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Karosta - former naval base, Liepaja

   - darkometer rating:  4 -
The formerly closed garrison town and Soviet naval base that takes up the northern part of the coastal city of Liepaja. Since the military finally left the place (following the demise of the USSR and Latvia regaining independence), much of the housing has become redundant. Both old and rather newer buildings, including both typical Soviet-era prefab apartment blocks and Tsarist-era grander architecture lie abandoned, empty and crumbling. It is in part like a ghost town. 
The old Karosta prison may have become its best-known commodified attraction, but there is much more to discover here that is less high profile but still quite intriguing to those who have a taste for ghost towns and ruins.        

>More background info

>What there is to see


>Access and costs

>Time required

>Combinations with other dark destinations

>Combinations with non-dark destinations



More background info: Karosta started its previous life in the late 19th century when Tsarist Russia had a fortified naval port built here. It was part of a larger system of fortifications and military installations (see also Seaplane Harbour). Some of the fortifications soon became redundant, even before World War One, and were partly blown up in accordance with a Russia-Germany co-operation and friendship treaty – see also under Northern Forts
The naval base as such, however, remained. During Latvia's post-WWI period of independence it became known as “Kara osta”, which means 'war port', and thus gave rise to today's name Karosta. 
After WWII and the Soviet takeover, Karosta was developed as one of the most important bases for the Soviet Baltic Fleet. The old Tsarist-era infrastructure was greatly expanded – also to provide living space for the up to 30,000 military personnel stationed here with their families. Hence dozens of housing complexes were built, especially from the 1960s. This gave the parts of Karosta lying further away from the port the typical drab Eastern Bloc character of endless rows of near-identical prefab apartment blocks. 
Access was tightly controlled – it was in effect one of the USSR's many 'closed towns' (i.e. completely out of bounds to civilians and of course especially to foreigners). 
The port, too, was closed to all civilian activities. Instead it became one of the key bases for the Soviet submarine fleet in the Baltics. For them a special U-boat bunker was built in the basin branching off north from Karosta canal – the artificial waterway inlet from the sea originally constructed in Tsarist times. 
The huge St Nicholas Cathedral, finished in 1903 was the largest and most prominent relic of the old order. So the communists, according to their prescribed atheism, stripped the cathedral from its religious functions and turned it into a cinema and sports-and-entertainment centre for the Soviet Navy.  
After the collapse of the Soviet Union and Latvia's regaining its independence, the military finally left in the mid-1990s. This also brought a population drain for Liepaja. Now the overall number of inhabitants is about 30% less than during its Soviet “heyday”. But it was mostly Karosta that was abandoned. Only a few thousand inhabitants remain living here today.
The cathedral was restored to full glory (including new golden domes that now sparkle like spotlights amidst all the grey around it) and it was given back its Orthodox Christian function too. But for many of the surrounding housing estates there was no future. Some of them still provide comparatively inexpensive housing, but a larger proportion was left empty and crumbling away. This gives Karosta the atmosphere of a partly-inhabited ghost town – an aura that in some way is even eerier than that of a completely empty ghost town!
Things are changing now. The empty, abandoned prefab apartment blocks are being demolished one by one. The further northern parts of Karosta have been completely levelled and all that remains is a former street grid amongst the forest that is gradually reclaiming the last traces of human settlement. 
On the north-eastern edge some real high-rise blocks of nine storeys still stand, with at least one completely empty and boarded up. In the more central parts some empty five-storey blocks remain, but more were in the process of being taken down when I was there in April 2014. Some were already reduced to rubble. More demolition is bound to follow so the character of the place will change considerably over the next few years/decades. While this is locally applauded, it is not such good news for the dark tourist and ghost-town aficionado. So better hurry up if you want to see Karosta in what is left of its real Cold-War-era Soviet ghost-town guise. 
The older Tsarist buildings, or ruins thereof, have a somewhat safer future. As they are recognized as being of architecturally higher value than the simple, purely functional prefab blocks of flats, they are left standing –  in whatever state of decay they may be in. A few have even been restored, on others I spotted “For Sale” signs, so maybe in future they'll also be done up, provided buyers/investors can be found. 
What there is to see: quite a lot, but except for the (in)famous Karosta prison there is very little to no commodification, so you have to either explore independently on your own, or employ a local guide to point out some special points of interest and provide some background info. I did both. 
