Wednesday, September 6, 2017

The oldest park in Rīga, Latvia - Viesturdārzs

Our explorations of Rīga have taken us to many parks and public spaces - from Vērmanes dārzs and Bastejkalns in the heart of the city, to Mežaparks in the further reaches - but somehow we had missed Viesturdārzs. The historic park that is located north of Vecrīga is within easy walking distance of the Art Nouveau district, and features ponds, alleys and sculpture in its 18+ acres, and was suggested by my brother as a beautiful park to visit with the boys. 

Also known as Dziesmu svētku parks (the Song Festival Park), Viesturdārzs is the oldest park in the Latvian capital. Built during the Great Northern War, it was designed by French architect A. Leblon following 18th century French and Dutch trends. At this time it was called the “Garden of His Majesty” (for Tsar Peter the Great) and was located on Gustavsala, an island on the Daugava. The island was also known as Pētersala (and later Andrejsala, depending on who was in charge), but in 1712 the branches of the Daugava river were transformed into swan ponds and it ceased to be an island. 3,500 different varieties of plants were imported, and the tsar’s country house was erected within park boundaries. To commemorate the Nietzsche Peace Treaty, the Miera goba (elm of peace) was planted on September 28, 1721; the current tree is the third reincarnation of the original, as elms readily send up new shoots from the stump when a tree dies.

After undergoing several more name changes, Emperor Nicholas I gave the garden to the city of Riga in 1841 and the park was renamed the City Garden. The park was divided into two parts: the first contained the General Governor's summer apartment (located in the former emperor's residence), and the second was open to the public. In 1873 the 1st Latvian Song Festival took place in Viesturdārzs on a stage specially constructed for the purpose.

After WWI the park was renamed the “Viestura garden” in honor of Viesturs, the ruler of the ancient Zemgaļi. Then, in 1936 it became home to the Aleksandra vārti that had been built in honor of the Russian victory in the war of 1812. “Alexander’s gate” (for Alexander I, Emperor of Russia) is classical in style, and is modeled after the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. The triumphal arch is the only one of its kind in Latvia, and while originally built on Brīvības iela near the Gaisa bridge, it was moved to Šmērļa street in 1904 some thirty years before it came to its current resting place in the Song Festival park.

During the Third Reich's occupation (1942) the garden was renamed Hindenburgpark, while on the centenary of the 1st Latvian Song Festival it was renamed Song Festival Park. It was at this time that the rectangular stone pool with seven fountains commemorating the historic song festival was built. The zigzag wall along the basin contains portraits and profiles of seven composers: Alfrēds Kalniņš, Emīls Melngailis, Jāzeps Vītols, Jānis Cimze, Jurjānu Andrejs, Emīls Dārziņš un Pēteris Barisons. The original text on the wall (“māksla pieder tautai” or “art belongs to the people”) was replaced with the text of the Latvian national anthem, Dievs, svētī  Latviju! (Baumaņu Kārlis) in the early 1990s, bringing the number of featured composers to eight.

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