An Englishman in Latvia

On Ķemeri

October 02, 2023 Alan Anstead Season 1 Episode 23
On Ķemeri
An Englishman in Latvia
More Info
An Englishman in Latvia
On Ķemeri
Oct 02, 2023 Season 1 Episode 23
Alan Anstead

Ķemeri is a former resort in Latvia. It has seen many highs, like being regarded as an outstanding spa of the Russian Empire, rebuilt to be one of the finest resorts in the Baltics during Latvia’s first independence, and later developed into a sanatorium for the Soviet elite during the Russian occupation. To the lows of being destroyed during the World Wars or from neglect. When Latvia regained independence in the 1990s, it was practically abandoned.

A love of hydrangeas took me there in 2023. I was amazed to find this wonderful space of sculpted park and history on Riga’s doorstep. Join me as we explore Ķemeri and its rich history.

Thanks for listening!

Show Notes Transcript

Ķemeri is a former resort in Latvia. It has seen many highs, like being regarded as an outstanding spa of the Russian Empire, rebuilt to be one of the finest resorts in the Baltics during Latvia’s first independence, and later developed into a sanatorium for the Soviet elite during the Russian occupation. To the lows of being destroyed during the World Wars or from neglect. When Latvia regained independence in the 1990s, it was practically abandoned.

A love of hydrangeas took me there in 2023. I was amazed to find this wonderful space of sculpted park and history on Riga’s doorstep. Join me as we explore Ķemeri and its rich history.

Thanks for listening!

On Ķemeri

Ķemeri is a former resort. It has seen many highs, like being regarded as an outstanding spa of the Russian Empire, rebuilt to be one of the finest resorts in the Baltics during Latvia’s first independence, and later developed into a sanatorium for the Soviet elite during the Russian occupation. To the lows of being destroyed during the world wars or from neglect. When Latvia regained independence in the 1990s, it was practically abandoned. I cannot recall visiting the town during my time as a diplomat in Latvia in the second half of the 1990s. 

A love of hydrangeas took me there in 2023. I was amazed to find this wonderful space of sculpted park and Russian Empire, the first Latvian Republic and Soviet occupation history on Riga’s doorstep. Most tourists, and locals for that matter, go to Jūrmala’s main resorts of Dzintari and Majori. They don’t go that little bit further inland to Ķemeri. It is a stop on the railway line between Riga and Tukums or a short 30-minute drive from Riga.

Join me as we explore Ķemeri and its rich history.

A history of Ķemeri and its ups and downs

Ķemeri is located at the Western end of Jūrmala between lakes and swamps rich in sulphur springs.

The name Ķemeri (Kemmern in German) first appeared after the founding of the Dukedom of Courland in 1561. The springs at Ķemeri became known for their curative properties in 1796.  Ailing Baltic German noblemen of the Kurzeme region came here for treatment and stayed with local foresters. A chemical analysis of Ķemeri spring waters was first carried out in St. Petersburg in 1801. The first public bathing establishment in Ķemeri was built in 1838 on a state-owned plot of land that had been allocated for sulphur water therapy purposes by Emperor Nicholas I. This is regarded as the year of the founding of the resort. From then onwards, people started to come here for treatment. The Ķemeri railway station was established in 1877 along with the Riga to Tukums railway line opening. The resort experienced a rapid flourishing.

The Ķemeri resort became popular in the Russian Empire. In 1912, a direct railway link was created between Ķemeri and Moscow. An electrical tram provided the connection with the beach of Jaunemeri. Nerve disease and diseases of joints, bones, and muscles were treated at the resort. Treatment with sulphuric water and mud baths was also carried out. The annual number of people visiting the resort reached 8,300. 

During the First World War, there was active fighting in the area of Ķemeri and Tirelpurvs, and the resort suffered serious damage. The train station was destroyed. But Ķemeri recovered quickly after the war.  The newly created Republic of Latvia tried to restore the previous glory of Ķemeri. In 1924, a special bathing facility was built for mud baths equipped with a mechanical hot mud feed and the pumping of used mud back to the bog. In 1929, a 42-m-tall water tower with a sightseeing platform on the top was built near this bathing facility. Ķemeri was granted the status of a town in 1928. Similar to Sigulda, Ķemeri became a favourite among holiday-makers from Riga.

