Sabile’s Valley of the Dolls

  • 2016-09-06
  • By Robert Cary

Once holding the record for northernmost open air vineyard in the world, Sabile lays claim to a winemaking tradition five centuries in the making. Sabile Wine Hill now flourishes with over 600 vines producing 25 different varieties of grape. If you should happen to find yourself in this romantic village, nestled in the Abava River valley, you may be there in time to enjoy some wine tasting just on the outskirts. As you come into town, just a little unsteadily depending on how much you enjoyed the wine tasting festivities, you may hear the sonorous ringing of Latvia’s oldest bell, housed in the local Lutheran church, as the tones roll over the hillsides. Back in town, you may find yourself in a quaint garden, filled with fellow revelers.

But, unlike those with whom you shared a cup or two on Wine Hill, who will be going home once the celebration is over, these townspeople will still be in that same garden long after everyone has returned to their normal lives. They will be there all day, and all night. They will be there after you have gone home, and they will be waiting in that very garden for the next time you return, perhaps at next year’s wine tasting festival. They will be waiting, because unlike you, they are filled with straw. Hosting a population of over 3,000 people, Sabile is also home to nearly 300 life-sized dolls. Unlike many of the other gardens you may find, this one is not growing herbs or vegetables, it is growing scenes. In the yard of this private home, densely arranged throughout the garden, visitors will find snapshots of daily life recreated by straw men, women, and children.

From mundane activities, such as walking the dog (also made of straw), and mowing the lawn (which must be some sort of plant fratricide considering it is straw cutting grass), to the more memorable and unique events, such as the first day of school, or a wedding, every event is represented by our immobile players. Though this seems like the premise of a 1970s horror film, and is unquestionably reminiscent of the film “House of Wax,” the creator of the dolls does not offer a nefarious explanation for their presence. Or any explanation whatsoever. When asked about the odd display, Daina Kučere, the mother of the straw dolls, will simply reply “They are just dolls.” She spends her time collecting donations, making more dolls, and generally puttering about the garden. A wide net is cast when it comes to the donations, ranging from sports jerseys and t-shirts for children’s TV shows, to Disney Princess costumes, the clothes of the dolls are as eclectic as their maker. There is little rhyme or reason to the types of dolls she creates. “Whatever I get, that’s what I add. There are athletes, because I found athletic clothes. No special thought is really given,” says Kučere. Still, there is something undeniably unsettling about the garden, with its crop of unending, vacant smiles and unblinking, lifeless eyes, one can’t help but worry that any movement seen is more than just the wind.

Address: Sabile, Rīgas iela 17. Free admission.
Images by Pablo Andres Rivero

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