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Forest and Brothers cemetery, Riga

  
   - darkometer rating:  1 -
 
A huge cemetery complex in the north of Riga, Latvia, so big that it even has two names. It is of (minor) interest to dark tourists for the fact that there are several monumental memorial complexes to be seen here as well as certain specific graves of historical importance.   
More background info: Just to clarify a potential misunderstanding: this is not a cemetery for the so-called “Forest Brothers”, the partisans who fought the Soviet occupation from the end of WWII into the 1950s (see Occupations Museum and also Genocide Victim's Museum). 
  
Instead the Forest Cemetery and the Brothers' Cemetery are two distinct entities, it's just that the latter is located next to (or strictly speaking within) the territory of the former. 
  
The Forest Cemetery was first opened just before WWI and is a “common” graveyard. It takes its name from the huge Forest Park (Mežaparks) it is adjacent to (and probably once was part of). 
  
The Brothers' Cemetery was initially just a section set aside in the Forest Cemetery for war graves from WWI. Later, it became not only the final resting place for those who died in the Latvian War of Independence that followed on from WWI, but also a national monument for Latvia's freedom as such. 
  
So after the landscaping of the area in the early 1920s followed the construction of the monumental memorial architecture and statuary we see today at the site. This lasted into the mid-1930s. The main memorial was officially opened in 1936.
  
Locally it is also known as the “Brethren Cemetery”, which seems to imply an almost “holy”, monk-like status of those buried here, but probably simply derives from a more poetic translation of the Latvian name 'Brāļu Kapi'.
  
In addition to the original war graves from 1915-1920, there are also some from WWII, namely reburied soldiers of the Latvian Legion. 
  
  
What there is to see: The main element to come here for is the monumental Brothers' Cemetery part. And monumental it is indeed.
  
As you approach on the wide road that leads into (and ultimately through) the forest you'll soon see the massive main gate, 100 feet (32 m) wide and 30 feet (10 m) high. It's squarish, squat and is made out of big beige stone blocks. It has two dying horsemen figures carved into either side of the entrance – a theme that is recurrent at this site. 
  
Inside the compound a wide avenue leads up to the actual monument and cemetery part. Head straight up and you arrive at a parapet with an eternal flame (still burning!) overlooking the cemetery below. This is also a place for worshippers to lay down their big bunches of flowers. 
  
The actual graves are arranged in simple rows in typical military cemetery style inside a rectangular hollow. Stairs to this lead down either side from the perimeter wall. At the far end stands the main monument dominated by a towering Mother Latvia statue.
  
At her feet lie slain, dying gladiator-like fighters that look a bit like imitation Greek statues that have collapsed. The image is picked up by the horsemen figures on the big blocks either side of the centre part of the cemetery. It looks like both horse and rider are just too tired of war to carry on. A totally puzzling surprise were the reliefs of elks      on the shields of some further stone soldiers. 
  
If size does matter I guess it's all really quite impressive. The architectural and sculpture styles, however, I found strangely and somewhat disconcertingly reminiscent of Nazi aesthetics. But maybe that's just me reading too much into it (the proximity of the former site of Kaiserwald may also have tainted my perception a little). But it may not be quite so coincidental after all given the time all this was designed …  
  
The Forest Cemetery actually has two halves, located either side of the Brothers' Cemetery. There's a wide tree-lined, landscaped avenue leading away into the larger part just east of the Brothers' Cemetery. Along the way you can see a fantastic large-scale modern sculpture. 
  
And at the far end is another big monumental grave that is of great importance to Latvians. This is the grave of Latvia's first president during the country's phase of independence in the inter-war years, Jānis Čakste. Some of the early protests of the independence movement during the second Soviet occupation took place here. 
  
This monument can also be reached by an avenue that branches off at a right angle and connects with the Forest Cemetery's second, separate entrance towards the top end of Gaujas iela, which also has its own tram stop, one up from the Brothers' Cemetery. 
  
Deeper into the forested cemetery east of  the Jānis Čakste monument can be found a German section with war graves of the Baltic German “Landeswehr” of 1918-19. 
  
The other half of the Forest Cemetery, which is also known as Rainis Cemetery – after one of its most famous “inhabitant” (see next paragraph), can be reached from  the big main gate to the Brothers' Cemetery (to its south-west) just across the road. 
  
Amongst the highlights here is the pompous grave of Jānis Rainis, the (locally) famous Latvian poet, playwright, translator, folk-song collector and national(ist) hero.   The bronze sculpture in the centre looks quite theatrical … and also more than just a little bit effeminate. 
  
A quite remarkable ensemble of monuments/graves can be found a bit further to the north-west. Within a rectangular clearing stands a tall stone slab from which a bronze angel appears to emerge horizontally as if to fly off! 
  
There are also a few Soviet (military?) graves about here and a stern-looking row of statues guard the back wall at the far end (vaguely reminiscent of those Soviet soldiers at Antakalnis Cemetery in Vilnius). 
  
But it's not just the big monumental graves that are remarkable here. You can also spot some smaller but no less imaginative ones – such as the big red granite hand holding a diamond between the fingers at the top. Just keep your eyes open and you will see many more intriguing details.
  
Overall, however, this is hardly a key dark site in Riga and thus only worth the significant detour if you have plenty of spare time when in the city and if you get a special kick out of monumental memorial architecture and/or cemeteries as such. If you are on a pilgrimage to sites pertaining to Latvian freedom, then this is of course an essential site. Otherwise it is no more than an extra add-on to spend a nice sunny day at. 
 
    
Location: a good three miles (5 km) north of the centre of Riga, along Gaujas iela.  
  
