Sigulda castles tell tales of war and romance

RIGA, Latvia -- When the Knights of the Sword, a German order of crusaders, completed its conquest of modern-day Latvia and Estonia in 1207, the Gauja river was chosen as the boundary between the territory of the knights and the domain of the Archbishop of Riga.

The parties built castles within a few miles of each other; the knights' castle on the south side of the river, the archbishop's on the north.

Nearly 800 years later, these castles are still the prime attraction of Sigulda, an area about 30 miles northeast of Riga.

From its perch on the bluffs above the Gauja, the castle of the Knights of the Sword, completed in 1226, commanded the south bank of the river valley.

The castle stood for about 500 years, but was destroyed during an early 18th century war between Russia and Sweden. The Great Northern War, propagated by Russia's Peter the Great, drove Sweden out of the Baltic states.

Now the castle is in ruins, with a few imposing walls still standing. From the knights' castle, it's possible to see the rebuilt Archbishop's castle. Turaida Castle, as the Archbishop's fortress was called, was founded in 1214 and also was destroyed during the 18th century. However, the Soviets rebuilt the castle, and the result is a red brick structure dating from the late 20th century.

The reconstruction includes the 140-foot-tall Donjon Tower, which provides an excellent view of the Gauja river valley.

Turaida is surrounded by other attractions, including a sculpture park on the bluffs above the Gauja, and a church that dates to 1750. Visitors to the church may discover the grave of the Turaida Rose, a young woman who died in 1620.

Legend has it that the woman, named Maija, loved a man who lived at Sigulda Castle on the other side of the river. The two frequently met at a cave on the northern side of the Gauja near Turaida Castle. Like many legendary love stories, it ended tragically. A jealous suitor lured the Turaida Rose to the cave, and killed her.

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