Semigallia of Latvia

Semigallia (Southern Latvia): Cities, Towns and Sights

Semigallia

In 16th-18th centuries Semigalia served as the center of Duchy of Courland and Semigallia, a small-yet-rich statelet that participated in American colonization.

As such, it boasts numerous castles and palaces. The most famous amongst them (and all the Baltic palaces is the Rundale Palace and its park.

Rundale Palace in Semigallia
Rundale Palace. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Jelgava (the region’s largest city) has another massive palace with crypts of the dukes. The interior there is destroyed however.

The Dukes of Courland and Semigallia were ethnic Germans, and much of what remains in the area‘s cities has an inherent German feeling. Well into the 19th century Germans still made some 33% of Jelgava inhabitants.

German manors were located outside of the main towns as well, and the prettiest string of such buildings stands in Western Semigallia.

The Germans initially came as crusaders who Christianized the Latvian nation. A crusader castle remains are available near Bauska, which is a nice small town.

Lutheran church of Bauska
Lutheran church of Bauska dating to Courland-Semigallia era. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

While retaining a strong Latvian majority, Semigallia has significant ethnic minorities in some locations. Jēkabpils, with its old houses of worship of 7 different faiths, is arguably Latvia’s most traditionally multi-ethnic and multi-religious town.

Southern Semigallia hosts many Lithuanians, while the areas close to Riga have many Russian-speakers. That Riga hinterland was effectively transformed into suburbs recently, becoming site of such locations as Cinevilla, a Riga movie studio backlot that’s also firm on Latvia’s tourist sight list.

Rundale Palace

Rundale Palace is the leading palace of the Baltic States both by size and extravagance, making it one of Latvia’s top tourist sights.

Rundale Palace
Rundale Palace. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The Baroque edifice has been built in 1736-1768 as a summer residence of the dukes of Courland and Semigallia.

Many opulent rooms may be visited inside on the second floor. Restorations are ongoing and much of what haven’t survived has been restored. First floors houses temporary exhibitions.

Formal garden in front of the palace with its straight paths and a fountain is another pinnacle of the visit.

An Eastern-style pavillion in Rundale garden
An Eastern-style pavilion in Rundale garden. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Unlike all other noble families of Poland-Lithuania who would merely own their lands as freehold, the dukes of Courland-Semigallia (Kettler and Biron dynasties) had their own semi-sovereign duchy, leading to unmatched importance and riches. Courland even participated in the colonization of Americas, colonizing Gambia and Tobago island in the 17th century where a geographical feature is still named Great Courland Bay.

The Rundale palace is the main reminder of this small-yet-rich country, as the Dukes’ primary residence in Jelgava had its interior looted and burned by the Russian forces in 1918.

Entrance to Rundale palace
Entrance to Rundale palace. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Both Rundale and Jelgava palaces were created by Bartolomeo Rastrelli – the favorite architect of Russian czars who was behind the Winter Palace (Hermitage) and Tsarskoye Selo Palace near St. Petersburg.

Jelgava

Jelgava (pop. 60 000) is the largest city in Semigallia region and Latvia’s 4th largest city.

It served as the capital of rich Duchy of Courland and Semigallia (1561-1795) which was rich enough to partake in the colonization fo Americas. Baroque Jelgava Palace (1772) is thus espeially massive and impressive from the outside, however its interior has been destroyed. Only the Ducal crypt may still be visited (offering a collection of elaborate sarcophagi). Rundale Palace (a very similar one to Jelgava and owned by the same dukes of Courland-Semigallia) has surviving interior and park and is merely 36 km from Jelgava.

A small part of massive Jelgava palace
A small part of massive Jelgava palace. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Before their fall to Russian annexation in 1795 the dukes of Courland-Semigallia also funded a Baroque Academia Petrina. Even after the collapse of the country it served as alma mater to many famous people of the entire Baltic region (such as president of Lithuania Antanas Smetona).

Academia Petrina of Jelgava
Academia Petrina with Russian Orthodox church of St. Simeon and Anna on the left. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Several churches (Russian-built St. Simeon and Anna Orthodox and a gothic revival Catholic) are located near Academia Petrina. Medieval Holy Trinity church between the Academia and the Palace was destroyed by Soviets but they left the tower (50 m) standing (observation platform and museum now available inside).

Roman Catholic church of Jelgava
Roman Catholic church surrounded by post-WW2 Soviet residentials. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

While some other stately buildings also remain, Jelgava has been greatly rebuilt under Soviet occupation, giving it a largely nondescript look.

A surviving 19th century building in Jelgava
A surviving 19th century building in Jelgava. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

A rather large intact area of 18th-19th century small buildings known as Old Town is located in the West of Jelgava. The streets there have been re-cobbled and some buildings restored (though others remain abandoned and the zone seems “died out”). Informational plaques have been built. St. Anne Lutheran church (the oldest building of Jelgava) is nearby.

Old Town of Jelgava
Old Town of Jelgava. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

A short distance from Riga (45 km to the downtown) made Jelgava a kind of semi-suburb.

Bauska town

Bauska (pop. 11 000) is a town in southern Latvia on a major road between Riga and Lithuania.

