Friday, July 31, 2015

Zilaiskalns - the blue mountain

Imants nevaid miris, / Viņš tikai apburts kluss - / 
No darbošanās rimis, / Zem Zilā kalna dus!

On the road from Valmiera to the Dikļi Manor is Zilaiskalns, the “blue mountain.” 126 meters in elevation (as compared to Latvia’s highest point Gaiziņkalns at 312 meters), Zilaiskalns is hardly a mountain. However it rises steeply out of the rather flat countryside surrounding it, and so it has accumulated a history as well as the prestige of legend.

It is said that once there was a sacred grove on Zilaiskalns where people would gather from miles around to celebrate Midsummer’s Eve. Known as a place of divination and ritual, it is thought by some that the name is connected not so much with the color ‘blue’ (zils) but with the verb zīlēt, which means’ to divine’ or ‘to tell a fortune’. According to legend, many seers and soothsayers lived around Zilaiskalns. In modern times Marta Rācene lived in the area, known as Zilākalna Marta and famous for her herbal remedies and supposed healing abilities. Others insist that Zilaiskalns is named for the blue fog that often encircles the peak; we may never know the true roots.

Possibly the most famous lore surrounding Zilaiskalns is that it is the burial place of legendary lībietis Imants, who supposedly killed bishop Berthold of Hanover in the 1198 battle of the Livonian Crusade near Rīga. However there are multiple other legends that revolve around Zilaiskalns, such as it being the location of Beverīna, the ancient Livonian stronghold we know from Tālavas taurētājs.

Centuries later during the Great Northern War (1700-1721) when King Charles XII of Sweden and his troops stopped by Burtnieku Lake, it was from Zilaiskalns that they fended off Russian attacks. The soldiers felled the sacred grove and burned it, destroying most of the old trees that once grew at the top of the hill, including the old sacrificial oak with its hollow trunk that according to legend was filled with offerings and coins. A large stone can still be found at the summit, labeled Upurakmens (sacrificial stone).

The tower at the top of the hill supposedly offers a view of the Augstroze hills, with a visible range of over 30 miles on a clear day. Built in 1985, the reinforced concrete tower was used primarily as a fire lookout tower for many years. The tower is not open to the public though, and the supposed views are not visible from the ground except maybe in the winter, once the trees have lost their leaves.

The 300 acre Zilaiskalns Nature Reserve was founded in 2004 to preserve the portions of boreal forest. Part of a drumlin (a narrow ridge formed from glacial movement), the sandy ground is covered with pine forests at the base and oak/linden forests at higher elevations. Rare and endangered species of lichens and mosses such as club moss can be found within the preserve, and the area is rich with animal and insect life. The road from the parking lot leads directly to the tower, but numerous trails wind through the woods around the base. I would suggest wandering slightly from the main road if you have the time, if only to have your fill of the wild blueberries that swathe the forest floor.

Un Saules meitas nācīs / Un miglu projām trauks; / 
Un gaismas laika balsis / Imantu ārā sauks! 
(Andrejs Pumpurs, Imanta)

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Svētā Sīmaņa baznīca, one of the oldest churches in Latvia

On the shores of the Gauja in central Vidzeme is the city of Valmiera. From archeological evidence we know the site has been inhabited for the last 9,000 years, but it was first chronicled as a town in 1323 after the master of the Livonian Order Wilken von Endorp constructed the Wolmar castle and a Catholic church on the river banks. A member of the Hanseatic League in the 14th- 16th centuries, the city has long been an important crossroads due to the central location and proximity to Rīga and Estonia, as well as the significant trade and travel possibilities on the river.

