What to See in Latvia, Belarus and Kaliningrad Oblast | True Lithuania
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Riga, Latvia

The capital of Latvia is in a sense a complete antonym of Lithuanian cities. Established by the Teutonic Knights in the 13th century it survived through the ages as a major city, even after it was conquered by Poland-Lithuania in the 16th century and then by Sweden in 1621. Until the Swedish era was cut short by Russian annexation Riga was the largest city of Sweden surpassing even Stockholm. The Russians continued the industrial development and Riga was one of the Czar's 5 largest centers of population. Only Moscow, Saint Petersburg, Warsaw, and Kiev could have rivaled it in 19th and the early 20th centuries. The population of Riga was some 600 000 people in the year 1914, almost the same as it is today (650 000 according to 2011 census).

Freedom Monument in Riga (1935) built between the medieval Old Town and the industrial era Centrs is the symbol of Latvia. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The late 19th century Riga was home to many Lithuanians as there were far more job opportunities in its mighty industry than in the small provincial towns of Lithuania. In fact, more ethnic Lithuanians lived in Riga than in Vilnius at the time.

That Golden Era when Riga was known as Paris of the Baltics is well visible in the city. Its UNESCO-inscribed Centrs district is full of large (5 and 6 floors) Art Nouveau apartment blocks once built by rich Germans of Teutonic descent who dominated the high society despite all changes in the political rule. That is until the Soviet Union forces came in 1944 and the Baltic Germans were either killed or expelled.

These Art Noveau houses are extremely elaborate with domes, towers, statues and bas-reliefs adorning their large facades. You may enter some of them where there are museums dedicated to famous people like the folksong collector Krišjānis Barons.

A detail of top floors of an art nouveau building, Strēlnieku street, Centrs district. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

There are other turn-of-the-century districts, including the ethnically mixed Moscow (Maskavas) district, where the large 5 storied buildings are joined by wooden apartment blocks that even at 2 and 3 floors seems large because wooden buildings are rarely built of such size. In fact, together with art nouveau, the 19th-century wooden architecture was cited as a reason for Riga's UNESCO World Heritage inscription. The best location for spotting wooden apartment blocks is Āgenskalns on the opposite (western) side of Daugava.

Wooden apartments in Āgenskalns. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Mežaparks district with its villas surrounded by a forest is also cute.

The medieval town of Riga, on the other hand, is not on-par with that of Vilnius. It is smaller and damaged under the Soviet occupation with many buildings replaced by new Soviet ones. That said however it has many nice structures, including the tall St. Peter‘s church the spire of which you can visit. It is also known for a lively nightlife. Some of the bars are aimed at tourists and are known to charge extortionary prices and use certain scams.

City Hall square in Old Town Riga, with St. Peter church tower and the recently rebuilt Guild house (right). ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Just like every other formerly Soviet city, Riga has many Soviet apartment block districts. After all, so many people were sent to live in Riga from the Soviet Union (mainly Russians) that ethnic Latvians became a minority by the 1970s (36,5% in 1989). Even today they constitute less than 50 percent of Riga people. The unusually large size of pre-war Riga meant that less new construction took place here than in Vilnius or Kaunas with many old buildings nationalized and partitioned into small flats by the Soviet government instead.

In the northwest of Riga stands Jūrmala resort. Formally it is a separate city, but in reality, it is an agglomeration of several seaside villages that has now become effectively a suburb of Riga, reachable by an electric train and a six-lane highway. Popular among Russians Jūrmala is a place of residence or second home for many rich people.

Riga may be reached from all major cities of Lithuania by bus. There are also direct plane routes from Vilnius, Kaunas, and Palanga, but all these are aimed at transfer passengers and business clients, therefore, good deals for direct flights to Riga are rare. There are no train routes from Lithuania to Riga.

Read more: Full Riga travel guide at Onlatvia website

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Rundale Palace and Bauska Town, Latvia

Some 15 kilometers from the Lithuanian-Latvian border (only 10 km detour from Vilnius-Riga road) stands one of the foremost tourist sites of Latvia. This is the baroque Rundale palace (1736-1768), once a summer residence of the dukes of Courland and Semigallia. There are many manors in the Baltic States but none of them could rival Rundale both in opulence and scale.

After all most Baltic manors were built by the local nobility that owned some nearby lands but all them were still part of Poland-Lithuania. The dukes of Courland (Kettler and Biron dynasties), on the other hand, had their own semi-sovereign duchy, a vassal of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Courland even participated in the colonization of Americas, colonizing Tobago island in the 17th century where a geographical feature is still named Great Courland Bay. Other colonial adventures included Gambia and while they were unsuccessful on the long term, Courland, with mere 100 000 inhabitants at the time, was the smallest nation to partake in the colonialism.

