Sigulda: At this extreme sports capital of Latvia, you are spoilt for choice to get your adrenaline pumping
It's something like skydiving without actually falling out of a plane. After a promotional video and a training session, my daughter suits up. An instructor guides her in the strange art of levitation, holding onto her while she gets the hang of mid-air suspension. It's called an Aerodium — a vertical wind tunnel where you can break away from gravity and simulate flying. We are in Sigulda, the outdoor adventure and extreme sports capital of Latvia, situated in the Gauja Valley.
Latvian writer Ojars Vaceitis said God was in love when he created Gauja. Primeval forests blanketed with fragrant pines, junipers and willows, a slew of medieval castles steeped in legends, red sandstone cliffs and caves… the Gauja River Valley is certainly one of the most romantic spots in Latvia. Situated on the banks of Gauja River, Sigulda is a favourite weekend retreat from Riga, the capital of Latvia, for locals who want a breath of unpolluted country air. Latvians fondly refer to Sigulda as the ‘Switzerland of Latvia'. Don't expect Alpine meadows and Swiss chalets though, because Latvia is one of the flattest countries in the world, with just a few rolling hills.
On a fast lane
Our odyssey through Sigulda starts off on a unique note — in an electro mobile with a private guide. With quiet streets, swathes of parks lined with lime, oaks and maples, and a Lutheran church, Sigulda is the kind of place that compels you to slow down. Ironically, in the late 19th Century, this bucolic area was developed as a recreational break. Today, you can zip down a bob-sled track with a professional driver at 100 km an hour like a rollercoaster gone crazy, or do the more sedate tourists bob, with five people on what looks like a raft. If you are more adventurous, try bungee jumping from a cable car. For a bird's eye view of the green cover and medieval castles, there are hot-air balloon flights over the valley.
The Tarzan Adventure Park is a recreational adventure park with a ski lift, snowboarding, climbing walls and nets, and a Tarzan leap. Giant trampolines and rope ladders make this a big dose of adrenaline. We see university students out for adventure on their annual sports day. They go whizzing down a monorail toboggan, screaming in pleasure. There's a huge obstacle course in the trees where we navigate by swing, flying fox, and tightrope walk between tree platforms. It sure is a fun way to spend a morning!
Our guide drives us to the Guttman's Caves that formed 10,000 years ago when after the Ice Age, streams gnawed through sandstone. It's got ancient graffiti, one dating back as far as 1667, and is the scene of the Rose of Turaida, the local heady story of love and death. It's all the beautiful maiden and her love for the gardener of the castle — the kind of stuff that inspires celluloid dreams! This cave is like a Latvian ‘fountain of youth' and locals believe that the glacial waters here have the capacity to heal.
Just imagine a melodious concert under a star-spangled sky, with glorious views of the valley. The Sigulda Castle, built in 1207 was a fortress with a chapel. Today, it is in ruins — we see the evocative Gothic windows and the rough stone tower of the main gate, the venue of the annual Opera Festival. The more modern palace in front was the manor house of the Kropotkin family, which later became a Russian sanatorium — a retreat for writers, and today houses the local town council. Turreted facades face gardens filled with multi-hued flowers and statues in a very Russian ambience.
Back in time...
Latvia is full of castles and manor houses built between the 13th and 16th Centuries. The first castles were built by the ancient Baltic tribes; later the German knights built strongholds for defence. For our ‘Rapunzel' experience, we visit the Gothic-looking, squat Turaida medieval castle, built with red bricks, spearing like a rocket, from a forest of pines. This was one of the residences of the Archbishop of Riga. The ancient Livonian tribes who lived here thousands of years ago, named the place Turaida meaning ‘Garden of God'. The renovated round towers are the best places to get an eagle's eye view of the beautiful countryside. Outside the tower is a woman in medieval attire teaching us the fine points of archery. We walk though the sprawling green reserve, with a wooden-spired church dating back to 1750, and a sculpture garden inspired by the folk song, poems and stories of Latvia. We see brightly painted walking sticks everywhere — they are typical Sigulda souvenirs that originated when the walking trails were opened here. We buy one, to remind us of this outdoorsy town where you're never far from Nature
PUBLISHED IN THE HINDU METRO PLUS, 2011