Hotel Ķemeri, called the ‘White Ship’, had more than 100 rooms designed by the highly-regarded Latvian architect of Baltic German descent, Eižens Laube and the spa hotel’s chief doctor and director, Dr Janis Libietis. The hotel was opened to guests in 1936. Dr Libietis managed the Ķemeri complex from 1928–1944, when he escaped Latvia and sought asylum in Sweden.

The resort was closed during the Second World War, and the Ķemeri Hotel was equipped to treat military personnel.

During the Soviet occupation of Latvia, the hotel was transformed into the Ķemeri Sanatorium with rooms for 300 patients. It was the main health facility in the area and used advanced medical equipment and the latest therapeutic methods.

An electric train line to Kemeri was opened in 1951. In 1959, Ķemeri became part of the Jūrmala city administration. During the Soviet times, the resort was significantly expanded in 1971 and was given the status of a resort of Soviet Union importance. The only one in the Baltic republics of the Soviet Union.

The flourishing resort declined in the 1990s when the economic situation changed after the restoration of Latvia’s independence. The number of tourists decreased rapidly, and in 1995, Ķemeri resort was closed. 

In 1998, after years of abandonment, the sanatorium was purchased by Ominasis Italia, and renovation started. Apparently. 

Nowadays, the area of Ķemeri resort is regarded as a monument of urban construction of national significance in Latvia.

Work on restoring the park began in 2017 on behalf of Jūrmala City Council and was completed in 2022. Some 50 hectares of park and adjoining streets were renovated. I also read that 5,000 hydrangeas and roses were planted.

Wow! That is one rollercoaster of a ride for a resort.

A walk around Ķemeri Park

If you come by train, get off at Ķemeri station, rebuilt in 1922 after the previous station was destroyed in the First World War. It is a one-hour train ride from Riga Central Station. Head north by foot along Tukuma iela for seven minutes.

If you come by car, park in the car park by the water tower. You can’t miss the 42m-high red and white tower|

The tower is a good place to start our walk. It was built in 1929 as - wait for it - a tower to supply water. After renovation, in 2021, it was opened to visitors and is open daily from May until October - free of charge. Other times of the year it can be visited by prior booking. There is an exhibition about the history of Kemeri and the water tower inside. A staircase winds its way up to the upper exhibition floor, and if you book in advance, you can go up the narrow staircase to a viewing platform on top of the tower. I’m told there is a good view of the surrounding park from up there, but you wouldn’t get me climbing those steps. They are safe, just not for people afraid of heights!

The tower is within the landscaped park of Ķemeri. This is well maintained, with paved tracks heading in different directions through formal gardens and pine tree groves. You can’t get lost as there are many ironwork signposts. And anyway, you can see the tower to get your bearings. The park was developed in 1839 by the head gardener of Riga, Karlis Heinrich Wagner, and was continually improved for over 100 years. Not by Mr. Wagner, of course, but by his sons, all free-of-charge work. Ķemeri Hotel was built in 1936, and strolling in the park became part of the spa’s treatments. The park has numerous bridges with whimsical names like the Bridge of Sighs, the Bridge of Whims, and the Musical Bridge. Ķemeri Park is Latvia's oldest and largest public park outside of Riga. In 2023, it came second in the European Garden Award in the ‘Management or development of a historical park or garden’ category. I’m not surprised. It was the reason we wanted to visit Ķemeri. To see its magnificent gardens of hydrangea. These popular flower bushes in Latvia stand in front of the Ķemeri Hotel. Beautiful white flowers. It's a pity that the hotel has a metal fence around it. I must find out what is happening to the hotel.

