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Living history at Bauska Castle

By Howard Jarvis. 14.10.2011

Bauska Castle
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For 300 years, from the end of the Great Northern War, Bauska Castle stood alone on a hilltop in ruins. But now it has been rebuilt and visitors are treated to a trip back in time.

After the Russian Tsar Peter the Great ordered it to be blown up in 1706, Bauska Castle was left for 300 years an elegant ruin on a hilltop at the confluence of two rivers. So we old romantics at RigaNOW! greeted the news that it would be tidily patched up using European Union funds with a big dose of skepticism.
Reconstruction work continues in the main courtyard, but fortunately it’s likely that the redbrick ruin surrounding the tower in the western segment of the castle will stay as it is.
The efforts that have been invested in giving visitors an insight into past centuries can’t be denied, however, and Bauska Castle has become a companion piece to a great day out visiting the wonderfully Baroque Rundale Palace 12 kilometers to the west.
Whether you reach the small town of Bauska close to the Lithuanian border by bus or by car, getting to the castle is easy. It’s just off the road leading towards Rundale.
There’s a tiny tourism information center within walking distance of the bus station, although it’s currently in temporary premises close to the Old Town’s main square. Before leaving Riga, visit the website, click on “brochures, maps”, and download the first brochure. It has a map and information about local attractions.

History snapshot
Bauska Castle dates way back to 1450, built to protect the Livonian Order’s southern border realms. The trade route between Riga and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania crossed the Mēmele River at this point. The circular corner towers were constructed with especially thick defensive walls, revealing the tempestuous nature of the border area.
A hundred years later, both Livonia and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth were under threat from the Russians. Bauska was the natural place for the two sides to conclude a pact in which Poland guaranteed military assistance.
Bauska’s importance grew when Duke Gotthard and later Duke Friedrich held their summertime State Diet there each year between 1568 and 1605. This was the castle’s golden era, when balls and feasts attracted gentry from all over Courland.
Long decades of war in the Baltic region involving the Swedes broke out in 1621, and Bauska Castle was on the front line. Swedish forces occupied it for three years in the 1620s, but it remained unscathed. Sweden invaded again, however, in 1658, and took Bauska once more. This time the Poles had to attack it several times over the coming two years, and when the Swedish forces finally left the structure was badly damaged.
It was repaired at great financial cost. But when the Great Northern War broke out between Sweden and Russia in 1701 Swedish forces took Bauska for the third and final time.
The Swedish monarch stayed there for two weeks supervising the rebuilding of the heavy fortifications. But, in 1705, less than a year after the work was completed, the Swedish garrison surrendered to the Russians without a fight. The following year, the tsar ordered its destruction.

Spirit of the times
Wandering over the old earthen ramparts and into the courtyard, a few steps lead up to the entrance of the castle and into a museum very recently created from fascinating finds from archaeological digs that began in the 1970s.
The castle roofs, floors, doors and windows have all been added over the last three years using EU cross-border funds that have also been plowed into Biržai Castle in northern Lithuania. There are audio guides, a modern lighting system, and an elevator for disabled visitors.
At the ticket desk it’s possible to ask for a guide to escort you around – call ahead to request one in advance. We were lucky enough to have an English-speaking guide in costume. Named Ilona, she was able to give incredible detail about the exhibits and assuredly answer all our questions – just as if, in her flowing medieval dress, we were speaking to a spirit conjured from the times of the dukes.
The exhibits begin with flint wedges, tools and weapons from the Stone Age. Later, local people crafted spiral bracelets and, for the gents, amulets of bear teeth.
The exhibition about the 15th-16th century starts with a look at the castle’s heating system. Most of the rooms were warmed with tile stoves and fireplaces. Some of the glazed tiles still survive, one of which appears to show the stately looking duke himself.
Another display reveals the social life of the court. There are drawings of merry feasts and evening parties, decorated lumps of dolomite from the duke’s bedroom, coins, maps and suits of armor. There’s even a 15th-century brick with the paw-print of a dog.
You can also see a the ceramic board of a popular game of strategy for two players called Mill, or Nine Men’s Morris, in which you remove your opponent’s pieces by forming lines of three.

A bit of ruff
Passing an echoing hall that now once again hosts evening balls and concerts, displays inside the circular towers include a room of fashions from the Middle Ages and a room of weapons.
The costumes on show, recreated from drawings, reveal how quickly fashions used to change five centuries ago. The waist sizes of dresses dramatically reduced in the second half of the 16th century, for example, while ruffs bulged in size in the 1570s.
Men’s codpieces were in common use by the end of the 16th century. To answer the call of nature, the wearer could easily untie them to spend a penny, but for a number two he needed a servant’s assistance to remove his clothing, quickly.
The weapons on display include a massive musket more than a meter long, its wooden section carved from a single piece of oak. There are 28 diagrams showing how to carry and use it. There are also crossbows, cannons and swords.
Back outside, turn right to explore the castle ruins. Games with a medieval theme have been organized here. Kids will love trying to walk on stilts, mint a coin, make soup in a cauldron, or be put in the stocks. Special events are sometimes held here, from stargazing to alchemy; call ahead to find out what’s on.
Unfortunately, if you’re hungry after all the sightseeing, only very basic meals, snacks and drinks are served without a smile in a Latvian-style krogs outside the castle beside the parking lot. Perhaps, if visitors start streaming into Bauska to see the castle, someone will set up a decent café. Overall, though, a trip to Bauska Castle is a hugely enjoyable day out.


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