Where to sleepWhere to eatRoutesArticlesInsider's viewActive leisureConnoisseur's GuideInsider's view


Mystery of Liepāja« BACK « TO BEGINNING


Add your e-mail address to receive our monthly news.


Jewellery by Artists: From Picasso to Koons, an exhibition organised by the culture and art portal

Destinations · Europe · latvia · Liepaja · Articles ·

Mystery of Liepāja

Author: Una Meistere1 COMMENT

Mystery of Liepāja

The locals said it was a historic date. Because that Saturday in April, when I happened to be in Liepāja, there was hardly any wind. And there's always wind in Liepāja. After all, in Latvia it's called 'the city where the wind was born'. Since 1999 this verity is even proclaimed in the city's official anthem, a song by the same name written by Liepāja-born Latvian composer Imants Kalniņš with lyrics by poet Māris Čaklais.

Foto: Mystery of Liepāja

The people of Liepāja are so used to wind that they stoically move around the city on its most popular mode of transportation – the bicycle – even on days when it's so windy that people in Latvia's capital, Riga, might be blown off their feet. Liepāja is Latvia's third-largest city, after Riga and Daugavpils. Its location on the country's west coast is quite unique, because it is squeezed between the Baltic Sea and Liepāja Lake. The lake is connected with the sea by a canal dug in the late 17th century, which has now become a sort of urban promenade. In addition, the sea here hardly ever freezes over. According to data from 2016, Liepāja has a population of 69,205. Locals, however, usually claim that number is much lower.

Of all Latvian cities, Liepāja is most steeped in lore and myth. And most of it is true, too. Just like the saying about the wind, the city's association with amber is also a fact. Although nowadays 'Baltic gold' (or 'tears of the pine') is found less and less often, from time to time storms on the sea still wash pieces of amber onto Liepāja's shores. People from Liepāja then share photos of their handfuls of amber on Facebook. Anyone who has ever gone on an amber hunt will know the genuine, childlike joy and wonder caused by the honey-yellow flash of a gem amid a tangle of seaweed. Experienced amber hunters say it all depends on the direction of the wind. A strong northwesterly wind is best for washing up amber onto shore. So-called amber clouds can sometimes be seen on the waves, and people in the know use butterfly nets to scoop the gems straight from the water. Although poetically named, such clouds are actually masses of algae, shells, and other aquatic matter that float on the surface of the water and sometimes contain pieces of amber as well. The best season for amber hunting is a stormy autumn, but you can be lucky any time of year.

Amber has always been surrounded in myth. Despite the many hypotheses regarding its origins, it still holds many secrets. Can its birth really be traced back to the resin of a tree in the Pinaceae family that no longer grows at this latitude (like the subtropical forests said to once have covered Scandinavia when its climate was more like that of Africa)? Held in the hand, amber looks like an encapsulated sun. It never feels cold to the touch, either. It is said that amber contains the imprint of the universe, and it's no wonder that the gem has been attributed countless healing properties in cultures and civilisations across the world. It has also been used as an amulet and a talisman.

But if you go amber hunting on Liepāja's beach, be careful. Pieces of white phosphorus – a very flammable legacy of the Soviet Army – are also sometimes washed out of the sea and can be mistaken for real amber. So it's good advice to keep your pieces of 'Baltic gold' in a container, instead of your pocket, until you can verify that it's really amber. But that's all part of Liepāja's multi-layered and authentic character. The city does not try to beautify or embellish its history, once again confirming that true charm and strength (no matter whether we're talking about people or cities) is found in wrinkles, laugh lines, and various 'age spots' instead of Botox injections or superficial renovations.

Foto: Mystery of Liepāja

ANOTHER LIEPĀJA MYTH IS ASSOCIATED WITH THE SAND – PRACTICALLY EVERY LIEPĀJA NATIVE WILL TELL YOU THAT THE SAND ON LIEPĀJA'S BEACH IS THE FINEST SAND IN THE WORLD. And that's the truth, too. The sand on Liepāja's beach is soft as velvet and fine as powdered sugar. Compared to the sand on other beaches around the world, it's also blindingly white. Not to mention the healing powers people attribute to it. For example, if you lie down and cover yourself up to your neck in sand (young children love doing this!), the hot quartz sand helps to heal inflammation and improves metabolism. And of course, simply taking a walk on the beach gives your feet a wonderful massage. Especially considering that, at eight kilometres, Liepāja's beach is the perfect length for a healthy workout. On a calm day the beach is from fifty to eighty metres wide and almost flawless in terms of natural form – the transition from water to the first dunes is almost ideal in terms of proportion. And in Liepāja the sun also sets into the sea, thereby adding even more romance to the landscape.

