Kuldīga, known as the "heart of Kurzeme" and the "painters’ paradise", is located on the banks of the Venta by the beautiful Rumba waterfall, 155 km from Riga. One of the oldest and most picturesque towns in Latvia, Kuldīga is a very popular destination for tourists.
History. Baltic tribes began inhabiting the area around Kuldīga 2,000 years B.C. From the 9th to the 13th centuries what is now Kuldīga was part of the ancient Kursa land Bandava, the centre of which was a fortified Kurši castle and a settlement at the Veckuldīga hill fortress.
In 1242 the Papal Legate Wilhelm, Bishop of Modena, granted the Livonian Order the right to build a castle and a town on the banks of the Venta River. The masonry castle, the oldest Order castle in Kurzeme, was built between 1242 and 1245 on the left bank of the Venta opposite the Rumba by Order Master Dietrich von Groningen. The castle became the administrative centre of the Kuldīga comture and the Order’s lands in Kurzeme. A town rapidly grew up in its vicinity, which is first mentioned in written sources as "oppidum" in 1263.
In the mid 14th century, Kuldīga became the first city in Kurzeme to gain the same civic charter as Riga, and in the 15th century it became a Hansa town. Following the decline of the Confederation of Livonia, in 1561 Kuldīga became part of the Duchy of Kurzeme. Duke Gothards Ketlers was a frequent guest in Kuldīga Castle. When in 1596 the Duchy was divided between Ketlers’ sons, Frīdrihs gained Zemgale and the city of Jelgava, while Vilhelms took possession of Kurzeme with Kuldīga. The city boomed, but only until 1616 when Duke Vilhelms lost a power struggle with insubordinate noblemen. Kurzeme and Zemgale once again came under the control of a single duke, and Jelgava was made the Duchy’s capital.
Kuldīga Castle regained its status as a desirable residence during the reign of Duke Jēkabs (1642 - 1682), which was a highly positive period for the city’s development. In 1680 Kuldīga had 3000 inhabitants. Crafts rapidly developed in the city, a small shipbuilding yard was opened, saltpetre and potassium works functioned, the first paper mill in Kurzeme was established, and other enterprises started.
After the Great Northern War (1700 - 1721), Kuldīga was eclipsed as a trading centre by the coastal cities of Liepāja and Ventspils, and to make matters worse a large number of artisans left in protest against taxes. Kuldīga’s golden age had come to an end.
After the annexation of Kurzeme by Russia (1795) Kuldīga became a district centre, but it never regained its earlier economic energy. However, in 1874 a modern bridge was built over the Venta at the Rumba, and around the same time several industrial enterprises started working in the city (for example the "Vulkāns" match factory in 1878). But Kuldīga remained off the major transport routes, and this was a major hindrance to its further development. The transfer of the Baltic Teachers College from Riga to Kuldīga (1886) was an important milestone for the city’s cultural life.
Places of interest. Ancient crossed arch fragments have been preserved in the Kuldīga Sculpture Park, which is located on the left bank of the Venta on the former site of the 13th century Order castle. This is all that remains of the once-mighty convent-type, three-story structure with corner turrets and a forecastle. During the reign of Duke Jēkabs in the second half of the 17th century, it underwent major reconstruction and grand, modern interiors were created (the artist who painted 44 of the duke’s ships in the castle’s maritime room was even compared with Raphael). But from the early 18th century the castle was uninhabited and it quickly fell into ruin. In 1735 the stones of the already collapsing castle were used to build a watch house or executioner’s house nearby, alongside which a punishment spot stood. This building can still be seen at 4 Pils iela today.
According to legend, a wizard used to live on the Venta banks where the watch house now stands. He managed to infuriate the Evil One himself. The Devil filled some sacks with stones and wanted to bury the wizard’s house with them. But the wizard crowed like a rooster, a real rooster then answered, and thus disturbed the Devil dropped the load of stones in the Venta. This is the origin of the pride of Kuldīga the Venta Rumba, one of the widest (110 m) waterfalls in Europe (it is 2 m high).
The second most beautiful natural object in Kuldīga which continues to be very popular with visitors is the Alekšupīte Stream which cuts through the center of town. In its lower reaches near its outflow into the Venta it has a drop of 4 m. This is the highest natural waterfall in Kurzeme, alongside which the 13th century watermill (restored 1807) can be viewed. On the opposite side of the stream at 34 Baznīcas iela is the castle steward’s house (early 17th century).
One of Kuldīga’s most notable architectural monuments is St. Catherine’s Lutheran Church at 33 Baznīcas iela. It was most likely built in the 14th century, but was extensively rebuilt in the 17th century after suffering several fires. The impressive building gained its current interior in the second half of the 17th century. The church’s altar and pulpit made by the famous Ventspils woodworker Nikolass Sēfrenss the Elder between 1660 and 1663 in collaboration with the carpenter Engeleins Tisens are outstanding Mannerist-style works. The attractive organ backcloth (made between 1712 and 1715) was the work of Kornēlijs Rāneuss the Younger. Today the church is filled with the sound of an organ built in 1882 by the firm V. Zauer of Frankfurt on the Oder.
From St. Catherine’s,walk south down Baznīcas iela to the Kuldīga Rātslaukums (Town Hall Square). On the way take note of several significant buildings, for example the house at 20 Baznīcas iela (19th century), which was the residence from 1855 to 1879 of the doctor, linguist and developer of modern Latvian orthography Juris Bārs (1808-1879). The 17th century residential house at 17 Baznīcas iela, the house of the former Burgomaster of Kuldīga Stavenhāgens, is famous for having accommodated Swedish King Charles XII in January 1702. A chest built in under the stairs in the forecourt may have survived from the time of this visit. At 10 Baznīcas iela you will find the former pharmacy to the duke’s court (16th -17th centuries, restored 1986), the oldest filled framework building in Kuldīga.
Kuldīga’s Town Hall Square was first mentioned in documents in the 17th century. It is interesting that today the structures surrounding the plaza still include the Old i.e. 17th century Town Hall, and the Historicist New Town Hall. Next to the Town Hall Square on the banks of the Alekšaupīte (7 Baznīcas iela) is another significant site – the oldest residential house in Kuldīga, built in 1670 and rebuilt in 1742.
Not far from Town Hall Square at 6 Raiņa iela you will find the Holy Trinity Catholic Church, whose foundation stone was laid in 1641 in the presence of Duke Jēkabs. This externally modest building can boast the most lavish interior of any Catholic church in Kurzeme. Of true sacral artistic value are the sculpture "Madonna with Child" (early 16th century), the painted confessional (1691), the pulpit (early 18th century), two Rococo side altars (1777) and the central altar made in 1818 - 1820 with funds donated by Alexander I, in which some 18th century sculptures have also been preserved.
St. Anne’s Lutheran Church is located at 14 Dzirnavu iela. It was built between 1899 and 1904 to a design by the prominent architect Vilhelms Neimanis.
Of note is the monumental building at 31 Liepājas iela (built between 1877 and 1879), which housed the Baltic Teachers College from 1866 to 1915. Many well-known Latvian cultural figures studied there: the writers Vilis Plūdons (1874-1940) and Valdis (the pseudonym of Voldemārs Zālītis; 1865-1934), painter Pauls Irbītis (1890-1973), singer and musicologist Jēkabs Kārkliņš (1867-1960) and others. The college also educated Ant Piip (1884-1942), later prime minister (1920-1921) and foreign minister (1921-1922, 1932) of Estonia.