Just when you thought that Rīga was the only star of the show, in comes western Latvia from stage left, dazzling audiences with a whole different set of talents. While the capital wows the crowd with intricate architecture and metropolitan majesty, Kurzeme (Courland in English) takes things in the other direction: miles and miles of jaw-dropping natural beauty. The region’s sandy strands of desolate coastline are tailor-made for an off-the-beaten-track adventure. A constellation of coastal towns – Kolka, Ventspils, Pāvilosta and Liepāja – provide pleasant breaks between the large stretches of awesome nothingness.
Kurzeme wasn’t always so quiet; the region used to be occupied by the namesake Cours, a rebellious tribe known for teaming up with the Vikings for raids and battles. During the 13th century, German crusaders ploughed through, subjugating the Cours, alongside the other tribes living in Latvia. When the Livonian Order collapsed under assault from Russia’s Ivan the Terrible in 1561, the Order’s last master, Gotthard Kettler, salvaged Courland and neighbouring Zemgale as his own personal fiefdom.
Duke Jakob, Courland’s ruler from 1640 to 1682, really put the region on the map when he developed a fleet of navy and merchant ships, and purchased two far-flung (and totally random) colonies: Tobago, in the Caribbean, and an island in the mouth of Africa’s Gambia River. He even had plans to colonise Australia! His son continued the delusions of grandeur with plans to turn Jelgava (Mitau) into a ‘northern Paris’ (needless to say, this didn’t quite work out…).