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Liepaja

  
   - darkometer rating:  2 -
  
--- featured in TOURS ---  
  
A town on the Baltic coast of Latvia. It is also a significant sea port. During the Soviet era, the northern part of the harbour town, Karosta, was a large closed military garrison of the Soviet navy. The Russian/Soviet legacy forms the main focal point for dark tourism here, in particular the (in)famous Karosta prison, but there are also other aspects, e.g. relating to the Holocaust.   

>More background info

>What there is to see

>Location

>Access and costs

>Time required

>Combinations with other dark destinations

>Combinations with non-dark destinations

>Photos

       
More background info: Liepaja (sometimes referred to as Libau, its German name) is Latvia's third largest city/town at a population of roughly 75,000. That is a lot less than at its peak – which was when the town, or rather its northern extension Karosta, served as an important military base and garrison. Since the Soviets departed after Latvia's regaining independence, there has been a significant exodus, mostly of Russians (some 30,000 moved away) which accounts for the semi-ghost-town character of Karosta today. 
  
Liepaja, or rather Karosta, had become a naval base in the late 19th century, when the coastal fortifications (see Northern Forts) were constructed by/for the Tsarist Russian empire. The navy base was later also home to the first Russian submarines. Also during the Cold War it was one of the most important naval bases on the Baltic coast, when Karosta was a closed military town and the port, too, was closed for all civilian access. Specifically, Liepaja/Karosta was a submarine base for the Soviet Baltic Fleet.
  
Before that, WWII had brought destruction and tragedy, in the form of the Soviet takeover of the Baltic States first, then with the occupation by Nazi Germany, before the Soviets returned for their second occupation, which lasted until 1991. 
  
During the Nazi occupation, Liepaja was also the stage for some of the nastiest atrocities in the early stages of the occupation and the Holocaust, when thousands of Jews, but also gypsies and political opponents, were executed, especially in the dunes of Skede just north of Liepaja in 1941. 
  
Apart from being a navy base, Liepaja had also developed as an industrial centre, including heavy industry. You can still see the massive metallurgical plant on the north-eastern edge of town, which is now closed.  
  
  
What there is to see:  The most prominent, but also in part controversial, specific site of dark tourism in Latvia has to be Karosta prison. Beyond that, however, there are also a few other dark places around the prison, as well as in Liepaja itself. Separate entries are given for the following places:
  
  
  
    
Within Liepaja proper, a few places are also of interest. First and foremost there is the Jewish cemetery and Memorial Wall in the southern part of Liepaja. The Memorial Wall has inscribed on it all the names of the 7060 Jews of Liepaja who perished in the Holocaust between 1941 and 1945 – almost the entire Jewish community of the city! Next to the wall is a separate stone monument with a Star of David on it. An information panel summarizes the Holocaust history of Liepaja from a current historical perspective (earlier, victim numbers given had been much inflated – this has now been rectified; cf. also Skede). 
  
The cemetery beyond contains many Jewish graves in different stages of upkeep or dilapidation … up to complete absence: there are many patches of plain green grass with no discernible graves. To the north of the Jewish section, is the older main Liepaja cemetery mostly for Christians (of various denominations, Orthodox, Lutheran, Catholic, etc.) - the current main cemetery is further south on the edge of the town boundaries.
  
The old cemetery and Holocaust Memorial Wall are best accessed from the centre by walking down Kursu iela, which becomes Klaipedas iela, then at the roundabout take the Cenkones iela exit and proceed south, past the regular cemetery until you've passed the path to the little chapel. The path leading to the Memorial Wall and Jewish section is just a few yards further down the street.  
  
Possibly of (milder) interest to the dark tourist may be another memorial site, namely the seafarers monument, or Monument to the Mariners Lost at Sea, to give it its official name, on the main seafront promenade. It stands at the end of a landscaped park and approach path which extends from the end of Kurmajas prospekts to the west of the centre of town, en route to the beach. Its main part is a tall column on top of which stands a statue of a woman looking out to sea, shielding her eyes from obviously blinding sunlight. Also note the plaque at the front of the monument's base which is dedicated to the crew of a US Navy plane downed by Soviet fighters just off the coast near Liepaja in 1950. It was one of the early incidents of the Cold War having an isolated “hot” moment. The plaque was unveiled in 2000. 
  
