Uncovering the Secret Charms of Sibenik, Croatia

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Sibenik, Croatia is one of central Dalmatia’s most picturesque towns. Nestled in the shadow of a rocky hill between the Krka River and Adriatic Sea, Sibenik’s natural beauty is undeniable. But it’s what lies beneath the surface that makes Sibenik truly special.

In contrast to neighboring cities which were established by the Roman Empire, Sibenik was founded by native Croats during the Middle Ages and quickly became a prosperous trading center thanks to its well-protected harbor. The ruins of St Michael’s Fortress still command the hill overlooking town, and the view from the ramparts is well worth the climb. On summer evenings, the fortress is converted into an open air stage.

Sibenik Croatia

Adriatic Sea

Sibenik Croatia Fortress

A jumble of red rooftops in Sibenik, Croatia

Sibenik’s main claim to fame is the UNESCO-listed Cathedral of St. James. Built by three different architects during the 15th and 16th centuries, the cathedral is lauded for its fusion of Gothic and Renaissance styles. It is also notable for being made entirely of stone. Walking around the perimeter, you can’t help but notice the faces staring back at you; these 71 busts represent townspeople who had a hand in the cathedral’s construction. How would you like to be immortalized like that?

Sibenik Cathedral of St James

Sibenik Cathedral

The stone interior of the Cathedral of St James in Sibenik, Croatia

Sibenik stone lion

A warren of cobbled lanes radiates from the cathedral, the labyrinthine layout seemingly unchanged over the centuries. Steep staircases twist and turn around ancient buildings, creating many levels to explore. I only encountered a handful of fellow tourists as I made my way up and down which enhanced the sense of adventure. Narrow flues open onto wide squares, many presided over by churches and chapels, and cats recline on the warm paving stones. Tinkling fountains hint at gardens tucked behind courtyard walls.

Sibenik Croatia

An alleyway in Sibenik, Croatia

Sibenik Croatia

A courtyard in Sibenik, Croatia

Sibenik Croatia

The Medieval Mediterranean Garden of St Lawrence Monastery is an oasis the likes of which are rarely seen. In fact, it’s the only garden of its kind in Croatia! Designed to be an accurate representation of a medieval garden, its flower beds are arranged around a cross-shaped path with a fountain at the center. The flora are both ornamental and functional, including many plants and herbs that would have been cultivated during the Middle Ages for medicinal purposes. A cafe on the terrace serves cold drinks and ice cream that are very welcome on a hot summer day.

The Medieval Monastery Garden of Sibenik, Croatia

Sibenik monastery garden

Sibenik medieval monastery garden

Sibenik was an easy one-hour drive from Zadar, making it a great option for a day trip – though the enchanting town will have you wanting to stay longer! If you only have time for lunch and and a quick wander, I recommend enjoying a pizza at one of the establishments by the water. Parking can be found on a pier just outside the historical center.

Sibenik Croatia

Croatia road trip

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Krka National Park: Croatia’s Summer Playground

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Have you ever dreamed about swimming in a crystal clear pool fed by a waterfall? One that you reach by hiking through the mountains to a secluded location? Then Krka National Park in Croatia is the destination for you!

The Krka River gently wends through Croatia’s Dinara mountains before reaching the turquoise depths of the Adriatic Sea. The mineral-rich river cascades over travertine waterfalls, with pools forming at their base. Skradinski Buk is the largest and most dramatic of the waterfalls and considered one of Croatia’s natural wonders.

Skradinski Buk Croatia

Skradinski Buk Waterfall Croatia

A well-kept boardwalk surrounds Skradinski Buk. It took me about two hours to complete the circuit, but this included frequent stops at the many viewpoints I found along the way. Swimming is allowed in the Skradinski pool, so wear your swimsuit to take a refreshing dip after finishing the walk. Some folks bring blankets and picnic baskets and while away an entire day in the shade of the trees next to the river. Those wishing to explore more of the park can continue on walking trails to a few other waterfalls.

Krka National Park Croatia

Swimming in Krka National Park Croatia

“Krka or Plitvice, which is better?” The short answer is that there is no wrong choice. Both parks feature extraordinary mountain landscapes dotted with lakes and waterfalls. Plitvice is probably better for more serious hikers as some of the trails are quite steep. Plitvice also warrants an overnight stay due to its more remote location. But swimming isn’t allowed in the Plitvice Lakes, so if that’s your dream, head to Krka. The following photos are from my walk in Krka National Park. To see shots from my visit to Plitvice, click here.

Krka National Park Croatia

Krka National Park Croatia

Krka National Park Croatia

Krka National Park Croatia

Walking in Krka National Park Croatia

Travertine waterfall in Croatia

I drove to Krka National Park on my two-week road trip up the coast of Croatia. It was an easy one hour drive from Zadar and I found free parking at the well-marked Lozovac entrance. If I had the trip to do over again, I would spend the night in the nearby town of Skradin and take a boat ride up the Krka River to see the island monastery. There’s just never enough time to do everything!

