We all got off the tram at the last stop in an empty part of the city after we had purchased breakfast items at a local supermarket. We followed our leader down a path and through a tunnel. The fortress was not immediately evident.
Then we came to another tunnel that turned out to be the entrance to the mighty citadel on the banks of the Daugava River. If our walk was an indication, the wall seemed to be about 100 feet thick. It is surrounded by a moat, and, once inside the walls, there is a feeling of impregnability. The entire fortress is actually city property, so it is open to the public. You can just go any time and walk around all these historical buildings. Our destination was the main Arsenal building where the Rothko art center is located.
The main building is yellow and looks and feels a lot like the castle at Rundale. It is wide with a beautiful courtyard. Our hotel rooms were located in one wing of this enormous building. It felt good to check in and sleep. I was completely exhausted.
Through our window, we could see the statue of the Ghost Horse lit up in the night. It was mysterious and hauntingly beautiful.
The next morning began with a traditional Latvian-style breakfast. Everyone brought their provisions to the small kitchen area and we sat together talking and eating. I wish I spoke and understood more Latvian. This is a constant struggle. At least most of the people spoke some English, but it wasn’t the same.
After breakfast, we had an hour or so until the tram arrived to explore the grounds and see the exhibits at the Mark Rothko Center. Rita and I walked to the ghost horse and were impressed by its size and stature. Then we walked to the top of the wall where there are no guardrails or warning signs. Anyone could just fall down into the moat.
She posed by a cannon, and I took some pictures of the buildings.
Then we had a quick cup of coffee at the fancy little cafe, and joined everyone else at the museum.
Here we were in Daugavpils, Latvia at a center for art dedicated to a native son. Rothko and his family left Daugavpils before it was even Daugavpils and before Latvia was even Latvia. He was ten years old or so when his family went to New York in 1913 to escape the possible conscription into the Russian army.
I didn’t know much about Rothko other than I liked his paintings of colorful stripes and his earlier works that have more of a form to them. The museum was disappointing at first with some slide shows, histories, and reprints, but no actual Rothko originals. It wasn’t until the end of the hallway when you get to the room where the “real” art is. The room is manned by a guard and is climate controlled. Rita felt like it was too humid for an art gallery. They had a loud machine running in the corner which ruined the ambiance a bit for me. In all, there are five original works in the gallery ranging from an early 1936 painting of a railway station to his later work in 1969 or so of a mostly navy blue canvas that feels a bit oppressive. It wasn’t until after I left the museum that I read about his suicide. He seemed like a troubled person who was able to transmit emotion directly onto canvas, even through seemingly simple designs.
One of my students kind of made fun of his work by asking how someone could pay upwards of $7 million for stripes. I am not defending the price people will pay for famous works, but his paintings do have some kind of emotional impact. Even though they look simple, they are complicated and he worked hard to make them. They aren’t as simple as they appear. In a way, he reminds me of Jackson Pollack. I get that same unexplainable emotion when looking at his works. It is hard to put it into words. I am no art critic; I just know that these canvases make me feel.
We didn’t have much time to really explore the other temporary exhibits, but they had a similar tone. They were very colorful, large, abstract, and expressive. We were particularly impressed with the fabric art with its incredibly intricate details and subtle beauty. However, Rita objected to owning one because all the little ridges and surfaces would collect dust. I concur.
After the Rothko Center, we took a tram back into town. The Latvians all went to see a Russian play, and I gave my ticket to Baiba because I didn’t think I would get much out of the show anyway, and she had forgotten to get one. Instead of attending the play, I sat at a coffee shop editing some writing, and then I had lunch at a cozy restaurant called Art Hub.
Rita met me after the play and had an amazing looking bowl of fish chowder. This is the first chowder that I have seen in Latvia, so that was exciting.
We finished our tour of Daugavpils at Sokoladna, a coffee shop with an incredible selection of desserts.
When we got to the train station, it was packed. The ticket line was long, and the train was leaving soon. We made the train, and it was crowded, but it was still a pleasant, effortless drive. I was able to sleep a little.
