All posts by Augustinas Žemaitis

Liv Coast (Slītere NP)

Liv Coast covers the northwestern tip of Latvia. This forested thinly populated area is notable for its animals and pristine nature, organized into a Slītere National Park.

However it is arguably even more famous for its indigenous population, the Livs (Livonians). They used to speak a language very different from Latvian. Unfortunately, assimilation made the language to disappear (the final native speaker died in 2013), but the remaining Livs still cling onto their heritage (a Liv community home stands in Mazirbe village). Government policy discourages settlement of non-Livs in the area as well as opening tourist institutions, hoping that by limiting outsider influence more of the Liv culture could be saved (although this policy may have came too late).

Liv community house in Mazribe, one of historic Liv villages, opened in 1938, is one of the few remaining Liv institutions
Liv community house in Mazribe, opened in 1938, is among the the few remaining Liv institutions. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The line of Liv villages ends in the Cape of Kolka. It is a popular location for camping and fishing. It is also interesting to stand at the cape and look back at two very different coastlines: one with a large beach on the northern bank and a constantly eroded one at the western bank (more and more trees fall into the sea every year). Parking near Kolka cape is paid and somewhat expensive, however.

Trees getting washed as the sea slowly erodes the shoreline near Cape of Kolka
Trees getting washed as the sea slowly erodes the shoreline near Cape of Kolka. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

New Year

New Year in Latvia is one of the key annual festivals.

The night between December 31st and January 1st competes for the status of the most important year of the night with Christmas.

Firework displays and celebrations where a large number of friends gather together are a typical way to “meet the New Year”. On December 31st evening beforehand various concerts and gigs are offered.

While Latvia is secular, some 20% of population belong to religious minorities that follow Julian calendar rather than Gregorian one. To them New Year begins on January 14th. They are mostly ethnic Russians and thus the date is known as the “Russian New Year”. While it has no state recognition, it is popular among Russians.

Talsi town

Talsi (pop. 11 000) is a town in Courland famous for its location on nine hills that surround two lakes. The lakes reflect old homes and are adorned by a fountain in summer, while the hills provide great vantage points (although most are covered by trees in summer).

Old Town of Talsi
Old Town of Talsi resplending in a lake with the Lutheran church above. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The Old Town has many old buildings. Liela street is the old main street. The crude-looking Lutheran church (1567) stands on a nearby hill providing the pinnacle for Talsi townscape. It once served as the heart of the town.

Talsi Main street
Liela street, the old high street of Talsi. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The current main streets are Krišjāņa Valdemāra and Brīvības which are wider than Liela but still historic.

Further from the center Firck Palace, built by Baron von Firck (one of the German nobles who effectively ruled Courland well into 20th century) in 1883 now houses Talsi regional museum. Open-air scene for concerts is nearby.

Manor of Talsi
Firck Palace in Talsi. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.


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.

Latvian Song Festivals

Latvian song festival (also Song and dance festival) is a rather breathtaking event, held every 5 years, when some 30 thousand “singers” (typically, regular people) sing various Latvian songs together.

To the Latvians, the Song Festival is more than a festival, and more like a major foundation of their nation. That’s because it was the songs and such festivals that launched the Latvian national revival in the second half of 19th century. Having learned about their folk songs, Latvians ceased to regard their own culture as inferior to the cultures of larger nations (German, Russian, Polish) and demanded an equal status to it.

Latvian sogng festival taking place in 1931
Latvian song festival taking place in 1931.

Songs also had an important role in the independence restoration of the Baltic States in 1990. Therefore, while such Song Festivals used to be common in Europe in the 19th century, Baltic States are the only place where they acquired a cult status and continue to this day, and the Latvian event is one of the largest.

Initially a 19th-century grassroots movement, the Song Festivals have been transformed into a government-supported multi-day extravaganza by the independent Latvia. They were recognized as an intangible world heritage by UNESCO. In addition to the “main festivals”, there are various smaller song festivals held, for example, by Latvian diaspora communities.

The recent and upcoming “main” Latvian Song Festivals were or will be held in 2008, 2013, 2018, 2023, 2027.

Song festival mural in Riga
Song festival mural in Riga. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Latvian fashion

The mainstream attire of urban Latvians increasingly replicates that of the Western Europe and it is acquired in the same franchises (opened ~2000s).

The richest go to Milan and Paris to shop, while the small town “elite” visits main cities and famous local designers. The less well off shop at marketplaces and used clothing stores (where a good suit may be bought for less than 1 Euro if you know when to visit).

