04 December 2010

Castle Hunting: Pils Cēsis

When we got to Cēsis we thought we'd check out the town castle - expecting some disheveled mound blanketed by snow. When we were issued candle lanterns and a map... well, let's say it was a fun castle hunting experience.
Most of Latvia's stone, medieval castles were all constructed at the same time - the beginning of the 13th century - by the Livonian Brothers of the Sword. The brotherhood was chartered by the Riga Archbishop, Albert, in 1202, with aid from Pope Innocent III. The castles and the militia were both created to accelerate the forced conversion of the Livonian people to christianity - a campaign known as the "Livonian Crusade." The German and Danish people who were occupying the area were intent on freeing up the trade routes that extended south and east from the Gulf of Riga, and considered the "pagan" people in the area a threat to their supremacy. Between the beginning of the 13th century and 1230, nearly eighty castles had been constructed, or were in the process of being built, in Latvia alone. Most of them are in ruins today, but some are in better shape than others.
Cēsis was one of the larger castles built during this period, and served as the Brotherhood of the Sword's (then known as the "Livonian Order) headquarters from 1237 until 1561. It was destroyed by its own troops in 1577, ahead of the advancing Russian army of Ivan IV Vasilyevich (who is better and more affectionately known as "Ivan the Terrible"), for fear that the Russian forces would capture and hold the fortress. It was partially rebuilt, then destroyed again in 1703 (by the Russians, of course) during The Great Northern War. It is a huge place, and not in such bad shape, considering the two demolitions and three centuries of neglect. Certain parts of it have been bricked up (as you can see in the above photo) to prevent further disintegration, but other than that it's been left mostly untouched.
The best part about it is the largely-intact "western tower," which is four stories tall and has a whole bunch of interesting nooks and crannies. We were completely alone as we explored the building.
The brick and stone domed ceilings were impressive. At the tope of the tower, it was possible to walk out onto the dome and hear the very hollow echo of the space below. It gave me the heebie-jeebies - I'm not light enough for old, crumbling masonry - but Rebecca was braver.
As you can see, they are working on restoring another one of the towers. We were amazed by how few footprints there were in the snow. A place like this should be attracting many more tourists.
The lanterns came in handy as many of the staircases and inner corridors were pitch black. It was a very appealing way of providing lighting, and much nicer than electric wires running everywhere.
One of the amazing things about Europe is how little they worry about safety. In America, this kind of place would be bristling with banisters and window-bars, everything would be lit up, there would be exit signs and they would close off snowy, winding staircases like this for fear that someone would fall and kill themselves. Here, they only told us to be careful on the ladder down into the dungeon, because it could be "slippery." I'll say. It was a twenty-foot metal ladder down into a stone pit - it feels nice to be trusted like this, and free to poke around without being hemmed in by safety measures.
The Latvian castles have been especially enjoyable because the snow adds a certain medieval chill to the stone. It's been really beautiful and it makes the views timeless, in a way.
It took us a while to see everything - the map helped, but there were all sorts of passages and stairways that we discovered ourselves. It is difficult to understand how someone could design the blueprint for something like this and apply it to rough material, using only semi-skilled labor.
Before we left we had to extinguish and turn in our lanterns, which was sad. There is a newer "castle" attached to the outer wall, built around 1800, which is really just a large manor. We looked around in there - it's an art gallery - and found little of interest. Also, I bumped my head pretty severely going up a staircase. There is a period of adjustment, almost like emerging from a movie theater, after leaving a castle and finding oneself in the modern world. It takes a moment to catch up with the cars and cellphones and the American music on the radio. This was one of my favorite castles that I've ever been to. It wasn't all that pretty, or well-preserved, but it was atmospheric and interesting. Having the run of the place was nice, too.


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