The Latvian countryside is dotted with medieval castle ruins thanks to the Teutonic Knights of the Livonian Order who once controlled the region. Bauska Castle was built in the mid-15th century and served as a stronghold for over 100 years. After the Knights lost the Livonian War in the mid-16th century, the castle was incorporated into the Duchy of Courland, a newly-established vassal state of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. A manor befitting the Duke soon appeared next to the castle and both structures remained in use until they were blown up during the Great Northern War in 1706. (Don’t worry: a grand new palace soon replaced the manor nearby.)
Today, visitors can clamber to the top of the crumbling castle watchtower for a lovely view of Bauska and the surrounding countryside. The manor house, meanwhile, has been restored and turned into a museum.
The “city” of Bauska (pop. 10,500) was founded in 1609 and seems to have changed little over the centuries. The Old Town consists of two parallel streets lined with charming wooden homes and shops. I began my visit at the Tourist Information Center located on the ground level of the flamingo-pink Town Hall, an excellent source for maps and regional recommendations.
The Bauska History and Art Museum is located directly across the road from Town Hall square and an interesting place to spend an hour. The exhibits at the time of my visit included an extensive private (and somewhat creepy) doll collection and panoramas of life in Bauska throughout the 20th century.
Don’t leave Bauska without stopping by the Church of the Holy Spirit. Built in the 16th century, it is the oldest structure in town. The treasures housed inside include 17th century wooden pews and tombstones of members of the original German congregation. The two kindly ladies inside were delighted to have visitors and even more so that I could understand some of their (patiently slow) Latvian explanations. English leaflets are also readily available.
Bauska is an ideal jumping off point for exploring the surrounding palaces. 18th century Mezotne Palace was a gift of Russian Empress Catherine II to the nanny of her children, Charlotte von Lieven. Some gift, eh? Too bad Charlotte lived in St. Petersburg and was only able to spend a single day enjoying her palace, which passed to her son after her death; Mezotne remained in the Lieven family until 1939. Heavily damaged during World War II, the three-story palace has since been fully restored and converted into a hotel. How would you like to spend the night in a Latvian palace?
Mezotne Palace is nestled in the countryside along the Lielupe River, about 10 kilometers from Bauska. I don’t recommend dining at Mezotne’s onsite restaurant – fit neither for king nor peasant – but do suggest enjoying a sunset from the riverbank.
A much better dining option is Tornis Taverna, which can be found in Bauska’s Town Hall Square. Order the mushroom-and-cheese stuffed chicken and a pint of locally-brewed Bauska beer – you won’t regret it!
Another good dining option is the restaurant at Rundale Palace, the region’s main tourist attraction. Again, order the chicken – Bauska is one of the leading poultry producers in the Baltic states.
No trip to southern Latvia would be complete without a visit to Rundale Palace, an 18th century Baroque masterpiece constructed for the Duke of Courland. Although it suffered tremendously during WWII and the subsequent Soviet era, the palace has been fully restored to its former splendor. You can read more about Rundale’s history and see a lot more of my photos here.
It’s possible to visit all the places in this post via public buses, though the journey will be easier and more enjoyable with your own wheels. I rented a car in Riga and loved having the freedom to pull over and admire the scenic countryside.
Would you like to explore Bauska Castle and Latvia’s pretty palaces?
What has been your most memorable road trip?