After leaving the tower, go around it 180 degrees and walk alongside the small river to The Little Lizard. This beautiful, ornate white pavilion looks like it was made of lace. Just below the pavilion by the river is a sculpture of a boy on a dolphin. You can taste the sulphuric water coming from the sculpture. Don’t worry too much. The hydrogen sulphide water is tested yearly, although it doesn’t meet EU drinking water standards. I had no after-effects from drinking a handful. It is a bit smelly, though!

Next, head to the White Liner, the former sanatorium and hotel. This grand, very white neo-classicism style hotel was built in 1936 by the architect Eugene Laube. It was constructed by the state for 2.5 million Lats (that’s about 3.5 million Euro) and was regarded as the most magnificent hotel in the Baltics. The ground floor offered therapeutic services. The upper floors had hotel rooms. During the Soviet occupation, it became a high-class sanitorium, using modern equipment and treatment for the privileged elite. There used to be a direct railway line between Ķemeri and Moscow, and Ķemeri was awarded the ‘Resort of Soviet Union importance’, I guess equivalent to a five-star rating on Trip Adviser. Sit on one of the many benches in the garden in front of the hotel. Imagine what the scene might have been like 50 years ago. Russian generals newly off the train from Moscow, parading around in their military uniforms with their wives, or lovers, in the park; before taking a sulphur bath treatment. Or having tea in one of the pavilions. By the way, Russian sugar in Soviet times did not dissolve. You popped the sugar cube into your mouth and drank your tea through it. Then, disposed of the cube. That was my experience.

As you walk around the park, you will find the Islet of Love. This stone rotunda is in a classicist style on an artificial island. You can go to the top - the iron and wooden staircase isn’t as scary as the water tower’s staircase. There is also a small drinks stall underneath the rotunda — possibly the only place to get refreshments in Ķemeri.

There is also a rather nice play area for children and a short boardwalk through a pine tree glade. Close by is Saint Apostles Peter and Paul Orthodox Church, built of wood without nails in 1893. Four years later, a Lutheran Church was built, and two years after that, the Roman Catholic Church. Sounds to me like there was a bit of competition going on!

I met Aleksandra Stramkale from the Jurmala Tourism Information Centre to learn more about Ķemeri.

Me: What makes Ķemeri such a special place to visit? 

Aleksandra: I think Ķemeri has a long and very interesting history. History of a resort. Nowadays, even the term of resort becomes more and more vital because people start to return to some natural things, natural curation, also thinking of keeping fit and healthy without taking chemical medicines. That's why this becomes more and more important to keep and to, let's say, to develop the resort territories. And that's why I think Ķemeri has a lot of things and a lot of natural resources, including mineral waters of three types, including healing muds of two types that are located in the territory of Ķemeri National Park. As the underground waters come so close to the ground, we have several natural mineral water springs there. And if you come to Ķemeri, you can even feel this aroma of sulphur in the air. Of course, that makes people feel this special atmosphere of Ķemeri Park. 

Me: I even tasted it from that little fountain with the boy, the dolphin. I read afterwards, maybe I shouldn't have done it, but I certainly wasn't ill. You could smell the sulphur, but it was such a beautiful, nice place. As a result, though, it's had highs when it's been extremely popular, lots and lots of people coming there, and lows, during the wars and then actually in the 1990s when it stopped being regarded as a resort. And now to me, it seems to be coming back up. What can one see if one goes there as a visitor? What can one see of its history and the things you've just been talking about in those times when people went there for treatment? 

