Ventspils (pop. 39 000) is a massive port and the commercial hub of northwestern Latvia (Courland).
The docks are seamlessly integrated into city downtown, ships mooring right next to the historic buildings, never allowing one to forget that this is one of the Baltic Sea’s largest ports.
Such status is impressive, given the city’s small population. Still, in the gone-by eras the influence of Ventspils was even greater, as it was the naval heart of Courland-Semigallia duchy that partook in the colonization of Americas and Africa.
Ruled by a single mayor Aivars Lembergs since 1988 Ventspils has been keen on establishing itself as a “pretty city” worth travelling for.
It boasts some of the Baltic States’s nicest landscaping: “flower sculptures” (in summer), decorated cow statues. Even prosaic buildings (such as port warehouses) are well illuminated, arguably surpassing even Riga in that sense.
The most unique Ventspils publicity stunt is the Vent currency. It is possible to “earn” it virtually by doing various online activities (such as answering quiz questions about Ventspils). The banknotes may then be withdrawn from account once in Ventspils, and may be used to pay (in part) various local expenses such as museum tickets.
Much of Ventspils attractions are located in Seaside Ventspils. Built up in 19th century with elaborate wooden villas and homes, the area has been successfully repurposed for modern seaside tourism.
The wide sandy beach is far from the only attraction of Ventspils and the city is regularly constructing new ones. Among them is the artificial hill for skiing (creating one was a big task in lowland Latvia). It is located in the Soviet districts which, together with suburbs, also have interesting historic sights, such as a massive Soviet radar.
Old Town is the heart of Ventspils. It has many magnificent buildings (although not to the size of Riga’s edifices), among them the Livonian Order Castle. While the Castle has largely lost its original Medieval looks in later reconstructions, the modern museum it hosts is still of interest. It tells the story of Ventspils through modern means such as screens and projectors.
Other key buildings of Ventspils old town includes the Creativity House (housing a digital planetarium), the Lutheran church at the main square. Most restaurants and bars are located in or around Kuldīgas street, which also boasts some pretty turn-of-the-20th-century architecture.
Like it has been for centuries, Old Town still makes a single whole with the port. Vessels are still moored right in front of the historic facades in the Venta river. A modern river bank promenade offers a fine walk watching the ships and the opposite bank where cargo activities take place. Transbaltic ferries to Germany and Sweden depart from the Old Town itself.
Seaside Ventspils was developed in 19th century when the city expanded Westwards. Rising popularity of beach holidays gave birth to a villa district, while a district of dockworkers was built near the port.
Ostgals (“Port end”) district west of Old Town is a collection of low rise homes. Some of them are especially old (as are the narrow cobbled streets). Once the district was inhabitted by dock workers, but today it is also liked by the local elite. The only draw there (beside the atmosphere) is the Ventspils theater.
South of Ostgals 19th century elite has constructed numerous elaborate wooden and brick towered villas, hugging a tree-lined Vasarnīcu boulevard. Some are restored as hotels, some are unfortunately abandoned.
Seaside open air museum has been built next to the villas. It consists of numerous local peasant homes moved in from different locations of Courland. An attraction here is a narrow gauge railway (600 m) that offers journeys around the nearby park in summer.
The seaside park itself offers an open-air free exhibition of old anchors and children play zone. Most people just pass by however in order to reach the beach beyond it. Sea may be experienced in ways alternative to swimming or sunbathing however. There are two lookout towers. Southern breakwater provides a popular recreational walk. It ends at a lighthouse – visitors there may be splashed by waves when there are heavier winds.
Ventspils has some interesting sights beyond its downtown.
An artificial hill Lemberg’s hat has been created for hill skiing in the southern districts. As Ventspils is in lowland area this was a tremendous effort. In non-snowy days the hill may be accended for panorama, although it is not impressive as the downtown is far.
North of the city stands the VIRAC radioastronomy station, once a secret Soviet military territory. One of Europe’s largest antennae is still accessed by a concrete road appropriate for military vehicles. There are numerous abandoned and vandalized buildings that once housed the Soviet military and the gate still has Soviet symbols, but today VIRAC is occupied by a community of benevolent scientists and excursions are also possible.
In many times of history the importance of Ventspils port far surpassed what its population numbers could have suggested.
Ventspils within German duchies (1314-1795)
Originally chartered in 1314 it was an important mercantile city of the German Hanseatic League. At the time Livonian Order was the ruling power, having built a castle in Ventspils center. Germans used to call the city “Windau”.
In 1565 the Order secularized becoming the Duchy of Courland and Semigallia. Ventspils importance remained however as the Duchy relied greatly on its naval power, attempting to establish colonies in America and Africa. Ventspils was the Duchy’s primary port and many ships have left in the 17th century on colonial adventures. The local shipyards not only constructed the Courland-Semigallian navy but also built ships for sale to Western Europe.
That old Ventspils has been devastated by 18th century wars and plague, however. The importance of Courland-Semigallia itself dwindled until it was annexed by Russia in 1795.
Ventspils in the Russian Empire (1795-1918)
The new overlords Russians saw no use for Ventspils port for a long time. By 1863 Ventspils had merely 4000 inhabittants, some 50% of them the descendents of Courland-Semigallia’s German elite.
The tides of fortune turned again in 1890s as railway from Riga reached Ventspils, allowing the port to be used to export goods from the entire Russian Empire. An era of rapid expansion followed, during which the city grew to 29000 inhabitants as it needed to staff the swiftly growing port.
Nearly all the newcomers were Latvians from surrounding villages. Such massive migration greatly altered the ethnic composition of the city, making Ventspils Latvian majority (58%) for the first time in history by 1897.
Much of the large buildings that still adorn Ventspils Old Town have been constructed in 1890s-1910s. The old city limits were not enough however: to accommodate the new workers a new district of Ostgals has been constructed west of Old Town, while in the southwest a suburb of pretty wooden villas was developed near the beach.
Ventspils in free interwar Latvia (1918-1940)
After Latvia became independent (1918) Ventspils continued to be one of the most ethnically Latvian cities. By 1935 some 84% of its population were Latvians (Germans – ~7%). However, independent Latvia may have had too many ports for what was a rather small country. With less need for freight shipping the number of Ventspils inhabitants declined to 16000.
Ventspils under Soviet occupaton (1940-1990)
In 1940 Ventspils was overrun by Soviet Union forces, only to be taken by Germans in 1941. Interestingly, by the time Berlin fell in 1945, German troops still held Ventspils, sparing the city from destruction associated with Soviet reconquest. After German surrender Soviets received the city peacefully.
The main use Soviets had for Ventspils port was that of oil export. They also established a major radar installation in the suburbs. Nearly all ethnic Germans and many Latvians were deported, but thousands of Russians were moved in, growing Ventspils population to 27000 by 1959 (60,4% Latvians) and 51000 by 1989. New concrete slab districts have been constructed in the south to accommodate the new settlers. By 1989 Latvians made up merely 43% of population and the city was predominantly Russian speaking.
Ventspils in restored Latvia (1990-)
After Latvia regained independence (1990) Ventspils became its success story. One of the richest cities, it is also extremely stable politically (having had the same mayor since 1988). The port became one of the most important in the Baltic Sea. Vast resources and ideas have been unleashed in order to bring tourists into Ventspils, ranging from a local “tourist currency” publicity stunt to creating an artificial hill for skiing.
As many Russians left after independence, the Latvian share of population rebounded from its nadir and now stays at 56%.