Seasonal clothing in Latvia

Major summer/winter temperature differences mean that Latvian street fashion is highly seasonal.

Summer clothing can be skimpy but it should still cover upper thighs and torso. Anything less than that is acceptable only for swimming and sunbathing. Being naked/topless is only common in nudist beaches/saunas, some of which are gender-segregated.

Summer attire in Latvia
Summer attire in Latvia. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Spring/Autumn clothing
is warmer, hands and face remaining the sole uncovered portions of the skin.

During wintertime Latvians throw in many layers of clothes to combat the frost: furs, scarfs, gloves, caps, socks… Most of these warmest clothes are removed while in heated interiors (at some institutions this is even mandatory), showing the usual Spring/Autumn clothing underneath.

Women clothed for a cold winter (-10 C) in Riga
Women clothed for a rather cold winter day (-10 C) in Riga. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Main clothing subcultures in Latvia

Parallel to the Western fashion trends Latvia has a more glitzy female fashion (more colors, shorter skirts, higher heels, more make-up), somewhat more popular in smaller towns and among the ethnic minorities. It dates to the 1990s when people were hungry for colors, glitz and less conservativeness (denied to them for decades by the Soviet regime).

Autumn/warm winter clothing in Latvia
Autumn/warm winter clothing in Latvia. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

People considering themselves to be more fashionable (i.e. imitating the West more closely) tend to denounce such “over-the-top” clothing. Male counterparts of such style typically emphasize their masculinity by extensive use of sportswear, even for a simple walk or a night out (prestigious nightclubs ban this). Muscles and cars are also parts of their image.

Other parts of Latvian youth have embraced Western subcultures since the 1990s, each with its own clothing aesthetics, preferred musical styles, and festivals. They include goths, hippies, punks, “metallists”, “street culture” (hip hop), skinheads, ultras and LGBT.

Fashion under the Soviet occupation

Modern glitz likely would have not become so popular if not the decades of clothing limitations under the Soviet occupation (1945-1990). Make-up for female school students and long hair for males used to be banned, for example.

Furthermore, there used to be a constant shortage of goods, including good clothes. There have been merely a few designs readily available (all conservative) – therefore most people of the same age dressed similarly. To avoid this most women used to knit and sew extensively well until the 1990s. Additionally, the few people privileged enough to be allowed abroad (especially to the non-communist states) used to shop there for their relatives (or buy goods for illegal resale).

Older women may still dress in Soviet style-clothes or knit/sew but these practices are much less common after the advent of independent Latvia and the free market.

Formal vs. informal clothing in Latvia

Under the Soviet occupation formal attire was required on many occasions, e.g. in theaters and restaurants, for students during all exams. New generations have largely adopted Western practices and there are less suits in streets. In fact, strict dress codes are less common in Latvia today than in the West.

Guests at a wedding, where formal attire prevails
Guests at a wedding, where formal attire prevails. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Folk costume is acceptable as formal attire under the Latvian etiquette. However, today its usage is limited to folk singing and similar events. Prior to the 20th century, the folk costumes were used by most Latvian peasants; they are characterized by white shirt under a colorful jacket (exact patterns depending on region). Women wear long patterned skirts (shorter for folk dances), men use trousers. Women also cover their hair with scarfs.

Uniforms are uncommon: few schools have them and many jobs that tend to be uniformed elsewhere (e.g. bus driver) allow workers to dress freely.

Shopping in Latvia

Modern shopping in Latvia is centered around shopping malls, which consists of various shops, restaurants and places for entertainment (e.g. cinemas).

The larger the city, the more large shopping malls it has. The largest ones are in Riga. These may be used to spend an entire day, whereas the smaller city malls are typically more limited in size.

While many malls are located in suburbs, some are also located in downtowns where they replaced old Soviet buildings.

A typical medium-sized mall in Riga
A typical medium-sized mall in Riga. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Towns and many city districts lack malls, but they have supermarkets which are large shops that offer various goods and groceries. These belong to several major chains, most of them foreign: e.g. “Maxima” (Lithuanian), “Rimi” (Norwegian), “Prisma” (Finnish). “Narvessen” (Norwegian) is a chain of convenience stores which have longer working hours at an expense of a smaller size and somewhat higher prices.

More hectic places to shop are various bazaar-like marketplaces, often opened in mornings or just during some days. These are filled with small-scale businessmen, kiosks, and stalls.