Finally there is also the small exhibition “Liepaja under the Regimes of Occupation” that is a branch of the Liepaja Museum (main building at Kurmajas prospekts 16, but the occupations exhibition is housed in a different building at Klava Ukstina iela 7/9, free admission). Unfortunately, its limited opening hours (Wednesday to Sunday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., closed Monday and Tuesday) meant that I had no chance to check this out myself when I was in Liepaja. From what I read about it I gather that I may not have missed out on so much as the exhibition is in Latvian only in any case. 
  
All in all I must say that I quite liked Liepaja – in part especially because it has a certain “rough “charm and is not particularly touristy. It also proved an excellent base for explorations not just to Karosta but also further afield – see combinations below.
  
  
Location: a good 140 miles (215 km) south-west of Riga, Latvia, right on the Baltic coast, about 30 miles (50 km) north off the border with Lithuania.  
 
Google maps locators:
  
[56.513, 21.011] - harbour
  
[56.49342,21.00733] - Memorial Wall in the Jewish cemetery
  
[56.50935,20.99143] – seafarers monument 
  
  
Access and costs: a bit off the more beaten track but still quite easy to reach either from Riga or from neighbouring Lithuania; can be very good value for money. 
  
Details: Getting to Liepaja is simplest either by car or bus; the journey from/to Riga takes about three to four hours, the border with Lithuania is less than an hour's drive away. Train connections to Liepaja do exist from Riga, but only very few (a mere two a week, at the time of writing). 
  
Liepaja also has a ferry port which makes it the gateway to Germany! There are about five crossings to the German port of Travemünde each week (taking ca. 26-27 hours).  
  
Getting around within Liepaja, your own two feet are sufficient for most inner-city sightseeing, but for getting to and exploring Karosta having your own vehicle is ideal. Alternatively you could cycle (the tourist information as well as some guest houses offer bicycles for hire). But for walking, Karosta and the Northern Forts is too sprawling an area. For covering larger distances within Liepaja itself there is also a decent public transport network, trams mainly, for those less mobile. 
  
When I was there in April 2014, there were massive roadworks everywhere (my poor satnav GPS got seriously confused on many an occasion!), but hopefully once this work is completed it should be easy enough finding your way by car. 
  
For accommodation, Liepaja offers quite a good range of options, and quite a few are good value for money. The two Fontaine Hotels (one adds the accolade “Royal”) tend to get high marks especially for quirky stylishness, while the Hotel Kolumbs is a more traditional, upmarket (for Liepaja) place. The Promenade Hotel right on the canal in a converted warehouse is regarded as the city's top address (but that also shows in the prices). 
  
Instead of a hotel, however, I opted for a self-catering option, namely at the Ezera Maja – a kind of cross between a guest house and a set of holiday apartments. That is to say you get a fully-equipped en-suite room, and have the use of a shared kitchen and also a washing machine. I paid only 33 EUR a night (including free parking, but you have to make your own breakfast). I chose them also because they offer private tours of Karosta, the Northern Forts and also Karosta prison, even out of season (and I was there too early in the year for the regular tours of the prison). Ezera Maja has only four rooms (one is a large family room upstairs) in a beautifully restored traditional wooden town house (next to two very dilapidated specimens of the same type!). It is located just steps from Peter's Market and close enough to the town centre. 
  
As regards food & drink I can't say so much because, as mentioned already, I opted for self-catering here. I went out for dinner only once, on the first night (before I could get supplies in), namely to the restaurant at the Hotel Kolumbs. It was excellent! Amongst other things I had a traditional Liepaja speciality, a clay-pot dish  containing smoked stockfish (dried cod), potatoes and cream, all of the utmost quality.  
  
  
Time required: If you only want to see Karosta (without the longer “shows” at Karosta prison) and the Holocaust-related sites, then one full day may just about suffice, but for more in-depth explorations, and excursions into the countryside beyond Liepaja, staying three or even four nights makes more sense.  
  