In the very center of the city is the aforementioned church, St. Simon’s (Svētā Sīmaņa). First constructed in the 13th century, it is one of the oldest churches in Latvia. The early history of the church differs slightly from source to source as to the exact year construction started and to its original style and size. However it is known and documented that the church has seen various reincarnations; not only has it served as a Catholic and Lutheran church, but it has been rebuilt and remodeled more than a dozen times after war and disaster. In the 1500s and 1600s alone it was destroyed four times. A report from 1613 reads ēka ir bez jumta, samirkušās velves draud sarukt, logi bez rūtīm (“the building is without a roof, the drenched vaults are close to collapse, the windows are without panes…”). Each time restored and rebuilt, it was in 1644 that the bell tower received its rooster and in the mid-17th century that the church was fully renovated and improved. This was just in time for a spire fire in 1698 and the Russian invasion not long after at which point the church burned down. In the following years the structure saw multiple fires (including two lightning strikes after which a lightning rod was finally installed), and various other improvements and renovations.

After World War II under Soviet occupation the church was converted into a museum and concert hall (various renovations partially responsible for the excellent acoustics today), but it was only in 1988 that the congregation recovered the church and was able to resume worship services. In 2005 Saint Simon’s Church received National Heritage status.

Other notable features of the church include tombstones from the 15th and 16th centuries in the basement, and an organ built in 1886 by German master craftsman Friedrich Ladegast. The latest renovations were to the spire and tower, and the globe and rooster will be returned to its rightful place sometime this August. During the restoration of the spire a time capsule was discovered, which had been concealed in the 1970s. You can read more about the capsule and its contents in the article “Atver Valmieras Sv.Sīmaņa baznīcas tornī atrasto vēsturisko kapsulu.”

The church grounds are just as historic and noteworthy as the church itself. Due to the elevated location on the river shore the spot was an important defense position. The ruins of the ancient Valmiera castle are located just to the east, and the modern day city hall is to the north. Various walkways connect to the Gaujas tramvaļš stop on the river, Dzirnavu Lake and Luces Park, and museums, cafes, museums and theaters attest to the area's importance as a tourist and cultural center.

It was an honor to attend Matīss and Līga’s wedding in such a remarkable church. We witnessed the exchange of vows during a beautiful service, the church pews were filled to the last with family and friends who had traveled long distances to be with the couple on this momentous occasion. The wedding celebrations were far from over however – soon we were off to historic Dikļi Manor.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Dikļi Manor, a century old palace

After the wedding in Valmiera we headed west into the heart of Vidzeme, to the Dikļi Manor. Baron Paul von Wolf built the impressive neo-baroque style manor house in 1896. An interesting feature is the mansard roof; also called a French roof or curb roof, the four-sided gambrel-style hip roof has two separate slopes on each of its sides, with the lower slope being punctuated by dormer windows and at a steeper angle than the upper. This creates an additional floor of habitable space and allows for a lower profile.

In 1919 the mansion was given to the Valmiera district government at which point it was converted into an orphanage. In later years it also served as sanatorium, but in 2003 was reborn as a hotel after an extensive restoration. Attention to detail ensured the old wooden trim and ornate fireplaces (check out Stephanie's album!) were returned to the previous palatial state, and with elaborate staircases and an impressive collection of art from Latvian painters the chateau is truly a historical treasure.

However entrancing the manor’s interior was, I most enjoyed the grounds. Home to around twenty exotic trees including American balsam fir and Douglas fir, there are also several ‘grand trees’ on the property, ancient things that have made it into the record books because of their girth or age. White storks could be seen searching for frogs in the meadow, and the sound of the wind and birds provided background music between band sets.

50 acres of carefully groomed gardens, walking paths and ponds provide more than enough space for a long stroll after dinner or exploration between events. The boys found hours of amusement in the several playgrounds and giant swing, and for those couples seeking a romantic moment of solitude, a rowboat can be used to venture out on the pond.

The wedding reception was held in a tent on the main lawn of the manor house grounds, just adjacent to the hall where the rehearsal dinner took place. Music and laughter could be heard even into the early morning as wedding guests celebrated the union between Līga and Matīss.