During the festivals, makeshift new temporary marketplaces get constructed (e.g. the Christmas market in Riga).

Christmas market in Riga
Christmas market in Riga. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Skrunda-2 Soviet ghost town

Skrunda-2 is an abandoned Soviet military town which hosted ~5000 inhabitants. It is one of the most easily accessible abandoned towns in the world.

Skrunda-2 main street
Overgrown main path of Skrunda-2, surrounded by Soviet apartment blocks of 1960s. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

During the Cold War Skrunda-2 it served a radar base to track Western space communication and possible nuclear missile launches.

While the radars themselves have been destroyed as Russian soldiers retreated in 1998, the former residential buildings, school, water tower, officer’s Club and other installations remain.

Skrunda-2 residential building interior
Ransacked interior of residential building with interiors of flats visible. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The ability to access Skrunda-2 tends to change almost every yeat. Initially after the closure, Skrunda-2 used to be guarded (although the rampant corruption and vast area meant there were increasing numbers of urban explorers who still managed to gain access). Later it became unguarded and, even though technically prohibited to enter, it attracted even more tourists, up to ~50-100 people at any given time every summer weekend. At 2016, it became officially legal to enter, but a fee had to be paid at the entrance. At ~2018 the entrance was formally banned once again and, according to the recent reports, Skrunda-2 is now inaccessible.

Unfortunately, vandals have came together with visitors, leaving no windows in Skrunda-2 intact
Unfortunately, vandals have came together with visitors, leaving no windows in Skrunda-2 intact. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

What makes Skrunda-2 especially appealing is the fact that all the doors are left open, allowing full exploration (including basements, roofs, etc.). While anything of value has been removed (e.g. metal radiators), many small mementos of the life that used to go on there remain (e.g. somebody’s collection of bubble gum stickers). While the town was within Latvia it was mainly Russian, as evidenced in Russian-only inscriptions and newspapers.

It is advisable to walk carefully as there may be some open shafts.

Skrunda officers club
Partly burned out Skrunda-2 officer’s Club with Soviet five-pointed star decor. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Getting to and around Jūrmala

Jūrmala is easily accessible from Riga by a six lane highway. However, this highway is paid in summer. After paying Jūrmala entry fee one may in theory park freely there, but in practice those free parking places are often filled with cars in summer weekends.

An alternative is going to Jūrmala the traditional way – by train. It takes from 20 to 40 minutes from Riga depending on at which of many Jūrmala train stops you will exit. While the trains stop at every station, some of them turn around earlier than the Western reaches of Jūrmala so if you go somewhere beyond the center see if your train goes there. The trains are fequent (at least 1 in 30 minutes ar Central Jūrmala, save for nights) and may also be used for local transportation. However, vans also traverse Jūrmala.

A train arrives to Dubulti station in Jūrmala. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Jūrmala is narrow, so basically everything revolves around rail and the main street. However, Jūrmala is unusually long for a city with size, a whooping 31 km in length, making walking and even biking often impractical (if the goal is beyond district). Bike rent, is, however, readily available.

E.g. distance from Majori to Ķemeri spa is 21 km, and from Majori to the skansen at Lielupe – 9 km.

Kandava town

Kandava (pop. 4000) is a small town in Eastern Courland, famous for surviving the wars almost intact.

Market square of Kandava
Market square of Kandava. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

It offers a glimpse of how a pre-WW1 Latvian town looked like. The main market square is surrounded by old buildings: residential, commercial and an old fire fighter depot. A couple of nearby streets are equally old.

Firefighters depot in the Market square
Firefighters depot in the Market square. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Three religions have their houses of worship in Kandava: Lutheran hilltop church, Roman Catholic and Jewish (the Catholic church is however new while the synagogue is closed).

As it was common in the 19th century, the town has a ruined Livonian Order Castle on top of one of its hills. It has been neither completely dismantled for building material, nor rebuilt as happened elsewhere. A model located at the foothill helps re-imagining how the castle looked like when intact.

A model of Kandava Castle under the hill where the ruins of the original one remain
A model of Kandava Castle under the hill where the ruins of the original one remain. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Another draw to Kandava is its 1873 stone bridge, the oldest in Latvia.

Getting to Riga

Riga is the hub of Latvia. Therefore, it is always easy to get from Riga to anywhere in Latvia, and your trip to Latvia will most likely start and end in Riga.