The Rundale palace is the main heritage of this small, yet powerful country, as the Dukes' primary residence in Jelgava had its interior looted and burned by the Russian forces in 1918. Both Rundale and Jelgava palaces were created by Bartolomeo Rastrelli - the same architect who was behind the Winter Palace (Hermitage) in Saint Petersburg and the Carskoye Selo palace of the Russian czars.

Rundale Palace. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

In Rundale many extravagant rooms may be visited inside on the second floor. Restorations are ongoing and much of what haven't survived has been restored. First floors house temporary exhibitions. Formal garden in front of the palace with its straight paths and a fountain is another pinnacle of the visit.

The nearest town to Rundale Palace is Bauska (Lithuanian: Bauskė) on the Vilnius-Riga road. Traditionally a community of merchants the town has many surviving old buildings. The central square is crowned by a recently rebuilt towered city hall. In streets like Rigas you may walk some 500 meters without encountering post-WW2 buildings. Lutheran church of Bauska dates to the 16th century. Like other Latvian towns, Bauske has many Christian denominations so newer Russian Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches also exist. On the confluence of Nemunėlis (Latvian: Memele) and Mūša (Latvian: Musa) rivers stands a formidable Bauska castle of the Teutonic knights, partly rebuilt.

Read more: Full travel guides of Bauska and Rundale at Onlatvia website

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Liepaja, Latvia

Liepaja (pop. 85 000) is a Latvian seaport 100 kilometers north of Klaipėda, 70 kilometers north of Palanga. No customs means that it can easily be visited as a day trip.

The city has been a major port for many centuries. Once the navy of the Duchy of Courland was stationed there, one-third in size of the legendary Spanish armada. Courland was the smallest European country to partake in the colonization of the Americas and the Tobago street beside the sea reminds that the Tobago island in the Carribean was once known as New Courland.

Trinity Cathedral in Liepaja (1758). ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

What is visible now, however, is mainly from the 19th century when the city was a major naval hub of the Russian Empire. It had a direct passenger route to New York.

Liepaja is essentially formed of three parts, separated by canals. The southern part is the oldest one. Large churches of various denominations there tower above old apartment buildings. The Holy Trinity Cathedral is famous for having a large mechanical organ, while St. Annes has a great baroque altar (unfortunately, the churches are usually closed). The area also has multiple pedestrianized streets and old marketplaces. The typical homes there are two floored wooden residentials and impressive art nouveau edifices.

West side of southern Liepaja is limited by a massive Beach and an adjoining park. The nearby streets have been lined with lovely villas of the pre-WW1 era rich (many of them wooden and, unfortunately, but atmospherically, a large number seemingly abandoned). One such villa has been transformed into Liepaja museum.

Wooden villas closer to the sea. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The central part of Liepaja is called the "New Liepaja" and it has been constructed in the 19th century. Alongside the canal that separates it from the Old Town old port warehouses stand and a new esplanade has been built (on the Old Town side). The New Liepaja is architecturally interesting but has quite little to do. As the location of bus and train stations, however, it is an introduction of Liepaja most travelers pass through.

The final northernmost part of Liepaja is probably the most unique and eerie. This is the Karosta (Military port), a former major Russian Imperial naval base (actually, an entire military city with 30 000 inhabitants). Its red brick elaborate late 19th century barracks now stand abandoned amidst forests. Just like many of the later Soviet apartments built for Soviet soldiers. On the other hand, the Russian Orthodox Naval Cathedral stands in full splendor. The area's history may be explored in a unique attraction the authentic Karosta prison, which one can either visit as a museum or even spend a night there. A walk on expansive 2 km long breakwater into the sea is also rewarding. Other interesting buildings are the water tower, pigeon mail station, and the ruined festival edifice.

Karosta prison. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

In the 19th century, many Lithuanians lived in Liepaja, forming 20% of the population in the year 1910. After the independence of both Latvia and Lithuania (1918), many returned and Liepaja gymnasium was the alma mater for many famous Lithuania people of the time. Liepaja did not grow in population after the World War 1, therefore, the pre-war era is still well visible in its buildings.

There are buses to Liepaja from Klaipėda and Palanga.

Read more: Full Liepaja travel guide at Onlatvia website

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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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Lithuanian Castles in Belarus

Despite all the bad publicity of Belarus in the West (and Lithuania) and the rather dull Soviet-rebuilt Belarussian cities having little of interest, there is one journey to Belarus that relatively many Lithuanians take. This is a visit to certain castles and manors that were constructed by the nobility of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania when this Duchy ruled over whole Belarus (14th-18th centuries). The buildings are in various state of repair: from romantic ruins to full modern restorations. Belarusian state now strives to rebuild more of its scarce historic buildings although these works are sometimes criticized as inauthentic.

