The town of Viļaka stretches along the southern shore of Lake Viļaka near the Kira River (28 km from Balvi). A history lover with a vivid imagination may find a visit to the Viļaka castle Ruins to be a romantic adventure. According to a popular legend in Latgale, the castle was built on a large island in Lake Viļaka by Marija, one of the three daughters of the ruler of Mākoņkalns (Volkenberga) Castle. Her name is the root of the ancient name of Viļaka - Marienhauza. However, historical facts point in another direction: in 1293 Archbishop Johann de Fehte built a fortified cloister on the island which he named Marienhauza. Between 1509 and 1916, when the cloister was on the brink of collapse, Archbishop Jaspers Linde built a strong stone castle in its place to protect the eastern border of Livonia. To avert Russian aggression, in 1559 Archbishop Vilhelms mortgaged a large part of his state (Livonia australis) including Viļaka to the Polish King Sigismund II Augustus. However, the Polish garrison which had protected Viļaka Castle since 1560 was unable to repel attacks by the forces of Ivan the Terrible in 1577. The castle, severely damaged by the Russians, was soon regained by Polish King Stephen Batory who started rebuilding it, but in 1582 Viļaka was taken by the Swedes and the castle was damaged again. When in that same year a peace treaty was concluded between the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and Russia and Vidzeme (i.e. present day Vidzeme, Latgale and Southern Estonia) was given to Poland, Viļaka Castle became a district or Steward District centre and the residence of the new administrator. However, Viļaka stewards – the prominent magnates Jan Karol Hodkevič and several generations of the Hilzen family – appeared there rarely, and the castle mainly served as a garrison barracks. The castle again went through hard times during the conflicts between Sweden and Poland, and in the Great Northern War it was razed completely.
In the subsequent centuries, Viļaka was a dilapidated, half forgotten village. It only rejuvenated commercially and culturally during Latvia’s independence years. At that time Viļaka had three churches (Catholic, Orthodox and Lutheran), a high school, two primary schools and a forestry school.
On the near side of the lake opposite the castle island is the site of the Viļaka ancient town. (in the 13th century Viļaka was the center of the Purnava or Pornava district of the Latgalian Atzeles land.)
Viļaka Catholic Church (built from 1884 to 1890) is an attractive monument of Historicist sacral architecture. The harmony between the structure’s Gothic form and the plantation of slim pine tress gives particular aesthetic pleasure.