Railway is the primary public transportation from Riga to the nearby cities and towns (Jūrmala, Jelgava, Sigulda, Lower Daugava valley). It may also be used to go to the Eastern Latvia (e.g. Daugavpils) and further east into Russia.

Railway access to Riga
Railway access to Riga. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

For such long-distance routes, however, air traffic has partly outcompeted railways. Riga International Airport is the largest in the Baltic States, offering convenient connections both eastwards and westwards. There are no domestic flights, however, as Riga is now effectively Latvia’s only passenger airport.

Buses are the primary form of transportation to go from Riga to Western Latvia (e.g. Liepaja, Ventspils) where trains are non-existent or few and far between. They are also used to go the other Baltic capitals (there are no train routes), although here the direct flights provide a good, although more expensive, alternative. International buses and flights are often priced the same way – the earlier you buy, the cheaper you may buy a ticket.

If you are going to Riga from the other side of the Baltic sea, you may also choose ferries which transport both passengers and cars from Germany and Sweden.

Ferry to Riga
Ferry to Riga. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Cinevilla movie studio

Cinevilla, nicknamed “Latvian Hollywood”, is the sole movie studio backlot in the Baltic States. It is located 20 km west of Jūrmala.

The original “Cinevilla town” is a collection of World War 1 era building facades, bridges over “Daugava river” (actually a grassland), old trains and cobbled streets. Everything was built to film “Defenders of Riga” (2007), the most expensive Latvian movie ever.

Old Latvian street in Cinevilla
Old Latvian street in Cinevilla. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

After filming ended the area opened as a kind of laid-back theme park with temporary art exhibits, a cafe and various additional forms of pre-ordered entertainment among the fake buildings.

Furthermore, Cinevilla is continuously expanded as props for new Latvian films are being built. More often than not these “props” are actually real buildings, built with the intention to be reused as wedding halls, hotels and otherwise.

Currently Cinevilla also hosts a farmstead, old Soviet cars (which may be brought in as props should a director need them), a church like ones in Latvian villages and more.

Movie costumes for rent in Cinevilla
Movie costumes for rent. ©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.

Gulbene-Alūksne area

Gulbene-Alūksne area is a large and rather pristine zone in northeastern Latvia, which is pretty far from much else (by Latvian standards) but nevertheless tends to attract visitors.

Among the main attractions of the area is its palaces, built by German elite of the 19th century Russian-ruled Latvia. One (partly ruined) stands in Gulbene itself.

Ruined Gulbene Palace
Ruined Gulbene Palace. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The area’s prettiest palace is located Stameriena village. Besides it, the village is also famous for its 1904 neo-classical Russian Orthodox church, picturesqually raising above the local lake.

Stameriena Palace
Stameriena Palace. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

In general, Lakes are another draw to the area in summer. Alūksne town north of Gulbene is located next to a large lake that has castle ruins in its island.

Stameriena Orthodox church near a lake
Stameriena Orthodox church near a lake. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The most atmospheric way to go to Alūksne from Gulbene is by the local narrow gauge railway (Bānītis). It is the last of many such local railways that once traversed the Latvian countryside. Its Cold War-era diesel locomotives became a such a symbol of Gulbene and Alūksne towns that official Latvia’s tourist guides call the entire region to be a “narrow-gauge railroad land”.

Narrow gauge train about to leave Gulbene
Narrow gauge train about to leave Gulbene. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Salaspils and Lower Daugava

Lower Daugava valley is effectively a long suburb of Riga. Unlike in the rest of Latvia, there are few undeveloped places here as the distances between towns are short and people commute to Riga daily. Even Daugava itself seems artificial, as it has been dammed to form two large reservoirs. It’s easy to forget that, but the place is very historic as Daugava was always an important corridor for both trade and warfare.

People on the shore of Riga HES reserovoir at Ikškile.
People on the shore of Riga HES reserovoir at Ikškile. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.


Closest to Riga Salaspils is mostly known for its military history. It was a location of a massive Salaspils (Kirholm) battle as Poland-Lithuania fought Sweden to determine who would control Riga and thus Latvia (1605).

Newer history is better visible, as a prison camp for Soviet soldiers was established in the local forest by Nazi Germany. After the end of World War 2, the by then destroyed camp became a major propaganda location. A massive monument was built over it, combining respect for those dead with the glorification of communism. After independence, the monument became neglected, while claims of tens of thousands dead in the camp turned out to be untrue. Nevertheless, up to several thousand really died, and the monument is the best surviving example of monumental Soviet propaganda in Latvia.