THERE'S NO PROOF THAT THE NAME OF LIEPĀJA IS IN ANY WAY CONNECTED TO LIEPA, THE LATVIAN WORD FOR A LINDEN (OR LIME) TREE. BUT THE MIDDLE OF SUMMER, WHEN THE LINDENS BLOOM, IS NEVERTHELESS A VERY SPECIAL TIME IN THE CITY. Linden season is also relatively long here, because the different varieties of the tree – Holland linden, Crimean linden, Silver linden – usually do not all bloom at once. The linden can also be found on Liepāja's coat of arms alongside a red lion. The linden, which is one of the most popular trees in Latvia, is considered a tree of love and family and also a symbol of femininity. That's why Latvians have always planted a linden when a girl is born in the family, while an oak is planted in honour of a son. It is said that lindens are able to ward off lightning and absorb a person's illnesses.

One of Liepāja's points of pride is the avenue of Crimean lindens on Laipu iela. It is associated with Paul Max Bertschy, the most famous of the city's architects. Bertschy was the city architect from 1871 to 1902, and he not only helped to develop the face of the city but also designed many of its iconic buildings himself. The buildings form an eclectic mix, drawing inspiration from the Gothic, Renaissance and Classicism styles. One of the most ornate residences built by Bertschy is now home to the Liepāja Museum. Its design was based on a sketch by architect Ernst von Ihne (1848–1917). The façade reflects the Neo-Gothic style, while the interior is done in the Eclectic style, with a Gothic vestibule, a German Renaissance dining room, and two salons in the Baroque and Rococo styles. The building was completely renovated in 2012, and it's worth a visit if only to experience the architecture. A prominent wooden staircase leads upstairs from the vestibule. It creaks a little bit, thereby successfully transporting visitors back in time to the resplendence of Liepāja's grande epoque.

Foto: Mystery of Liepāja

The Liepāja Museum's exposition also introduces visitors to the city's history. Make sure to take a look at the elegant antique 19th-century bicycle displayed in the hall opposite the museum's main entry. It has obviously inspired the stylish bicycle racks located throughout the city designed by local environmental artist Reinis Kuncītis. The upper floor of the museum is usually devoted to various contemporary art projects.

One more point of pride for Liepāja is its 19th-century wooden architecture and more than seventy Art Nouveau-style buildings. These include the Pētertirgus market, built in 1910 and covered with a glass roof structure. It is considered one of the most beautiful market pavilions in Europe. Designing the market proved a challenge for architect Ludwig William Melville, because it needed to fit between three churches: St. Joseph Cathedral on the west, St. Anne's Church on the east, and a synagogue that formerly stood to the south of the market. Of course, as befits our era of globalisation, not everything you'll find at the market today is locally made. But if you visit during berry season the market will be overflowing with strawberries from local farms, the aromas will be intoxicating, and the lower-level fish pavilion will almost definitely have something on offer from that morning's Baltic Sea catch or one of the regional lakes or rivers.

Foto: Mystery of Liepāja

THE MOST VIVID STATEMENT OF THE 21st CENTURY IN LIEPĀJA IS THE GREAT AMBER CONCERT HALL, WHICH OPENED IN 2015. Designed by Austrian architect Volker Giencke, the new concert hall received one of Latvia's annual architecture awards in 2016. Its magic is best experienced at sunset or after dark, when the gigantic amber-like form literally glitters against the backdrop of the city, creating a surreal mood of perpetual celebration. The orange hue of the glass façade interacts with the seasons and weather, almost like a conductor interacts with an orchestra, changing its mood from day to day. Looking outward from inside the building, however, the world always seems to have a slightly carefree, southern feel no matter the season, as if viewed through rose-coloured glasses. This is particularly noticeable in Tinto, the bar on the concert hall's sixth floor. Gazing across the panorama of the city with a glass of wine in your hand, you really feel that you're living in an eternal sunset. In any case, it's impossible to not crack a smile – the corners of your mouth will do it of their own accord because your reflection in the yellowish-orange window resembles a small sun.

The Great Amber Concert Hall (named Lielais dzintars in Latvian) takes pride not only in its excellent acoustics and fine concert programme; it is also competently entering and becoming a part of Europe's international concert life. That is mostly to the credit of its current artistic director, Baiba Bartkeviča. Born in Liepāja and a musician herself, Bartkeviča has lived abroad for twenty years – in the Netherlands, France, and Belgium – and returned to Latvia to head the new concert hall. 'I returned because of an idea. I was moved by the fact that this temple to art is located in my home town. I also sang at the concert hall's opening ceremony,' she says.

The next big event at the Great Amber Concert Hall will be the Liepāja Art Forum (August 3–6), which will feature many internationally known artists, exhibitions, concerts, and performances. In addition, the concert hall itself will turn into a digital installation. 'Under the leadership of Spanish sound artist Joshua Moreno, the concert hall will become an environmental installation and even a musical instrument itself,' explains Bartkeviča.