Krka River Croatia

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An Extraordinary Hill of Crosses in Lithuania

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On a field in rural Lithuania, a Hill of Crosses rises on the horizon. Visible from a considerable distance in the flat landscape, it is an impressive sight to behold. I’ve read reports that the site contains 100,000 crosses, but I’m not sure how anyone could know that. Impenetrable walls surround the narrow walkways, with crosses crammed into every nook and cranny. Others have been stacked high in piles that have toppled over. Rosaries, meanwhile, are draped around wooden necks like Mardi Gras beads. Counting the crosses would be an insurmountable task.

hill of crosses

hill of crosses

Hill of Crosses in Lithuania

Stairs lead up the center of the hill and are flanked by towering crosses. A sculpture of Christ the Redeemer welcomes pilgrims near the entrance. Crosses of every conceivable size and denomination have been left by worshipers from around the world. I even saw a Jewish star in the mix.

hill of crosses

Hill of Crosses in Lithuania

hill of crosses

An Extraordinary Hill of Crosses in Lithuania

The hill first took shape in the 19th century, when Lithuanians erected crosses in protest of a ban imposed by their Tsarist overlords in the Russian Empire. More were added after an apparition of Mary holding the baby Jesus was reportedly seen. When the Soviets occupied Lithuania after World War II, they saw the Hill of Crosses as counter to Communist ideology and bulldozed it into oblivion. Devout Lithuanians were none too happy with this destructive act and fervently rebuilt the hill, secretly adding more crosses under the cover of night. Soviet forces demolished the site five times before conceding defeat. Today, the Hill of Crosses stands as a testament to the fortitude and resilience of the Lithuanian people. The site was made more famous in 1993 by a visit from Pope John Paul II.

hill of crosses

Hill of Crosses

hill of crosses

hill of crosses

hill of crosses

The Hill of Crosses is located near the town of small town of Siauliai, about 220 kilometers from Vilnius. I drove from Riga as part of a Lithuanian road trip, though it’s possible to visit using public transportation. Take the train from Vilnius to Siauliai, then continue by bus to the Hill of Crosses. The journey will take around 3 hours each way. Food options at the site are extremely limited so pack something or plan to eat in Siauliai. Religious souvenirs – including crosses! – are available, however.

hill of crosses

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A Windswept Day at Kinderdijk, Netherlands

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No image is more iconically Dutch than the windmill. (Well, except maybe the tulip.) For centuries its sails have harnessed the power of wind to help manufacture items as varied as paper, mustard, and chalk. Saw mills were particularly important in early shipbuilding when a large naval fleet was a key to economic success. Later, as natural drainage systems in the Netherlands began to fail, pumping mills controlled water levels and reclaimed land for the low-lying country. The advent of the steam engine eventually rendered traditional mills obsolete, though thankfully 1,000 or so still stand. One of the best places to see historical windmills in action is Kinderdijk. The network of 19 mills has been so perfectly preserved that it’s been included on the UNESCO World Heritage List. When a friend casually mentioned that she wanted to race past the windmills like Hans Brinker, I didn’t need much convincing.

We rented bikes from a shop near the entrance and pedaled merrily along the dykes and canals. The wind was brisk, as was to be expected, but not unpleasant. The further along the path we rode, the thinner the crowds became. Local men sat fishing while sneaky ducks and birds tried to steal their catch. A lone woman on horseback sauntered past, presumably from one of the neighboring villages which I wish I’d had time to explore. The complete cycle route around Kinderdijk is 60 kilometers long, though at my snail’s pace that would take me two days at least.

Kinderdijk windmills

A windmill in Kinderdijk, Netherlands

Kinderdijk Netherlands

Kinderdijk UNESCO site

The UNESCO listed windmills of Kinderdijk, Netherlands

Kinderdijk windmills

Two of the historic Kinderdijk windmills have been converted into museums. The 1950s-style interiors have been left intact, giving visitors a glimpse of what life was like for the families that lived in and operated the mills. One family had 12 children! It’s incredible to think about all those kids sleeping next to churning gears and playing in the yard while the sails swung round and round.

Dutch windmill

Kinderdijk windmill museum

It’s possible to travel from Amsterdam to Kinderdijk via public transportation, but plan for a full day trip. I took the train from Amsterdam to Utrecht, then rode bus 90 to Kinderdijk. The most challenging part of the journey was buying the bus ticket in Utrecht, as the line at the counter was long. In hindsight, it might have been faster to transit through nearby Rotterdam, but I enjoyed the two hour ride through the bucolic Dutch countryside. Food options at the park are limited, so bring your own provisions. I bought a sandwich at the Utrecht train station and ate it on the bus.

netherlands bus 90

Kinderdijk bus stop

Is a Kinderdijk day trip on your travel wish list?

