With its spectacular views, leafy walking trails and storybook castles, Sigulda has been sweeping lovers off their feet for generations. One local artist has turned the region’s romantic legends into an artform and is finding deeper meaning through them for our troubled times.

Love conquers all

When you think of famous couples, Romeo and Juliette, Bonnie and Clyde or Rhett and Scarlett are some of the besotted names that spring to mind. And while Latvia’s Maija and Viktors may not ring as many bells, they were no slouches in the passion stakes.

The bare bones of the story are that in the early 1600s, when Vidzeme was under Swedish rule, a gorgeous maiden named Maija lived at Turaida Castle. She fell in love with Viktors, the gardener at Sigulda Castle, on the other side of the Gauja River Valley. Sadly, Maija was also coveted by another man, who lured her down to Gūtmaņu Cave. But rather than let the villain have his wicked way, Maija tricked him into stabbing her, remaining faithful to her true love even unto death.

Affectionately known as “the rose of Turaida,” every year multitudes of Latvian newlyweds lay flowers at Maija’s grave. And with a creative space overlooking the places in the drama – castles, ravines and all - Sigulda artist Zina Česka has the perfect spot to ponder this timeless tale.

Eight years ago, she started making souvenirs and artworks from recycled paper reflecting the history and mythology of the area. She named the venture “Viktora vēstules” (Viktors’ Letters), because she feels only one side of the famous tale gets told.

“Everyone knows about Maija, but nobody has a clue about Viktors. How unfair!” she laughs

Paper trail

Zina’s own story covers the length and breadth of Latvia and more. Born and raised in Bārta in southern Kurzeme, a village rich in folk traditions, she studied textile design at the Art Academy in Riga. In the late 1980s, she moved to Sigulda because her daughter needed crisp, fresh air to recover from a bronchial illness. Combined with trips to the mountains of Georgia, the treatment worked.

Zina became a leader in the local community, serving as principal of Sigulda Art School and successfully coordinating efforts to save the historic “Baltais flīģelis” (White Grand Piano) concert hall from ruthless developers.

But she isn’t one to rest on her laurels.

“Everything I do, I do with all of my might,” she says. “But I can never do it for long, because the next challenge is always waiting.”

“Viktora vēstules” flourished along with the growth of tourism in Sigulda. As well as the paper objects, Zina offered calligraphy classes, wedding events and papermaking activities for school kids. The municipality invested several million euros to turn the ancillary buildings around the late 19th century neo-Gothic New Sigulda Castle into a cultural precinct, attracting many other artists and artisans.

Financially, those were days of milk and honey. Zina recalls a group of American students dropping in and spending 150 euros in just a few minutes. But then 2020 changed everything. Tourism collapsed. Local customers made a point of dropping in after “Viktora vēstules” was profiled on a popular TV Show, and the municipality slashed rents for the art hub’s tenants.

But the overall economic impact has been dire.

Beyond the grave

Nevertheless, Zina has taken the belt-tightening in her stride. She eats little, has all the clothes she she’ll ever need, and her ex-husband helps out with her apartment bills. And she is grateful for having had a whole summer to hang out with her grandchildren.

At a time when illness and mortality are at the centre of the world’s attention, Zina has experienced personal bereavement. Last summer, her 44-year-old son-in-law passed away from stomach cancer. A fitness trainer by profession, he strived to keep working until the end. Zina recalls that a few days before he died, he got a message asking about upcoming classes, to which he responded: “The next ones will be in another world.”

Zina herself survived cancer a decade ago. She attributes her full recovery after surgery to quitting her teaching post, travelling in Greece and returning to creative work. In other words, her inner voice was telling her to make changes.

“My subconscious wasn’t letting me live,” she explains.

She believes the enduring attraction of the story of Maija and Viktors is its celebration of transcendence.

“It doesn’t matter whether Maija was 18 or 80 when she died, because the soul is eternal,” she says. “Death isn’t such a big ordeal, especially if it happens quickly!”

And Zina views the free time she now has as an opportunity. The municipality has given her a workspace and materials to unhurriedly paint large, 3.5 x 1.8 metre banners, which will be hung in the manor park near the castle. They will be abstract works making higher spiritual vibrations accessible at the material level, encouraging a meditative journey amongst the trees.

“God is constantly offering us small gifts, if we have the awareness to noticed them,” she says.

Philip Birzulis, 26.01.2021