For seven centuries, the Baltic German nobility ruled the roost in Latvia from elegant manor houses scattered about the countryside. While many of these have followed their privileged class into oblivion, some are enjoying a fresh lease of life thanks to new proprietors undaunted by generations of soot and epic renovation bills.
Kukši (or Kukšu) Manor, about 90 kilometres west of Riga, is a magnificently restored example of such a resurrection. And its savior is a foreigner who cares deeply about his adopted homeland and its heritage.
“I don’t have any aristocratic roots – I just came here and really liked Latvia and its people and nature,” says Kukši owner Daniel Jahn. “And I wanted to restore this little corner of the country, far from the highway but close enough for people to drop by.”
Peeling back time
The history of Kukši goes back to at least 1530, when Master of Livonia Walter von Plettenberg gave land owned by brothers Jēkabs, Pēteris and Klāvs Kuksis as a fiefdom to one Bernd Tiedewitz. In 1695, he sold the place to Chancellor of Kurzeme Friedrich von Brackel, who built the delightful baroque- and classical-styled residence still standing today.
Like the aforementioned gentry, Daniel also hails from Germany. His relationship with Latvia began in the early 1990s, when he ran Riga’s posh Hotel de Rome in a joint venture with Riga City Council. He got a practical education in restoration by helping redevelop the Konventa seta quarter in the capital’s Old Town, then discovered the Latvian countryside on tours run by cultural historian Professor Ojārs Spārītis.
On one such jaunt to Kurzeme, he saw an opportunity for a new life at Kukši Manor. Having sold his business interests in the capital, he was ready for the quieter life of a country hotelier.
“I saw it, I loved it and I bought it!” he recalls. “Then the question arose, what do I do with it? It’s a bit big for a summer cottage!”
Unlike many other grand homes, Kukši emerged unscathed from the 1905 Revolution and the world wars. And while the Soviet collective farm which had used it as an office building had done plenty of damage, at least it hadn’t dumped any concrete eyesores around the property. Daniel snapped up the house with 60 hectares of land and a large pond for a paltry 18,000 USD, then devoted years of his life and much more money to meticulously bringing it back to life.
With fastidious attention to detail, the original roof tiles were put back on and the old parquet, doors and staircases were rejuvenated. Eleven layers of paint and wallpaper were removed to reveal rare historic wall paintings. Daniel added his personal collection of Meissen porcelain and paintings by Latvian, German and Russian masters to create an interior on the first floor which closely approximates the way it would have looked in the glory days.
The guest rooms upstairs are a little more dashing, but it would take a hardened snob to quibble about their luxuriant good taste. And this oasis of old world charm just an hour from Riga has earned a loyal clientele, providing an unforgettable backdrop to many a wedding, anniversary and corporate bash.
Small is beautiful
They come for Daniel’s cooking, too. Alone in the kitchen, he whips up treats that have won accolades from Latvian celebrity chefs. On a recent Thursday, lucky diners could look forward to cold cucumber soup with ginger and lemongrass, followed by veal cheeks with fresh vegetables from the estate garden (grown by guess who), rounded off by homemade ice cream cake.
Tours, rooms and meals are only available by booking ahead. But guests get the host’s undivided attention.
“I’m part of the furniture,” he laughs. “If there’s a problem, I’m there. I could work from dawn to dusk every day, but I have the luxury of choosing my guests. And after 40 years of stressful life, I deserve it.”
Daniel only has three other staff, part of a conscious decision to keep things manageable. This has helped weather the Covid period without ruffling the serene atmosphere of Kukši. Local regulars stayed the night and enjoyed dinner in their rooms. There was time for long-postponed repairs and giving the tableware (all silver) a thorough polish.
Most of all, it ties in with Daniel’s plans to slow down and only do what he loves, even if a typical day begins at 5.30.
“I’m 60 years old, and you can’t take anything with you to the grave,” he muses. “I want to enjoy all this too, and to work only as much as I want. And then all will be well!”