Some more photos:
I would love to see some historical reenactments at the Daugava Fortress. Apparently, back 1812 or so, Napoleon’s army was pushed back by Russian troops, and it wasn’t even completely finished yet! Imagine seeing French soldiers marching toward the fortress with cannons blazing and Russian troops holding the line? Wouldn’t that be spectacular? On my tram ride this morning, I was thinking about how expensive these reenactments must be and how Americans have so much disposable income to fund all of these hobbies and interests. We may not be a practical people, but we come up with inventive things to do with our time and money!
For those of you who don’t know, Daugavpils is Latvia’s second largest city and is sometimes thought of as the most Russian city in Latvia. According to Wikipedia, it is over 50% Russian. As I look at the Wikipedia page, I am struck by the complete desertion of the city from 1920-1950 when the population dropped from over 100,000 to fewer than 20,000. Is that even possible? Now the city is again in a population decline because, I think, of economic reasons.
I cannot begin writing a happy-go-lucky travel piece about this place without first acknowledging the dark history that surrounds me. I have been in a funk since we went on a city tour with this old Latvian man. Through Rita, my translator, I was told that the cobblestones paving the sidewalk were taken from the Jewish cemetery. This led me to do some research on Daugavpils, and I was just shocked. I probably shouldn’t be shocked anymore, but, on the other hand, I think some historical events should still shock us. Once we are beyond feeling the awesome responsibilities of our own history, then something is lost.
Daugavpils was once home to a very large Jewish population. During the German occupation of World War II, they rounded up Jews and put them in the abandoned fortress outside of the city turning it into a large ghetto with upwards of 20,000 prisoners. According to one account, only 500 or so Jews survived the war. This city was built by Jewish industrialists, and the Nazis gutted the art and beauty they brought to this region. It just leaves this horribly sour taste in my mouth and a rock in my stomach. I do not know what to do with it, so I am writing.
Last night, we stayed at the Daugavpils fortress. As we checked into our rooms, I couldn’t stop thinking about those victims who died so near to where we were staying. Right now, I am sitting in this lovely restaurant listening to jazzy American music and watching a screen display beautiful images of this city. It is surreal.
I am supposed to be watching a play at the theater with Rita right now, but one of the members of our 15-member Riga contingent did not have a ticket for the play, so I gave mine to her. The play is in Russian, so I think I made an okay sacrifice. I do not feel like a martyr.
Rita’s acquaintance, Ieva organized a tour for fourteen of us, and we arrived in Daugavpils on Saturday afternoon after a wonderful train ride across the Latvian countryside. It was about 230 kilometers and took just over 3 hours. Rita loves architecture, and one of her specialties is pointing out the Soviet era Stalinist buildings like the train station.
After arriving, we split up from our group and walked down Rigās iela all the way to the Daugava river. Daugavpils doesn’t feel like Riga at all. The buildings are lower and many are adorned with balconies, in the style of Paris. The main street we walked down was paved with bricks and for pedestrians only. This was nice.
On the walk, we noted some interesting architecture while we struggled to get to the river itself. We took a turn and walked up to the main highway before discovering a tunnel that seemed to be for cars leading to the river. Sure enough, it led directly to the river. If a car were to go through the tunnel, it would find itself sinking quickly into the icy waters of the Daugava.
In the tunnel, Rita practiced her Russian by explaining these depressing, heart-breaking phrases to me. It seemed to be a tunnel of lost love.
The river itself was iced over completely and looked more like an empty field than the flowing Daugava we know from Riga.
After reaching the river, we had to make our way back to the other side of the train tracks to meet up with the rest of the Latvians at the DSR buckshot museum. The museum is an operational shot tower where they convert lead into shot for shotgun shells and such. If I heard our guide right it is either the only one still in operation or one of two in the world. People from all over the world enjoy tours here. For only $5 Euro, you get to tour the premises and shoot airguns at targets.
The highlight of the tour for me was climbing to the very top of the tower. This is, again, one of those things that just wouldn’t be possible in the United States. The stairs were terrifyingly narrow and the handrails seemed rickety. I felt as if a collapse were imminent. Rita gave up the climb about halfway. I didn’t know it, but she has a bit of a fear of heights. As I continued going up, more and more people gave up, and I think only 3-4 from my group of 8 made it all the way.
The final staircase was made of steps constructed of three narrow bars. You could see all the way down with each step. I gripped the railing and took one careful step at a time. I knew that I wouldn’t fall through, but it was still pretty awful.