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Keukenhof Gardens: A Floral Fantasy Come to Life

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Tulips have long been my favorite flower. Among the first to grace shops and sidewalks, their brilliant hues brighten the gray days of winter like gemstones and foretell of warmer days to come. I relish the ritual of buying that first bunch every year! Although the tulip originally hails from central Asia, it is most associated with Holland. In the 17th century, the Dutch became enraptured with the exotic tulip and a buying frenzy of bulbs caused prices to skyrocket. Thus “tulipomania” was born, the flower forever embedded within the fabric of Dutch culture. There is no better place to experience tulip fever than Keukenhof Gardens.

keukenhof gardens netherlands

What began as a small kitchen garden of a 15th century countess has grown into an annual extravaganza featuring more than 7 million bulbs! 800 tulip varieties are on display, along with a multitude of spring perennials such as daffodils, crocuses, and hyacinths. Flower beds flow through the park like the rivers of candy in Willy Wonka’s factory. Swans and ducks ply the actual waterways, while a traditional wooden windmill pirouettes through the sky. The whole place is pure magic.

keukenhof gardens

Pink tulips in bloom at Keukenhof Gardens, Netherlands

keukenhof gardens

keukenhof holland

keukenhof gardens in april

Springtime in Holland

keukenhof gardens netherlands

holland flower fields

Large pavilions host an assortment of floral shows throughout the spring season. I was most impressed by the tulip exhibition inside the Willem-Alexander Pavilion. Delighted visitors were greeted with row upon row of vibrant blooms and I could easily have spent several hours admiring them all.

holland tulips

tulips holland

keukenhof holland

keukenhof gardens

Every year Keukenhof Gardens boast a new theme. When I visited in 2016, the theme was the “Dutch Golden Age,” a period of history in which Holland achieved great artistic success and economic prosperity. This was supposedly demonstrated by a mosaic made of flowers, but it wasn’t well marked on the map and I missed it completely. However, I did stumble upon a sweet little garden created using broken bits of Delft Blue pottery.

delft blue garden

So when is the best time to visit Keukenhof Gardens? Well, that depends. The park is open every year from late March until mid May, but the weather of the preceding months can greatly affect the blooming season. I went once during the first week of May and sadly most of the tulips had already been cut; a heatwave had caused all the bulbs to blossom much earlier than normal. I overcompensated on my next visit by going the first week of April; the weather was chilly and many of the buds had yet to open. When I eventually return, I’ll aim for the the middle of April – hopefully third time’s the charm! (For those planning a visit to Keukenhof, the blog Tulips in Holland provides a weekly bloom forecast.)

keukenhof gardens

All photos in this post were taken April 6, 2016

keukenhof gardens best time to visit

A flower carpet in Keukenhof Gardens

keukenhof best time to visit

The Keukenhof Express bus is a convenient way to travel to the gardens from Amsterdam. Buses depart from Schiphol airport, outside arrivals area 3-4. (Look for the inflatable tulips.) The ride to Keukenhof took about 30 minutes, and the combination ticket included entrance to the gardens at a discounted rate.

amsterdam to keukenhof bus

If you want to tiptoe (or bike) through the neighboring tulip fields of Lisse, give yourself plenty of time. I was exhausted after many hours wandering through Keukenhof and so had to content myself with blurred glimpses from the bus window on my way back to town. Had more fields been blooming, I would have made them a priority.

tulip fields in netherlands

Is a spring visit to Keukenhof Gardens on your travel wish list?

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My Top 10 Riga Day Trip Ideas

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Given Riga’s considerable charms, visitors may be reluctant to leave the Latvian capital for even a short time. But a day trip to a nearby town or national park can provide an even richer picture of life in this Baltic nation. Thanks to Latvia’s compact size, most places within its borders can be seen in a day if you have your own wheels. For the purposes of this post, I’m sticking with destinations reachable via public transport. Latvia’s bus and train connections are extremely affordable, and the English websites fairly easy to use so long as you know the station names. (AO is short for “autoosta,” Latvian for “bus station”.) It’s worth researching both options to find the time and route that best fits your schedule, though I note my preferred way to reach each spot in the descriptions below. Without further ado, I give you my 10 favorite Riga day trips!

Sigulda

snowboarding sigulda latvia

Whether you’re a winter sports enthusiast or an avid hiker, an adrenaline junkie or a medieval history nerd, Sigulda has you covered. Situated in picturesque Gauja National Park, Sigulda boasts some of the steepest hills that remarkably flat Latvia has to offer. As such, it’s one of the country’s premier winter sports destinations. Here you can find downhill skiing and snowboarding, cross-country skiing, and a professional-grade bobsleigh and luge track that operates year round.

turaida castle latvia

For those craving less strenuous pursuits, Sigulda is home to some fascinating medieval castle ruins and museums. To make the most of your time at the spectacular Turaida Museum Reserve, catch bus mini bus 3112 from Sigulda station. The bus services the 5km circuit between Sigulda, Turaida, and Krimulda Manor and costs €0.50 each way. October is arguably the best time to visit Sigulda, when the colorful foliage is at its peak. A cable car across the Gauja river provides expansive views of the pristine forest and easy access to Krimulda Manor. You can pick up free maps at the Tourist Information Center located inside the train station. Riga to Sigulda: 1 hr 15 min via train. 

