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By Anita Kaze. 29.07.2008
Now that summer is a comin', a lot of us are itching to get out to the countryside and escape the confines of the capital. Kuldīga is the perfect antidote.
Kuldīga is located in the heart of Kurzeme, which is arguably the most "Latvian" of the four regions. The city was recently chosen as a "European Destination of Excellence", and with good reason. It is packed full of historical charm and natural beauty, offering an interesting balance for visitors.
In ancient times, this original Curonian (Kurzeme) town was a fortified castle mound with a settlement, three and a half kilometers north of today’s city. Nowadays, you can still see the mound, which is the largest in Latvia. After the Curonians, along came the Livonian Order of Knights, who received the master’s permission to build a castle by the banks of the river, in 1242. This was the medieval town’s first mention in written records, and is therefore considered the year of the foundation of Kuldīga. Over time, the town was enlarged by joining the three main populated areas, including the Couronian town whose inhabitants were forced to move closer to the knight’s castle in 1355.
Kuldīga joined the Hanseatic League in 1368, as it developed into an important political, economical and cultural center, and attained city rights in 1378. The city was known at this time by its previous German name of Goldingen,
When the Dukedom of Courland and Semigallia was established in the 16th century, Kuldīga entered a new period of history. The first duke chose the former order castle to be one of his residences, so Kuldīga became the second capital city of the Duchy of Courland. Standing by the banks of the magnificent Venta River and gazing over the water, you can imagine the duke's trade ships sailing on towards Sweden, Germany, Holland and even the distant shores of Tobago. The town also made profits from trading with Riga and Jelgava, as taxes were collected on goods taken across the bridge. There was a great loss when the bridge was swept away by floods in 1615, the same year a massive blaze destroyed many of the wooden buildings in the city. So then the center was shifted from the old place near St. Catherine’s Church to the present City Council Square. The wealthiest citizens and merchants built their houses here.
In 1701 the Nordic war and Swedish troops invaded the Order’s castle, leaving it uninhabitable. The ruins were subsequently removed.
The next period of growth was during the 19th century, as the city industrialized. The largest operation was the match factory “Vulkāns”. Lots of buildings were erected during this prosperous time, including the handsome bridge across the Venta River you see today.
THE HISTORICAL CENTER
Even if you're not so interested in history, you'll still no doubt be charmed by the pretty medieval streets of the oldest part of the city. This is special that the city's currently being considered for the UNESCO world heritage list. The narrow streets and unique one-storied buildings with a chimney in the middle and red roof tiles are preserved, and most easily appreciated along Liepājas pedestrian street. Wandering about, you can discover very interesting hidden internal courtyards with wooden buildings and distinctive wooden galleries. To enjoy the interior of this charming wooden architecture, we recommend going to Stender's cafe and bar for a delicious meal, located on Liepājas 3. Stender’s also seems to offer the most vibrant nightlife in this provincial city.
THE SPIRITUAL SIDE
One of the top tourist attractions of the city is St. Catherine’s Church. This historic home of worship was first built in 1252, with an impressive stylized altar carved out of wood. It is the site where the most famous of the Courland dukes Jacob was christened and married. The coat of arms, located above the church’s side entrance, is also that of the city. St. Catherine’s is located at Baznīcas 31/33.
Latvians tend to over-exaggerate at times, naming the "hilly" parts of the country after Switzerland. Naturally, the tiny little waterway Alekšupīte through the city's center has been christened in the same way. Known as "Kuldīga's Venice", it adds a very charming touch to the city's romantic atmosphere nevertheless. It even boasts its own 4.5 meter high waterfall, which is the highest in Latvia – quite a coincidence when considering the width of “Ventas rumba”. You can admire the 18th century buildings too, skirting the banks of Alekšupīte which runs past the City Council Square. Here there’s the so-called Kuldīga’s Venetian Bridge, and the Tourist Information Center at Baznīcas 5, open weekdays 9.00-17.00. The basement of the Tourist Information Center has a café which was once the first jail of the city. It’s open daily, 11.00-23.00. Next door to this stands the oldest wooden building of Courland, from 1690. Be sure to also notice the historic weather vane on the roof.
THE WIDEST WATERFALL
The sweeping Venta River provides a stunning scene to admire and even swim in, as the locals do in summer. But what makes the river scene unusual is the waterfall. More like a rapid, "Ventas rumba" is not high but it's certainly wide - the widest in Europe in fact at 249 meters. And while standing on the city side of the river bank, there's a lookout point near the Kuldīga museum (see below) where you can view the sweeping arches of the red-brick bridge of 1874 spanning the river.
STACKS OF DECKS
One quirky little feature of Kuldīga is that it boasts the only playing card museum in the Baltics. Seeing as most people out there have never even been to a playing card museum, it's definitely worth stepping inside, where you'll see a spindle collection that's nothing to sneeze at either. The museum also reflects the history of the district from ancient times up until the 20th century. Interestingly, the museum building was originally erected in the city of Liepāja, and then transported to Paris in 1900, where it was actually part of the exposition of Paris itself, in the Russian pavilion. According to the Tourist Information Center, a merchant then bought it for his fiancé and had it shipped and erected in Kuldīga. The museum is on Pils 5, open Tuesday to Sunday, 11.00-17.00.
If you make the effort to travel some four kilometers from the town center, you’ll be rewarded with an interesting expedition to and in the Riežupe sand caves. You can see 460 meters of this two kilometer labyrinth of man-made tunnels, created because the sand in these caves was once an extremely valuable trade commodity used to process glass. The tour is a fun one, with the guides leading you by candle-light and telling tales about all sorts of mystical superstitions connected with the caves. You can also take away as much sand as you can carry, which apparently has incredible healing properties when heated, then placed in a bag and put on aching backs or sore throats! The sand caves are at Dzintaru 9-18; telephone 6332 6236, or 2955 5042 to check that the English guides are working before you visit.
WHERE TO STAY
If you intend to make more than a day of it, we recommend the Metropole hotel. It has the most central location in an atmospheric and well-renovated building. There are 14 luxury and standard rooms with lovely views of either the picturesque pedestrian street or the pretty Alekšupīte waterway. You can also dine in the classy restaurant. Be sure to book ahead as this one is popular! It’s located at Baznīcas 11, tel: 6335 0588, or visit .
FACTS AT A GLANCE
City festival: July 15th to 20th.
Distance from Riga: 155 kilometers
How to get there: Take the A9, then P108 via Saldus. Or the A10 via Tukums, then the P130 via Kandava.
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