Latgale of Latvia

Latgale (Eastern Latvia): Cities, Towns and Sights

Latgale

Latgale (Eastern Latvia) is the least Latvian region of Latvia. Centuries of foreign (Russian and Polish) direct rule led to a great diversity of ethnic and religious communities here.

Today, Latvians make only 46,2% of the population, as there is a hundred thousands ethnic Russians (39%) as well as smaller historic minorities of Poles (in southern Latgale, 6,9%), Belarusians (in eastern Latgale, 5%) and Jews (in Latgalian towns, 0,1%). Cities are multiethnic in all Latvia, but Latgale alone also has minority-majority villages.

Lutheran and Catholic churches at the religious center of Daugavpils
Lutheran and Catholic churches stand side-by-side in Daugavpils, also next to Russian Orthodox and Old Believer churches. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Even the Latvians of Latgale are different from those of all other regions, however, speaking a unique Latgalian dialect some consider to be a separate language altogether.

Moreover, unlike the rest of Latvia, Latgale has a Roman Catholic majority as it was influenced by Polish and Lithuanian thought. Aglona (the main Catholic pilgrimage site in Latvia) is located in Latgale, as are multiple old white Baroque churches funded by the Polish-Lithuanian nobility.

Aglona chruch, monastery and square for pilgrims
Aglona Chruch, monastery, and square for pilgrims. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Still, the region is extremely heterogeneous religiously with most towns having as many as four small old churches rather than a single large one. In addition to the Lutheran and Catholic there are also Orthodox and Old Believer ones, catering to the Russian community.

While the Russian Orthodox people are mostly Russian Imperial and Soviet settlers, the Old Believer community dates to the 18th century when they came as refugees (fleeing persecutions in Russia for their “schismatic” faith).

Daugavpils (pop. 100 000) is the largest city in Latgale. Predominantly Russian-speaking, it is famous for its military heritage with an entire 19th-century fortress surviving in a pretty good shape.

Gate of Daugavpils Fortress
Gate of Daugavpils fortress adorned with Russian emblem, inscription and czar’s name is one of many locations that show Russian influence in Latgale. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Rēzekne (pop. 30 000) is considered to be the capital of Latgale but it has been greatly altered by World War 2.

Some small towns with their glorious baroque churches and palaces (once funded by the local nobles) are of more interest. One example of such is Krāslava.

Krāslava baroque church
Krāslava baroque church. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Equally picturesque is the string of Latgalian lakes. Lubāns is the largest one while Rāzna has the largest volume and is protected as a national park. Lakeside villages have tourist camps and hotels.

Today Latgale is considered to be Latvia’s poorest region and the average age is higher as many younger people have left. Latgale’s economic backwardness is nothing new and it dates at least to the 19th-century Russian direct rule. In the late 19th century, for example, merely 50% of Latgale’s population was literate, while in the rest of Latvia the rate stood at 90% at the same time.

Lake Rāzna
Lake Rāzna, one of many Latgalian lakes. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Daugavpils

Daugavpils (pop. 93 000) is Latvia’s second largest city and the main metropolis of Latgale (Eastern Latvia).

Uniquely, ethnic Latvians make up only 20% of the population here, making the city seem distant and disloyal to many Latvians. Russian is the lingua franca of Daugavpils. While the city is ethnically diverse (Russians – 54%, Poles – 14%, Belarusians – 7%, Ukrainians – 2%) the Soviet Russification drive has ensured that even to most non-Russian locals Russian is also the native tongue.

Skyline of Daugavpils
Skyline of Daugavpils with churches of various ethnicities and denominations visible. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Daugavpils became a large city after Russian Empire has developed a massive fortress here (1810-1876) as well as laid primary Saint Petersburg-Warsaw road (1834) and railroad (1860) through the city. While the regular Downtown street grid dates to that era of rapid growth, many of the buildings are newer as the city was devastated during World War 2 and subsequent Soviet regime.

A typical straight street in Daugavpils downtown
A typical straight street in Daugavpils downtown. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Daugavpils Downtown is where the shopping, restaurants, and nightlife are concentrated, but the most iconic districts lie beyond it. These are the Fortress (Cietoksnis), which is now inhabited, and the Churches Hill area where churches of 4 Christian denominations stand side by side, signifying Daugavpils’s and Latgale’s multi-religious history. The nearby Varšavas street has some pretty villas that miraculously survived World War 2 bombings.

Daugavpils fortress entrance
Daugavpils fortress entrance. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Other parts of Daugavpils are the off-the-beaten-path suburb of Grīva beyond the river that still retains some 19th century atmosphere and the mostly Soviet and post-Soviet New Daugavpils in the east.

While Daugavpils is somewhat infamous as poor, these days it looks much better than it did a decade ago.

Loading map...

Loading

Latgale lakes and villages

Rural Latgale is one of the prettiest Latvian landscapes, famous for its lakes and multi-religious villages.

Rāzna national park was established to protect Lake Rāzna and nearby lakes. Rāzna is the 2nd largest lake in Latvia.

Lake Rāzna
Lake Rāzna, the anchor of eponymous national park. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The Latvia’s largest lake Lubans is some 50 km away. There are more picturesque lakes closer to Rāzna.

The villages and towns of the area are adorned by churches of multiple religious communities. Baroque 18th century Roman Catholic churches and monasteries are likely the most famous. Wooden Russian Orthodox and Old Believer village churches are no less romantic however.

Aglona

Aglona (pop. 1000) is considered to be the holiest site of Latvia. At its center stands an imposing white Baroque church and monastery. They are surrounded by a large open grass field that fills with Catholic pilgrims every Virgin Mary Assumption day and Pentecost. The field has numerous religiously-themed sculptures.

Aglona Basilica
Aglona Basilica. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

This pilgrimage center was established in late 18th century by local counts when Latgale was still contested by Lutherans.

The expansion of Aglona’s religious edifices is still under way. A new Christ the King hill has been completed 3 km east of the church, merging the Christian theme with 21st century neo-folk and land art. It is a massive ensemble of totem-pole-like wooden sculptures, their sizes and positions telling many stories. Trees, flowers, ponds and a chapel also help to convey them.

Christ the King hill in Aglona
A fragment of Christ the King hill in Aglona. ©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.