I’m not very fond of birthdays.
I’m uncomfortable being the centre of attention, except for in print. It feels weird to see so many people wishing me well — I guess because I spent most of my younger years getting in trouble. And I see birthdays as a moment of sober reflection on time running out, rather than a celebration of the past.
But that being said, I’ll absolutely use birthdays to my advantage if it becomes an excuse for doing something cool… like staying in a castle.
I’m on the road in the Baltics this month, researching a magazine story. And I’ve spent the past 8 days in Riga. We just happened to be moving north yesterday. And Birini Castle was on the way…
The palace is set on a small lake on the outskirts of Gauja National Park. It’s a massive pink birthday cake of a place, with forested grounds, stables, a garden with fresh produce, and a watermill that houses a cafe and traditional Latvian sauna.
We booked the massive second floor tower suite. But I think there were only a couple other guests, and for most of the time we had the entire castle to ourselves.
A few small groups of tourists came by that afternoon to tour the grounds. But when they left, the only sounds were the clop of horses walking down the gravel path outside, and the swoosh of a stork flying up to his nest on the roof.
I had my own key to the back door, which opens onto a massive foyer with double wooden staircase and soaring ceiling.
I let myself in and creaked my way up the stairs, pausing to examine the ballroom. The thought crossed my mind of inviting some friends, or perhaps sitting down at the grand piano to tickle the ivories. But I stood there for a while in silence instead, and then went down the passageway to my room.
The antique desk was the perfect place to write. And when I had finished scribbling in my notebook, I sat in the curve of the tower and sipped a cold glass of Bollinger champagne. And I imagined myself living in this beautiful place, with this room as my library and my desk nestled below the windows of the tower.
We wandered down to the watermill before dinner, for a cold glass of local beer and a traditional Latvian sauna. Those old wooden walls had seen a party or two. But like a king living in splendid isolation, we had the building to ourselves, and hot lashings of steam soaked away all my cares — and hopefully a wrinkle or two.
When we were thoroughly sweated out, we walked back up to the castle to dress for dinner.
The restaurant in the vaulted cellars was outstanding. It’s also the only place I’ve ever been that had beaver on the menu.
Now I’m not sure about other countries, but “beaver” is slang for something entirely different in Canada. And it’s very lewd. The meal was incredible, but it was difficult to keep a straight face when the charming waitress came over to ask, “How did you like the beaver?” I told her it was my wife’s first time to try it, and that we thoroughly enjoyed it.
Lewd jokes aside, it’s not something I’d ever considered dining on before. But it was delicious accompanied by grilled vegetables from the garden, pureed green peas and buckwheat. And I can confirm that beaver goes very well with a California Zinfandel.
The castle fell silent soon after dinner. We took a late night walk around the grounds, with light still in the sky this far north until after 11pm. I was greeted by indifferent horses and a very friendly cat.
And then I let myself in by the castle’s back door and wandered through the hallways, looking at old photos in midnight silence on the second and third floors.
Birini Castle apparently has a resident ghost — a young servant girl who hanged herself in one of the rooms over unrequited love. But she wasn’t anywhere to be found last night.
And so I retired to my room for more champagne, sketching layouts and renovations in my head.
I was sorry to leave Birini this morning. But the Road Gods were calling, and we had to drive north across another country and a half.
I leave you with some images of Birini Castle. And of my brief one-day reign as Lord of the Manor.