Aleksandra: If we speak about the historical part of Ķemeri National Park, this resort, really it's worth visiting, I would say now it is must have to visit in Jūrmala. And also we are very happy that this year this park is internationally recognised by acquiring a special prize from the European Garden Association. It was the second place for the best reconstruction of historical parks. And if you come there then you will find a big territory of park, of landscaped park, with several architectural objects like pavilions, sulphur springs, Kemeri water tower, and everywhere in the park are information stands, where in three languages is information about the historical background of those sites and of the Ķemeri district. Also, the park after the renovation has a new children's playground so if you come with a family it will not be boring for children only to walk and read about the historical background but also smaller children can play in this playground and spend time while the adults or teenagers are really learning about the history. Speaking about activities, Ķemeri Water Tower particularly has a totally new role, let's say, because initially it was built as a water tower. It also had a panoramic platform, but after renovation in three years ago, we finished renovation and started operating there, it continues to be a water tower filling this function of supplying water in Ķemeri district but also it's a touristic site with two panoramic platforms on different heights and one of them is on the rooftop where from the height of 42 meters the visitors can observe vicinity of Ķemeri and even in a good weather it's possible to see the Riga Bay. And inside on every floor there are exhibitions which tell visitors about the history and development of Ķemeri district, about some prominent people who gave their input in the development of Ķemeri as a resort. So it's a quite interesting site of industrial heritage where two things are combined. This industrial function of supplying water and also as a tourist site. 

Me: I’m just glad we didn't have this interview on the top because I'm not very good with heights. From the middle landing I looked at the staircase and it was safe but it's not for someone who doesn't like heights. But are there any interesting or funny stories about Ķemeri's past? 

Aleksandra: Well, there is a legend about why Ķemeri is called Ķemeri. It tells that a long time ago a ship wrecked in Riga Bay - because Riga Bay has a lot of shallows and actually it's true that we have a lot of sunk ships there in the bottom - so the ship wrecked and almost all the team has sunk except for one sailor who reached the shore. He was totally exhausted and he crawled into the forest and there he was bitten by a snake and he was already totally sure that he would die in the night. But his hand where he had been bitten by the snake fell into a spring of water and in the morning he woke up and he was totally healthy and he understood that it was this water that helped him to survive. He decided to stay in this district and help other people also to get cured of different diseases and the name of this sailor was Kemer’s - that's why the place was called Ķemeri after him. Well, this is a legend but I would say that this legend is only partly a legend because indeed there was a forester who first lived in this area. People started to come there when they heard about the healing power of local natural resources, but the infrastructure still was not built, so there were no hotels, no guest houses, so they stayed with local people. As the resort started to develop, this park was set up in 1838. Also, the first water treatment establishment, bath establishment, was also made. So they firstly stayed with local people and then only step by step started to appear, first hotels and small guest houses where people could stay. And then, yes, Ķemeri started to develop very very fast and soon it became a well-known resort and especially of course after the opening of Ķemeri Hotel. It was the time of the first Republic of Latvia, the 20th, 30th year of the 20th century, when it was even fashionable to relax on Ķemeri resort. Almost all prominent people of Latvia were the guests of this hotel. It was a very expressive building. It was one of the best examples of architecture in all three Baltic States, even on the opening of this hotel where present all the prominences of that time, the military attachés, the diplomatic attachés in Latvia and even the president of Latvia was present on the opening of the hotel. So, Ķemeri was a separate city even at that time. Yes, now it's a part of Jūrmala, but those times it was a totally independent, separate city. What is also interesting is that until now there are rehabilitation centres which use healing mud and mineral water in the treatments. The way how they are used is still the same. Still, people are coming to this swampy area where these medical muds are being created. They take the mud, put it in this rehabilitation centre, then clean it from different small stones, pebbles or some leaves, mix it with mineral water, so there is a mixture of medical mud and mineral water, and then use it for applications for different parts of the body or putting a person into the mud bath totally all over the body. And what is important is that after the implementation of the treatment, they do not throw out in the rubbish bin this used mud, but they put it in so-called regeneration holes. It's in nature such a special place where all this used mud had been put and after lying there for 20 years it can be used again. So it's a sustainable use of natural resources and it's very very good that we are doing it like that. The quantity of healing mud is quite big. Actually, if there could be several more such resort clinics or resort medical spa hotels, it would be enough for everyone to help people to get cured that way. 