Part of Salaspils memorial.
Part of Salaspils memorial. One of the men has his arms in the ‘Rot Front’ sign, a interwar German communist analogue of ‘Sieg Heil’. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

In the Daugava island near Salaspils, a Daugava museum is open in Dole manor. However, it lacks non-Latvian explanations.

Dole Manor.
Dole Manor. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Beyond Salaspils

Most attractions beyond Salaspils are rather low-key. Salaspils and Ikškile upriver both have very old churches from the era when Latvia was undergoing Christianization. Ogre has some old buildings in the main street. Ķegums hosts a small hill full of crosses built after visions for a local woman (it is customary to leave own crosses there).

Lielvarde, a mythological home of Latvian hero Lāčplēsis, has a wooden Uldevens castle. No authentic wooden Latvian castles survived so Uldevens is a modern reconstruction done by enthusiasts. The location is fictional (true castles stood on hilltops) and internal buildings inspired by different regions of Latvia. Nevertheless, the pre-crusader lifestyle is somewhat presented and a rickety-looking castle is perhaps a more authentic presentation of Medieval era than romanticized reconstructions in images. However, nobody speaks English there and the inscriptions are Latvian-only.

Uldevens castle in Lielvarde.
Uldevens castle in Lielvarde. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

A road further on from Lielvarde continues to Koknese.

Northeastern shore of Latvia

Northeast of Riga lies the long-yet-less-popularized seashore of Latvia that seems miles away in popularity from Jūrmala. If you will drive from Riga to Tallinn or back, you will constantly follow this coast, sometimes able to see the sea from the road.

The towns en-route serve both as low-scale resorts and as motorist stops.

The most famous among them is Saulkrasti, which is popular because of its high sea shores offering pretty views into the sea and the river that enters it at the location. A pedestrian boardwalk is available. Saulkrasti is the last town reachable from Riga by train.

The sandy beach of Saulkrasti looking from a high dune
The sandy beach of Saulkrasti looking from a high dune. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Another possible stop is Salacgrīva close to the Estonian border. It has been made famous by a unique form of lamprey fishing, whereby local fishermen use purposefully-built rickety communal wooden bridges over the local river to take turns to lay down their nets.

En-route between Saulkrasti and Salacgrīva there is a nice sport where the road comes close to a beach and you could thus leave your car next to it. That beach is popular with kite-surfers.

The fishing bridge of Salacgrīva
The lamprey fishing bridge at Salacgrīva. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Palaces of Western Semigallia

Palaces of Western Semigallia are palaces of the 19th century mostly German nobility. A long time of peace allowed them to construct especially elaborate edifices.

Jaunpils Palace
Jaunpils Palace. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The most famous among these palaces are those of Jaunpils (Neuenburg, 1906), Mežotne (Mesothen, 1802) Jaunmokas (Neu-Mocken, 1901), Šlokenbeka (Medieval castle repurposed in late 18th century).

Jaunmokas Palace
Jaunmokas Palace. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Unfortunately, the palaces lost their interiors during the Soviet occupation (1940-1990). Pretty exteriors and courtyards are still nice to view however. Currently the castles are used for unrelated museums (that of roads in Šlokenbeka and that of forests in Jaunmokas) or as hotels (Jaunpils and Mežotne).

Šlokenbeka Palace near Tukums
Šlokenbeka Palace near Tukums. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.


Grobiņa is a suburb of Liepāja, accessible by city bus.

It has the Liepāja’s agglomeration sole surviving Medieval castle, built in 1253 by the Order of Livonian Knights. It is relatively small and now ruined, but can be picturesque.

Grobiņa castle remains
Grobiņa castle remains. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Grobiņa is also famous for its Viking-era graves of Scandinavians who disembarked on Baltic’s Eastern shore. One would have to be interested in prehistory and archaeology to be able to enjoy them however.

History of Daugavpils

Daugavpils, also known as Dinaburg (German), Dvinsk (Russian) and Daugpilis (Lithuanian) had a turbulent history of rapid population growths and declines. All the major increases took place under foreign regimes due to non-Latvian newcomers, while each regime change would have sent the population down as people of ethnicities associated with the previous regime would leave for their homelands.

13th-century crusader castle near Daugava river that gave the city its name (‘Daugavpils’ means ‘Daugava castle’). Nothing remains of it however as the city has been built twice over it.

