Latgale, meaning the “Land of Blue Lakes”, borders Russia, Belarus and Lithuania, so far from the capital that it still retains its own language.
Daugavpils is the capital of Latgale and is the second-largest city in Latvia 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.
Because of its strategic position between the Baltic and St Petersburg, it became an industrial powerhouse in the years leading up to WW1. People from all over the Russian Empire came to here to work and there are still a large number of Russian speakers.
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.
The extensive sprawling fortifications were started as preparation for the imminent threat of invasion by Napoleon and became an important military centre for the Russian Empire.
In Soviet times it was used as an air force training school but this huge space fell into disuse. It’s in the process of renovation and its buildings house various museums as well as the Rothko Art Centre. The former stables, on the other side of the river, housed the Jewish Ghetto during WW2 and are still a functioning prison.
Daugavpils Mark Rothko Art Centre
Mark Rothko was born in Marcus Rothkowitz and lived in the city until he emigrated to American. He never came back but his children helped set up this arts centre in the fortress arsenal and it opened its doors.
The centrepiece is the five Rothko originals, loaned by the family, which change 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 has a unique dessert inspired by Rothko.
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, 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.
The Jewish presence in Latvia dates back 2,500 years. Before WW1, almost half of the city’s population was Jewish and there were 34 active synagogues. The Kadish Synagogue was built in 1850 and is the only one left functioning.
It was restored with financial support from Mark Rothko’s children and also houses a small museum dealing with the history of Jews in Daugavpils and Latgale.
Daugavpils Lead Shot factory
One of the few remaining industries in the city, this is the only factory of its kind in the Baltic States. Lead shot for hunting rifle has been produced here continuously 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.