Buildings at Bauska main square near Riga-Vilnius road
Buildings at Bauska main square near Riga-Vilnius road. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

For centuries Bauska has been a multiethnic town of trade. Its downtown still emits that atmosphere. The main square is crowned by a recently-rebuilt town hall and is surrounded by buildings at least 100 years old. Several old churches as well as a 19th century brewery stands in the area.

Bauska town hall
Bauska town hall. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Like many Latvian towns Bauska is proud of its Livonian Order castle. Parts of it are ruined and parts have been rebuilt, while the nearby park is used for festivals. The castle once guarded confluence of Mūsa and Memele rivers. After joining the two rivers form Lielupe (Latvia’s second largest river) at Bauska.

Remains of Bauska castle
Remains of Bauska castle. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Bauska was developed by German knights and craftsmen. It became Jewish majority in 19th century and Latvian majority in 20th century. Lithuanians have always been part of the local admixture.

Bauska is a good stop en-route to Rundale palace.

Cinevilla movie studio

Cinevilla, nicknamed “Latvian Hollywood”, is the sole movie studio backlot in the Baltic States. It is located 20 km west of Jūrmala.

The original “Cinevilla town” is a collection of World War 1 era building facades, bridges over “Daugava river” (actually a grassland), old trains and cobbled streets. Everything was built to film “Defenders of Riga” (2007), the most expensive Latvian movie ever.

Old Latvian street in Cinevilla
Old Latvian street in Cinevilla. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

After filming ended the area opened as a kind of laid-back theme park with temporary art exhibits, a cafe and various additional forms of pre-ordered entertainment among the fake buildings.

Furthermore, Cinevilla is continuously expanded as props for new Latvian films are being built. More often than not these “props” are actually real buildings, built with the intention to be reused as wedding halls, hotels and otherwise.

Currently Cinevilla also hosts a farmstead, old Soviet cars (which may be brought in as props should a director need them), a church like ones in Latvian villages and more.

Movie costumes for rent in Cinevilla
Movie costumes for rent. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Jēkabpils town

Jēkabpils (pop. 29 000) is a town in central Latvia that spans river Daugava.

Historically, it was actually two separate towns, with Jēkabpils standing on the left bank (Semigallia region) and Krustpils on the right bank (Latgale region). As both banks have been united by a bridge (1936) and the unification of Latvia (1918) abolished political differences on the two banks, the municipalities have also been combined into a single Jēkabpils town.

Originally established by Old Believer refugees who were then joined by Lithuanians and Poles, Jēkabpils was always a multiethnic and multireligious city. This is evident in the fact that houses of worship of 7 different faiths still stand, all of them at least 80 years old.

Among the religious buildings the Russian Orthodox Monastery of the Holy Ghost that consists of multiple churches is the most impressive.

Monastery of the Holy Ghost in Downtown Jēkabpils
Monastery of the Holy Ghost in Downtown Jēkabpils. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Other old churches are Roman Catholic (19th century), Baptist (1930), Old Believer (1889), Uniate (1783), Krustpils Lutheran (17th century), Krustpils Orthodox (1910). Many are rather small as in such a multireligious place relatively few people would belong to each congregation. However, they represent the styles popular in respective religions, with domed Orthodox churches, wooden Old Believer church, simple Baptist and Lutheran churches and relatively posh-looking Uniate and Catholic ones.

Jēkabpils side of Daugava has a main square and a nice promenade on Daugava banks, as well as some old streets.

The main building in Krustpils side of Daugava is Krustpils castle, now serving as the local museum. It was originally built by Archbishop of Riga in Medieval times (when whole Latvia was scrambled by Christian theocracies), but renovated extensively afterwards as it remained in use up to 20th century when Soviet army was stationed there.

Krustpils Castle
Krustpils Castle. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Interestingly, Jēkabpils even has a UNESCO World Heritage site. However, it is so small that one would not notice it if not for massive advertisements. UNESCO-inscribed object in question is the 2820 km long Struve geodetic arc – a network of stations the Baltic German geographer built in 1816-1855 to calculate the lenght of Earth meridian. Jēkabpils has one such station, now surrounded by a Struve park. There are many stations like that in Eastern Europe, going from Norway to Ukraine.

Krustpils also serves as the railway hub, having a station with Riga-bound trains. Bus station is however in Jēkabpils-proper.

Palaces of Western Semigallia

Palaces of Western Semigallia are palaces of the 19th century mostly German nobility. A long time of peace allowed them to construct especially elaborate edifices.

Jaunpils Palace
Jaunpils Palace. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The most famous among these palaces are those of Jaunpils (Neuenburg, 1906), Mežotne (Mesothen, 1802) Jaunmokas (Neu-Mocken, 1901), Šlokenbeka (Medieval castle repurposed in late 18th century).

Jaunmokas Palace
Jaunmokas Palace. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Unfortunately, the palaces lost their interiors during the Soviet occupation (1940-1990). Pretty exteriors and courtyards are still nice to view however. Currently the castles are used for unrelated museums (that of roads in Šlokenbeka and that of forests in Jaunmokas) or as hotels (Jaunpils and Mežotne).

Šlokenbeka Palace near Tukums
Šlokenbeka Palace near Tukums. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.