On my first day in Liepaja I hired a guide who took me round some parts of Karosta and also to the Northern Forts and we finished with a private guided tour of Karosta prison. The next day I returned for some independent further exploration. It was a good way of doing it, in that order, first getting an overview and some bearings, then poking around a little deeper independently. I could have easily filled yet another day with more of this had I had the time. But it was already a pretty good impression. 
As Karosta is no longer a closed town, the civilian parts of it can be freely explored – though care should be taken not to do this too much in the face of the remaining inhabitants in the housing estates that are still standing … try not to be voyeuristic (cf. ethical issues). The empty Tsarist-era buildings can be explored freely from closer up, though not necessarily so much from the inside – some are boarded up, others could be accessed but look rather unsafe. 
Those parts of Karosta that belong to the harbour that is still in operation are out of bounds to tourists, as usual. Unfortunately this includes the intriguing submarine bunker. The best you can do is walk up to the fence just to the north of this grey concrete “cigar”, but no glimpse inside is possible. 
The refurbished St Nicholas orthodox cathedral, in contrast, can be visited, but you are not allowed to take photos inside (and women have to cover their heads). What is most remarkable about this church from a dark-tourism perspective is not the inside, though, but its setting: golden-domed Orthodox glory amidst a sea of drab concrete blocks of flats! What a juxtaposition.
A usual starting point of a tour of Karosta is the bridge across Karosta canal. This provides the quickest and easiest access from Liepaja. The bridge, called Oskara Kalpaka tilts, dates from 1906 and is of a remarkable design. It's a steel truss cantilever bridge operating as a  swing bridge. When it's opened to let ships through, it splits in half and the two halves are turned sideways on their bases by 90 degrees each in opposite directions to make a full 180 degree opening (i.e. when both halves lie parallel to the shoreline). In 2006 the bridge was severely damaged by a ship crashing into it. Repair work took years, but now it is back in full operation. It can be seen opening several times a day usually. 
One of the largest freely accessible brick structures is the roofless “manège” (or 'hippodrome'). This was primarily an indoor area for cavalry exercises and performances, but was also used for other festivities and receptions. Nowadays it is just a huge empty space surrounded by imposing red-brick walls. At the southern end you can spot some intriguing graffiti. 
Possibly the prettiest example of early 20th century industrial brick architecture is the old water tower. Allegedly the pumps inside are still there, even though they have long been out of use. Unfortunately there is no public access to the interior anyway. 
Another grand structure is what used to be the Naval Officers Palace. It had various other functions in its long life, including that of a sanatorium. When I was there it looked like its roof had just been replaced, so there must be some refurbishing work ongoing, but there was still no access to the interior.  
The nearby northern breakwater, on the other hand, is freely accessible – but a walk along its length of over a mile (1.8 km) is only recommended if the weather allows it. When I was there first it was calm enough, but on my second day there you could see even from afar how huge breakers were  violently sending spray over the wall, so it wouldn't have been advisable to actually walk onto the pier at that time.
All over the central parts of Karosta there are numerous Tsarist-era brick buildings in various stages of dilapidation. Some are bricked and boarded up or look positively unsafe to enter, others are in somewhat better shape so that you may be able to have a quick peek inside. In one of them I found the whole ground floor strewn with film reels! I presume it must have been a cinema or film storage of some description. A few of the Tsarist building have been refurbished and are even inhabited – yet others are for sale, so presumably could be saved and done up … though by the look of some of them this would require quite some investment!
Beyond any hope are some of the Soviet-era prefab apartment blocks. While quite a few of them are still inhabited (but look in a pretty unkempt state), others stand totally empty and hollowed out. These are slowly being demolished. When I was there, I saw several heaps of rubble where blocks of flats once stood. More demolition was ongoing elsewhere. And in some parts, especially further north there is precious little left at all amongst the growing forest. But you can still spot the odd wall or pillars amongst the trees and overgrown roads.  
On my drive out of town (to get to Irbene) I passed a particularly impressive large block of flats that was totally abandoned, its bottom floors boarded up, standing like a sinister reminder of the Soviet days. Behind it were lower buildings, also ruins, which looked like they'd never even been finished in the first place. However, some other apartment blocks of this size in the vicinity still had inhabitants in them. Given the location and environs it must be quite a depressing place to live … I presume the only incentive for not moving out must be the suitably low rents. 
Those really into such ghost towns or even into “urban exploration” of ruins could spend a lot of time here. I only had a taster of this but found even that relatively small dose quite intriguing. It certainly confirmed that there is a lot more to Karosta than just the famed cathedral and the controversial Karosta prison. Well worth spending some extra time in Liepaja for.
Locations: just to the north of Liepaja and Karosta canal, which is basically the former naval base's main harbour basin, right up to the Northern Forts. Most individual sites can be found in the southern half of Karosta. 
A number of individual locations are specified below:
[56.5453, 21.0046] - Kalpaka Bridge
[56.5528, 21.0124] - St Nicholas Orthodox church
[56.54996, 21.03583] - submarine bunker
[56.5495, 21.0299] - “manège”
[56.55264, 21.02403] - water tower
[56.552, 21.005] - former naval officers' HQ
[56.5562, 20.9897] - the northern breakwater
[56.5515,21.0079] - some of the Tsarist-era ruins
[56.5563, 21.0144] - some ongoing demolition of empty apartment blocks
[56.5495, 21.0859] - some abandoned large housing blocks still in place
Access and costs: varying, from full open access to completely out of bounds; free when done independently, but quite affordable guided tours are also available. 
Details: Getting to Karosta from Liepaja is easy, provided you have your own vehicle (car or bicycle), if you're not on a guided tour anyway. Now that Kalpaka bridge is fully functional again (after the damage caused by the 2006 ship collision was repaired) you can simply drive up the main thoroughfare of northern Liepaja, Oskara Kalpaka iela, carrying on towards the bride straight ahead (instead of following the main road which becomes Pulvera iela bending off to the right). 
Once on the Karosta side you can first head further north on what is now Atmodas bulvaris and pass the former Officers' Palace on your left and then turn towards the northern breakwater, before working your way down south-east from here. Or you turn right into Studentu rotas iela to start at the cathedral. Some of the best Tsarist-era villas/mansions can be found in the block south of the cathedral. The larger brick structures, including the “manège", are further east along Zemgales iela. 
The best glimpse of the submarine bunker can be had from the fence near the north-western end of the large harbour basin, just south of Generala Baloza iela. The water tower is on the same street further west. Most of the old Soviet housing estates lie to the north of Generala Baloza iela and the cathedral, as well as further east towards the edge of town. The largest ones stand by Grizupes iela leading out of Liepaja/Karosta to merge with the P111 country road heading north. 
Of course, if you are on a guided tour you won't have to bother about navigating. But note that not all of the places mentioned above may be part of such guided tours. They tend to concentrate on the highlights, especially the cathedral, the bridge, the “manège”, the northern breakwater and may otherwise just mention in passing (literally) some of the other points of interest, but without any deeper exploration. The latter is better done individually. 
My half-day Karosta tour (see also under Liepaja) also included the Northern Forts and Karosta prison and Skede, so naturally there was less time for checking out the more exotic ruins. My guide did make extra time, however, to lead me to the best spot for catching a glimpse of the submarine bunker (which I may not have found so easily otherwise). The total cost for the tour was 40 EUR (excluding the admission fee at the prison). 
Time required: Dedicated ruin-lovers and urban explorers could probably spend days on end here, but for just getting a good taste of the area, between half a day and two days will be enough. 
Combinations with other dark destinations: See also under Liepaja.
The main thing that Karosta is internationally so well known for is of course the old Karosta prison, whether you see it on just a regular tour or take part in any of their participatory dark “show” events. 
On the coast you can see some marvellous ruined fortifications and further up the shore, the Northern Forts beckon – you can also get guided tours of these. An exploration there was included in my half-day Karosta tour, but you can also get stand-alone tours, e.g. by contacting Karosta prison. 
Just a bit further north still you can find the Skede Holocaust memorial.
Combinations with non-dark destinations: one of the highest-profile architectural gems here can hardly be described as dark, actually: the Orthodox cathedral, especially now that it has resumed its original role as a place of worship and has been restored to its former gilded glory, both the onion domes and the interior (women have to cover their hair when going inside – and no photography is allowed). 
Neither is a walk on the northern pier anything especially dark – on the contrary, depending on the weather. You can even watch windsurfers here who use the calmed waters behind the breakwater walls for practising. 
For more non-dark sights see under Liepaja
  • Karosta 01 - swing bridgeKarosta 01 - swing bridge
  • Karosta 02 - cathedralKarosta 02 - cathedral
  • Karosta 03 - empty block of flatsKarosta 03 - empty block of flats
  • Karosta 04 - abandoned and boarded upKarosta 04 - abandoned and boarded up
  • Karosta 05 - demolition has startedKarosta 05 - demolition has started
  • Karosta 06 - manegeKarosta 06 - manege
  • Karosta 07 - wide openKarosta 07 - wide open
  • Karosta 08 - ghostlyKarosta 08 - ghostly
  • Karosta 09 - empty old buildingsKarosta 09 - empty old buildings
  • Karosta 10 - big pipe openingKarosta 10 - big pipe opening
  • Karosta 11 - submarine bunkerKarosta 11 - submarine bunker
  • Karosta 12 - towerKarosta 12 - tower
  • Karosta 13 - abandoned old Tsarist-era buildingKarosta 13 - abandoned old Tsarist-era building
  • Karosta 14 - boarded upKarosta 14 - boarded up
  • Karosta 15 - pretty but dilapidatedKarosta 15 - pretty but dilapidated
  • Karosta 16 - film reels scattered on the floorKarosta 16 - film reels scattered on the floor
  • Karosta 17 - former naval base HQKarosta 17 - former naval base HQ

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