Rupert Parker explores this little known part of Latvia, the birthplace of artist Mark Rothko.
Most visitors to Latvia never get beyond the capital Riga, on the Baltic Sea, but on the other side of the country is Latgale, the “Land of Blue Lakes”. It’s the only region in the country which still has its own language and sits on the border with Russia, Belarus and Lithuania.
Daugavpils is the capital of the region and is the second-largest city in the country although you wouldn’t really know it. It was founded in the 13th century as Dinaburg, then changed to Dvinsk before settling on Daugavpils around 1920. Because of its strategic position between the Baltic and St Petersburg, it became an industrial powerhouse in the years leading up to WW1. It attracted workers from all over the Russian Empire and, as a result, has a large Russian speaking population.
These days its industrial heyday is long over and it makes a pleasant base to explore the unspoilt Latgale region. The present city was built in the early 19th century when the population was relocated to allow construction of the massive fortress. The buildings from that time display a strong architectural unity and the wide Daugava River splits the city into two.
In the late 19th century a new neighbourhood grew up near the railway station and four churches were built on the hill to cater for different denominations. The red brick Lutheran church opened in 1893, followed by the Catholic Church of the Immaculate Conception, the Orthodox Cathedral of St Boris and Gleb, and the House of Prayer of the Old Believers. The architecture ranges from Baroque through Neo-Gothic to Byzantine and you can climb the Lutheran Church tower for an extensive view of the city.
Before WW1, almost half of the city’s population was Jewish and there were 34 active synagogues. The Kadish Synagogue, built in 1850, is the only one left functioning. It was restored in 2005 with financial support from Mark Rothko’s children and also houses a small museum dealing with the history of Jews in Daugavpils and Latgale.
The Daugavpils Lead Shot factory is the only factory of its kind in the Baltic States. They’ve been making lead shot for hunting rifles here since Tsarist times and the original 19th-century equipment is on display. Molten metal was dropped from the top of the 37m tower to the 19m well below, creating tiny spheres of lead shot. Tours take you to the top of the tower and demonstrate the process.
Just outside the town is Daugavpils Fortress. Construction of this sprawling fortification began in 1810 to defend the city against Napoleon’s invading troops and the fort became an important military base for the Russian Empire. In Soviet times it was used as an air force training school but then fell into disuse. The Nazis designated the former stables, on the other side of the river, as the Jewish Ghetto and it’s still a functioning prison.
Inside the fortress itself, the main buildings are being renovated and the centrepiece is the Daugavpils Mark Rothko Art Centre. Mark Rothko was born in 1903 as Marcus Rothkowitz and lived in the city before his emigration to America in 1913. He never returned but his children helped set up this arts centre which opened in 2013.
At its core are five Rothko originals, loaned by the family, which are changed every three years. There’s also a digital display dealing with the artist’s life and an extensive library. Temporary exhibitions show the work of contemporary local and international artists and the restaurant has a unique dessert inspired by Rothko.
Around 30 minutes outside the city, by the Daugava River, is the Augsdaugava protected landscape area, designated as UNESCO World Heritage since 2011. Between Krāslava and Naujene the river meanders in eight massive bends, each around 6km, and the area shows a unique biological diversity. For an overview, climb the Vasargeliski observation tower where you can see a couple of meanders, including the Rozaliski Bend, depicted on Latvian banknotes.
Just nearby is Slutišķi Old Believers Village. In the 17th century “Old Believers”, who didn’t accept Orthodox Church reforms, were forced to flee persecution in Russia. Some of them settled here in Slutišķi, close to the river with ample supplies of fish and forests full of mushrooms. These days these simple rectangular log houses are holiday homes but one has been preserved as a museum, complete with original furniture. There are three rooms, one with a stove for living and the others for storage and weaving. The barn contains horse tackle and agricultural tools.
Thirty minutes upriver is Krāslava Castle. Now not much more than a shell, there’s been a castle on this site since the 18th-century. The present building, classical in style, was the home of Count Plater-Sieberg and dates from the 19th-century. Inside you can see faded frescoes and there’s a beautiful view of the River Daugava from the terrace. Outbuildings contain the Krāslava History and Art Museum and also the Porcelain Doll Collection of Olga Gribule. This includes more than 1500 dolls from all over the world.
Half an hour’s drive north is Aglona, surrounded by lakes and home to Latvia’s only basilica. There’s also a unique Bread Museum, attached to the bakery. The owner, Vija Kuldina, is passionate about Latvian traditional rye bread so she’s set up a small museum to offer hands-on baking and tastings of bread and cakes. Her female staff entertain with Latgallian singing and dancing. A tot of the local Shmakovka alcohol helps you get into the mood.
Twenty minutes west is Preili, a centre for artists and artisans. The Preili Doll Gallery is the single-handed creation of Jeļena Mihailova who’s crafted more than 1000 dolls since she started in 1997. More traditional is the Ceramics House of P.Čerņavskis with an exhibition of pottery and demonstrations of vase making. The Nester Custom Moto & Metal Art Gallery is hidden in a housing estate but is worth a visit for the customised motorbikes and metal sculptures of gleaming engine parts.
Tell Me More About Visiting Latvia’s Latgale Region
Latvia and Latvia Travel have information about the country. Latgale Travel has information about the region. Baltic Country Holidays can arrange tours. Kraslavahas information about the area. Daugavpils has information about the city. Aglona has information about the area. Preili has information about the town.
The Homelike hotel in Daugavpils is central, comfortable and friendly.
The relaxing Silene resort & Spa 4* is 25 minutes outside the city and has an excellent restaurant.
Horse ranch “Klajumi” in Kraslava has cottage rooms and offers traditional Latgale dishes.
Lielborne manor is a charming 18th-century building and serves good food from its grounds.
Arendole manor is by the Duna River, situated in its own grounds, with imaginative food.
Air Baltic flies from London Gatwick direct to Riga.
The Gatwick Express is a high-frequency, non-stop shuttle service from London Victoria to the airport, with real-time passenger information systems and air-conditioned carriages plus power sockets and Wi-Fi. By booking online, passengers can avoid the hassle of queuing and can save 10% on journeys.