Foto: Mystery of Liepāja

ONE MORE SPECIAL AREA OF LIEPĀJA IS THE OLD MILITARY PORT, CALLED KAROSTA. IT WAS DEVELOPED AS – AND STILL IS – A CITY WITHIN A CITY. KAROSTA IS AT ONCE QUINTESSENTIALLY LIEPĀJA AND COMPLETELY NON-LIEPĀJA. Karosta, which translates to 'war port' in Latvian, was historically the largest military territory in the Baltic States. Construction began in 1890, on the orders of Tsar Alexander III of Russia. Like any proper city, Karosta was completely autonomous, with its own infrastructure, schools, electric station, water supply, church, and even its own prison, in service until 1977. Geographically, Karosta occupies approximately one third of the total area of Liepāja. During the Soviet era it was a closed territory, closed even to the civilian residents of Liepāja.

Still today, just getting to slightly spooky Karosta is a bit of a surreal experience. The green metal bridge linking it to the rest of the city was designed in 1906 by engineer Harald Hall, who drew inspiration from a sketch by French engineer Alexandre Gustave Eiffel. It is one of the oldest steel construction bridges in Latvia and a real engineering miracle of its day. Its two identical trusses each swing 90 degrees to let ships pass. As is common for military objects, the bridge used to be painted bluish-grey. It received its current bright green coat of paint only in 2009. 

Foto: Mystery of Liepāja

Once you cross the bridge, a different world begins. The former magnificence and pomp of the Russian Empire alternates with Soviet apartment blocks and mossy piles of rubble. Old Zhiguli cars still roam the streets here and there, and clothes are hung out to dry on the balconies of the five-storey concrete housing units. There are even small, well-tended gardens next to some of the apartment blocks that provide their owners with fresh strawberries, cucumbers, and tomatoes. And in the middle of it all rises the St. Nicholas Orthodox Cathedral of the Sea with its glittering golden domes.

Construction on the cathedral began in 1901, and Tsar Nicholas II of Russia himself participated in the dedication ceremony. The architecture embodies the classic 17th-century style of Russian Orthodox churches, with a central dome and four smaller domes that symbolise Jesus Christ and the Four Apostles. The cathedral was looted during the war and as the regimes changed. When the occupying Soviet Army took over the port following the Second World War, the church was used as a sports hall and movie theatre for sailors and soldiers. However, the superior acoustics in the church are said to have distorted the films' sound, and therefore the central cupola was closed up with concrete. Today, even though Karosta is still home to many people, it has become an exotic tourist destination and a source of inspiration for the city's creative types.

Foto: Mystery of Liepāja

Perhaps the most special sites in Karosta are the Northern Forts (Ziemeļu forti) and the Northern Jetty (Ziemeļu mols). The forts are a unique monument to the grandiose late-19th-century fortification plans for the city, which were later deemed a fiasco and strategic mistake. Having been slowly eaten away by time and the sea, the old forts are now partially buried by dunes and some tumble into the sea. Built in 1893, they mark the origins of the Karosta military complex. The underground bunkers are impressively extensive and quite unlike anything else in the world.

Foto: Mystery of Liepāja

When it turned out that the fortress was of no strategic importance, some of the cannons in the complex were dismantled, melted down, or taken to the Kaunas fortress in Lithuania. There were also attempts to blow up the underground bunkers and armoury, but these were unsuccessful, and therefore they remain visible to this day. As you climb on top of and wander through the ruins of the fort, the wild waves of the Baltic Sea against the concrete might make you think you're by an ocean instead. The sea here has a different kind of strength, a different colour and dramatic character. It becomes harsher yet as you near the Northern Jetty, which was also once a part of the fort and military port complex. 1800 metres long and 7.35 metres wide, the sea sprays the blocks of black rock that stretch into the sea like a ghostly giant's path.

Foto: Mystery of Liepāja

This is a good spot to experience Liepāja's famous wind in all of its untamed and savage glory. In any case, it's hard to imagine a better place to go when you need to shake out your emotions – a 'wind treatment' on the Northern Jetty may be just what your soul needs. Any negative energy, extra baggage, and internal pollution will be blown away by the wind. All you'll be able to think about is how to keep your hood on your head. After this ferocious cleansing process, warm up with some hot tea at Rietumkrasts, a café located just a few dozen metres from the jetty. It's one of the most isolated and entertaining cafés in Liepāja. Measuring only 2.42 metres wide, 12 metres long, and 2.58 metres tall, it resembles a bright yellow children's toy block lying in the sand a mere 30 metres from the water.

As you serenely drink your tea and watch the stunning landscape, you might find yourself unwittingly unravelling the riddle and mystery of Liepāja. What makes this city so unique and magnetic? And so full of creative energy? Indeed, Liepāja possesses an extraordinary and indescribable artistry of nature and urbanisation. The city is a song and a poem in which the interaction between the elements and human vigour, fragility, and determination are an inexhaustible source of inspiration. It's no wonder, then, that natives of Liepāja often say they're self-sufficient. And that's no myth!

Facebook Twitter


Your comments


Nice article.interesting

Your name:

Time of visit:

Your comment: