A marvellous Cold War
relic from the Soviet
era in Latvia
– a formerly secret government bunker from where the Soviet administrative affairs were supposed to be kept running in case of nuclear war. It is/was hidden underneath a health spa of sorts, or “rehabilitation centre” in the old Soviet lingo, in the middle of a national park. Today it is a quirky but highly intriguing, if a bit remote, tourist attraction. By guided tour only, prior reservations required. But well worth the effort.
>What there is to see
>Access and costs
>Combinations with other dark destinations
>Combinations with non-dark destinations
More background info:
The bunker was apparently planned as early as the late 1960s, but only became operational in the early 1980s. It lies nine metres (30 feet) under ground – or rather under the buildings of the Ligatne Rehabilitation Centre, a spa and sanatorium of sorts (it still has that function today!). How the bunker could be kept secret in such a location is beyond me. But anyway, this was supposed to be the place that the Latvian communist
leadership would have moved into to take shelter and to use it as a war-time command post.
Protected not only by secrecy but also an up to five-metre (15 feet) thick layer of concrete and lead plates, the regional nomenclature was supposed to govern the country from here in case of nuclear or chemical war. Allegedly, supplies and equipment would have allowed for survival for up to three months. What after that, remains an open question, as usual (cf. The Greenbrier
or Hack Green
Furthermore, there had been flaws in the planning of the bunker as well – e.g. there would have been no way of disposing of (or at least freezing) dead bodies, had anyone snuffed while in hiding down here. Decontamination facilities also appeared to be at best on the minimal side.
Yet, it was a well equipped facility – and a huge one at that: a total of 90 rooms covering an area of over 2000 square metres. It has/had an independent power supply, air purification apparatus, its own deep well for drinking water, a kitchen and canteen and of course all manner of communications technology that was (Soviet) state of the art in the 1980s.
Remarkably, it is claimed that the secrecy surrounding this bunker was only lifted as late as in 2003 – well over a decade after the end of the Cold War
Today it allows for a unique “time-travelling” experience as most of the equipment and Soviet-era furnishings have been retained. You even get a taste (literally) of the past in the form of Soviet-era kinds of snacks served in the bunker canteen.
What there is to see:
The time-travel element that this site offers begins even before you actually get to the bunker. After you have parked your car and made it to the reception desk to sign in for your pre-booked tour (see under access
!), for which you should be there at least ten minutes before the start of the tour, you'll then have that time to look around the environs.
Beyond the reception desk long corridors stretch out, branching off a central hall with the staircase. Here you find panels listing the Rehabilitation Centre's spa and entertainment programmes, a large pool table, two pianos and a big fireplace ringed by a row of chairs (all through summer too?). The architecture and interior design is very early 1980s, Eastern-Bloc
style. If you want the toilet you have to walk down a long, dark and dank corridor lined with typical (and totally pointless) long rows of leather settees and chairs.
Near the reception desk there is also a display cabinet filled with all manner of souvenirs, ranging from wood-carving objects, fridge magnets and coffee mugs with bunker prints on them to gas masks!
Eventually it will be time for the tour and you are led to the formerly secret stairs down into the underground bunker. First stop is at the bottom of the stairs where a red banner with a Russian inscription greets you – the guide will translate what it says if you don't know any Russian. Below is a plan of the bunker. After a general introduction you then head into the heart of the bunker.
Its maze-like corridors sport that typical pale green wall paint familiar from hospitals – allegedly it's a colour that is supposed to have an uplifting psychological effect. Why that should be so is beyond me. To me it utterly fails to have any such effect, quite the contrary. I can't imagine anything mores stifling.
Of course there are also heavy steel doors and part of the approach corridor is curved so it would deflect any blast waves. Then you get to the first few rooms filled with Soviet
-era electronics, mostly communications gear. I don't know about you, but I find such exotically old machinery with mysteriously labelled manual controls, dials, switches and meters totally fascinating (maybe it has something to do with my musical past
playing analogue modular synthesizers back in the day ...).
You'll also see lots of telephones, some red, some without dials (because they connected to a direct line to Moscow
), teleprinters (anybody remember them?), late 1980s computers, a radio recording room, documents in Cyrillic lying around on desks, and a large map room.
In a special wood-panelled conference room is a another large map of Latvia
when it was a Soviet
SSR with lots of strategically important points of interest marked on it, including the Ligatne bunker.
The “highlight” in this room, however, has to be the big golden bust of Lenin
. It is marked “Lenins”, but don't make the typical Western mistake of interpreting this as a plural. There's still only one Lenin. It's just that in Latvian all masculine nouns and names have to have the gender marker “s” at the end. The bust is flanked by the flags of the Soviet Union
and of the Latvian SSR.
You are also shown into a very dimly, red-lit, almost completely dark room with a desk – apparently the KGB
head officer's workplace. You may even sit in his chair …
The anteroom has a couch, possibly for the guard to have a rest on, plus bits of Soviet furniture … by the way: all the furnishings are allegedly original, as is all the equipment. Some of this is even said to be in working condition. All this is quite unusual. Many such “show bunkers” have more the air of reconstructions, but here it really does look much more like the Soviets only left the week before …
In another larger conference room, with Lenin portraits on the wall and a big table flanked by Soviet flags, you can try on one of those rubber gas masks. It's a strange feeling donning (and smelling) one of these contraptions. But apparently it is a very popular part of the tour (cf. Prague nuclear bunker
All along our guide was pointing out details of what he referred to as “Soviet thinking”, especially with regard to the propaganda posters you can see. I don't want to give away any concrete clues (they would be spoilers), but be aware that a lot of “lateral thinking” is involved in this ;-)
A visit to the bunker canteen is one of the finishing touches of the tour. Here you can enjoy a “typical Soviet” meal as part of the bunker experience. As we had pre-ordered something vegetarian it may not have been quite so typically Soviet in our case (macaroni with “smetana”, a heavy double cream, plus a glass of “kompot”, a weak fruit cordial). But the mode of “payment” was certainly very Soviet: you had to hand over your little slip of paper you were given as a voucher, which said nothing more than “100g”, and in return a apron-clad female kitchen assistant hands out your portion through a window between the kitchen and the canteen dining room – all in as drably Soviet a design as can be. Marvellous!
All in all I very much enjoyed this tour – the guide was certainly extremely competent (a genuine historian, actually, not some student with a learned-by-rote standard routine on playback) and a lot was to be learned – even for those who are already quite familiar with all things Soviet
! Highly recommended and well worth the effort of getting to this relatively remote location.
not actually in the village of Ligatne itself, but a further two-and-a-half miles (4 km) to the north-west, in a hamlet called Skalupes, near the banks of the Gauja River in the national park of the same name, ca. 50 miles (75 km) north-east of Riga
Access and costs: a bit remote, and restricted in access, namely by pre-booked guided tour on weekends only; not expensive for what you get.
To get to the bunker you really have to have your own vehicle (unless you are staying in Ligatne and have a bicycle). Driving time from Riga
is about one hour.
First find your way to Ligatne's village centre and then continue east cross the river and follow the road north-east towards the village of Skalupes (the bunker and Rehabilitation Centre are fairly well signposted).
Here you turn left and drive through the gate and park right outside the Rehabilitation Centre's main reception building. Go inside and contact the reception desk.
The bunker is only open to the public by guided tour. These tours have to be pre-booked in advance – unless you are fluent enough in Latvian, in which case you can just try and turn up at a time of a tour and hope to get a place on it. This seemed to be the case while I was waiting for my tour to begin. But foreign-language tours definitely have to be pre-arranged! As it turned out my wife and I were the only non-Latvians booked in for that day. So we had to wait a little to give the large Latvian group time to go ahead, but then we basically had the whole bunker to ourselves! Whether that was just lucky or is often the case I cannot say.
The price for a regular tour in English is 10.76 EUR, including a lunch in the bunker canteen (if you're vegetarian or have other dietary requirements make sure to arrange this in advance too).
Tours during the week can be arranged too, but normally only run for groups of ten persons minimum and cost 9 EUR per person (excluding the canteen lunch), or else you have to pay 90 EUR for the whole group if there are less than ten participants.
Tours in Latvian and Russian are somewhat cheaper: 6.76 EUR for the usual weekend tours, or 5 EUR per person (50 per group of under ten) for specially arranged weekday tours.
