In the Footsteps of the Rose of Turaida
Some of Latvia‘s most famous tourist attractions are linked to the legend of a young maiden known as the Rose of Turaida. More specifically, she is famous for the tragic way she died at the hands of a spurned admirer. You couldn’t read such violence to some liberal people today without a myriad of trigger warnings. In this part of the world, though, the Rose is still held up as a model of faithfulness and devotion, and the sites associated with her in Sigulda and Turaida remain popular with pilgrims.
My journey to understand the legend the began with a day trip out of the capital Riga. I will describe the legend and each site’s link to it as I go along. Before I begin, though: violence against women and offensive Polish stereotypes ahead.
Memorial to the Rose of Turaida
Once inside the Turaida museum reserve, I headed for the memorial behind the Lutheran church. A massive linden tree sheltered the site. A heavy, gnarled branch, long bereft of twigs and leaves, grew from the tree and rested on the ledge. Before me, the inscription on the shiny granite plaque read:
Turaidas Roze: 1601 – 1620
This area used to be a graveyard, and The Rose’s grave was just one of many. Following a moratorium on church burials that Catherine II imposed, all the original graves eventually vanished, save for this one. In 1922, the widow of the writer Janis Poruks arranged for the construction of the current memorial around the 200-year-old tree.
Newlyweds still come to this spot (they can enter the reserve for free) to place flowers on the grave, as per tradition. After reading about the legend from the information panel, I hope too that their love will never be tested in the same way.
As for the church, the current structure was only built in 1750 on the site of previous churches that burned down during the Polish-Swedish wars. It would’ve probably looked very different in the early 17th Century but it is still one of the oldest wooden buildings in the country.
After visiting the spot where the legend ends, I followed the path to the place where the life of the Rose of Turaida began: the castle.
The 800-year-old Turaidas Pils was one of many built by the Livonian order in the region. It was abandoned after it last burned down in 1776. In the last 40 years, however, the ruins were excavated, partially restored and incorporated into the Turaida museum-reserve.
The towers of the castle offer a splendid view of the Gauja valley and meandering river below. Beyond the reserve, the scenery was unblemished by modern structures. That cloudy day, the lush green foliage complemented the red-brick castle walls. Imagine the valley turning into a riot of reds and yellows in the autumn, or the chilly white snow covering the trees in winter. I would love to live in Latvia for a year just to revisit this spot each season. One can also imagine that the Rose of Turaida enjoyed the same views growing up on the grounds of the castle.
The castle in the life of the Rose
In 1601, during the Polish-Swedish war, the Swedes successfully took control of Turaida castle after a lengthy battle in the valley. In the battlefield, Greif, the castle clerk, found a baby girl in the arms of her dead mother. He adopted and raised the girl as his own daughter in the castle, naming her Maija Roze (May Rose).
Maija Greif grew up and met Viktor Heil, a young German lad who was an apprentice of the gardener at the Sigulda castle on the other side of the valley. The gulf between the two didn’t stop them from falling in love. From the loft, she would’ve been able to see the other castle in the distance.
On a darker note, a deserter from the Polish army named Adam Jakubowski found employment in the castle. He became infatuated with Maija and tried to woo her. She rejected him and informed him that she was engaged to Heil. Consumed by jealousy, Jakubowski drowned in sorrows frequently, and it cost him his job. He decided that she was his, no matter what and hatched a plan.
Turaida Estate and Folk Song Hill
The other parts of the reserve consist of former barns, stables, workshops and servant quarters that were built in the 19th and 20th Centuries. The last private owner of the Turaida estate built them before he returned to Germany in the 1930s.
The nearby Folk Song Hill has an interesting history. The sculptures were built and erected towards the end of Communist rule. To the authorities, they were ostensibly about the virtues of work, but they evoke scenes from various Latvian folk stories. Song and folklore festivals were held here and thus began the Singing Revolution in Latvia.
I wasn’t able to point out which tale each sculpture referred to without outside help, but the whole area is still a pleasant one to take a leisurely stroll around.