Russian Imperial Daugavpils and its end (1810-1944)

The first growth of Daugavpils took place under Russian Imperial regime when the Empire constructed a fortress here (1810-1878) while businessmen established industry in what was a major rail junction on Saint Petersburg-Warsaw line (laid in 1860).

Daugavpils fortress as seen in a World War 1 reconnaissance photo.

The city increased in size from 3000 in 1825 to 113000 in 1914 mainly because of migrants from the rest of Russian Empire. Many were Russians but even more were Jews as Daugavpils was one of the few Imperial cities where Jews were permitted to freely settle. As such, it has gained a Jewish plurality (47%).

Massive 19th-century train station of Daugavpils that triggered the growth of the city as an industrial center. The station building has been since replaced by a Soviet one

By 1897 merely 2% of locals were ethnic Latvians, surpassed also by Russian settlers (30%) and Poles (16%) who came from Latgalian towns (where they had strong communities since the area was ruled by Poland-Lithuania in 16th-18th centuries). Daugavpils downtown was built up with red brick buildings around straight streets, while each religious community erected its own temples, creating an iconic “Churches hill” where prayers would have resounded in a multitude of languages every day. Each ethnicity even had its own name for the city: to Russians, it was Dvinsk, to Jews – Dineburg.

Daugavpils religious centre in 1912
Daugavpils religious center (Churches hill) pictured by Russian Empire’s color photographer Prokudin-Gorskii in 1912, several years before Latvian independence.

After World War 1 and Latvian independence (1918), many non-Latvian inhabitants have left Daugavpils and its population declined to 51000 in 1935. Daugavpils lost the title of Latvia’s second largest city to Liepāja. Ethnic Latvians now made a plurality (34%), but the city continued to be shared by four main ethnic groups (25% Jews, 20% Russians, 18% Poles).

A new Old Believer church under construction in 1928, showing that minority religious and cultural life continued to thrive throughout the Latvian independence era

As a hub of Eastern Latvia, Daugavpils received a fair share of development, such as the massive Unity House with halls for theater and concerts.

One of many halls in Unity House built in the 1930s to be the center of Daugavpils culture

Perhaps Daugavpils would have been slowly transformed into a Latvian city but that was not to be. World War 2 occupations proved to be a major upheaval that put a final nail in the coffin of that 19th-century city, destroying the majority of its buildings and people. It is often claimed that by late 1940s merely 20000 people remained in the city, wiping out the population growth of past 70 years.

World War 2 destruction of Daugavpils
World War 2 destruction of Daugavpils.

Soviet Daugavpils and its end (1944-)

In the place of old Daugavpils Soviets essentially constructed a new city after 1944. Historic Downtown buildings were often replaced by Soviet ones (Stalinist grandeur in the 1950s, shabby edifices later). Many former districts were turned into empty fields with propaganda sculptures.

Soviets have also sent in thousands of settlers from Russia to repopulate Daugavpils after World War 2, launching the second major period of population growth. By 1959 Daugavpils had 65000 inhabitants. For the first time in its urban history, it had a single majority ethnicity: Russians (55,9%). Latvians now made just 13,2% of locals, Jews – merely 3,4%, both declines a testament to World War 2 genocides.

Daugavpils residents building a tram line by hand in 1947. Trams were to become the backbone of public transport in Soviet Daugavpils

While the Polish community seemingly remained strong (18,4%) such strength was superficial. Like all the ethnic minorities of Soviet Latvia (Jews, Ukrainians, Belarusians), Poles of Daugavpils were slowly Russified. There was close to no media, education, culture or entertainment available in any language besides Russian, so parents ceased to teach their children the “useless” ethnic languages. By 1989 only about a quarter of these minorities still spoke “their own” languages, most of them elderly.

As such, the Soviet Daugavpils (unlike the Russian Imperial Daugavpils before it) was not really a multicultural city. Rather, it became a city of a single (Russian) language and arguably a single religion (atheism).

Hotel Latvija and Lenin sculpture in Daugavpils
A new but already shabby Soviet hotel in Daugavpils (1975) and Lenin sculpture.

So, Daugavpils was a utopia to Russian communists: a location where a single Soviet nation was almost born. But it was also a dystopia to most Latvians: a reminder of what all Latvia could become, should the Soviet occupation and state-sponsored Russian immigration continue.

