The pearl of Kurzeme

Angkor Wat, the Taj Mahal, the Great Wall of China and… Kuldīga? The beautiful western Latvian town is seeking to join these icons on the world’s most prestigious preservation list. And this is a tribute to the passionate efforts of its people to preserve their cultural heritage.

Nicknamed “the Venice of the north,” Kuldīga is a pretty sight at any time of the year. Its meandering, cobbled streets, sculpture-sprinkled parks and the majestic Vents rumba, Europe’s widest waterfall, have been soothing the souls of visitors for centuries, and it may be about to get an even bigger recognition boost.

Due to the pandemic and its restrictions, the last year has been as challenging for Kuldīga as the rest of the country. But Kuldīga brought Latvia some very good news in January, when it formally applied to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

If it succeeds, the city and its 25,000 inhabitants will face fresh opportunities and challenges. But with a proven track record of creativity and infectious joie de vivre, exciting times lie ahead.

Fit for a duke

Kuldīga made its first appearance in the history books in the 13th century, when the Livonian Order built a stone castle on the banks of the Vents River. But it enjoyed its golden age from 1561 to 1795, when the dukes of Courland made it a commercial centre and later their capital.

While nominally vassals of Poland, the duchy enjoyed a great deal of autonomy. Especially during the time of Duke Jacob (reigned 1642—1682), shipbuilding and other industries boomed, trade links were forged with far corners of the world, and the state even had colonies in Africa and the Caribbean.

The prosperity and tolerance of the duchy drew merchants and craftsmen from many cultures to Kuldīga. Combined with local traditions, these cosmopolitan influences created an urban landscape which has survived remarkably intact to the present day. While refurbishments have been made in subsequent centuries, the street layout remains essentially the same as it was four centuries ago. And elements like window and roof forms have been consistently retained in the style of the ducal era.

Crucially, Kuldīga was mostly spared from destruction during the world wars, and even in the Soviet period some regulations were adopted to protect this gem. After Latvia regained its independence, awareness of the potential of tourism and good old fashioned civic pride moved things along.

Opened in 2008 to spearhead preservation efforts, the Kuldīga Restoration Centre set an example by revitalising a fire damaged building as its headquarters. According to the centre’s head Ilze Zariņa, getting the community involved has been a vital part of the job. 

Twenty years ago, the then-mayor of Kuldīga, Edgars Zalāns, decreed there would be no unsightly plastic or aluminium windows in his town. So, the centre began educating residents not only about the aesthetic benefits of the old wooden ones, but also the decay that condensation behind the cheap modern materials can cause to old timber houses.

Workshops teaching people how to restore their own windows have been very popular, and are still ging strong while observing social distancing rules.

“Even old ladies like to brag to their friends: “This summer I’m going to be an artist and restore my windows!”” Ilze laughs. “People love the smell of the natural wood, and they become friends in the process. They get to know each other, which is wonderful.”

For trickier details like shutters and verandas, the centre employs restoration experts like Jānis Mertens. On a stroll around the Old Town, he points out timber windows which have been newly crafted in traditional style to replace some ugly Soviet intrusions. Other buildings which look a bit timeworn have undergone major structural improvements and are awaiting their final façade renovations.

According to Jānis, the centre follows a philosophy called “restoration-conservation.” This means that rather than stripping away all the old paint and making a door look brand new, they leave some of the dents and bruises of time to give a feeling of history.

For young people like Jānis, the bars and cafes of Kuldīga make it a fun place to live, and with the shift to remote working, young families have moved from Riga to Kuldīga to enjoy a lifestyle rich in concerts, exhibitions and festivals. Kuldīga people make their own fun too, with boat races on the Alekšupīte River that gurgles through the town, and an annual Midsummer naked run over the Venta Bridge.

Jānis says that caper isn’t his cup of tea. But does he have any plans to move to the big smoke?

 “No way! Kuldīga suits me just fine,” he says. “Compared with the chaos in Riga, it’s like an oasis of peace here. I love the slower pace of life.”