The centre also offers special packages like “feasts” in the bunker canteen (note: sarcasm!) including various classic dishes from the 1980s bearing playful “socialist” names (such as “barricades snack”). You can even have a whole “party” in the bunker – or rather: take part in some sort of role-playing “reality” game in which you get a mission to accomplish in various “secret agent” roles. This theatrical special offer is called “Object X” and participation costs 15 EUR per person (or 225 EUR for a group of less than 15 participants) or 11 EUR/161 in Latvian/Russian.
You can even stay overnight at the Rehabilitation Centre – it offers single and double en-suite rooms at incredibly low rates (almost suspiciously low?), starting from 10 EUR a night. Accommodation with a cosier standard of comfort, and a good deal of quirkiness thrown in for good measure, can be found in Ligatne itself at a country inn whose Latvian name “Lāču Miga” translates as 'Bear's Den'. In the lobby there's the biggest teddy bear I have ever seen in my life, a play area by the restaurant has a sea of normal-sized teddy bears and the sign outside the hotel is supported by a wood-carved bear. Bears galore indeed.
The guided tours are advertised to last between one and one-and-a-half hours. But the one I went on ended up closer to two hours, thanks to my guide's enthusiasm. It is possible to visit the Ligatne bunker as a day return excursion from Riga
. Driving time from Riga is a bit over an hour (or a bit more if traffic in and on the the way out of Riga is heavy – which it can be!).
Combinations with other dark destinations:
nothing in the vicinity, to my knowledge, so the nearest best hotspot for dark attractions would be Riga
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
Ligate is bang in the middle of Latvia
's oldest and largest national park: Gauja – named after the river that flows through it. There's some pretty scenery here, mostly lush undulating woodlands, winding natural riverbeds, in places featuring impressive sandstone cliffs, and also some pretty old towns as well as hill-top castles.
In Ligatne itself, there are some caves and nature trails to explore, as well as a wildlife park featuring bears, wolves and elk. There's also a site of industrial heritage: an old red-brick paper mill, still operational and selling high-quality products, apparently, and also seeing to the region's paper recycling.
Unfortunately I did not have the time to do much exploring in Ligatne or the national park at all when I was there. One local landmark that I did see (other than the bunker) was rather on the underwhelming side: the old rope-ferry crossing … The traditional wooden houses in Ligatne town, however, were indeed very pretty.
- Ligatne Soviet bunker 01 - reception
- Ligatne Soviet bunker 02 - corridor of the rehabilitation centre
- Ligatne Soviet bunker 03 - welcome to the bunker
- Ligatne Soviet bunker 04 - in the bunker
- Ligatne Soviet bunker 05 - curved corridor to deflect blast
- Ligatne Soviet bunker 06 - steel door
- Ligatne Soviet bunker 07 - vintage technology
- Ligatne Soviet bunker 08 - red phone
- Ligatne Soviet bunker 09 - USSR electronics
- Ligatne Soviet bunker 10 - teleprinters
- Ligatne Soviet bunker 11 - no longer on air
- Ligatne Soviet bunker 12 - safety in numbers, maybe
- Ligatne Soviet bunker 13 - ancient computer
- Ligatne Soviet bunker 14 - paper journals
- Ligatne Soviet bunker 15 - a Latvian Lenin - hence the s
- Ligatne Soviet bunker 16 - Latvian SSR
- Ligatne Soviet bunker 17 - telephones
- Ligatne Soviet bunker 18 - map room
- Ligatne Soviet bunker 19 - communist
- Ligatne Soviet bunker 20 - red
- Ligatne Soviet bunker 21 - cosy, or not
- Ligatne Soviet bunker 22 - Lenin, flags and gas masks
- Ligatne Soviet bunker 23 - red star idyll
- Ligatne Soviet bunker 24 - canteen
- Ligatne Soviet bunker 25 - 100g tokens
- Ligatne Soviet bunker 26 - Gauja National Park
- Ligatne Soviet bunker 27 - in Ligatne town
- Ligatne Soviet bunker 28 - the Gauja river
- Ligatne Soviet bunker 29 - old ferry crossing