At the top, I had a nice view of the whole city and saw some unique machinery that still works despite it looking like something out of some defunct sci-fi museum.
Our guide was a fun-loving Latvian with great stories. I just wish I could have understood them. He told one story about Italian tourists who applauded as one of the workers made the shot. He was just doing his job, but the tourists thought it was a performance. They put a dummy under a pile of stones to dissuade curious tourists from entering a dangerous part of the building. To me, it all looked pretty dangerous.
He showed us where the lead dropped down from the top of the tower into a tank of water 20 meters below the ground. From a ton of lead, some amount would be left in the bottom that the automatic scoops could not retrieve. Therefore, a diver with a special mask would be lowered into the tank to manually bring up the leftover lead. Rita said that there had been no deaths at the factory over its 130-year history. I just saw deathtrap after deathtrap without even considering the lead poisoning that many employees must have suffered. The diver was fed oxygen by a hand pump. I cannot imagine a more terrifying profession.
We watched a movie of how the lead is melted and poured down the tower to create little balls. Then, the balls are filtered on glass steps to make sure that only the round ones get used. Sizes are filtered through sieves, and that is how it is done. There were other chemicals and polishing processes and this and that, but the basic idea is pretty simple and cool. The lead falls so far that it turns into round balls, and cools off to the point where it is solid by the time it hits the water. People are so clever!
However, when I was told that the tour included a shooting range, I thought it would be shotguns, since the place made shot. But it was airguns. on the plus side, we were given seven or so guns and ammunition. Then he left us alone to shoot at the targets. No supervision. No eyes were shot out. It was a good time, and Rita was impressed with my marksmanship.
After the tour, we were met by the old Latvian man who took us around Daugavpils for a walking tour. We started on Church Hill which is home to churches of four faiths all within just a block or so of each other. We started at the Russian Orthodox church which looks like a big, delicious cake. Then we saw the church of the Old Believers, which is what I imagine inspired the Latvian Orthodox episode of Seinfeld.
Finally, side by side stood two cathedrals, Catholic and Lutheran. But we only went inside the Russian Orthodox church. It was beautiful and there are no seats because everyone stands during the whole service. No wonder Napoleon never had a chance in Russia! The no-seat look does make the interior much more inviting.
Then we took a Daugavpils tram downtown to continue the tour. The trams in Daugavpils are .47 cents. Why not .50? I don’t know. Today (Sunday) they were only .22 cents. Why not .20? I don’t know.
The tour in downtown was a bit exhausting because I couldn’t understand him, and I had to use the bathroom. But we finished and went on our final museum trip of the day, the Šmakovkas museum dedicated to the official moonshine of the Latgale region.
Šmakovka is a kind of illegal homemade liquor that is popular in this region of the world. The museum was created, I guess, to bring awareness to it and maybe legitimize it? I don’t know. But we learned about the harmful effects of alcohol, the history of the liquor, and how it is made. Our tour guide was the Daugavpils answer to Mick Jagger or maybe Jim Morrison. I am not sure, but he was a cool guy.
The tour ended with a tasting of the stuff. We had four varieties including apple, oak, blackberry and coffee. I am trying to remember what it tasted like other than burning, but it is hard to describe. It didn’t quite taste like any other liquor I am familiar with. I guess vodka would probably be the closest. The oak one was almost undrinkable because of its smokiness (scotch drinkers might enjoy it). I preferred the coffee flavor even though I didn’t really taste the coffee notes. I may have to visit the mall to see if I can find a bottle just to serve to guests.
So, our busy day ended with dinner at a pizza place and drinks at a local bar. We then all took a tram to the Daugavpils Fortress and Rothko Center. We all had rooms booked, and the Latvians, even after such a long day, were still ready to party, while all this weakling American could do was crawl into bed and sleep.
In the next installment, I will share my experience at the Rothko Center and my other thoughts on Daugavpils. For now, I will just listen to this ambient jazz music and finish out my Sunday waiting for the train back to Riga. Once again, two days in Latvia feels like about a week anywhere else. For better or for worse!
I had my first-ever Čebureks at a little lunch truck here. Rita and I were starving for some hot food, so we had this fried thing with meat inside. Maybe because we were cold and it was hot. Maybe because we were hungry and it was food. But for whatever reason, it was one of the most amazing culinary experiences of my aging existence. Thank you fried things for bringing if only the briefest pleasure to our meager lives!
