The principal attraction of the country town of Bauska is its castle, built between 1443 and 1456 as a stronghold for the Livonian knights. This imposing edifice was destroyed in battle several times during the 16th and 17th century, but it was always rebuilt - that is, until 1706, when it was blown up during the Great Northern War. This time restoration work didn't start until 1976. The castle museum now displays various objects found when archaeological excavations were made during the restoration, as well as a small collection of 16th and 17th-century art. Ancient music festivals are hosted in the castle and its elevated grounds.Just 12km (7mi) west of Bauska is the 18th-century Rundale Palace, the architectural highlight of provincial Latvia. It was designed and built in the 18th century by a baroque genius from Italy, Bartolomeo Rastrelli, who created many of St Petersburg's finest buildings. Bauska is 65km (40mi) south of Riga on the main Riga-Vilnius road. There's no railway here, but there are many daily buses.
The name Jurmala (Seashore) encompasses a string of small towns and resorts stretching 20km (12mi) along the coast west of Riga. With beaches, dunes and woodlands, plus museums, galleries, restaurants, pubs and inns, it's a perfect recipe for a relaxing break from life on the road. Better still, it's rarely crowded and easy to reach. There are several trains per hour from Riga and a special Jurmala-bound taxi rank in front of Riga's railway station. If you're driving into Jurmala, you have to pay a toll.
This is the most picturesque and historic town in Latvia's Kurzeme region. Kuldiga was an important settlement of the Cours, as evinced by the remains of their ancient fortress, 2.5km (1.5mi) north of the town centre. There's a 17th-century town hall; an 18th-century granary; Roman Catholic, Russian Orthodox and Lutheran churches; a water mill built in 1807; a sculpture garden; and a regional museum.Visitors to Kuldiga can fish and swim in the Venta River, which features a 2m (6ft) waterfall, a big deal in a country as flat as Latvia; an even bigger deal among locals is its 275m (900ft) span, which makes it the widest cascade in Europe. Kuldiga is 150km (93mi) west of Riga. It's connected to the capital by bus.
Riga's not as pretty nor as architecturally interesting as Tallinn or Vilnius, the other two Baltic capitals, but it does have plenty of big-city bustle. You'll also notice an air of ethnic tension, fuelled by the fact that Russians outnumber native Latvians in the city.Riga straddles the Daugava River, about 15km (9mi) from its mouth in the south-eastern corner of the Gulf of Riga. Centuries-old German buildings are strewn throughout the historic quarter of Vecriga (Old Riga), and taking the lift up to the spire of St Peter's Church for an aerial view of the neighbourhood is one of the highlights of a visit. Riga Castle dates from 1330, when it was built as the headquarters of the Livonian Order. It's now the home of Latvia's president.East of Old Riga the city blossoms with 19th-century parks and wide boulevards. The Freedom Monument, erected in 1935, is the area's main landmark. Encompassing Old Riga, New Town dates from the 19th century and comprises a mixture of business and residential zones. Housed in several WWI zeppelin hangars south of Old Riga, the lively central market is the focus of the city's modern life and a fair barometer of its standard of living.The WWII Riga ghetto was in the Maskavas suburb, home to Riga's only remaining synagogue and the city's Jewish Museum. Don't miss the Riga Motor Museum, 8km (5mi) east of Old Riga, which features cars that once belonged to Soviet luminaries Gorky, Stalin, Khrushchev and Brezhnev - complete with irreverent life-size figures of the men themselvesIn summer, tables and chairs spill out onto Doma laukums (Dome Square), transforming it into a fun-packed plaza of cheap cafes, beer tents and late-night bars. You're spoilt for choice dining out in Riga, but if you long for a return to the good ol' days, there's a Soviet-style cafe in Old Riga with stale buns, plastic cups, drab walls and vodka at rock-bottom prices.
Known locally as the 'Switzerland of Latvia', Sigulda and environs boast a string of medieval castles and legend-laden caves scattered along one of the prettiest stretches of the Gauja valley. Sigulda, the main gateway to Gauja National Park, is a minor health resort and a winter sports centre. Little remains of old Sigulda Castle, but the 19th-century New Sigulda Castle, former residence of the Knights of the Sword, is now a sanatorium. Gutmanis Cave and Viktors Cave play important roles in local folklore. Sigulda is 53km (33mi) east of Riga, and there are plenty of buses and trains to and from the capital.
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