“This is the land of Narnia,” said the Faun, “where we are now; all that lies between the lamppost and the great castle of Cair Paravel on the eastern sea.”
My favorite book growing up was The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis. The story is about four precocious British children who stumble into the enchanted world of Narnia while playing hide-and-seek in an old wardrobe. Aided by a great lion and a friendly faun in their battles against a wicked queen, the children eventually defeat her and rescue the land from never-ending winter. Their adventures are the stuff of pure fantasy and I drank it up. But never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d ever actually find myself in Narnia in real life. That is, until I traveled to Cesis, Latvia in the middle of January.
In the shadow of 800-year-old castle ruins, I found a snowy field dotted with lampposts and frozen figures seemingly waiting for a thaw to spring to life.
The Livonian Brothers of the Sword built Cesis Castle in 1209 during their crusades across the Baltic lands. From this stronghold, the German knights battled in succession Russian, Polish, Swedish, and yet more Russian foes. The castle, then known by its German name Wenden, was finally destroyed during the Great Northern War.
Today, visitors can explore the crumbling towers, passages, and dungeon with candlelit lanterns. Amazingly, I was the only person there.
In the 18th century, Earl von Zievers built a manor, or New Castle, on the grounds and incorporated parts of the medieval structure into the design. Used by the Latvian army during World War I and then converted into an apartment building by the Soviets, today the beautifully restored manor houses the Cesis Art and History Museum. Visitors can climb to the top of the tower for unbeatable views of the Old Town.
Old Cesis is anchored by the 13th century St John’s Church whose tower soars above the skyline. A marketplace once nestled in the shadow of the church and formed the medieval town center. Although few structures from that era remain, the street layout and land plots are unchanged. The 18th century buildings have been meticulously restored giving the hamlet the feel of a historical film set. It’s easy to imagine walking through a wardrobe into this perfect snowy world, because how else could such a place exist?!
Cesis might be small in stature, but it doesn’t lack in good dining options. Karumlade Cafe in Old Town is an excellent spot for lunch or an afternoon break. I recommend a steaming bowl of soļanka and some pīrāgi to chase away the chill.
A short walk away at Hotel Cesis, Alexis Restaurant serves up surprisingly modern (and affordable) takes on Latvian classics like herring and rabbit. Be sure to wash it down with a refreshing glass of Cēsu Alus, the oldest beer in the Baltics!
Would you like to spend a weekend in Cesis, Latvia?