These fears helped reignite the pro-independence movement in the late 1980s. While Daugavpils did not participate in it that actively, many of its Russians and Poles were also fed up with the economically backward militarist Soviet regime, coming to believe that maybe independent democratic Latvia would do better. In 1991 referendum on Latvia’s independence thus only a quarter of Daugavpils residents have actually voted “Against”.

Many of those likely left Daugavpils soon afterward, as the city population declined from its peak of 125000 in 1989 to 115000 in 2000.

However, unlike elsewhere in Latvia, Russians retained the majority (54%) and the city remained Russian-speaking, many of its inhabitants refusing to learn Latvian. In independent Latvia where Latvian slowly replaced Russian as lingua franca, this became a hindrance. In addition to direct disadvantages, the Soviet settlers who spoke no Latvian received no citizenship, rendering a third of Daugavpils inhabitants stateless.

A bilingual advert for Latvian Speedway championship in Daugavpils, 2003. World championship races were also organized in the city.

Perhaps due to all this Daugavpils became visibly poorer than other Latvian cities in the 1990s and early 2000s, its iconic fortress turned into a kind of tamed slum for the poor people. In the mid-2000s however, as Latvia’s spectacular growth increasingly went beyond Riga, Daugavpils also received modern malls and downtown renovations.

Daugavpils fortress (mark Rotho art museum) undergoing renovation in 2012
Daugavpils fortress undergoing renovation in 2012 (building on the left later became Mark Rothko art museum). ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Still, the non-Latvians of Daugavpils grew increasingly disillusioned with independent Latvia, while ethnic Latvians increasingly saw Daugavpils as disloyal. Both facts were epitomized in two referendums when Daugavpils became the sole large Latvia’s city to vote against European Union membership (2003) and for an official status to the Russian language (2012). To many ethnic Latvians this (especially the 2012 proposition) amounted to treason, an attempt to “turn back the time” and “turn Latvia towards Russia”. For the Russian-speaking population of Daugavpils however, modern post-Soviet Russia may often seem to be a much more understandable and culturally acceptable place than either Latvia or the European Union.

Russian graffitti 'USSR' (Soviet Union) and 'LSSR' in 2015 Daugavpils.
Russian graffiti meaning ‘USSR’ (Soviet Union) and ‘LSSR’ (Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic) in 2015 Daugavpils. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

History of Jūrmala

Jūrmala, the Riga’s Seaside (1870-1918)

Jūrmala was a string of fishing villages well into 19th century. While some people would come here from Riga already in the 18th century, 25 km distance was too big for regular traffic in the era of horses and carriages.

Steam trains arrive at Edinburgh station (now Dzintari).

All that changed after the railway line from Riga to Tukums was completed in 1877. Each village received its own station where every warm summer day many holidaymakers from Riga would disembark, heading for the beaches. The villages closer to Riga then became known as “Rigas Jūrmala”, which means “Riga’s Seaside” in Latvian.

Maiori beach before World War 1 with chairs for shade and a pier.

First major seaside buildings for tourists have been built, such as the Marienbade spa. The atmosphere of Jūrmala was more conservative then, with men and women swimming at separate hours until the 1890s, when the town became the first in Russian Empire to end segregated swimming.

Women in gowns stroll at Jūrmala beach, ~1900.

Jūrmala expanded swiftly, with new straight streets laid amidst trees, all lined up by impressively decorated towered villas (mostly wooden) owned by the Riga’s elite (mainly ethnic Germans) as their “summer homes”. Small churches of various denominations, hotels, and restaurants were also built to cater for the tourists. The number of local inhabitants increased rapidly from 2000 in 1897 to 11000 in 1925.

Late 19th century Jūrmala beaches offered many possibilities for more ‘graceful’ or ‘discrete’ swimming, among them such swimming cabins – people would remain inside them as horses would drag them into the sea.

Meanwhile, Ķemeri was not considered part of Riga’s Jūrmala (it was both too far from Riga and the coast), but it developed a tourist industry of its own, based around its mineral springs. In the 19th century, every nation developed such resorts as the craze of belief in impressive healing powers of mineral waters swept across Europe.

Main Jomas street of Jūrmala in pre-WW1 era

Jūrmala, the Interwar Latvia’s top resort (1918-1940)

After Latvia became independent in 1918 Jūrmala became its top resort. The government attempted to promote the area abroad as the “Baltic Riviera” with some success.

A map of Jūrmala on an English brochure for foreign tourists, 1930s.

