Latvian awaydays: Ziemeļblāzma Palace of Culture

From beers at Old Riga cafes to moonshine by Latgale lakes and the shelves of booze supermarkets along the Estonian border, there are plenty of alcohol-related reasons for visiting Latvia. But on the northern fringes of the capital, there’s an intriguing site dedicated to fighting the demon drink.

This is the Ziemeļblāzma Palace of Culture, a monument to one man’s heartfelt teetotalism. Born in Rīga in 1845, Augusts Dombrovskis had a rough childhood due to his fisherman dad hitting the sauce. So when he grew up and opened a sawmill at Vecmīlgrāvis, 15 kilometers north of the city centre, the self-educated entrepreneur was determined his workers would not fall off the wagon.

In 1903, Dombrovskis founded the temperance society “Ziemeļbāzma” (meaning “northern lights”) and donated land for a cultural center, where wholesome activities would hopefully keep temptation at bay. Alas, in 1906 the facility was burned to the ground by Cossacks who were sent by the czar to crush the revolution which had swept Latvia the previous year.

The soldiers tied Dombrovskis to a tree and forced him to watch the inferno, and he only escaped the firing squad after many locals pleaded that he was a decent citizen. But while this would have made a lesser character stick to business, Augusts doubled down on his dream. A man of many talents (he was also a poet and a violin maker), he personally designed a grand, Art Nouveau-inspired pile which, being Latvia’s first-ever reinforced concrete building, was significantly less fire prone than its predecessor.

Theatrical performances were held in the hall, the rotunda in the park echoed with choral concerts, and archery and obstacle races were all the rage at the annual children’s carnival. Dombrovskis also built homes for his workers, which came with the predictable caveat – any boozing would lead to eviction. He also paid for other public buildings in the area, like a genteel timber music school which today bears his name. It’s a five-minute walk from the palace.

Unfortunately, the fun died down after the founder’s death in 1927, and the place gradually fell into disrepair until a decade and a half ago when Riga City Council set about returning Ziemeļblāzma to its former glory, and the restored palace was reopened to the public in 2013. It hosts a variety of cultural events and is a popular conference venue.

During the last round of refurbishments, a cosmic-looking, 35-metre high observation tower was installed on the grounds, which offers spectacular views of the greater Riga area. The park is beautifully maintained and is a favorite spot for Vecmīlgrāvis residents to kick back.

Augusts Dombrovskis' grave at Ziemeļblāzma

And judging by the flowers on Augusts Dombrovskis’ grave set amongst the greenery, the patriarch is still remembered fondly. Although the fact that the café inside the house serves booze would surely earn his wrath.

Need to know

  • Take bus no. 24 from Riga city centre to the stop “Kultūras pils “Ziemeļblāzma””. There’s free parking at the park entrance. You can cycle there in about one hour.
  • Entry to the grounds is free and you can wander through the palace unless there’s a ticketed event on. The observation tower cost 1.50 euros/adult. Buy your tickets at the information office near the parking lot.
  • After the palace, check out the Mangaļsala breakwater and Vecāķi beach nearby.
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