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Kurzeme, Latvia’s coastal province
Riga (Latvia), July 25th 2013

Kurzeme is Latvia’s most western province and that makes it also the countries coastal province. The Baltic Sea and the Gulf of Riga make up approximately three-quarters of the province’s border and that means that Kurzeme is also an important beach destination. Not only for the Latvians, but also for other tourists from the region, including Finns. You won’t see a lot of Finnish people with their caravans and motorhomes in other parts of Europe, but you will see them here.

But Kurzeme is more than just beach. It is also the perfect region to enjoy rural Latvia. Dusty sand and gravel roads take you through small hilly countryside and small villages in where time seemed to stood have still. But if you look a little bit further, you will realize that you are fooled. The old ladies with headscarves and old men on donkeys have left the scene, and are replaced by modern agricultural machines, youngsters in shiny Audi’s and comfortable cafes with terraces that offer a surprising choice of beer to choose from. The European Union invested a lot in Kurzeme and other parts of the Baltic States. You will see bill boards everywhere in the region, explaining what projects are carried out and what the budget is or was. The Baltic countries made a huge step forwards, not only in the urban areas, but also in the rural areas. Edwin visited Latvia for the first time in 1994, and in many ways the country is unrecognizable changed in the last 20 years.

We started our visit to Kurzeme in the city Liepaga, near the border with Lithuania. Liepaga is the third city of Latvia and thanks to its deep harbor, one of the economical motors of the country. The city was founded in the 13th century by the Livonian Order, but wasn’t really important till Tsar Alexander III deepened its harbor. Also the Soviets recognized the importance of the city. The harbor was the home of the first Baltic Fleet, including its nuclear submarines. You can still experience some of its military significance from the Soviet times. The suburb Karosta, was once strictly off limits for normal people. This military base housed not only the fleet, but also the barracks and houses in where the soldiers lived. The area is nowadays a ‘normal’ suburb, but you can still see some of the old barracks and typical soviet housing blocks. Also the Karosta prison survived, once the military jail for disobedient soldiers, now a museum. The area also houses the most striking religious building of the city, the beautiful 1901 17th-century style Russian Orthodox Church.

A campsite to dream of: Nabite Campground near Kuldiga

Another interesting destination in Kurzeme is the old town of Kuldiga. The city is located in the heart of rural Kurzeme and was once for a short time the capital of the Duchy of Courland (1596-1616). A lot of the medieval atmosphere is still present today, with its old (wooden) houses and cobbled streets. If the town would be closer to Riga, it would definitely be one of the most popular tourist sights of Latvia. Kuldiga is also home of a non-impressive 275 meters wide waterfall, Europe’s widest. The charm of the town is also acknowledged by local film makers, who often choose Kuldiga as their film set, when making medieval style movies. We also like the Nabite campsite a lot, a beautifully located campground, approximately 15 kilometers north of the town, on the road to Ventspils.

Ventspils wasn’t that interesting to us. We expected a lot from Latvia’s second city, because our guidebook mentions it as one of Latvia’s most beautiful cities. The beach is indeed very nice, but if you aren’t a beach bum, there isn’t a lot to see. The old town is ok, but not as beautiful as for example Riga, Kuldiga or Cesis. But the city is a good starting point for a visit to Latvia because of it ferry connections with other parts of Europe. It also invested in a good number of children’s activities like a water park and an open air museum, including an in 1916 built steam train track.

But 32 kilometers north of Ventspils is one of the star attractions of the province, the huge and once top secret super powerful antenna of the Soviets. The dish has a diameter of 32 meters and was used to spy on the American satellites. The antenna, built in the 1980s, is located deep in the forest and it is an amazing experience the see the gigantic dish appearing from the woods when you approach it, especially when you realize yourself that you are on soil that was once a top secret military base. The antenna is the 8th largest parabolic antenna in the world. It is nowadays used by scientists to ‘spy’ on stars and planets. The dirt road to the antenna takes you along old guard houses and the housing blocks that were used to accommodate the personnel of the base.

Posing in front of the once secret super powerful Soviet antenna

Most of Kurzeme is still covered in woods. Especially the area around Cape Kolka is impressive. The cape itself is a tourist trap; souvenirs shops, paid parking area and a non-impressive geographic point that is the meeting point of the Gulf of Riga and the Baltic Sea. But the ride to and from it, both along the western (Baltic Sea) side and eastern side (Gulf of Riga) is beautiful. But don’t expect beautiful views; the rides take you mainly through pine forest. We eventually drove through the Abava River Valley to Riga, a nice rural area with a couple of picturesque villages and towns. So, Kurzeme is a great region to spend some time to experience beach, rural and city life, with the fantastic experience of some once glorious Soviet relics.

The Karosta jail in Liepaga
Biking through rural Kurzeme
Yes, they do exist: storks begging for food
A picturesque street in Kuldiga
The traveling cow in Ventspils

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