The fishing and seafaring city of Liepāja is located in Latvia’s southwest on the shore of the Baltic Sea (223 km from Riga). Liepāja’s greatest asset is its convenient, ice-free port which has helped it to become the most important transport, industrial and cultural centre in the region. Liepāja attracts tourists with its broad, beautiful seashore (if you are lucky a walk on the beach could lead to a discovery of some “stones of the sun” i.e. pieces of amber), as well as many cultural and historic monuments – witnesses to the paths followed throughout history by Liepāja and the whole of Kurzeme.
History. The Kurši village Līva with a natural port already occupied the location near the Līva River estuary and the land road to Prussia, the present site of Liepāja, in the 13th century. The name of Līva appears in historic records in 1253, when as the result of the division of the Kursa lands the village was acquired by the Livonian Order, while the Līva port remained free i.e. for common use. After the Order’s defeat at the Battle of Durbe (1260), Līva port and the nearby seashore came under the control of the Bishop of Kursa, but in 1300 the Order regained the surrounding area up to the zone held by the Kurši. Its economic policies were not favourable to the village’s development, and Līva stagnated for another few centuries.
Historians began using the name Liepāja from 1560, when the local German name Libawe (later transformed into Libau, and from this form the Latvian name Liepāja arose) was used in documents. In that year Master of the Order Gothards Ketlers, attempting to save Livonia from disintegration, mortgaged Livonia together with the Grobiņa region to the Duke of Prussia. Liepāja remained under Prussia until 1609, when Duke Vilhelms of Kurzeme married the daughter of the Duke of Prussia and regained the region as part of the dowry.
In 1625 Duke Frīdrihs granted Liepāja a city charter. Since 1621, when Riga was annexed by Sweden, Liepāja had been liberated from an ancient competitor, and its involvement in sea trading led to an economic upsurge. Liepāja became the trading centre of the Duchy of Kurzeme, with many foreign firms represented there. At this time the duchy had trading agreements with France, England and other Western European countries, and the lack of a modern, seagoing port was increasingly felt. Therefore in 1636 the duke summoned the Dutch hydro builder Adrian, who developed a plan for the construction of such a port for Liepāja. However, realization of the project was delayed by a lack of funding and a Swedish attack on the city in 1659.
Construction work on the port only began in 1697 during the reign of Duke Frīdrihs Kazimirs and continued for six years (in order for the largest ships of the time to be able to enter the port, a 2 km long channel had to be dug between the sea and Lake Liepāja). At the same time there was intensive building of a new district around the port, and the city centre was gradually transferred to that area i.e. to the vicinity of what is today Rožu laukums.
The 1783 trade agreement between Kurzeme and Russia was a severe blow to Liepāja’s economy, since it banned the importing of grain through the ports of Liepāja and Ventspils. At the end of the 18th century the city was rocked by disturbances amongst tenants and apprentices who were influenced by the ideas of the French Revolution.
After the third partition of Poland in 1795, the Duke of Kurzeme Pēteris Bīrons abdicated the duchy in favour of Russia, and Liepāja became a vitally important port for the Czarist Empire on the shores of the Baltic Sea. However the expected boom was slow to materialize, because in contrast to Klaipeda and Konigsberg Liepāja lacked good transport links with the interior. That dramatically changed in 1876 with the opening of the Liepāja - Romni railway line (linking the port of Liepāja with the black earth regions of Ukraine and Russia). From 1860 to 1904 the port was rebuilt and expanded, and in the 1880s and 1890s metallurgy, metals processing, wood processing, leatherworking, shoemaking, textiles and other industrial enterprises were set up in the city. In 1899 an electric tram started running in Liepāja (the first in the Baltics). As economic life developed, Liepāja also blossomed as a resort town which soon won popularity for its beautiful summer cottages, health resorts and bathing areas.
In the 1890s a military port and naval fortress were built in Liepāja, and in 1899 building and trials of Russia’s first submarines began there. During World War I German forces occupied Liepāja (1915-1919) and destroyed its economy. When, due to Bolshevik attacks the government of the Republic of Latvia proclaimed on November 18, 1918, was forced to leave Riga, it resided in Liepāja for several months.
Liepāja’s economy was rebuilt during the years of Latvia’s independence (many enterprises in the city had foreign capital), only to be ruined again during World War II. In the post-war years Liepāja continued to perform the functions of an industrial, sea fishing, transport and cultural centre, but it was primarily one of the most strategically important military ports in the western end of the Soviet empire. Today Liepāja is gradually starting to regain its status as Latvia’s export trade port.
Places of interest. It is recommended that you start your tour of Liepāja’s historic and cultural monuments at the heart of its social life in the 16th century –the Old Market Square (now Kuršu laukums), which is abutted by the majestic St. Anne’s Lutheran Church. It is possible that an older church mentioned by Livonian Order Master Walter von Pletenberg in a 1508 feudal book went by the same name, but it was located elsewhere and has not survived to the present. The current St. Anne’s was built at the end of the 16th century and was rebuilt between 1671 and 1675. At the end of the 17th century a massive masonry tower with a tall spire was grafted onto it. In 1697 the church gained its most precious feature: a monumental altar with the Younger (1662-1710). This Baroque masterpiece is a piece of art on an Eastern European scale. The church gained its current outer appearance in the last quarter of the 19th century, when the Liepāja city architect Makss Pauls Berči (1840-?) raised the tower and built a new space for the congregation with 1,400 seats.