Our room was on the second floor, up the grand staircase and down a hallway lined with portraits and antique furniture. The couple’s extended family was squeezed into the 26 rooms and three suites in the Manor house, with overflow of close friends staying in the 13 renovated barn house rooms. Guests enjoyed appointments at the spa, gourmet meals at the restaurant, and nearby Valmiermuižas brewery tour and beer tasting.

Breakfast was served in the sun room, with guests lingering into the early afternoon catching up over cups of coffee and a delicious spread. Listening to the clinking of silverware and the muted voices in the ballroom it was easy to be transported back a century, imagining grandly dressed couples attending a formal dinner within the majestic hall.

It was long after Cinderella had already hurried from the palace that we packed and continued on the three day wedding journey – to the atkāzas taking place on the shore of the Baltic Sea in picturesque village Saulkrasti.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Puiši, puiši

 Puiši, puiši, kas tie puiši, opsidrallallā,

Kas tos puišus nezināja, opsidrallallā. 

Rīgas ielas izstaigāja, opsidrallallā,

Cēsīs gluži neiebrauca, opsidrallallā.

Valmierāi cauriedami, opsidrallallā,

Dikļu pili skatijuši, opsidrallalla.

Limbažosi, birzmalāji, opsidrallallā,

Skaistu dienu pavad'juši, opsidrallallā!

Friday, July 17, 2015

The Botanical Garden of the University of Latvia

The Botanical Garden of the University of Latvia hosted the Rīga Flower Show last week, coinciding with the Youth Song and Dance Festival. With art and plant exhibitions, music, songs, theatre and workshops for adults and children, the gardens were decked out in their finest. Even though we missed the show by one day, there was more than enough to see. Covering 40 acres, they are the oldest botanical gardens in Latvia, having been established in 1922. The gardens were moved in 1926 to their present location, the former Albert Wolfschmidt manor. Within the park boundaries are four manor buildings, all listed as national monuments of wooden architecture. The majestic linden alley that once connected the manor house to the road still stands, now leading to the Palm house.

Boasting an arboretum, a palm house and even a tropical butterfly house, the collection totals 8,300 species of which about 2,000 are tropical and subtropical – quite an achievement for being located at such a northern latitude. The origins of the plants range from the dunes at the Baltic Sea to the forests of Australia, with the Amazon jungle, Mexican desert and Caucasus Mountains all represented.

About 750 species are trees and shrubs, including 124 species of azaleas and 15 magnolia species and cultivars. I was impressed with the rhododendron collection, which contains over 110 species; sadly, it was not currently in bloom. However, the rose garden was. 65 floribunda roses, shrub roses, park roses, polyantha roses and hybrid tea roses – so much color within the carefully tended beds.

After paying an additional fee, we entered the tropical butterfly house, where South American, Asian and African butterflies were free-flying through the exotic jungle setting. Be forewarned; the temperatures inside the greenhouse  can reach 90˚+ so plan accordingly.

Vestiges of the Flower Show still remained, and the installations we did see were clever and well-executed. I can only imagine what the gardens looked like in all their splendor…

Roberts and I agreed that we like how there were “wild” portions within the gardens, where native plants were allowed to show off. The Shade garden and Perennial plant collection covered the middle ground, with an organized chaos bursting with life. In the center next to the Palm house are the rock garden and pond, the latter a scene straight out of Monet’s waterlily series.

The boys had fun trying to spot the hares living in the trušu karaliste Ļipmuiža, as most of the rabbits were hiding from the sun in their castles.  Nearby was a giant Easter bunny statue, which I’m sure served some purpose in the Flower Show; could it be that it was actually a Laimas šokolāde exhibit?!


We stopped by the cafe for coffee and croissants, surrounded even then by flowers and luscious green grass. It was a beautiful day for a vist, and I was reluctant to leave. The botanical gardens are only a short cab, trolley or bus trip away from the center of Rīga (they are across Daugava on Jūrmalas Gatve), and can easily be combined with a trip to the National Library of Latvia or the Train History Museum. For information on hours, admission and events please visit the official website,

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