  
Combinations with other dark destinations: Liepaja is a good base for excursions north to the Irbene radio locator, which can be reached by car in ca. 2-3 hours. It takes a similar time to get to Latvia's capital city Riga, which is chock-full of a wide array of dark (and non-dark) attractions. 
  
Given the relative proximity of the border with Lithuania, Liepaja can also be used as a jumping-off point for a trip to the Plokstine missile base or even Raseiniai (en route to Kaunas). 
  
  
Combinations with non-dark destinations: Liepaja is not Riga, but it still has its pretty bits. However, you'll appreciate it more if you like your jewels rough-cut rather than polished and sparkling. It is primarily an industrial and port city. The best bit for many, and the main reason for “normal” tourists to come here, is the beach that runs along the entire Baltic coastline of Liepaja from its southern edge right up to the harbour. Since I don't like beaches I didn't even visit it, so I can't say anything about it – but apparently it is popular and in the summer it serves as the venue for various beach parties. 
  
Just off the beach a partly landscaped park runs parallel to the beach and does indeed have its charms … I used it to go jogging in the mornings so I was able to see almost its entire length. The southern parts are a bit more nature-like (including bogs and little lakes) whereas the northern half is more landscaped and also incorporates various sports facilities, including the local stadium.  
  
Architecturally, there are only a few gems to find – and you may have to look closely, but I spotted a few nice examples of art nouveau in the centre. Out of the centre, you can find fine examples of typical wooden houses, but quite a few of these are in different stages of dilapidation, relatively few have clearly been renovated (see also above). Of the big churches that dominate the skyline, not all are in good shape either, at least not on the outside, but one of them (the Holy Trinity Cathedral) sports one of the largest organs in the world (in fact it used to be the very largest until about a century ago).   
 
Liepaja is also a cultural town with regard to modern music – the city has the reputation of being Latvia's capital of rock 'n roll! Furthermore, its night-life and clubbing scene has quite a reputation too.  
 
On a more mundane level, the central market hall, called Peter's Market (I am happy to point out!), is also worth a look, even if you're not shopping for provisions. It certainly boasts a nice pavilion-like architectural style, though at the time of my visit it was undergoing a lot of clearly necessary reconstruction work.  
 
Finally, there's also something for nature-lovers, namely the Nature Boardwalk along Lake Liepaja on the eastern side of the town - “nature” here basically means bird-watching.
 
  • Liepaja 01 - in the centreLiepaja 01 - in the centre
  • Liepaja 02 - wooden houses on Ezera ielaLiepaja 02 - wooden houses on Ezera iela
  • Liepaja 03 - Peter marketLiepaja 03 - Peter market
  • Liepaja 04 - inside the market hallLiepaja 04 - inside the market hall
  • Liepaja 05 - local classic dishLiepaja 05 - local classic dish
  • Liepaja 06 - Easter decorationsLiepaja 06 - Easter decorations
  • Liepaja 07 - universityLiepaja 07 - university
  • Liepaja 08 - dilapidated churchLiepaja 08 - dilapidated church
  • Liepaja 09 - dilapidated statueLiepaja 09 - dilapidated statue
  • Liepaja 10 - abandoned dilapidated buildingLiepaja 10 - abandoned dilapidated building
  • Liepaja 11 - refurbished buildingLiepaja 11 - refurbished building
  • Liepaja 12 - harbourLiepaja 12 - harbour
  • Liepaja 13 - strange sculptureLiepaja 13 - strange sculpture
  • Liepaja 14 - cemeteryLiepaja 14 - cemetery
  • Liepaja 15 - Jewish memorial in the cemeteryLiepaja 15 - Jewish memorial in the cemetery
  • Liepaja 16 - graves and flowersLiepaja 16 - graves and flowers
  • Liepaja 17 - seafarers monumentLiepaja 17 - seafarers monument
  • Liepaja 18 - blinded by the lightLiepaja 18 - blinded by the light
  • Liepaja 19 - plaquesLiepaja 19 - plaques
  • Liepaja 20 - monumental shadowLiepaja 20 - monumental shadow
 
  
  

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