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