Jelgava

jelgava palace

Despite nearly being wiped off the map during WWII, Latvia’s fourth-largest city has much to recommend it. Begin your day at the Holy Trinity Church (a 15-minute walk from the station). The lone surviving tower offers sweeping city views from a glassed-in observation deck. Look for Jelgava Palace on the horizon, a crumbling pink relic of the Duchy of Courland that now serves as the Latvian University of Agriculture. Don’t miss the 40-strong herd of wild horses that graze in the meadows behind the palace!

jelgava wild horses

jelgava museum

Another pretty-in-pink structure is Academia Petrina. Originally the first university in Latvia, the striking building now houses the Jelgava History and Art Museum, a must for anyone who wants to better understand the city’s heart wrenching history. In August, Jelgava hosts the annual Milk, Bread, and Honey Festival showcasing – you guessed it – locally-made milk, bread, and honey. Riga to Jelgava: 49 minutes via train. 

Rundale Palace

rundale palace latvia

To get a taste of Latvia’s lost 18th century grandeur, head to Rundale Palace. Fondly referred to as “the Versailles of Latvia,” the summer home of the erstwhile Dukes of Courland has been painstakingly restored and lavishly refurnished with antiques. Guided tours are available, though visitors are free to wander through the sumptuous rooms on their own. Pay special attention to the intricate stucco work and blue-and-white porcelain stoves – three of which are original! Rundale is lovely year round, though it shines brightest during the summer months when the gardens are in bloom. Riga to Rundale Palace (via Bauska): 1 hr 30 min via bus, plus wait time between buses.

rundale roses

rundale palace interior

Since you’ll need to pass through the town of Bauska to get to Rundale Palace, you might as well stop and explore a bit. From the bus station, it’s a 15 minute walk to the Tourist Information Center in Town Hall Square. Here you’ll also find the Bauska History and Art Museum and Tornis Taverna, a great option for lunch. The surrounding streets are lined with heritage wooden architecture, and the town’s old white church is worth a gander.

Bauska Castle Latvia

If time permits, continue another 20 minutes or so on foot to Bauska Castle. Perched on a hill between two forks of the Lielupe River, the crumbling Livonian castle ruins offer a terrific vantage point for admiring the quaint little town. A restored 16th-century manor house abuts the castle and serves as a somewhat sparse museum, though it’s worth the price of admission to admire the colorful tiled floors! Riga to Bauska: 1 hr 15 min via bus.

Tukums

tukums latvia

tukums latvia

In the 13th century, the Livonian town of Tukums gained significance as a stop on the trade route to Prussia. After the Livonian Order gave way to the Duchy of Courland, trade routes expanded and industry in Tukums boomed. All that remains of the Livonian’s once-great castle is a solitary tower, now the Tukums Museum. The charming old town has retained its original layout, with the market square at its center. The surrounding cobbled streets are lined with historic storefronts, art galleries and churches. Riga to Tukums: 1 hr 20 min via bus or train. If you take the train, be sure to get off at the Tukums 1 stop, which is much closer to the old town than Tukums 2.

durbe manor latvia

A half-hour walk from Tukums 1 Station away from the old town will lead to Durbes Pils, a restored 17th century manor house. The grand estate was owned by various Baltic German nobles before being bestowed upon famous Latvian poet and playwright, Rainis. During the Soviet era, Durbe Manor was used as a sanatorium; it was taken over by the Tukums Museum in 1991. Today, the ground floor recreates the scene of 19th century aristocratic life, while the first floor exhibits focus on the works of Rainis.

Kemeri National Park

kemeri bog walk

On the Baltic coast not far from Tukums sits the vast expanse of Kemeri National Park. The huge territory is covered by forests, lakes, and wetlands that are home to a wide array of birds and mammals. One of the best ways to experience this special ecosystem is the Great Kemeri Bog Boardwalk. Raised wooden trails loop around the peat marsh, making it easy to traverse the challenging terrain. Be sure to climb the wooden tower at the boardwalk’s halfway point for a birds-eye view of the unusual landscape. Riga to Kemeri: 1 hour via train. Note that it’s a three kilometer walk from the train station to the raised bog, but bicycle rentals are available.

Dobele

dobele castle ruins latvia

This tiny town traces its roots to the Middle Ages when the Livonian Order ruled the land. Dobele Castle, the knights’ sprawling command center, was left in ruins after centuries of war. But what splendid ruins! I thought they were some of the most impressive Latvia has to offer thanks to their unrestored appearance. The old town square is a short 10-minute walk from Dobele Castle and is noteworthy for its historic Lutheran church and large well-shaped fountain.

dobele lilac garden latvia

Believe it or not, Dobele is also home to the largest lilac garden in Europe. In the 1950s, Peter Upitis began cultivating lilacs and today his namesake garden boasts over 200 lilac trees. The annual Dobele Lilac Festival, which takes place in late May when the garden is in full bloom, is not to be missed! Riga to Dobele: 1 hr 30 min via bus.

Talsi

talsi latvia

To experience an idyllic slice of small-town Latvian life, head to Talsi. I was completely enchanted by its cobbled streets, historic architecture, friendly locals, and peaceful lake-side setting. A well-tended wooden boardwalk circles the lake, making it an excellent place for a walk. Talsi’s main attractions are the District Museum and Creative Yard, a work and exhibition space for local artists. Dining options abound, though I strongly suggest having lunch at Martinelli’s Restaurant and an afternoon snack at Piena Seta, a bakery next to the dairy factory. Wheels of Talsi cheese make an excellent souvenir! Riga to Talsi: 2 hr 10 min via bus.

Salaspils

latvia botanical garden salaspils

latvia botanic garden salaspils

Latvia’s National Botanic Garden boasts the largest collection of plants, flowers, and trees in the Baltics. What began as a small nursery in the 1800s has grown to include some 14,000 species from around the world. The Garden is spread over 129 hectares and open year round. I visited in spring when the tulips and snowdrops were in bloom. A highlight is the gleaming new greenhouse stocked full with cacti and diverse tropical flora. The main entrance to the Botanic Garden is directly adjacent to the train station, and the ticket office doubles as the town’s tourist information center. In summer you can rent bicycles to help you reach the other points of interest in Salaspils. (My friend and I hired a taxi for a few hours for around €20.) These include the riverside ruins of St. George’s Church and a Monument to Soviet Prisoners of War. Riga to Salaspils: 25 minutes by train.

Salaspils Memorial Latvia

The entrance to Salaspils reads: “Behind this gate the earth groans.”

salaspils memorial ensemble

salaspils concentration camp

The Salaspils Memorial stands in stark contrast to the natural beauty of the Botanic Garden a mere five kilometers away. In 1941, the Nazis established a work and prison camp in Salaspils, which was located on the main train line between Daugavpils and Riga. Between 1942 and 1944, thousands of prisoners passed through the camp, many on their way to larger camps in Poland and Germany. Those who were incarcerated at Salaspils were forced to work in dismal conditions. Many died of starvation and disease, while others were executed. Sadder still is the knowledge that young children were among the many victims: a mass grave on the site has been found to contain the remains of over 600 children. Stand quietly on the camp’s concrete foundations to hear the steady heartbeat of a metronome, a constant reminder of the lives lost. Soviet authorities established the Salaspils Memorial in 1967. The site is difficult to reach without a vehicle, but I’m including it because of its historical and cultural importance.

Ogre

ogre latvia

Ogre is pronounced “Ooh-uh-gray” in Latvian

That’s right, there’s a town in Latvia named after a hideous people-eating monster! Or is there? According to local legend, Empress Catherine the Great, who was born in the region, named the river угри or ugri, after the eels which once swam its depths. Whatever the reason for the unusual moniker, I knew I had to see this place for myself.

ogre river latvia

Ogre is a popular place to live thanks to its easy striking distance of Riga, and is actually one of the few towns in Latvia with an increasing population. The town itself is adorable, though admittedly low on attractions. The map I picked up at the tourist office proudly pointed out each of the heritage buildings lining the main street. There’s also a small history museum and a smattering of cafes. But mostly, people come to Ogre for the nature. A walking path follows the gently meandering Ogre River, which is spanned by the longest arched bridge in Latvia. I had hoped to visit the much lauded Zilie Kalni – or Blue Hills – Nature Park, but the walking distance from town was too great, even for me. Riga to Ogre: 40 minutes via train.

Jurmala

jurmala beach latvia

majori latvia

Last but not least is Jurmala, the famous resort town on the Baltic Sea. Located a mere 25 kilometers from Riga, it’s easy to see why this is the most popular location with day trippers. What’s surprising is the lack of development. The pristine white sand coast is backed by seemingly endless pine forests, with only a handful of hotels visible on the horizon. Mostly you’ll find secluded holiday homes and quaint townships tucked among the trees. A pedestrian promenade lined with shops and cafes connects the two most popular areas, Dzintari and Majori, known for their blue flag beaches. Visiting in winter? Go cross-country skiing over the frozen sand! Riga to Jurmala: 30 minutes by train. You can disembark at either Dzintari or Majori, though the latter has a nicer station area.

jurmala beach skiing

Which of these Riga day trips are you most interested in taking?

Have any others to add to the list?

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Trakai Castle: A Medieval Fairytale in Lithuania

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Regular readers of this blog will know that I love a good castle. This fact traces to my childhood, when my favorite movie was Disney’s Robin Hood. I delighted in watching the cartoon animals sing and frolic around ye olde countryside and dreamed of being Maid Marion in a castle of my own. (Dramatic scenes were often reenacted on my backyard jungle-gym.) What I didn’t know then was that real stone fortresses are scattered across Europe, just waiting to be explored. While many have been left in ruins due to centuries of war and neglect, others, like Trakai Castle in Lithuania, have been restored to their former glory.

trakai castle

trakai castle

Trakai Castle in Lithuania

Trakai Castle was originally built in the late 1300s to help protect the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and nearby capital Vilnius from crusading Teutonic Knights that plagued the Baltic region. After the troublesome knights were trounced in the Battle of Grunwald, Trakai was no longer needed as a military bastion. Instead, it was refashioned into a ducal palace that remained in use until the end of the 17th century.

trakai castle restoration

The Ducal Palace of Trakai Castle

Ducal Palace of Trakai Castle

Interestingly, several different empires and occupiers had a hand in the restoration of Trakai Castle. Work that was begun by Imperial Russia in the early 1900s was continued by Germans and Poles until the end of World War II. Soviet authorities finished the job and established the Trakai History Museum. The end result is surprisingly cohesive and the stuff childhood fantasies. Stone foundations are topped with red brick towers in the French Gothic style and wooden balconies encircle every floor of the soaring ducal palace. Allow yourself plenty of time to poke around the nooks and crannies, both inside and outside the castle’s thick walls.

trakai castle

trakai castle museum

trakai castle museum

Period furnishings and displays attempt to bring the Middle Ages to life

trakai castle

Trakai Castle is located on a island in Lake Galve and connected to the mainland by wooden bridges. Originally, a second castle protected the shores of the lake, but all that remains of that one are a few watch towers and some crumbling walls. Both castles are encompassed within Trakai Historical National Park, which is on the Tentative List for UNESCO World Heritage status.

trakai historical national park

trakai lithuania

The surrounding town is button-cute, with brightly colored wooden houses fronting immaculate streets. Trakai’s small population is surprisingly diverse, with Lithuanians, Poles, Russians, and Karaites calling the place home. A few restaurants were open during my off-season visit, but I was happy to make do with piping hot kibinai (sweet and savory pastries) from a convenient food truck. I stopped at Trakai en route to Kaunas, but the castle’s proximity to Vilnius makes it an ideal day-trip destination.

trakai lithuania

trakai lithuania wooden architecture

Which of Europe’s fairytale castles is your favorite?

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Trakai Castle, a Medieval Fairytale in Lithuania

Essential Riga: A One Day Walking Tour

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While I always recommend spending as much time as you can in a new destination, often that’s simply not possible. Many cruise ships that dock in Riga give their passengers just one day to explore the city. So how can you make the most of that precious time? I’ve put together a one-day walking tour that combines the must-see attractions with a few of my own favorite spots. So skip that boring cruise ship tour and see Riga through the eyes of a local!

8:00 am*  From the ferry terminal exit, walk to the main road (Eksporta Iela) and cross at the light. Head east down residential Citadeles iela, away from the river, then turn right on Kronvalda bulvaris and follow the tram tracks towards Old Town. Leafy Kronvalda Park, one of Riga’s many green spaces, will be on your left. At the end of the boulevard, walk around the elegant Latvian National Theater on the left corner to the crosswalk next to the bridge. Cross over busy Krisjana Valdemara iela at the light and enjoy a peaceful stroll along Riga’s City Canal, once a moat that flowed outside the Old Town walls. Those medieval fortifications were torn down in the 19th century to allow for geographical expansion, and some of the stones were used to create lovely Bastejkalns Park.

Riga City Canal

Riga Bastejkalns Park

8:45 am  At the end of the park you’ll arrive at the Freedom Monument, a beacon of Latvian independence since 1935. (Amazingly, the Nazi and Soviet regimes both chose to reinterpret the statue rather than tear it down.) Important holidays are celebrated here, often with music and always with flowers. The Latvians love flowers more than any people I know on Earth.

Riga Freedom Monument

9:00 am  Part of Riga’s charm lies in its sophisticated cafe culture, so I’d be remiss not to suggest starting your day with a cappuccino and pastry. My current go-to cafe, BakeBerry, is located in a pretty red building on Audeju iela, or Weavers’ street. To reach it, cross the tram tracks next to the Opera House and enter Old Town by way of Teatre iela, or Theater street. Turn on left on Kaleju iela, or Blacksmiths’ street, right onto Audeju iela, and the cafe will be on your left.

Riga Opera House

Riga Pastries

9:30 am  Sufficiently fueled, you’ll be ready to tackle Riga’s Central Market, one of the largest and busiest in Europe. To get there from BakeBerry, turn right onto Audeju iela, then right again onto Valnu iela, or Ramparts street. Once at the end, go down the stairs in front of you to cross under the busy road. Keep going straight through the tunnel towards the autoosta, or bus terminal, and go up the staircase at the opposite end. The market is housed in five WWI-era zeppelin hangars, each dedicated to a particular food group (i.e. fish, meat, dairy). This is a good place to find souvenirs, such as Latvian honey and woven linens, and to sample local delicacies, like salted herring or smoked chicken. Don’t miss the pickled vegetable area!

