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.
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.
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.
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!
Now some photos of the trip. Enjoy!