Most travellers have probably heard of Riga the capital city of Latvia, quite a few may have even visited. It is equally likely however they didn’t travel beyond the pretty capital, which is a shame as there is plenty more to experience. Riga is an attractive city but Liepāja which is located on the Baltic coast in the west of the country held more appeal for me.
Liepāja is the third largest city in Latvia and due to the ever present sea breeze it is also known poetically as “the city where the wind is born”. It has a long nautical history, originally founded by fishermen and later the home of the Russian Baltic Fleet. A number of submarines were stationed here and there are still stark reminders of the military presence, especially the former prison at Karosta which has now become an unusual but popular attraction.
There is also a long stretch of beach and although the wind seems to be a constant companion it is kept immaculately clean and is popular with both residents and visitors. There are a couple of tented bars which offer plenty of refreshment, including mojitos which may explain my fondness for the city. Watching the sun go down over the Baltic Sea is as spectacular as anywhere and especially enjoyable with a cocktail, although a blanket may also be required. The evening clouds which often roll in make the perfect canvas for the fiery sun to burn it’s rich palette of deep reds, warm oranges, bright yellows and steely blues onto. It is well worth braving the chill of evening.
It is the numerous disused and derelict buildings however which appeal most to me. They are scattered throughout the town and many have been restored. Fortunately most without losing any of their charm or character. They have been modernised and renovated, but retaining a ‘distressed’ appearance seems to be deliberate.
There are plenty more however that are not only run-down by also unoccupied, the wood often completely discoloured and the paint long since peeled, they possess a distinctive charm. They are probably more appealing to visitors than the residents and apparently there is local government funding available to purchase and restore them to their former glory. Hopefully these will be completed with equal sensitivity as the existing renovations.
It isn’t all old world, there are modern buildings, chic apartments, stylish hotels and fashionable shopping centres amongst the traditional churches, monuments, eclectic statues and market places. Alongside the impressive red-brick Promenade Hotel which is a converted warehouse is the Fontaine Palace with it’s individually decorated rooms. Together they provide a huge contrast in available waterfront accommodation.
There is a significant Russian community despite the withdrawal of the military but unfortunately the population of Liepāja is in common with most of Latvia in decline. There remains a healthy music scene of which the Fontaine Festival plays a large part, plentiful street art, a growing number of artisans calling the city home and quirky accommodation like the Fontaine Hotel provides a distinctly bohemian feel. It is hard to ignore the Fontaine family, their influence on the city is everywhere, with numerous enterprises and a seat at the council table.
It is well worth taking a day or two away from Riga to visit Liepāja, there is only one road and neither the rail or air links are currently fully developed. Taking the road however is a pleasant excursion. The countryside is attractive, with scattered rustic farmhouses and agricultural land punctuated with small copses, it almost feels like stepping back in time. Don’t rush the journey, savour it, possibly including a stop at the Milk Manor museum in Skrunda which is an extremely worthwhile diversion.