True Lithuania

Daugavpils, Latvia

Daugavpils (pop. 100 000) is Latvia's second largest city. Standing only some 20 kilometers from the border with Lithuania it may be your closest city at times if you are traveling in the northeast Lithuania.

Many Latvians look down to Daugavpils preferring to see not only Riga,but also Liepaja or Ventspils as more liveable. Among the reasons for this is the ethnic composition of Daugavpils. Latvians were always a minority in this city and Russians are a majority today with Russian still being lingua franca in its wide straight streets.

For a foreign traveler, the fact that Latvian cities ar so different from each other is only positive, however. Daugavpils downtown has been built on a rectangular plan with large 19th-century buildings lining its straight streets. The layout of the city center was created by Imperial Russia in 1826. Just like many cities in Latvia, Daugavpils of 1910 had approximately a similar population as it does today, therefore many buildings date to that pre-war era. However, Daugavpils was greatly damaged during the occupation, meaning that there are few intact streets and old buildings are surrounded by Soviet edifices.

The most unique part of the city is its 19th century Imperial Russian fortress (Cietokšnis) a couple kilometers away from the downtown. Before the collapse of the Russian Empire, the fortress used to be a resting point for the czars on their way from Saint Petersburg to Western Europe. Most of the fortress buildings are still original, dating to 1810 - 1876. However, little of its glory remains - today here you find a run down area as the abandoned fortress was given to poor families as social housing. Other buildings remain decaying there, or more likely are caught in the endless restoration, but the feel is definitely unique. One restored building houses a Mark Rothko art center (it houses just a few paintings of this Daugavpils-born American painter, however).

One of the grand entrances to the Russian fortress of Daugavpils. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Another interesting place is the Daugavpils's "religious center" where churches of 4 different Christian denominations stand side-by-side (Russian Orthodox, Old Believer, Roman Catholic and Lutheran). These four denominations are common in the multi-ethnic Latgale region of Eastern Latvia the largest city in which the Daugavpils is. By the way, even the local Latvians speak a unique Latgalian dialect that is more distant from standard Latvian language than its other dialects. Because of this when Lithuanian and Latvian states were born in the year 1918 there was a minor disagreement who the Latgalians really are: Latvians or Lithuanians. While fighting bolsheviks in 1919 Zarasai offensive Lithuanian forces briefly captured the outskirts of Daugavpils.

Next to the "religious center" lies Varšavas street with some pretty pre-war buildings and a 19th-century lead shot factory, where old technologies are still used to make ammunition (and tourists are welcome).

Lutheran (right) and Roman Catholic churches in the Daugavpils's religious center. Russian Orthodox and Old Believer churches are on the opposite side of the 18. Novembra street. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Despite being regarded as a poor city Daugavpils now has everything to suit tourists' practical needs, from hotels and restaurants to shopping malls.

Daugavpils might be reached by bus from Vilnius or by a less-than-daily train.

Read more: Full Daugavpils travel guide at Onlatvia website

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