Stay in a Manor House, wander through the Castle Park that surrounds it and take a ride on a narrow gauge railway.
All these delights awaited me on a visit to Gulbene in the Latvian region of Vidzeme. This region is considered to be the cultural heart of Latvia. Its name translates as Middle Earth which conjures up visions of fairy tale castles surrounded by enchanted forests. The main attractions here include elegant castles built by Baltic German nobles during the nineteenth century when Russia ruled Latvia. Once Latvia regained independence these palaces have been preserved and put to good use. Gulbene boasts two palaces and a Manor House, Vecgulbene Manor (Vecgulbenes muiža).
Vecgulbene Manor in Gulbene, Vidzeme in Latvia
Vecgulbene Manor, once the centre of Gulbene, no lies on the southern edge of the town. The Manor House, is the renovated riding school of the manor and the best hotel in the town. The bedrooms lead from a gallery above a large open area that is now an elegant function room. This hotel is full of character although some guests may not relish the lack of curtains at the small, semi-circular windows. The Manor House is surrounded by the Castle Park which features two castles and an orangery including the main building, the White Castle.
The White Castle in Gulbene, Vidzeme in Latvia
The ravages of war and time have reduced the White Castle (Baltā pils) to rambling ruins. It was built in the style of a Roman villa in 1763. After the Wolff family acquired the manor at the beginning of the nineteenth century Heinrich Johann Gottleib von Wolff renovated and extended it to create a grand neo-Renaissance palace. This palace was almost destroyed completely by a fire in 1904. It was partially restored only to suffer a second destruction during the Second World War. Today, its name belies its appearance as the white exterior has crumbled revealing red brickwork. Close to the White Castle is the more complete Red Castle.
The Red Castle in Gulbene, Vidzeme in Latvia
The neo-Gothic Red Castle was built using red bricks by Baron Heinrich von Wolff during the second half of the nineteenth century. It was a gift to his wife Marisa, the love of his life, and one of his many tributes. This castle burned down in 1905. It was partially restored after this fire when the layout was changed and the second floor of the decorative tower was demolished and replaced by a gable rood over its first floor. During the early 1920s the castle was rebuilt to accommodate the needs of a school that moved into the building. During the 1970s an incompatible extension was built to meet the needs of this school. When the school moved out in 2004 the castle was taken over by the Gulbene History and Art Museum. It features a ‘talking wall’ which relates the story of the Baron and his wife Marisa. Close to the Red Castle is the manor’s old orangery now the main building of the Gulbene History and Art Museum.
The Gulbene History and Art Museum in Gulbene, Vidzeme in Latvia
The galleries inside the Gulbene History and Art Museum include photographs of the White and Red Castles in their hey days and Heinrich von Wolff with Marisa. Permanent exhibits focus on the work of two prominent local artists, Jūlijs Madernieks and Jūlijs, Straume. Across the road from Castle Park, surrounded by trees, is the Evangelical Lutheran Church (Gulbenes Evaņģēliski luteriskā baznīca).
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in Gulbene, Vidzeme in Latvia
The Evangelical Lutheran Church was built in 1843 but lost its tower during the Second World War. An ongoing campaign aims to restore the tower. A statue of Martin Luther King, leader of the Protestant Reformation, was placed by the front entrance of the church in 1883. It celebrates the 400-year anniversary of his birth. This church marks the historic centre of Gulbene as it stands on the site of two ancient buildings, a Latgalian hill fort and the castle of the Archbishopric of Rīga. The centre of town today is between its second historic site, the railway station, beyond its parks. The nearest is Central Square (Pakur, pakur).
Central Square in Gulbene, Vidzeme in Latvia
Central Square provided some relief from the austere Municipal Centre, a remnant of the Russian occupation, which it fronts. This square was reconstructed in 2008 to celebrate the eightieth anniversary of the city of Gulbene. A fountain with two metal flames surrounded by jets of water was added. This fountain is lit with coloured lights at night which earnt the square the name Pakur, pakur (fire, fire). Swan Park (Gulbišu parks) is just beyond this square.
Swan Park in Gulbene, Vidzeme in Latvia
There are swan motifs everywhere in the town centre of Gulbene, on the coats of arms of both town and district, murals and flower beds. A large bronze swan feeding its cygnet stands by the pond in the centre of Swan Park. And a series of benches in this park features the swan. The name of the town is taken from the Latvian word for swan, gulbis. But visitors to the town are unlikely to see any live swans here. Legend has it that this area was once a paradise on earth for swans with large numbers of them living here. Gulbene boasts 200 hectares of parks and green areas including a large wooded park that today has been divided into two parks Spārites Park and Emzes Park.
Spārites Park and Emzes Park in Gulbene, Vidzeme in Latvia
When Baron Heinrich von Wolff created these parks to honour his beloved wife it was one park called Marisa Park (Marijas parks) to honour the wife he adored. Since then it has been given two names. The smaller, southern area is known as Spārites Park and encompasses a pond known as the Holy Lake (Svētais ezers). Baron Heinrich built the pond after Marisa’s early death in 1883. A stone on each of the islets is inscribed with a letter from her name. Emzes Park occupies a wilder, larger area at the northern end of the park and is a protected dendrological plantation. It surrounds a lake shaped as the letter M. Follow Heinrich’s Forest Trail (Heinriha meža taka) to explore both areas. Gulbene Railway Station is on the far side of this park and worthy of a visit.
The Railway Station in Gulbene, Vidzeme in Latvia
Gulbene’s grand, Russian-built, railway station stands proudly beside the narrow gauge railway which runs between the town and Alūksne. This is the last remaining line of many similar local railways in the country. The diesel locomotives and steam engine of the Cold War era have become a symbol of the town. A limited daily service operates between the two towns. Although the size of the station building suggests the station is much more important than it is in reality it has been put to good use housing the Railway and Steam Educational and Interactive Centre (Dzelzceļš un Tvaiks izglītojošs un interaktīvs centrs).
Gulbene’s majestic railway station was built in 1926. It was bombed in 1944 but was later reconstructed. Inside the building visitors can not only appreciate the stunning interior but can learn about the history of the railway through displays and interactive games and puzzles.
A great way to pass the time before jumping on the 13:00 train to Alūksne to explore another, very different town of the Vidzeme region of Latvia.
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Valery Collins is the Experienced Traveller An excellent raconteur, Valery has been writing about her experiences on the road since she started travelling 25 years ago. After publishing four books she turned to online travel writing.