Not far from the Old Market Square at 25 K. Valdemāra iela is St. Joseph’s Catholic Church. Records have survived showing that Kurzeme Duke Ernests Johans Bīrons promised the King of Poland in 1737 that a Catholic church would be built in Liepāja within a decade. In reality this plan was realized a little later, as the aforementioned church was only consecrated in 1762. The large three-space basilica gained its present architectural forms and scales from reconstruction work carried out between 1894 and 1896. At that time the church was rebuilt almost from scratch, with the small 18th century church integrated as a separate side chapel. Today the striking structure mingles Rococo and Baroque styles (the former in the old church’s pulpit and wall ornamentation, and the latter in its altar retable) with the Historicism of romantic forms and motifs employed in the new section.
Heading from the Old Market Square in the direction of the city centre i.e. toward Rožu laukums, it is recommended that you go into the courtyard at 4/6 Zivju iela to look at a 17th century warehouse (built around 1690 before the construction of the new port). This horizontal beam building rests on a high masonry plinth which is used in place of a cellar. Goods were also stored in the building’s attic. The roof of the warehouse is unusually formed, with its distinct span supported by a wooden gallery. Especially noteworthy are the building’s grand doors richly decorated with metalwork. The metalwork is in Mannerist style, utilizing both spiral roll work motifs and so-called adder ornamentation with magic symbolism.
Nearby at 24 Kungu iela stands the former Hoijere Hotel, one of the oldest residential buildings in Liepāja. In 1697 Czar Peter I stayed here on his way to Western Europe. This wooden building with filled framework rooftops and a steep tiled roof rests on a low masonry plinth and, as with the majority of residential buildings in Liepāja, is sited with the main façade parallel to the street. Initially the hotel was a typical widened tree-space structure with rooms built on at the ends and an asymmetrical entrance, but the layout was later changed.
Next to the Hoijere Hotel you will see the house of Burgomaster Joahim Schroder (built in 1699), whose hospitality was enjoyed in 1700 by Swedish King Charles XII. The building constructed of field stones and brick has a high socle storey which was meant to house a warehouse, workshop or store. It is likely that before later reconstructions the layout of this building was similar to the Hoijere Hotel.
Not far from no Kungu iela you will find two of Burgomaster Stender’s houses (the adjacent street was later named after him). These buildings constructed in the second half of the 18th century are characteristic of the by economic growth experienced by Liepāja at that time, when a well-off citizen with increasing means could afford to significantly increase the size of his home and pay great attention to the artistic execution of its exterior. Thus the living space of number 11 Stendera iela was almost doubled by building an expansive attic floor. On the other hand, the second of the burgomaster’s houses at 13a Stendera iela – a single-story structure with a steep gabled roof – is in terms of composition more similar to house building traditions rooted in the 17th century. However, the use of Dutch clinker bricks and Rococo forms in the finishing of the building are an innovation. The Rococo ornamentation of the main entrance door leafs has been fashioned by a true master. Experts believe that their author may have been the well-known sculptor Jozefs Slavičeks.
Another notable architectural monument is the 18th century house at 8 Baznīcas iela, which belonged to the merchant Felšs. Since 1844 it has been the parsonage of the German congregation.
On the other side of Baznīcas iela you will find one of the most impressive and popular historic buildings in Liepāja – the Holy Trinity Church. Its foundation stone was laid in 1742, while the citizens of Liepāja gathered for its opening in 1758. The building work for the structure was led by the Konigsberg master mason Johann Kristof Dorn, assisting his compatriot Johann Mihael Frelih.
The Holy Trinity Church is a hall-like structure with three naves. Despite the presence of the tower, its outer appearance is more reminiscent of a castle than a sacral building. This impression is reinforced by the placement of the window openings on two floors, the use of pilasters in the dividing walls, and the fact that the banister placed above the cornice closes off the already low roof of the church. The building’s pilasters, eaves, window edgings and gantries are made from Gottland sandstone.
The Rococo interior of the large congregation space (18 x 14 m) dazzles with its grandeur and high artistic quality. The church objects made in the third quarter of the 18th century, refined, open work wood carvings – the altar (its retable is 13 m high), pulpit, duke’s box, organ backcloth etc. – are real Rococo masterpieces. Unfortunately only one of the wood carvers who worked here is known, the already mentioned Jozefs Slavičeks. The objects were gilded by aster craftsman Johann Andress, who also made commissioned works at the Rundāle and Jelgava palaces. The church organ made by Halle master craftsman Heinrich Andreas Koncius in 1773, which were expanded to 131 registers in 1885 by the Grīneberga firm, is still played in the church today.
Down at the port, take a look at some of the few old warehouses to have survived to the present – the warehouses at 1 Jāņa iela (mid 18th century) and 2 Jāņa iela (early 19th century). The warehouse construction traditions of bygone centuries are visible in these buildings. This corner of the port infused with ancient romanticism is a popular spot for artists to display their works.
Jūrmala Park in the city’s west is a favourite recreation spot for Liepāja locals. It has grown gradually from its beginnings in 1870, when a row of linden trees was planted on an earthen mound protecting the city from drifting sand. The park was subsequently formed in accordance with plans by the Riga landscape architect Georg Kufalt. Its present area is around 50 ha.