Jānis Mertens on a veranda he has helped restore

Urban makeover

Artis Rozītis, a musician, an entrepreneur running a bar and a pizzeria and a dedicated restorer of buildings, is another local boy who has stuck around.

Twelve years ago, he bought the rundown basement of Stefenhagen’s House, a 17th century gem, then gradually all the flats in the property. With the support of the Restoration Centre, he has revived the vestibule and its legendary “Swedish Chest,” a closet said to have been lost by Sweden’s King Charles XII in a card game. Then he used Norwegian funding to do up the façade, and recently completed a major overhaul of the roof, including washing and replacing all the tiles. The latter project made use of a municipal co-funding programme, in which the local government matches the owner’s investment in restoration up to a value of 30,000 euros.

Artis uses the ground floor as his office and has installed five short-term rental apartments upstairs. His efforts to respect heritage while meeting the needs of modern people can be seen in one of the flats. It is sumptuously furnished and has all the mod cons, as well as featuring old paintwork and ceiling plaster to kindle the atmosphere of bygone days.

Just up the street, he shows off his next project. A few years ago, he bought a house slated for demolition, then stripped it down to the brickwork before restoring and reassembling the details. When the interior work is completed, it will be a small hotel.

“I like the creative process, not just the result – going through the evolutionary journey with a building and seeing it get a new lease of life,” he says. “Centuries ago, someone built it to be beautiful. And while not all buildings get a second chance, some do, and I’m glad to be part of that.”

Artis Rozītis in the attic of Stefenhagen’s House

By the busload?

If Kuldīga gets the UNESCO listing, it will join a handful of other tangible and intangible Latvian sites, of which the best-known is the historic centre of Riga. According to Jana Jākobsone, the head of Kudīga’s Building Board and the chief project manager for the UNESCO campaign, getting listed won’t bring sudden changes to the city. That’s because the bulk of the heritage protection regulations have already been enacted, and there’s a consensus amongst the town’s inhabitants that this is the path they want to follow.

If pandemic restrictions allow, experts from ICOMOS, the UNESCO body charged with making the final decision, will make an inspection tour of Kuldīga this summer. And in spring 2022, they will decide whether to approve the application, suggest improvements in the bid or reject it outright.

According to Jana, partners from Brandenburg Technical University have helped with the paperwork, and the place speaks for itself.

“UNESCO status is a quality benchmark which only about a thousand sites around the world have earned,” she says. “Kuldīga is special enough to deserve this, and we Latvians have done our best to make it happen.”

Tourism is not the only game in town. Timber processing and textile manufacturing are humming along, and world-renowned piano maker Dāvids Kļaviņš moved to Kuldīga last year. Retail and hospitality have been hot hard by pandemic restrictions, but a few cafes offer takeaways.

But while no one knows how this season will pan out, in the long-term UNESCO will lead to a surge in visitor numbers. Will they love the place to death?

Jana says the city aims to attract visitors interested in culture, not camera-clicking hordes. And since fences are a part of the historic fabric of the city, locals are encouraged to create boundaries where they can peacefully live their lives.

Artis Rozītis agrees that there needs to be a balance between the needs of tourists and locals. Driven by tourism and Riga folk buying weekenders, Kuldīga’s property prices have risen steeply, and he says the municipality needs to expand the housing stock.

But he thinks there’s plenty of room for more visitors. Kuldīga needs to extend its season and encourage people to stick around for more than half a day. Promisingly, more of his foreign customers are using Kuldīga as a base to explore Kurzeme. And despite the pandemic, last summer was busy, as Latvian, Lithuanian ad Estonian travellers discovered their own backyard rather than jetting off to exotic locales.

“Here in the country, we’re used to living in a permanent semi-crisis, always wondering - maybe the tourists will come, maybe they won’t,” he says. “But in the last few years, we’re not just getting Riga’s crumbs anymore, as inbound tourists want to see the rest of Latvia as well. We’re hanging in there and hoping for the best.”

 

Philip Birzulis, 09.02.2021