Central Market in Riga Latvia

Riga Central Market

10:30 am**  Go back the way you came (under 13 Janvara iela) and head to St. Peter’s Church. Originally built in 1209 and oft damaged due to lightning and war, restoration works remain ongoing. Inside, you’ll find a gorgeous reproduction of the 19th century wooden altar, intricate royal coats of arms, and a bronze 16th century candlestick that survived WWII in Wloclawek, Poland, and was returned to its original home in Riga in 2012. Take the lift to the observation deck in the church’s spire – the birds-eye view of Old Town is worth every penny of the €9 ticket price!

Riga St Peter's Church

Riga Latvia

11:15 am  Exit St. Peter’s Church and walk straight to Town Hall Square. This is where you’ll find arguably Riga’s prettiest attraction – the House of the Blackheads. Originally built in the 1300s but demolished during WWII, this stunning building is a testament to Latvian craftsmanship and patriotism. Locals are proud of the meticulous work that went into its post-Soviet reconstruction, and rightly so. Look for the spot outside the building which marks where the world’s first decorated Christmas tree stood centuries ago.

Riga Town Hall Square

12:00 pm  OPTION A  If you’re like me, you’ll be starving for lunch at this point. I like to take my guests to “Key to Riga” in Dome Square, opposite the Cathedral. It may seem a bit touristy and overpriced at first glance, but this medieval-themed restaurant is a great option for lunch if you know what to order. I recommend the pretty-in-pink cold beet soup and potato pancakes with sour cream and lingonberry jam, washed down with a Latvian beer. (Valmiermuiza and Mezpils are good choices.) I’ve found the service at “Key to Riga” to be friendly and efficient. Just make sure to ask for the check when the plates are being cleared away to speed up the process.

Latvian Food

12:00 pm  OPTION B  Got enough to eat at the Central Market? Then skip lunch and check out two of the city’s top attractions. Dome Cathedral has been the ceremonial heart of Riga for 800 years. While religious services were suspended during the Soviet Occupation, the church remained in use as a concert hall and its organ is renowned for its beautiful sound. Across the square, the Riga Bourse Museum boasts a large collection of 17th- to 18th-century fine arts as well as a sweeping view of Dome Square from the top floor window.

Riga Dome Cathedral

Riga Dome Square

12:00 pm  OPTION C  Museums not your thing? Then use this time to shop ’til you drop! Latvia produces some of the finest handicrafts in the world and it would be a shame to return home without a souvenir of your travels. Exceptional products include pottery, linen scarves and tablecloths, wooden children’s toys, and traditional Latvian mittens. The large craft market in Egle Square is a convenient place to find all of the above at a fair price. Just look for the stands next to the beer garden, where you can celebrate your purchases with a refreshing glass of pear cider.

Riga Craft Market

1:00 pm  Depending on which option you choose, you’ll have about 45 minutes to wander through the rest of Old Town and admire the varied architecture of this UNESCO World Heritage Site. Make your way past the Three Brothers (some of the oldest buildings in the city) to Riga Castle, the newly restored home of Latvia’s president. Head down Torna iela, or Tower street, to find the Swedish Gate and the Powder Tower, two of Riga’s most iconic structures. Around the corner, the Black Cat House faces off against the Large and Small Guilds in Livu Square. (To learn more about these fascinating buildings, read this.)

Riga Castle

2:00 pm  OPTION A  Old Riga is so charming that it can be easy to forget Latvia’s difficult history. That’s why I think visiting the Occupation Museum is so important. Currently housed in the former U.S. Embassy building on Raina bulvaris (one block from the Freedom Monument), the museum explains in detail the dark days of Latvia’s Soviet and Nazi occupations during and after WWII. Knowledgeable guides give 45-minute tours (€3 per person) in English everyday at 14:00, and the personal tidbits they share will give you a fuller picture of the damage done.

Riga Occupation Museum

2:00 pm  OPTION B  If you already know a bit about the Soviet Occupation, or would rather spend your afternoon looking at pretty things (no judgment!), then maybe the Latvian National Museum of Art should be your next stop. The historic building only recently reopened after a multi-year restoration and is truly extraordinary to behold. The permanent exhibit on the top floor showcases the best Latvian painters and sculptors, including Janis Rozentals, Johans Walters, and Vilhelms Purvitis, to name a few. I thought it was interesting to see the progression of these artists’ styles during their careers, as well as Latvian art as a whole throughout its oft-turbulent history.

Latvian Museum of Art

Latvian Museum of Art Staircase

3:00 pm  No visit to Riga would be complete without stopping to gape at the impressively detailed buildings of the Art Nouveau district. From 1900-1913, Riga experienced unprecedented economic and geographic growth. The old city walls were demolished and hundreds of new buildings constructed, many of them in the Art Nouveau style. Jugendstil, as it’s also known, is characterized by the use of fanciful decorations that celebrate womanly beauty, nature, and mythology. While over one-third of Riga’s buildings are Art Nouveau, the largest concentration can be found along Elizabetes and Alberta ielas.