Me: Thank you for sharing those stories. I visited the park and it looks wonderful. Very well renovated. It's beautiful just walking around. There weren't many people there and neither did I see any sort of services for tourists like restaurants. There was one small cafe in the pavilion in the park but I think that was about it, and a small convenience store in the town. And I wonder with this regeneration, what's being done to attract more visitors to come to Ķemeri and also the services that supply those visitors?

Aleksandra: Well, after renovation, this park actually, step by step, is really becoming one of the most popular and top sites to visit in Jūrmula. I have no precise statistical data about the number of visitors. I have only the number of visitors to the water tower. So there are around 30,000 per season because the water tower is open only from May until October. It's a seasonal site. I would say that totally the number of visitors to Ķemeri Park could be around 100,000 visitors per year. So it is really a good platform for developing small local businesses and step by step they start to appear. Like you said, yes, like some catering, we have several local guides who are offering excursions in Ķemeri Park. So I think that’s its future. Of course from the other side it's maybe comfortable to walk there so at the moment really the park is very natural, quite quiet. It's not overloaded with some services and you are feeling yourself by nature. So it's also important to keep this balance between some commerce and still the natural park because when it was renovated, one of the challenges was not only reconstruction but also obeying the rules of Ķemeri National Park because it's a national territory where there are certain requirements of keeping nature, of not cutting trees. There are a lot of very old trees, 200 years, 100 years old trees and that makes, I think, this atmosphere very special. It's not a city park for just spending time in the city. It's a part of natural territory for revitalising, for walking, for being with yourself. It's difficult to tell. It's better to come there and feel it. And also it's a place where especially now in August and September on the weekends, very often we have weddings. Because in Ķemeri we have all three churches, Lutheran, Catholic and Orthodox. The three main confessions in Latvia, so local people like to get married in the churches and then before that or after that to walk in the park to make nice photos. And that of course, when people see those newly married couples in white dresses, then it also makes people happier. And the thought that a lot of people start their families in this park and they will have first pictures in their photo albums of their common life from this park, I think also it's very important and puts an additional role on the park to be always well kept - ideal so that the pictures are really quite nice. There is a pavilion which is called the Pavilion of Love. It's located on the island of love. And yes, speaking about the stories, a lot of people are asking whether it's called the Pavilion of Love because there are weddings. No, it's because when it was built, then a couple of swans started to live there. And a swan symbolises forever love because those birds are monogamous couples. Then people started to call this place Islet of Love and Pavilion of Love. However, this pavilion was always a coffee pavilion. It was built as a coffee pavilion to drink coffee there. But now, of course, it looks so nice. It's white with the columns and newly married couples are taking pictures there. And there is even special metallic figures of birds where, according to our local tradition, they can put the key lock. There is a tradition that you put a key lock, lock it and then throw the key away like your love is forever. It's locked, and no one can unlock it. So there are special metallic birds where it's possible to put this lock. And also why do these newly married couples come there? Because there is another, I don't know if it's Latvian tradition or it's everywhere that a groom should carry in his hands the bride over seven bridges. So in this park, we have really more than seven bridges over the river so it's possible to make this attraction there. Come to this park and really you will enjoy the world there in any season. For autumn it's very beautiful because the leaves are becoming red and and yellow and it's really very picturesque. In wintertime, it's very romantic when the snow is falling and there are lanterns everywhere in the park so it's possible also to walk there in the evenings. It's beautiful. In springtime there starts to blossom all the trees and roses that are in a big number there. Beautiful in summertime, perfect. Also, everything is green and the smell of sulphur in the air. So really, it's worth visiting in any season. 

Me: Thank you very much indeed, Aleksandra.

In conclusion, Ķemeri is well worth a visit if you are staying in Riga or Jūrmala. It is so easy to get to. If you live far away, have a look at the many photos on Visit Jūrmala’s website. Ķemeri occupies an important part of Latvia’s history. There can be few other resorts in the world that have seen such wildly swinging highs and lows. The beautiful, restored park with its monuments is still there. And no crowds. It is also on the doorstep to Ķemeri National Park, which we talked about in the episode ‘On wetland bogs’. Do go and see Ķemeri for yourself, if you can.

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