At over eight hundred years old, Cesis (pronounced ‘Tsaaysis’) is exactly what you’d expect a medieval Latvian town to look like.
The streets are narrow and occasionally cobblestoned; the small squat houses are made from faded wooden panels; the half ruined complex of a 13th century castle and the oldest brewery in the country sit within spitting distance of each other.
It’s a town where one of the parks is known colloquially by its two resident black swans – and where said swans’ mating habits occasionally make the front page of the local newspaper.
But Cesis also has an undeniably modern feel. In amongst the old buildings there are tall trees, big fountains at the centres of open squares, peaceful parks, calm lakes and a newly built contemporary art gallery.
So why exactly was I in Cesis?
Every summer, like many other towns and cities in Latvia, Cesis holds an annual weekend-long festival. As the official description states, “this festival is the best time to see how Latvian traditions of different centuries meet today.”
Of course, I wasn’t actually sure what Latvian traditions from across eight hundred years of history would actually look like. The only thing I knew was that out of all the summer celebrations in Latvia, the festival in Cesis has always been regarded as one of the best.
So why not discover the essence of why this tiny Latvian town is so popular?
Exploring Cesis Town Festival
I awoke on Saturday morning to the sounds of an orchestra marching along the street outside my hostel. Looking through the window proved that, yes, a number of musicians were indeed ‘awakening’ the townspeople – the festival’s opening tradition which repeats itself year after year.
I took the intended cue and got myself out of bed.
Brushing my teeth in the small upstairs bathroom of my hostel, I watched the staff rush between rickety tables, rag rugs and piles of unidentifiable silverware. As part of the festival, the quaint back garden of the achingly hipster hostel had been appropriated for an antique sale.
Once out in the streets I wandered aimlessly, letting different elements of the festival tempt me to come closer.
And I wasn’t disappointed. Walking through different parts of Cesis, I realised that each area seemed to be running its own ‘mini-festival': some were clearly children-friendly, others designed for sports and games, some for art and others for music, a few for dancing and still more for late night action.
There was the family section in Black Swan Park, filled with families and elderly couples walking their young children or grandchildren around the hook-a-duck games and introducing them to the occasional costume-clad elephant.
In one corner, there was a skate park area for the teenagers – both the ones competing and the ones clustered at the edges to watch.
A few streets away, one of Cesis’s main roads was closed off the duration of the weekend so that street hockey players could practice their craft. It was a clear teenage hangout; music blaring, gaggles of kids sitting on the pavements, and the teams all getting progressively more competitive.
On the small grassy area beside the castle, groups of school children performed classical music inside a white curtained, ivy strewn stage, while families lounged around on the hay bales in front and ate food from farmer’s market-esque stalls set up alongside.
Below the newer buildings of the castle, an interactive art installation invited people to don headphones and listen to musical accompaniment as they absorbed the paintings.
At the base of the ruined castle, a huge stage was set up where yet more groups of teenagers congregated in front of various musical acts.
The evening before, I had managed to inadvertently stumble upon a late night performance by the famous Latvian pagan metal band Skyforger, which heralded an influx of pierced, tattooed, leather wearing metalheads all around me.
Let’s just say I’ve never been more awestruck by a collection of bellowing Latvians. Or more terrified.
In the streets surrounding St John’s Church, Latvians from all over the area stood at little stalls and sold their traditional handmade products to eager customers.
Everything was offer, from hand-stitched lace and carved wooden bowls to clothes made from hemp and freshly made honey – with the bees responsible actually buzzing around their honeycomb on the table.
Inside the castle grounds was the medieval area; stalls selling hand carved wooden instruments, animal pelts, hand made jewellery and clay pots, which vied for people’s attention alongside a central stage featuring bands singing in ancient Baltic languages, and various places for children to make their own candles, soap, and practice their clay throwing.
There was even a discreetly placed tent for dry birch massages, which involved a pair of Latvians raising their bunches of twigs in an almost dance-like routine as they massaged the body in front of them.
Getting to grips with Latvian culture
Watching the birch-branch-wavers, I started thinking properly about these traditions that the festival was supposed to display. While I’d definitely been privy to various elements of Latvian living, I didn’t really feel like I’d seen any that had been carefully passed down through the ages, preserved and emulated for generations.
But any doubts I may have had about the traditional aspects of the Cesis town fair were dispelled that evening, when I reached the Rozu Park, the main square of Cesis.
Waiting in the soft dim light were a collection of young Latvians, each holding a lantern and dressed in old style clothing. The girls had their hair gathered into long plaits tied with red ribbons, the boys wore suits and bowler hats.
All around, people were waiting for the procession to start, holding their cameras, phones, jackets – but suddenly they were the ones that looked out of place. Like ancient Latvia had somehow come to the foreground again in the modern day.
And even when the camels appeared (on loan from a local Camel & Alpaca Farm…) – complete with teenage shiekhs to lead them – it didn’t break the spell.
Cesis: where history meets modernity
I haven’t been to many town fairs around the world, so I can’t exactly compare them – but I wondered if Cesis Town Fair was the Eastern European version of what state festivals are like in the US. I had the sense that literally everyone in the town was there, in a small easily navigable place where people offer continuous greetings to the friends they keep passing, where kids wander around with meat on sticks and dogs on leashes can barely handle all the excitement.
Moreover, it felt like people were simply relishing an occasion that brought everyone together, from every age group, so they could all enjoy themselves as a community for a weekend.
And most crucially, the younger generation of Latvians are coming back to Cesis. Even when they head off to university in Riga, many of the Cesis-grown still return to the little town after their studies are over, interested enough in their town’s heritage and history to help preserve and prolong it.
During the procession, holding my phone skyward to imitate a lantern, I spoke to a few Latvians my age – some from Cesis and others from Riga, just in town for the evening. All of them find Cesis to be a special place, even though none could put their finger on why, exactly.
For me, it was the sense of tranquillity and calm that falls on you when you walk around the streets. There’s no sense of urgency or duty, and I felt myself actively relaxing.
After only a few days in Cesis, I decided the reason why this town feels so special is that there’s room for every period of history here. No one element tries to outshine the other; and although the town is undoubtedly contrasted between the old and new worlds, it’s a strangely satisfying hybrid.
I can only imagine what it would be like to actually live within it.
Have you been to Cesis, or to Latvia? What other Eastern European traditions have you seen?
NB: my time in Cesis was supported by the Latvian Tourist Board & the European Regional Development Fund as part of the Must Love Festivals project, but my postulations about the country’s traditions (and the stalking of various elderly couples and dressed up elephants) are all my own.