indigenous Latvian architecture and design.

Exploring the castle was fascinating.  We began by climbing to the top of the one tower that has been rebuilt to its original height (in almost its original shape), thus getting a great overview of the layout of the entire castle complex and its surroundings.  After descending to ground level, we explored several of the other buildings, including the chapel, the prison, one of the rooms where an oven was used to provide piped heat to the castle complex, and a multi-storey building that was used for various meetings and gatherings.  Overall, this was a fascinating and highly educational visit.

Having finished our visits in Sigulda, we drove further east to Cēsis, another small city with a population of about 20,000 people.  Our main destination was Cēsis Castle, but in order to get there from the parking area we walked through many of the narrow streets of this beautiful 13th century town.  Although many of the houses were in a state of disrepair, like the huge St John’s Cathedral, the quiet beauty of the town still shone through to us.

Construction of the castle began under the guidance of German Crusaders in 1209.  The garrison destroyed large parts of the castle in 1577 to stop it falling to the Russians under Ivan the Terrible.  It was re-built shortly after the area was taken by Sweden in 1620, but it was destroyed again in 1703 by the invading Russians.  The castle is essentially still in a state of ruins from that time.

Interestingly, there was a medieval festival underway at the castle today, so it was filled with local people, some of whom came dressed in medieval clothing.  They were engaged in medieval sports and games, they were eating medieval fare and buying medieval jewellery.  It was great fun to mingle with the local folk, including climbing to the top of the tower using a candle lantern for illumination in the narrow dark circular stone stairs that led upwards.

Cēsis was our easternmost point for the day’s travels, so after leaving the castle, we started heading back towards Riga, but took a short diversion to the north off the main road to visit our third town, the small village of Līgatne.  Frankly, there is not much to see in Līgatne (unless the large nuclear bunker from Soviet times is open for inspection, which it was not today).  Nonetheless, we made two brief stops.  The first stop was at Lustuzis, which was described in the information sign as follows: “Lustuzis, the highlight of Līgatne’s tourist attractions, is the only cliff in Līgatne with cellar caves at two levels.  At the end of the 19th century, a small pavilion was built on the top of the cliff.  Young people gathered there to sing together, and the brass band of Līgatne was playing”.

The reality of the cave was far, far more underwhelming.  So, having taken in the magnificence of “the highlight of Līgatne’s tourist attractions”, it could only be downhill from there – and it was.  We were taken to see the exterior of the Līgatne Paper Factory (no photos allowed).  Standing at the gate and looking at the decrepit collection of old brick buildings, we learned that the factory was started in 1816, and received the Tsar’s medal for the quality of its paper in the early 1900s.  Apparently, the quality has declined somewhat since then, and it now produces coloured paper for use by children in schools.

As we headed back into Riga, the clouds darkened and rain became quite heavy.  This made us realize that we had been extraordinarily fortunate throughout the day; most of the rain showers had fallen while we had been driving and we had fairly good (though heavily overcast) weather while walking around.

While we had been driving, we had been having some fascinating discussions with Sergei about a wide range of topics – cars, the economy, international politics, the future of the EU, and the legacy of the Soviet period on Latvia – among many other things.  Once Sergei learned that I was interested in the Soviet era, he promised to show me two additional sights as his ‘present’ to me when we returned to Riga.

The first of these sights was Victory Park.  This is by far the most visible (and thus controversial) reminder of the Soviet period in Latvia’s history.  Commemorating the victory over fascism in 1945 and the sacrifices made by soldiers in the Red Army to achieve that victory, the monument consists of a stark 79 metre high obelisk decorated with red stars, flanked by two large socialist-realist statues.  On one side is Motherland Latvia expressing goodwill to the Red Army soldiers, who form the statue to the other side.  Apparently, ultra-nationalists have tried to blow up the monument, while ethnic Russians lay tens of thousands of flowers there every year on 8th and 9th May.

Sergei’s second ‘present’ to us was a visit to a very small but sobering monument to the Latvians who had been transported to labour camps in Siberia during the Soviet period (especially in 1941 and in 1949).  The monument took the form of an actual railway goods carriage that was used to transport people for the two week journey to Siberia, located at the precise point where the journey started beside Tornakalns Railway Station.  We heard the heart-breaking story of how families were separated before 150 were crammed into each of the tiny carriages, and how many of the people died from diseases, hunger and the cold before they reached their destinations.

In the face of such tragedy, we hardly noticed that we standing in the rain.  It was, of course, just one episode in the long history of centuries of tragedies and conquests that we had learned about during our travels today.  As Stalin is said to have said, “When one person dies, it is a tragedy.  When a million die, it is a statistic.”

Day 36 - Gauja Valley


10 August 2013