The Dobele lilac garden is the largest of its kind in Europe. When I mentioned this fact to a Riga taxi driver, he didn’t believe me. But it’s true – the Peteris Upitis Garden in Dobele, Latvia boasts more than 200 lilac trees! The garden was started 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 Latvia’s harsh winter climate, but his real passion was lilacs.
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 in the 1330s. It was heavily damaged during the Great Northern War of the 18th century and abandoned. An impressive amount of stonework remains intact, including much of the bailey’s perimeter wall.
Dobele was established in the late 1400s when the Livonians constructed a Lutheran Church near the castle. The beautifully restored church features original stone floors, 17th and 18th century woodwork, and a gleaming new organ. The ladies inside were delighted to welcome tourists, though some knowledge of Latvian was necessary to understand all the historic details they wanted to share.
Dobele town square was given a makeover in 2011. The centerpiece is a giant well-shaped fountain with a bucket that tips over when full. It was shut off for cleaning at the time of my visit, but a kindly worker turned it on so I could see. A crowd quickly gathered behind me to enjoy the show.
Just around the corner is the Dobele Craft House, which showcases 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 two important memorials which document the region’s turbulent past. You’ll find the Memorial to the Victims of Communist Genocide near the train station, where deportations to Siberia began in 1941. The Dobele Liberation Monument has pride of place near the castle ruins. A massive stone statue depicts two Latvian figures in traditional costumes ready to fight for their country. The original monument from 1940 was blown up by the occupying Soviets; 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, try vistas karbonades francu gaume, a chicken cutlet “French style” – i.e. smothered with cheese and tomatoes. Order fries and a salad to round out the meal.
Dobele, Latvia 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.) There’s not much English signage around town, so be sure to pick up brochures from the tourism office. Happy travels!