I finally saw it! This is the Big Movie for Latvia’s 100th anniversary! It is named Nameja Gredzens in Latvian and for some reason, they translated it to “The Pagan King” in English.
The Namejs ring is a common symbol for Latvians, and many of my Latvian American acquaintances. It was my first wedding ring. I have had three in my life. My mother had one. My father had one. Many of my relatives wear one. It is a symbol of Latvians everywhere, I think.
The story I was told was that Namejs was a Latvian king who was being hunted by the Swedes or some other invading army. In the movie, this force is represented by Roman Crusaders. At some point in time, Namejs had this ring as a sign of his power and his family, so the Latvians (Zemgalians in the movie) made rings to wear so that the invading army would not know who the real king was. The braided bands represent the united tribes of Latvia who came together to fight the invading armies, or so I was told.
Of course this is all legend, and the movie did what it wanted to with this idea, but for all its aspirations, it could have been so much more.
The movie is in English, which is an interesting choice. The main actor is Swedish, Edvin Endre, and is best known for his role in the popular series, The Vikings. The movie seems to try to take a page from Viking history with a few of the boat and fight scenes.
The main villain is supposed to be the bastard son of the pope who goes to Latvia (Zemgale) to gain some kind of position. The motivations of characters are left to some imagination. The movie lacks exposition and a deeper sense of meaning. But it was enjoyable for the most part.
On a side note, the theater was pretty full. The Stockmann Forum Cinema has three floors and about 20 theaters or so. People were everywhere, and it was lively and exciting. So many people and so much energy. I swear that Latvia feels like the old days sometimes. And everyone looks so stylish.
Back to the movie. In the movie, Namejs is a bit of a badass, but not in line for any sort of rule until the old king dies and chooses him to be the next leader by giving him the ring. One problem with the movie is there were no backstories or sense of exposition. It would have been nice to know more about this Namejs other than his prowess at this old rugby-like game they played.
After thinking about it, my favorite aspect of the movie was that it was stylish and well done without going over the top. The battles were small, as they likely would have been back then—a group of tribal warriors versus a small band of soldiers. If this were an American movie (like Braveheart), there would be thousands of people and CGI effects and all this slow motion stuff. Here, it was just a few people with weapons fighting. Some of it was a bit bloody, but not too terribly bad.
I heard a complaint from a Latvian that some people didn’t like the accents. And sure, they weren’t all Latvian sounding, but I don’t think that is the point. This was, after all, historic Zemgale in the 13th Century. No one knows what those people sounded like!
The Christians were not shown in a very good light. Max, the bastard son of the Pope, wasn’t really religious. He just wanted to rule Zemgale. But he brought with him a priest who only had one scene that, I think, was supposed to be a little bit funny. For a history of some of the groups who have conquered Latvia over the years, you can watch this nice little animation.
The scenery was gorgeous. A part of the movie happens in a swamp where they mock up a pagan Stonehenge-looking set. I would like to know if that was all filmed in Latvia and then go to there. There were some lovely shots of rivers, woods, and the sea as well. I cannot wait for it to warm up to go exploring the natural beauty here!
Admittedly, the movie is a bit thin in terms of the plot, but the audience applauded at the end, and the final message was very nice. Toward the end, they make the rings for all the Zemgalians fighting the invaders, so every time one dies, they think they have killed Namejs and the battle is over. Then the bad guy realizes that he has been fooled. The point was that they were stronger when they all had power rather than just putting power into one person’s hands. I wish I would have written down the final quotation from the movie.
The hope was that by making this look and feel like a Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings type movie, and doing it in English with an international star in the leading role, the movie might get some play elsewhere. I do not know if that will happen, but if you get the chance (especially if you have some Latvian blood in you) give it a shot. I think you’ll enjoy it!
Another Side Note: Olympics!
The Latvian Olympic team has 35 representatives. They looked really stylish and good during the parade of nations yesterday. I watched with my students. They were pretty negative despite all of my affirmations. Latvia, being a very small country, seems to breed an inferiority complex. No matter how much I point out positive things about it, my students still seem to try to find faults. I am not sure if there is a cure for this, but I intend to stay positive!