Myras (Mir) castle, one of the top tourist locations in Belarus. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The entire route from Vilnius may take two days (take into account the waiting time on the border which may take up to five hours). Here the castles are listed in the order it is the easiest to visit them, it makes a neat circle (reverse order may also be chosen):

*First (or last) stop may be Medininkai Castle which is still in Lithuania, 2 km from Belarusian border. Only the outer wall remains, but it is intact. One tower is rebuilt as a museum.
*Kreva (Krėva) Castle is especially important to Eastern European history. Union of Krėva was signed here in 1385 making the Grand Duke of Lithuania Jogaila also a King of Poland (later this led to a political union that lasted until 1795). It is also likely that 1382 Jogaila masterminded killing of former Grand Duke Kęstutis here. Only parts of the outer wall and towers remain.
*Golšany (Alšėnai) Castle has been built by Sapiega family in 1610. Picturesque ruined baroque building remains (the castle was destroyed by Swedes in the early 1700s).
*Gerviaty (Gervėčiai) village lacks a castle but is one of the last surviving ethnically Lithuanian territories in Belarus. Prior to 19th century most of this castle-rich borderland was ethnically Lithuanian but the Russian Imperial (1795-1918) and Soviet (1940-1991) russification campaigns took their toll. Gervėčiai's magnificent gothic revival Roman Catholic church (1903) is the largest in Belarus. Interestingly the whole northwestern Belarus is still Catholic despite a linguistic shift. Many of its numerous churches and monasteries date to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania era and they follow Vilnius Baroque sub-style. The older Russian Orthodox churches differ little from Catholic ones lacking the iconic domes.

Gervėčiai church. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

*If you want to visit Minsk (pop. 1 900 000), this is the time. It has no castle on itself and is mostly a post-WW2 city. Moving forward in time slowly it arguably remains the most authentic example of a Soviet metropolis. It still has the Soviet street names and sculptures that once plagued the Lithuanian cities; an institution named KGB still exists and the police is still known as militia. Minsk had its (almost) entire Old Town replaced by Stalinist grandeur while its dull outer boroughs (still named "Soviet", "Lenin", "1st of May" and so on) are even more extensive than anywhere in Lithuania. In fact, they are still expanded in the same style (or lack thereof) as in the 1980s. Minsk may be the place for your first overnight stay.
*UNESCO-inscribed Nesvizh (Nesvyžius) Palace (1583) was a crown jewel of an extremely powerful Radvila family. Massive and opulent fortified palace is now restored and includes a nice park and a family crypt. Actors are dressed as nobles inside. The family-funded Nesvizh town church is the second oldest Baroque church in the world (after Gesu in Rome).

Inside the courtyard of Nesvyžius palace. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

*Mir (Myras) Castle (1510) is also on the UNESCO list. After decades of neglect it was rebuilt in the 1990s and now looks formidable. A museum inside presents a story of this and other Belarusian castles.
*Kosava (Kosovas) palace of a Russian general dates to the post-GDL era, but its Moorish-inspired walls are impressive nevertheless. Once romantically surrounded by a forest it is now in open space and undergoing restoration. Furthermore, the revolutionary hero Tadeusz Kosciuszko was born in a small wooden hut nearby.
*Ruzhany (Ružanai). A former manor of a major Sapiega family (which was second in power after the Radvilas). The atmosphere of ages gone-by overflows when standing in a former courtyard still surrounded by an elaborate wall with holes replacing the windows. Reconstruction is underway, however.

The remains of lavish Ružanai palace. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

*Hrodna (Gardinas) (pop. 300 000) has two castles. The old one was expanded by Vytautas the Great whereas the new one dates to the 18th century. Both have been heavily modified and repurposed by the Soviets and now house blunt 20th-century interiors. A wooden pole for Vytautas the Great has been built between the castles by Lithuania. As the modern Belarusian government is looking towards Soviet rather than medieval era for inspiration this is one of only a few sculptures for Grand Duchy heroes in Belarus.
*Lida (Lyda) Castle is a square walled area with two defensive towers. It is rebuilt and used for knight tournament re-enactments.
*Navahrudak (Naugardukas) Castle now consists of some picturesque hilltop ruins but prior to its destruction during the 1654-1660 Russian invasion it used to be a formidable fortress. According to M. Stryjkowski chronicle, Naugardukas was the first capital of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania before Vilnius (however no other source corroborates this). The town has a Glastonbury-like atmosphere with multiple baroque churches and even a wooden mosque.

