Recently we had a chance to explore a new route called the “The Road of Light”, that took us to the beautiful cities of Aluksne, Cesvaine, Stameriena and Smiltene. This route will take you through 7 newly renovated castles, churches, mausoleums and other interesting heritage sites, which are now seeing the light thanks to financing from the European Regional Development Fund.
This route has 7 primary sightseeing locations:
- The Temple park Rotonda in the city of Aluksne
- The renovated South tower in the castle ruins in the city of Aluksne
- The mausoleum in the manor park in Aluksne
- The narrow gauge railway Aluksne-Gulbene luggage shed museum
- The castle of Stameriena
- The castle of Cesvaine
- The lutheran church of Smiltene
I have also added a few additional sightseeing locations and if you have more than just the weekend to explore these, definitely add more places!
If you are starting to drive in Riga, the round trip will take you about 500km, and I recommend that you start with Smiltene and then move to Aluksne and the rest of the cities.
NB: the castle of Cesvaine is undergoing renovation at the time this article was written and would be closed at least until the end of 2021. Some of the locations have entrance fees and may be closed due to health & safety regulations, so please check before planning your visit.
Where to stay?
On a budget in Aluksne: guesthouse “Ierulle” from 30 eur per night for two, with breakfast
Fancy stay in Aluksne: the former railway hotel Banhofs hotel from 90 eur for two, additional surcharge for breakfast
Where to eat?
Aluksne has multiple nice cafes that you can visit! “Pie Martas”, “Pajumte”, “Jolanta”, “Cita opera”, “Benevilla”, and there is a famous burger place in the narrow gauge railway station of Aluksne!
Our Run to Aluksne
We left the capital city of Riga on a late afternoon on a Tuesday, mid May, the prime time of traffic jams. Our first item in the itinerary was getting to Aluksne in time to see the evening lights in the parks. It was a good thing we called the tourism information center the day before and learned that there are lights indeed and those switch off at 10 pm in the summer (turned out to be 11pm in reality), as otherwise we might have missed these and only seen the parks in daylight!
As soon as we clear the city limits, it is “smooth sailing” til Aluksne – roads are almost deserted and we are soaking in the sights. The further you are from Riga, the earlier spring is, as Aluksne is known to be the first town of autumn and the last town of spring in Latvia. So you can experience the most colorful seasons here for much longer!
This trip also marks the first time we will be staying at a hotel for a really long time, and the hotel is the first place we go to once we are in Aluksne. The city seems to be deserted, we must have arrived during the dinner time!
Temple Hill Rotonda, Aluksne Medieval Castle Ruins and Bird Watching in Aluksne Lake
We head to the location of the first two sightseeing places – the medieval castle ruins on the Maria island and Temple hill Rotonda. As we reach the shore of the lake Aluksne, it sounds like a party! No, not the one with people dancing, but thousands of birds! This lake is a popular nesting ground for various types of waterbirds and they nest really close to the shore, so you can see them!
The park is a popular place for families – someone is biking, running, roller skating, someone is playing basketball, couples are walking. This is where everyone is! And I am not surprised, this beats any street view!
As there is still plenty of light, we are headed to the Temple hill Rotonda. It was built in 1807. To commemorate war commanders from the Great Northern War, recently the monument has been renovated and illumination installed. Here we stay, waiting for the sun to disappear and the blue hour to begin. I hear the first nightingale in the distance and it is an incredibly pleasant spring evening!
The park is quiet. A few people are walking near the shore, some alone, some with dogs. Someone is fishing. Noone else climbs up to the Rotonda, but we did pass a picnic table on the way up. Once we have gotten a few beautiful shots with the monument, we head back to the castle ruins passing the bridge that is all lit up.
Some teens are still playing basketball in the dim court, and the park is more quiet. We reach the castle ruins when they are brightly lit against the night sky in blue, green and red colors. The Southern tower of the castle ruins has been renovated, and a roof now stands over it – modeled after a drawing from the 17th century. This tower was the only one of the eight that survived in anything resembling decent shape. Now the walls have been conserved as well, to help save this 16th century castle for the next generations. At the moment the tower is closed for visitors, but there are plans to open it to tourists, so it should be possible to climb it to view the sights!
Exactly at 11pm the lights switch off and we take the cue – time to go to sleep, we have a lot of ground to cover on the next day! As we walk back to the hotel, I am amazed how well the stars can be seen – there is very little light pollution here, so it feels like you can reach the stars from here!
Narrow Gauge Railway Aluksne-Gulbene Luggage Shed Museum
As we wake up, the city has been transformed – voices can be heard from the outside (we are on the first floor!), and it has come alive. We grab a quick breakfast and head to the narrow gauge railway Aluksne-Gulbene luggage shed museum. This place was widely discussed after it’s opening and especially in 2019, when it was the winner of the the Society for Experiential Graphic Designs award!
Many may know the narrow gauge railway connecting Aluksne and Gulbene. Now it is just 33 km (which is good for those planning to take a trip on it, as the train isn’t very fast!), but back in the day the line was 210 km long and was an important connection in this region. You can take the regular train from Riga to Gulbene and then take the steam train to Aluksne, the schedules align well for a nice rail day trip! On top of that, Aluksne now has a tour bus “train” Severins that can take you around the main sights in the city! We rode the cute train back when exploring the industrial heritage of Vidzeme.
