“You’re going all the way to Dobele to see bloomin’ lilacs? I have those in my backyard.”
When I told my Riga taxi driver that Dobele, Latvia has the largest lilac garden in Europe, he didn’t believe me. But it’s true – the Peteris Upitis Garden in Dobele boasts more than 200 lilac trees! The first were planted in 1956 by Peteris Upitis, an avid horticulturist and head of the Latvian Fruit Research Laboratory. His job was to create hearty varieties of trees that would bear fruit in spite of Latvia’s harsh winter climate, but his real passion was lilacs. Now we get to enjoy the fruits of his labors in late spring when the lilacs are in bloom. The fragrance is intoxicating!
If you’re able, try to coordinate your visit with the annual Dobele Lilac Festival, when a classical music concert and other events are held among the blossoms. I went a week earlier, when some of the nearly 5,000 apple and cherry trees were still flowering. Friendly vendors sold ice cream and souvenirs, while fruit and lilac products were available for purchase at the ticket booth. (There is also an apple festival in autumn.)
But even if you aren’t able to see the lilacs at their peak, Dobele still makes a fun day trip from Riga! The Knights of the Livonian Order built Dobele Castle on a strategic hill in the 1330s which remained in active use until the Great Northern War nearly four centuries later. The heavily damaged castle was abandoned in 1736 and fell into ruin. An impressive amount of stonework remains intact, including much of the bailey’s perimeter wall.
The old town center of Dobele dates to the late 1400s when the Livonians constructed a Lutheran Church a short distance from the castle grounds. The beautifully restored church features original stone floors, 17th and 18th century woodwork, and a gleaming new organ. As ever, the ladies inside were delighted to welcome tourists, though some knowledge of Latvian was necessary to understand them.
A marketplace grew around the church and attractive two-story brick buildings appeared much later. The vast square was given a makeover in 2011, with new paving stones and fountains adding charm. The centerpiece is a giant well-shaped fountain whose bucket tips over once full. The fountain was shut off for cleaning at the time of my visit, but a kindly worker turned it on so I could see. I was surprised by the crowd that quickly gathered to enjoy the show!
Just around the corner is the Dobele Craft House, which hosts rotating exhibits and workshops relating to Latvian arts and handicrafts. Knitters are encouraged to add a few rows to the lengthy scarf which has been an ongoing group effort since the House opened in 2010. Sadly, not much was available for sale.
Dobele is home to several important memorials which document the region’s turbulent past. The Memorial to the Victims of Communist Genocide stands near the train station, where deportations to Siberia began in 1941. Little fanfare is given for the nearby Soviet Soldiers Cemetery, although the site is well maintained. Much more celebrated is the Dobele Liberation Monument which stands proudly near the castle ruins. The massive stone statue depicts two Latvian figures in traditional costumes ready to fight for their country. The original monument was erected in 1940 but blown up by the occupying Soviets 10 years later; the current version dates to 1996.
For lunch, the ladies at the Tourism Information Center (opposite the well fountain) recommended the Gardi Gan Cafe en route to the castle ruins. If you want a classic Latvian dish with a twist, try the chicken cutlet “French style” – i.e. smothered with cheese and tomatoes. Order fries and a salad to round out the meal!
Dobele is easily reached by bus from Riga, 1.5 hours each way. I recommend purchasing tickets in advance to secure a good seat as this is a popular route and some of the buses are small. (Sit on the right side of the bus for a view of Jelgava Palace.) Signage around town is sorely lacking so be sure to pick up English brochures from Dobele’s tourism office. Happy travels!
Tell me: Have you ever traveled to see flowers in bloom?