Ķemeri received a massive spa, one of the biggest interwar Latvia’s building projects. Dzintari concert hall has been built in 1936, becoming the hub of summer concerts ever since. Latvian names have been adopted for resorts that had German ones: Edinburg became Dzintari, Karlsbade became Melluži.

Ķemeri spa soon after it had been constructed in 1938.

The population stood at 13000 in 1935 and 86% were ethnic Latvians.

Jūrmala, the Soviet Union’s Baltic Riviera (1940-1990)

After Latvia was occupied by the Soviet Union in 1940 many pretty villas and hotels were nationalized. Some were demolished, giving way to massive concrete sanitariums and hotels, but much of the “Old Jūrmala” remained and the city retained its charm. The numbers of tourists became larger than ever. The old “elite” atmosphere disappeared together with beach recliners, umbrellas, swimming cabins and much else. A Soviet beach was about squeezing in with your own mat for sunbathing, and this alone was no easy deal in unbelievably crowded summer weekends.

People rushing for a reopened Riga-Jūrmala train line in the 1950s
People rushing for a reopened Riga-Jūrmala train line in the 1950s. The train, like much in Jūrmala, was covered in Soviet symbols and more Russian than Latvian signs.

In 1959 the string of “villages” (including Ķemeri) was officially unified as Jūrmala city, becoming the Baltic Sea’s largest resort. “Riga” was dropped from its name, as the “Seaside” was not just Riga’s, but also entire Latvia’s or even Soviet Union’s. Despite its size, Soviet Union lacked year-round tropical resorts, so Jūrmala, imbibed in a more Western-feeling Latvian culture, became popular among Russians and Belarusians as well (260000 spent their holidays there in 1980). The local population was exploding as the Soviet Union would send in thousands of mostly Russian permanent inhabitants. Jūrmala had 14000 people in 1935, 38000 in 1959, 61000 in 1989. Latvian share declined from 86% in 1939 to 44% by 1989, nearly surpassed by Russians (42%).

Extremely crowded Jūrmala beach with restaurant ‘Jūras Perle’ visible on the right, 1970. Unlike most Soviet buildings in Jūrmala ‘Jūras Perle’ looked gracefully rather than megalomaniac. However, it too became unneeded after independence and was torn down.

Modern Jūrmala in free Latvia (1990-)

After Latvia restored its independence in 1990 the economic transition back to capitalism has changed the face of Jūrmala once again. New small private hotels and restaurants sprung up, often outcompeting the massive Soviet edifices, which in turn became abandoned. Tourism from the East declined both due to a difficult economic situation there and the visa regime. At the same time, Latvians were now allowed to spend holidays abroad – and the warm climate of Egypt or Turkey made it easy for these destinations to outcompete Jūrmala.

By the 2000s, however, Jūrmala regained some of what it had lost. While Latvians would continue to spend their holiday weeks abroad, many would visit Jūrmala on summer weekends. Tourists from ex-Soviet countries slowly returned, driven both by nostalgia, few cultural/linguistic barriers (Russian is still the most common second language) and Latvia’s economic miracle that made Jūrmala feel more advanced than whatever was available in Russia or Ukraine. In order to attract “Eastern tourists”, Jūrmala also hosted regular events such as the “New Wave” Russian pop music festival (2001-2014). In 2006 the city attracted 125000 longer-term holidaymakers.

Jury votes on ‘New Wave’ songs during the 2014 contest (a screenshot of Ukrainian TV broadcast).

Furthermore, Jūrmala firmly achieved the role of Riga’s suburb. Owning a car ceased to be a luxury and became a norm in Latvia, allowing many Rigans to move to Jūrmala and commute to downtown every day. This became especially popular among the middle class and the rich. Some have acquired dilapidated opulent buildings of 19th century Baltic Germans and brought them to new life, others built modern private edifices. Because of this trend, the population of Jūrmala did not fall as much as that of Riga itself, standing at 56 000 in 2011. Rigans moving to suburbs replaced some Russians who have left Latvia after independence (Russian share declined to 37% in 2000 with Latvian share increasing to 50%)

After Latvia joined the European Union in 2004 it began giving right of abode to everybody who owned an expensive real estate in Latvia. As the right of abode automatically allowed visa-free travel within the European Union, many rich Russians used up the opportunity to buy second homes in Jūrmala, thereby gaining both a place for summer vacations and a right to freely travel to Europe. This practice encouraged construction boom in Jūrmala and real estate prices skyrocketed.