Gutmana ala, the largest cave in the Baltics, is about 800 metres from the reserve, on the road to Sigulda. There was no pavement leading there so I had to walk a kilometre along the edge of the tarmac. The pretty wildflowers didn’t make it easy to focus on getting there safely!
Several local myths and legends meet here. According to one, a Liv chief buried his unfaithful wife alive on the river bank. Such was her sorrow that her tears formed the stream that created the grotto and still flows to this day. Another myth states that a local healer (the Gutmann or ‘good man’ in German) who used to live in the grotto treated people with water from the stream. He’s long gone, so I didn’t test it out – goodness knows what modern-day tourists have dumped in it.
Thousands of carvings cover the soft sandstone walls of the grotto. As a result of the legends associated with the place, pilgrims have been visiting it since the 16th century, making it Latvia’s oldest tourist attraction. From the 18th century, craftsmen who lived in the cave would help noblemen chisel their coats of arms to mark their visits. Today, there are signs to remind all not to contribute any new carvings. It remains a popular attraction to this day; you don’t see the tour bus groups that were behind me when I took the photo below.
According to the legend of the Rose of Turaida, Heil and Maija would rendezvous here in the evenings. Heil hewed the smaller cave next to the grotto, where they could enjoy a little privacy away from the pilgrims. Today, it’s cordoned off by the least intimidating fence ever made.
Death of the Rose
Maija Greif would also meet her end at this spot. On 6 August 1620, Maija received a note stating that Heil requested to meet her at the grotto earlier in the day than planned. She brought her younger step-sister Lenta with her to gather flowers for the meeting. At Gutmanis cave, she was confronted by Jakubowski; he had written the note to lure her there. He told her he was going to have her, whether she liked it or not.
Maija pleaded with Jakubowski to let her go; she offered him her scarf, which she claimed would maker the wearer invincible. She tied it around her neck and invited him to test it with his sword – which he did. Lenta screamed as her step-sister fell and died. Realising what he had done, Jakubowski hanged himself in the forest.
Heil discovered his lifeless fiancee later that day. In his haste to seek help, he left his hatchet in the cave; he thus became a prime suspect in the murder. It took the testimonies of Lenta and Piotr Skudritz, whom Jakubowski revealed his plan to, to clear Viktor’s name.
Heil buried Maija on the end of the graveyard near the Turaida church and planted a linden tree on her grave. The cross at the head of the grave bore the same words that were on the scarf: Love is stronger than death.
Sigulda Mediaeval Castle
Back in Sigulda, the ruins of the mediaeval castle that Viktor Heil worked in remain hidden from the road by a newer castle. It was built by the Livonian Order too. From the walls, I was able to see Turaida castle on the other side, just as the young lad would have been able to.
It’s not very often that I can feel as if I was back in time and able to experience things the way people did in the past. Being able to walk around and see these places as they did centuries ago, however, made the legend that bit more plausible.
How to Get There
From the central train station in Riga, the train ride takes less than 90 minutes (2.50 Euro). Bus No. 12 goes to Turaida from the Sigulda station (0.50 Euro) – just walk east from the train platform. Don’t dawdle, however, because it leaves only a few minutes after the train from Riga arrives. Alight outside the museum entrance; admission costs 5 Euro per adult in the summer.
From Gutmanis cave, you can walk back and take the bus to Sigulda or onward to Krimulda, where you can take the cable car across the valley to Sigulda (7 Euro one-way). Krimulda can also be hiked to via a path from the cave. The Sigulda castle is a 30-minute walk from the cable car station – follow the road south-east, then when you reach the walking stick square, turn left onto Cesu iela. Turn left at the roundabout onto Pils iela and follow the road to the Jauna Pils (new castle). Admission to the ruins behind is 2 Euro per adult. From there it’s another 40 minutes on foot back to the train station.
More on the Legend
If you understand German, you can read the poem Die Jungfrau von Treiden by Adelbert Cammerer here. It is based on the original legend. My source material is the information on the panels at the Turaida Museum Reserve.