Daugavpils is Latvia’s second-largest city with a population around 90,000, fully half comprised of ethnic Russian speakers. During Soviet times, factories were set up in Daugavpils thanks to its strategic location near the borders of Belarus and Lithuania, and workers from other Soviet republics were brought in. Some factories closed with the collapse of the Soviet Union, but many workers and their families remained. The economy of the region has suffered with the decline in manufacturing, while more and more young people have relocated to the country’s dynamic capital, Riga.
Driving through Daugavpils past its many red-brick buildings and smoke stacks, I was reminded of post-industrial “rust-belt” cities in the U.S. like Buffalo, New York and Cleveland, Ohio. And that gave me hope because both of those cities are experiencing a renaissance. Daugavpils isn’t there yet, but I saw a lot of potential. Crumbling apartment buildings rub shoulders with lovingly restored churches of various denominations. Chic cafes and thoughtfully curated museums are fronted by well-tended parks and immaculate, though often empty streets. Boutique shops and artist studios stand next to graffiti-covered ruins and liquor stores. I imagine the city can look rather bleak during the gray and wet winter months, but Daugavpils was in full bloom during my spring visit.
The Daugavpils Museum of Regional History and Art is housed in a grand Art Nouveau mansion overlooking leafy Dubrovin Park. The surprisingly robust collection includes archaeological finds from the nearby Jersika castle mound, gilded icons of the region’s predominant Orthodox religion, Art Nouveau artifacts, and remnants of Latvia’s Soviet occupation. At the time of my visit, the museum’s top floor was dedicated to local contemporary artists. The Latvian still life painting featuring Riga Black Balsam was my personal favorite. The museum’s only drawback was the lack of English translations.
A short drive from downtown Daugavpils, the fantastic Mark Rothko Art Centre capitalizes on the city’s claim to fame as the birthplace of the abstract expressionist painter. While not a huge fan of Rothko’s minimalist color fields, I was very impressed with this museum. Interactive digital displays illustrate the painter’s life and the history of the city, known by the Russian name Dvinsk (and part of the Russian Empire) at the time of Rothko’s birth. Several original masterpieces are on display, though are extremely well-guarded and photos strictly forbidden. The center’s upper floors are dedicated to showcasing the works of Latvian and international contemporary artists, many of whom drew inspiration from Rothko.
The Rothko Centre is located on the grounds of Daugavpils Fortress, the only one of its kind remaining in Northern Europe. The vast military bastion was constructed in the early 1800s to repel an attack by Napoleon, but was already considered obsolete by the end of the century. Although subsequently used as a warehouse, WWII prisoner-of-war camp, and Soviet military school over the years, the layout of the fortifications was left unaltered. The buildings fell into ruin, however, and restoration works are ongoing.
On your way back to town, stop in at the Daugavpils Clay Art Centre. Master potters from Latgale have set up studios in a unused factory where they turn out the beautiful ceramics for which the region is known. For a two euro entrance fee, I was shown gleaming new kilns and a demonstration of the pottery-making process (in Latvian). The center was established by the Daugavpils city government to promote a folk tradition that’s deeply embedded in local culture. Do your part by taking home a Latgalian pottery souvenir!
Another post-industrial site that’s been given a new lease on life is the Daugavpils Lead Shot Factory. The historic 19th century building with its distinctive red-brick tower has been opened for tourists! Here’s the thing: this ammunition plant is still operational, making it the only place in Europe where you can see how bullets are made. Shots are cast by dropping molten lead inside the tower and then sorted by caliber. When I visited, some raw materials (don’t touch!) and spent casings were on display along with some cool Russian factory paraphernalia.
The factory is down the street from Saints Boriss and Gleb Russian Orthodox Cathedral, the largest of its kind in Latvia. The massive blue-and-white structure can hold 5,000 worshipers beneath its golden onion domes. The cathedral’s stunning interior – which I was allowed to photograph with a small donation – features a polished oak iconostasis that some believe to be a copy of the one in St.Vladimir’s Cathedral in Kiev.
The cathedral is the crown jewel of Baznicas Kalns, or Church Hill, upon which stand four churches of different denominations. In addition to the Russian Orthodox Cathedral there is the Martin Luther Lutheran Cathedral, the Roman Catholic Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the Church of the Community of Old Believers. Given the current state of the world, it’s refreshing to see different faiths coexisting peacefully side by side.
I spent two nights at Villa Ksenija, a charming guest house conveniently situated on Church Hill between the Orthodox cathedral and Lead Shot Factory. (I could see the factory’s tower from my balcony!) The small boutique hotel (six rooms) has been open since 2013, though the physical mansion dates to 1876 and is a registered architectural landmark. The interior is stately, yet comfortable, and the delicious breakfast spread is so filling you won’t need lunch. (The restaurant is also an excellent choice for dinner.)
Another good option is Gubernators, Daugavpils’ top restaurant according to TripAdvisor. Gubernators serves up rich and hearty Eastern European comfort food in a rustic beer hall setting – and brews its own beer to boot. I opted for a bowl of tangy solanka and succulent roast ham with potatoes and sauerkraut, paired with a citrusy wheat ale. Prieka!
Would you consider adding Daugavpils, Latvia to your Baltic itinerary?