Riga Art Nouveau Architecture

If you have time, check out the Art Nouveau Museum to get an idea of how these sumptuously decorated apartment buildings looked when they were first built. The ground floor of Albert iela 12 has been beautifully restored and lavishly decorated to recreate early 20th century Riga life, while staff in period costume complete the effect. Even if you don’t have time to go through the whole museum, at least go inside the lobby and look up at the wondrous spiral staircase!

Riga Art Nouveau Museum

3:30 pm  Sadly, your day in Riga has come to an end and you must rejoin your fellow passengers on the boat. Walk to the end of Elizabetes iela, carefully cross the street, and make your way to your ship’s embarkation point. Then immediately start planning your return visit. There’s so much of Riga left to explore! Have a bit more time before departure? Art Cafe Sienna on Strelnieku iela is a perfect place to wait!

Riga Art Cafe Sienna

* The cruises that stop in Riga have wildly different schedules, so please adjust this according to your trip’s timetable to ensure you’re back on the boat before it leaves!

** Most museums and attractions don’t open until 10:00 am and are closed on Mondays.

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Dobele, Latvia and the Largest Lilac Garden in Europe

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“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!

Dobele Lilacs

Dobele Lilac Garden

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Lilac Blossoms

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.)

Dobele Fruit Trees

Pink Tree Blossoms

Dobele Apple Trees

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.

Dobele, Latvia Castle Ruins

Dobele Castle Ruins

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Dobele Castle

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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.

Dobele Lutheran Church

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!

Dobele Latvia

Dobele Well Fountain

Note: The crowd was standing behind me. I didn’t make that bit up.

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 Craft House

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.

Dobele Communism Memorial

Memorial to the Victims of Communist Genocide

Dobele Bralu Kapi

Statue in the Soviet Soldiers Cemetery

Dobele Liberation Monument

Dobele Liberation Monument

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!

Where to Eat in Dobele Latvia

Latvian Cuisine

Vistas Karbonades Francu Gaume

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!

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Terrific Talsi, Another Jewel in Latvia’s Crown

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Last year I visited medieval Kuldiga and proclaimed it the cutest town in all the land. But little did I know that Latvia’s Kurzeme region is brimming with fetching towns and villages. My latest crush is Talsi, a picturesque hamlet of about 9,000 nestled among nine hills and two lakes. Comfortably reached via a two-hour bus ride from Riga, Talsi’s charms remain woefully undiscovered. I only learned about the place from a photo that popped up in my Instagram feed.

Talsi Latvia

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Talsi Latvia

old architecture of talsi latvia

While not as historic as nearby Kuldiga, Talsi’s 19th century wooden architecture, cobbled streets, and white stone church are certainly idyllic. Not to mention the area’s natural beauty! Visitors can stroll along the Talsi Lake promenade, a wooden walkway built around the lake in 2013. Locals were certainly putting it to good use on a sunny but brisk March afternoon!

talsi latvia

Talsi Lake Promenade

Talsi Latvia

Talsi has long been an artistic hub, and the town’s first cultural center opened its doors in the early 1900s. Today, the culture house and adjacent music school form the Talsi Creative Yard – a work and exhibition space for local artists, photographers, musicians, actors, and weavers.

latvian weaving

Weaving center inside the Talsi Creative Yard.

For a more in-depth look at the town’s artistic heritage, I headed to the Talsi District Museum which is spread over two floors of the beautifully restored 19th century manor house of Baron von Firks. Informative displays cover everything from Latvian history and culture to local building techniques and the natural world. Descriptions are only in Latvian, though some of the staff speak English.

Talsi District Museum Latvia

Talsi Latvia Museum

Latvian handicrafts

One of the region’s best restaurants, Martinelli, welcomes guests to the Old Town in rustic Latvian style. My lunch of mushroom barley soup and pork cutlet with mushroom sauce was excellent and the service was warm and friendly. It was easy to see why everyone I spoke to recommended the place! For those wishing to stay the night in Talsi, Martinelli doubles as a B&B with three comfortably appointed guestrooms.

Martinelli Restaurant Talsi Latvia

Trudging up the steep steps of Church Hill, I caught the scent of freshly baked cake. Following my nose like a bloodhound, I soon arrived at Konditoreja “Piena seta,” – or Confectionery “Milk court.” Even though I was still stuffed from lunch, the aroma wafting out of this shop proved irresistible and I picked up several treats to enjoy on the bus ride back to Riga. I also bought some wheels of herbed cheese made right next door at the Talsi Dairy. Finding a gleaming factory in the heart of the Old Town was definitely a surprise, but apparently it has been churning out golden goodness for over 80 years!

Piena Seta Talsi Latvia

Since my Baltic guidebook had precious little on Talsi, I picked up local maps and recommendations from the helpful women running the Talsi Tourist Information Center. They made sure I was able to find every noteworthy place in town and even arranged for a taxi to take me back to the bus stop when I was running short on time. The cherry on top of an already sweet day: the taxi driver himself, who waited unobtrusively to ensure I got on the right bus. If you’re visiting Riga, I highly recommend taking a day trip to Talsi!

Talsi Latvia

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