It is the best to either drive yourself or to take an organized tour as some of the castles are quite far from the main towns and therefore hard to reach. It should also be noted that English is less than popular in Belarus and that a visa is required for most nationalities.

Map of Lithuanian castles and palaces in Belarus and southeastern Lithuania. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

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Kaliningrad (Karaliaučius) Oblast, Russia

Kaliningrad Oblast is now an exclave of Russia but it is populated by Russians only after it was conquered by the Soviet Union in the year 1945. Prior to that, the area was ruled by Germans. Ethnic Lithuanians made a significant portion of inhabitants. The area was part of Lithuania Minor and it is in Kaliningrad (then known as Koenigsberg in German and Karaliaučius in Lithuanian) where the first Lithuanian language books were printed.

History, however, is nearly swept away in the Oblast. All the placenames were changed. Even many river names were changed from German and Lithuanian ones to Russian (a rare practice after conquests). Instead of Bareiškiemis there is now Pervomaiskoe (literally "May 1st town"), in place of Koenigsberg - Kaliningrad (named after a famous communist Kalinin who never visited the city), Tilsit/Tilžė is now Sovetsk (after the Soviet Union).

In Kaliningrad, little remains of Koenigsberg as entire downtown was obliterated and only the long-abandoned cathedral is now restored by German donations. The massive medieval castle has been torn down and its place is now occupied by the Soviet Palace (actually a dull white tower block).

Some other towns were luckier, however, it is well understandable why German exiles used to weep when they saw their former hometowns after finally being allowed to visit them once the Soviet Union collapsed. Even those stately German buildings and churches that were not obliterated now lay in ruins. Not a single old town is intact. The few remaining old buildings dissonate heavily with the modern poverty surrounding them. They are joined by countless plain Soviet ones and ones rebuilt after 1945.

Chenekhovskoe (Insterburg / Įsrūtis), Sovetsk (Tilsit / Tilžė), Zelenogradsk (Cranz / Krantas) are among the more interesting towns.

In the times of Soviet Union travel to the heavily militarized Oblast was forbidden. Now this ban on foreigners still applies only to the town of Baltijsk (Pillau / Piliava). Still however, a Russian visa is needed and the waiting times on the borders may be long. They tend to be shorter in Neringa (Curonian Spit), but there you will have to pay a local tax for entering the national park on both sides. It may be quicker to get in by train from Vilnius. Oblast being an exclave every train from Moscow to Kaliningrad stops at Vilnius station.

Kaliningrad city itself may be reached by bus or train from Vilnius, and by bus from other main cities. Still, if you want to explore smaller and more interesting locations it will be better to drive a car.

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Southern Sudovia: Poland’s Lithuania

Southern Sudovia is part of Poland politically but an extension of Lithuania culturally/historically. This area changed hands many times but remained in Poland after the 1920 war. Locals, however, put a great emphasis on their Lithuanian ethnicity.

A good example of that is a Prussian-Yotvingian settlement near Punsk - an atmospheric reimagination of how a prehistoric pagan Baltic village may have looked like. Constructed entirely by a single Lithuanian enthusiast over many years it has a single over-arching style which makes it even more believable (even if perhaps less authentic) than reconstructions by historians.

A small wooden castle surrounded by a ditch in the Prussian-Yotvingian complex. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The "settlement" includes a small castle, watchtowers, totems, meeting circles, sacred fires, runic inscriptions, a bridge, an archery range, political-philosophical inscriptions on behalf of the extinct Prussian and Yotvingian tribes to which the owner self-identifies. Everything is built of wood while decorations are of stone and bones. The forest is both around the settlement and inside it; nearly no modern buildings are visible from anywhere. The area is no museum, however; everything may be touched and there are well-integrated benches, WCs. Lithuanian neo-pagans even hold their celebrations there.

Punsk village (pop. ~1200, 80% Lithuanians) also has two Lithuanians-related museums and one skansen. A multitude of Lithuanian symbols on the area's walls and fences are another proof of the local feelings.

Sejny (Lithuanian: Seinai) town 23 km south of Punsk has a castle-like 19th-century former Lithuanian priest seminary, while Wigry (Lithuanian: Vygriai) hosts a massive 17th-18th centuries monastery.

The seminary of Sejny prepared many famous Lithuanian priests. Today building is used as a museum. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The main sights of Poland (Warsaw, Cracow, Torun, Gdansk) are all far away (300-800 km) and the local roads are no highways, making it impractical to combine a visit there with a Lithuanian voyage unless you plan a larger Baltic trip. The Poland's closest prime touristic place to Lithuania is the former Adolf Hitler's bunker some 170 km away.

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