Google maps locators:
 
Main gate to the Brothers' Cemetery:  [56.9856, 24.1472]
  
Separate south-eastern entrance to the Forest cemetery:  [56.9855, 24.1567]
  
Mother Latvia: [56.9889, 24.1430]
  
Jānis Čakste monumental grave: [56.9884, 24.1558]
  
Jānis Rainis monumental grave:  [56.9853, 24.1429]
  
German Baltic Landeswehr graves:  [56.9882, 24.1577]
  
mysterious column dump:  [56.99, 24.14]
  
  
Access and costs: quite a bit outside central Riga, best reached by tram, but still requiring a lot of walking at the site(s); free 
  
Details: Given the distance from the city centre of Riga, most people will want to get there by public transport, and tram line 11 makes this quite easy. It goes all the way from Stacijas laukums near the central train station and the Old Town to Mežaparks. There is one stop each for the Brothers' Cemetery (Brāļu Kapi) and the southern approach to the Forest Cemetery (2. Meža kapi). 
  
As far as I can tell entry to both parts is free and theoretically possible at any time, though the Brothers' Cemetery memorial complex does have gates that might be closed after dark (when it wouldn't make much sense going there in any case). 
  
Make sure you pick a nice day, or at least a dry day. You really don't want to be traipsing around out here in the rain ...
 
  
Time required: It's quite a large area explorable only on foot, so you have to allocate adequate time, maybe two to three hours. If you only want to see the monumental Brothers' memorial, then less than an hour might suffice.
  
  
Combinations with other dark destinations: The Forest Cemetery borders the area known as Forest Park, or Mežaparks in Latvian, and “Kaiserwald” in German. During the occupation of Latvia by Nazi Germany, this location was used to set up Riga's main concentration camp and it carried the same name: Kaiserwald
  
It is one of the mostly forgotten camps and nothing at all remains of it. However, a memorial sculpture has been erected at the site in more recent times. So for those with a special interest in the Holocaust in the Baltics it is a kind of pilgrimage site – and can be best combined with a visit to the Forest & Brothers' Cemetery. 
  
To get there you have to make your way to the north-western end of the Brothers' Cemetery complex and proceed into the forest that stretches along the side of the railway line. 
  
En route I found a weird but striking dumping ground for some large granite columns (see photos) … but I have no idea where they'd come from or what the story behind this is. 
  
As you approach the level crossing further north you'd be walking on what once must have been the grounds of the concentration camp. 
  
As I headed towards the Forest and Brothers' Cemetery from the south, walking along the main road, I found a big abandoned building just opposite. Being drawn towards dereliction on that scale I found it quite intriguing, but it was boarded up and well fenced in. The edifice is one half of a symmetrical complex belonging to the police. The other half just north-east looked freshly refurbished. Given the proximity of so much police I quickly gave up on the idea of pursuing any “urban exploration” into the derelict counterpart ...  
  
Further south still, across the bridge taking the road across the railway line is another cemetery worth a look when in Riga: the Pokrov Cemetery with its flamboyant golden soldier from the Soviet era. 
  
For more sites further south still see under Riga in general.
  
  
Combinations with non-dark destinations: The nature of the Forest Cemetery makes it a worthwhile park in its own right, as it were. Yet further north, beyond the graves, you'll find the vast area of the Forest Park (Mežaparks), which is a true recreation area, popular with Rigans at weekends. 
  
It also contains the gigantic open-air arena where those typical Baltic singing festivals are held. Remember: they won their independence in a “singing revolution”. So maybe understandably they just kept singing, even after the revolution was won …
  
Adjacent to the north-eastern end of Mežaparks is Riga Zoo. And the shores of the lake to the north, and the lake itself, are also popular weekend outing destinations.
  
For more in the centre of the city see under Riga.
  
  
 
  • Riga cemeteries 01 - national monumentRiga cemeteries 01 - national monument
  • Riga cemeteries 02 - Brothers CemeteryRiga cemeteries 02 - Brothers Cemetery
  • Riga cemeteries 03 - eternal flameRiga cemeteries 03 - eternal flame
  • Riga cemeteries 04 - tired of warRiga cemeteries 04 - tired of war
  • Riga cemeteries 05 - main statueRiga cemeteries 05 - main statue
  • Riga cemeteries 06 - refurbishmentRiga cemeteries 06 - refurbishment
  • Riga cemeteries 07 - light from aboveRiga cemeteries 07 - light from above
  • Riga cemeteries 08 - Soviet-style sculptureRiga cemeteries 08 - Soviet-style sculpture
  • Riga cemeteries 09 - standing tall in stoneRiga cemeteries 09 - standing tall in stone
  • Riga cemeteries 10 - kissing the flagRiga cemeteries 10 - kissing the flag
  • Riga cemeteries 11 - jutting outRiga cemeteries 11 - jutting out
  • Riga cemeteries 12 - first president in independenceRiga cemeteries 12 - first president in independence
  • Riga cemeteries 13 - effeminate figureRiga cemeteries 13 - effeminate figure
  • Riga cemeteries 14 - German war graveRiga cemeteries 14 - German war grave
  • Riga cemeteries 15 - fresh graveRiga cemeteries 15 - fresh grave
  • Riga cemeteries 16 - preciousRiga cemeteries 16 - precious
  • Riga cemeteries 17 - redundant columnsRiga cemeteries 17 - redundant columns
  • Riga cemeteries 18 - dumped in the forestRiga cemeteries 18 - dumped in the forest
  • Riga cemeteries 19 - water towerRiga cemeteries 19 - water tower
  • Riga cemeteries 20 - abandoned building nearbyRiga cemeteries 20 - abandoned building nearby
  
  
  

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