With the End to End done, I holed up in a cheap hotel in Liepāja for a few days to catch up on sleep, laundry, writing assignments etc. I did manage to explore the place by bike meanwhile, though. Which is the best way to do so, as it’s a Marmite sort of town: not because you either love it or hate it, but because it’s spread out.
As well as the Baltic coast, which made me feel right at home – it was as blustery, cloudy and chilly as Bridlington in April – Liepāja has a lake, and there’s a long narrow spit you can cycle along that takes you almost out into the middle.
Liepāja also has a fascinating museum depicting the harsh world of the Soviet occupation, but it was closed for refurb – though there was no evidence of any works actually taking place, which all seemed somehow appropriate.
The town has a workaday, industrial feel to it – a reasonably busy harbour, plenty of roadworks, shopping malls and factories – but apart from the beach and lively seaside park, there’s not a lot to detain a traveller. Which made it an excellent choice for a writer wanting no distractions beyond a Hesburger (the rather better Baltic equivalent of McDonald’s) and can of supermarket beer.
However, there is one tick-list must-do in all the guidebooks. Karosta is an expansive area north of the city that used to be a closed-off naval base and military area, before and during the Soviet occupation, and was a sink estate for problem inhabitants between that and EU times.
Karosta’s extent makes it best explored by bike: a grid-street town of bleak apartments and derelict buildings, few shops, a red-brick Tsarist-era naval equivalent of Yorkshire’s ruined abbeys. There’s a striking Orthodox Cathedral at the heart of it all, a beacon of coloured tiles, mosaic faces and icons, and gold domes amid the grubby austerity; but the oddest thing is the jail.
For over a century Karosta Prison was a military detention centre, where miscreants in the forces would endure days of unimaginable hardship. Except you can imagine it if you go on a guided tour of the cells. Inmates were crammed a dozen or more into a space the size of some modern SUVs, bare-walled and empty, with only one tiny window. They worked up to 20 hours a day with tiny rations, slept on wooden planks, and had only 30 seconds to use the toilet in the morning and the evening.
This disgusts most people. On the other hand, I can see Amazon board members excitedly scribbling this down as an inspiring business model.
But the main thing about Karosta Jail is, you can stay here! Which I did, more because everything else in the town was booked up for the Liepāja Open Tennis champs than anything else. You stay in a cell, much more luxurious than the prisoners endured of course – there’s a bed, but little else. No light (just a window), no electricity, no desk, no wifi, no sink.
LATVIA FACTS 11Mark Rothko (artist) was born in Daugavpils. Other famous Latvians include dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov (dancer), Gidon Kremer (violinist) , Sergei Eisenstein (film director), and Catherine I of Russia (queen).
There are many rave reviews about the experience online, though I found it a bit so-so: not much different from staying at certain tatty old hostels I’ve withstood in the past.
Anyway, that’s my Latvian biking trip essentially over. Tomorrow I return my borrowed bike to my friends in Sigulda, where I’ll stay for the weekend, then begin the journey home.