The more I real about this railway, and the shed, the more I understand what a pearl this is for those who love the trains! Narrow gauge railways are not too common these days, more so, still functional, and mostly these used to be used for industrial purposes. Remembering the fandom around trains in the USA, I am not at all surprised to see someone’s address in Washington scribbled on the wall of the narrow gauge rail station! The station itself is no longer functional, but it has a nice travel touch to it – a cute burger cafe has found home there!
Our main stop is the luggage shed, first we get a ticket and then we head inside. It looks like a train carriage, with voices coming from everywhere and the sound of the train moving. The screens lining the walls look like windows, and you can take a seat on one of the train benches and ride the journey along the route of Aluksne-Gulbene, with the 10 stops in between and stories of riders in the background (with English subtitles).
In the luggage boxes on the floor you can learn about various railway objects, see the narrow gauge railway, the European standard and the classic rail standard in Latvia. Try on VR glasses and you will be the driver of the train carriage! This place is a unique testament to the rich rail history in Latvia and will be an interesting place to visit for train enthusiasts irrespective of their age!
Mausoleum and Temple Hill Watchtower
We have spent way too much time in the baggage shed! It is time to run back to the lake and find the mausoleum. It is located right next to the military school, but not marked on Google Maps, so we must use the paper map (we were told this is on purpose! But I am not sure why that is).
The manor park is filled with various small structures – temples, pavilions, sculptures, a true treasure hunt to find them all! You could easily spend half a day wandering around and taking pictures. As you near the mausoleum, don’t be surprised that you suddenly hear a voice – someone is talking to you. It is the whispering lamppost, and I must say, it does create the mood for seeing the mausoleum, but it is also pretty creepy, if you get scared easily like I do, maybe don’t come here when it is dark!
The mausoleum of the Fitinghoff mausoleum was the burial site of the family who built the park, and their relatives were buried around the mausoleum. Unfortunately the graves were robbed and there was little remaining of the marble plaques, but at least the building stands. Now it is home to a multimedia exposition talking about the history of this family, available in multiple languages.
We can’t resist walking in the park a bit more, and are not at all surprised by the fact that Aluksne has become the hotspot for foliage tours in the last decade – the place is impeccably clean, and the old, grand trees must be a sight for sore city eyes! We stop by the Eola obelisk and quickly drive to the other side, back to the Temple hill park. We leave the car near the cemetery and then walk to the Temple hill watchtower. Latvians love a good watchtower, and this one is among the tallest in the country, standing at 37.8 m! There is a 1 euro entrance fee (cards accepted), and you can head up! The binocular on the top is free, and you can really see the beautiful surroundings, the lake, the Aluksne New castle and the park. Note that the tower is only open during the day, so check the closing time not to be disappointed.
The Beach and Lunch
We drive back to the other side of the park, near the castle ruins, and leave the car there (electric car park available as well). There are so many birds in the lake! Of course we must use the opportunity to see them, as they are incredibly close to the shore! Now I also understand why some hotels mark how close the beach is. “What beach?” I thought. This beach! It is inviting even despite the windy day.
We finally head for lunch in the cafe near the park “Pie Martas”, which marks our first outdoor dining experience in more than 6 months. We are starving, we have very little time, so ask for what is available the quickest. Soup and salads! Ok, we take those, and I also add a local delicacy – the cake “Diena un nakts” or day and night. A tasty treat indeed!
Stameriena and Cesvaine Castles and Smiltene Lutheran Church
After lunch we are feeling sleepy, but at least the green fields on the way to Stameriena are so beautiful that our eyes stay open. As we approach Stameriena castle, there are still some workers doing maintenance, but we just can’t stop taking pictures even from the parking lot! The castle is stunning, with bright white walls and small, dark grey towers. As we later laugh, many call this the Disney castle of Latvia.
This castle has been on a journey to becoming whole again. It was burned down during the revolution, and now looks even better. There is still a lot to be done inside, as the renovation is not complete, but it is also a chance to see more about the layers, such as – what does ceiling look like?
Once we enter, it is immediately clear why this is such a popular wedding photoshoot location! The stairs with a fireplace above them is something I have never seen anywhere else! Both of the guides show us around and tell stories of the baron and baroness who used to live here. We then take a walk in the old park surrounding the castle, and then head to the orthodox church located by the lake – to see how the sun shines through the mountain crystal cross!
We say goodbye to the friendly guides and head to Cesvaine castle. This one currently is closed for visitors, as has some massive repair work going on inside. But from the outside this is one of the most well known castles in Latvia! Make sure to see it not just from the castle parking lot, but also across the river, as some of the best sights are from the main road there!
It is getting late as we are debating – should we see the lutheran church of Smiltene still today or drive another time? In the end, it does get dark very late, so we decide to drive to Smiltene. We know that the church will be closed (during the business hours it is also possible to climb the watchtower), but nevertheless, it is a beautiful evening in the city of Smiltene – calm, warm and sunny. The beautiful evening sun shadows on the side of the church make it a work of art, and we also get to peek inside the semi-closed doors. Beautiful! Certainly, worth coming back!
After around 500km on the road, seeing 7 Light road objects and more on the way, we have really enjoyed our first overnight stay in Latvia in a really long time! This spring trip to Aluksne, Stameriena, Cesvaine and Smiltene was a wonderful opportunity to get out of the house and see a bit more of the countryside, and the rich history it has to offer!
The locations mentioned in this article have been renovated with the financial aid from the European Regional Development Fund. This sponsored article was done with Komunikāciju Aģentūra and the Ministry of Culture of Latvia. All opinions are my own.