Zemgale is the most southern region of Latvia, it’s also home to some of the countries most impressive manor houses, including the famous Rundāle manor and Bauska castle ruins.
Zemgale is the smallest region in Latvia and contains the land south of the Latvian capital and west of the River Daugava. It borders Lithuania on its southern flank and will be familiar to anyone travelling by car or bus from the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius. This region is renowned for its fertile, flat land. The River Lielupe starts off life in Bauska before flowing northward through Jelgava and east of Jelgava before reaching the open sea.
Things to see and do
Undoubtedly the pearl of Zemgale is Rundale Palace, a baroque and rococo architectural masterpiece dating back to its completion in 1768. Rundale Palace was designed by Italian Francesco Rastrelli, the same man responsible for one of the world’s most famous buildings – the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg.
Rastrelli was also responsible for Jelgava Palace, the largest rococo palace in the Baltic states. Once the residence of dukes it now serves a more practical use as the Latvia Academy of Agriculture in Jelgava.
Any visitor who is a fan of castles and manor houses will find no lack of them in Zemgale. While Mezotne Castle, Jaunmoku Manor House, Dobele Castle and Bauska Castle are among the most notable, Krustpils Castle, Blankenfelde Manor House and Vircava Manor House are worth a visit as are the ruins of Koknese for their memorable riverside setting. Many manor houses have been renovated and it is possible to stay overnight.
Tervete Nature Park is one of the many outdoor delights on offer in the region, a magical place that is home to more than 100 evocative wooden fairytale sculptures, 1200 hectares of forest and parkland, 300-year-old pine trees, nordic walks and kids train rides.
Pokaini Forest is another magical discovery. Allow yourself at least 3 hours to trek its forest which is home to mysterious round, moss-covered stones and a special energy that some say comes from its Pagan past.
Cinevilla open-air film set and backlot is a fascinating place to visit and includes a mock World War One town that was built as the set for the film ‘Defenders of Riga’.
The Zemgale region is not the most beautiful region in Latvia but historically it was the most prosperous in the country. This region was once inhabited by the Semigallian tribe who spoke the eastern Baltic Semigallian language before it died out in the 16th century. The tribal kingdom territory of that time is now divided between Latvia and Lithuania. World-class palaces, stately manor houses, and castles from varying centuries testify to a time when Zemgale was home to some of the most wealthy and influential individuals in the Baltic states region. Today, Zemgale is packed full of working farms, some of which can be visited to observe first-hand how farming life continues in the 21st century in Latvia. The culture of Zemgale is heavily influenced by its history of Baltic-German landowners and their Pagan Latvian peasant workers.
Partly due to its smaller size and its history as a farming and landowner region, Zemgale has fewer towns of note than the other three Latvian regions. The towns most deserving of a visit are Bauska and Jelgava.
Bauska has an attractive town centre with a picturesque square and town hall. Nearby Bauska Castle has a wonderful setting above the confluence of two rivers. Visitors can spend their time exploring two individual castles within one, the Livonian Order Castle, originally built in the 15th century, the older of the two.
Although much of Jelgava was destroyed during World War Two, fortunately, Jelgava Palace and part of the city’s old town survived. Jelgava Holy Trinity Church tower is one of the city’s sights that shouldn’t be missed.
One relatively unknown town of note is attractive Baldone with its impressive forest townscape, mineral springs and mud baths.
Bauska and Jelgava are easily reached by bus services. Jelgava is also serviced by train from Riga. The majority of castles and manor houses in the region require private transportation or visiting as part of a transfer or tour. On the plus side, almost everywhere in Zemgale can be visited on a day trip from Riga although several places, particularly some of the region’s manor houses, are deserving of an overnight stay.
Food and drinking
Due to its rich farming traditions and the many working farms that still operate today, Zemgale offers the visitor many opportunities to try delicious organic and home-made food and to discover unique Zemgale cuisine. Regional delicacies include Pump Cup Zemgaliete, filled potatoes with meat, and apple onion salad. Bauska brewery, Tervete beer brewery and Tervete winery are just some of the authentic places open to any visitors who wish to test the local alcoholic beverages.
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