Travel: Latvia

Wil­liam Cook ex­plores the Lost Duchy of Cour­land, a hid­den cor­ner of dark woods, wild boars and sump­tu­ous baroque palaces

The Oldie - - CONTENTS - Wil­liam Cook

We left Riga be­fore sun­rise, driv­ing down dark, de­serted boule­vards, sleet swirling all around us. When we reached Bauska, an hour later, I knew we had ar­rived.

Perched on a steep hill on an is­land in a wind­ing river was the ru­ined cas­tle that I re­mem­bered, built by the Dukes of Cour­land.

The last time I was here, it was mid­sum­mer and boys were fish­ing on the river­bank. Now the river was stiff with ice. There was no one around. Yet, even in the bleak mid­win­ter, Cour­land was still beau­ti­ful. Me­mories of my first visit came flood­ing back. Now I could re­call why I’d been so en­chanted by this for­got­ten cor­ner of Eastern Eu­rope, and why I’d been so ea­ger to re­turn.

I first came to Latvia in 2011 to re­port on the 20th an­niver­sary of the coun­try’s new­found in­de­pen­dence. For these pa­tri­otic Lat­vians, it had been a long, long wait.

This month, Latvia cel­e­brates the cen­te­nary of its orig­i­nal in­de­pen­dence, from Rus­sia, in Novem­ber 1918, at the end of the First World War. That first bout of in­de­pen­dence lasted barely 20 years.

Dur­ing the Sec­ond World War, Latvia was in­vaded thrice over: first by the Sovi­ets, then by the Nazis and then again by the Sovi­ets, who stayed for half a cen­tury. This Novem­ber, poor, proud Poland also cel­e­brates the cen­te­nary of its brief pe­riod of in­de­pen­dence be­fore the Nazi and Soviet takeovers.

My first visit to Latvia be­gan in Riga, the coun­try’s re­ju­ve­nated cap­i­tal. I loved this Hanseatic city at first sight, yet ev­ery­one I met there ended up talk­ing about the coun­try­side.

It was in the fields and forests that I’d find the real Latvia, they said. Go south to Zem­gale, they told me, then west, on into Kurzeme – two prov­inces that once com­prised the Lost Duchy of Cour­land, a land wiped off the map. That sum­mer I trav­elled on in search of it. I was amazed by what I found.

Latvia is a fairly big coun­try by Euro­pean stan­dards (big­ger than Den­mark or Switzer­land) but its pop­u­la­tion is tiny. Around a mil­lion peo­ple live in Riga, leav­ing barely a mil­lion more scat­tered across an area three times the size of Wales. The coun­try­side feels un­in­hab­ited –

Edole, a knights-in-ar­mour cas­tle, built in the 13th cen­tury and re­mod­elled in the 16th, 18th, 19th and 20th cen­turies

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