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Latvia, and especially the areas along the coastline, has accumulated diverse military heritage in the course of centuries – from the remains of city and town fortifications to secret military facilities of the Cold War era.
Historic Military Heritage
In order to repel attacks by invading armies, robust ramparts were built around Latvian cities in Medieval Times, and buildings were constructed according to the latest standards at the time to make them as strong as possible. This is evidenced by multiple carefully-preserved buildings in a number of Latvian cities and towns, for many of which such sites have become a calling card.
Destinations to consider:
- Daugavpils or Dinaburg Fortress – The only early 19th century fortress in Eastern Europe that has been preserved with almost no alterations;
- Bauska Castle dual ensemble – near the Latvian-Lithuanian border.
The older castle, built by the Livonian Order in mid-15th century, has not been preserved and only ruins now remain. The latter castle, the residence of the Dukes of Courland, was built at the end of the 16th century and currently houses Bauska Museum;
- The oldest Medieval castle in Latvia – Ventspils Castle, built by the Livonian Order in the second half of the 13th century;
- The oldest tower of Riga’s fortification – the Powder Tower, which today is home to the largest military history museum in Latvia;
- Medieval fortifications between Pļaviņas and Gostiņi, which in the 17th century marked the border of Vidzeme – then part of Sweden, Poland’s Latgale, and the Duchy of Courland. This is where the Poles defeated the Swedish army, and the Swedish King Gustav Adolf was almost killed in the battle.
Military Legacy from the World Wars
During both World Wars, front lines crossed the territory of Latvia. There are several places worth visiting if you wish to learn about historic battles, military machinery and weapons, and tactics utilized..
Below are several of these places:
- Tīreļpurvs bog and Ložmetējkalns (Machine-gun Hill) – One of the best-preserved World War I battlefields in Europe;
- Nāves sala (Death Island) – A World War I site just outside Riga. This is the place where, on December 25, 1916, Latvian Riflemen fought the German Army units, outnumbered and outgunned. The site is about 3.5km from Ikšķile Railway Station. Train departure times from Riga;
- Unique Karosta territory in Liepāja, where one can go see the so-called North Forts – part of the city’s fortifications built at the end of the 19th century and start of the 20th century, as well as the only military prison in Europe open to visitors;
- Kurzeme Fortress Museum with an exhibition about World War I and II;
- A collection of military bicycles at Saulkrasti Bicycle Museum. This fascinating collection includes bicycles from five different armies used in the territory of Latvia at various times.
Remnants of the Cold War
The standoff between the West and the Soviet Union after World War II is also known as the Cold War. Although there were no actual military operations, both sides mostly used their economic and political influence to advance their agendas. To further consolidate their spheres of influence, such methods as espionage and high alert were also put to use.
As Latvia regained independence and the Soviet Army was withdrawn from the country, part of the formerly-secret facilities became accessible to history aficionados ready to put on comfortable outdoor clothing and footwear, arm themselves with a torch, and go exploring.
Sites worth seeing:
- Irbene Radio Telescope – one of the most secret Soviet facilities that, during the Cold War, was used for surveillance of NATO countries. Now two out of three radio antennae have been transformed into radio telescopes and used for probes of outer space, while the village for Soviet army officers manning the base is now a ghost town;
- Soviet bunker in Līgatne, a secret hideaway, built in the 1980s as a fallout shelter for elite Soviet officials. The original interior and equipment at the shelter have been preserved unchanged;
There are many former Soviet missile bases in Latvia’s forests.
One of the most impressive of these is at Zeltiņi in north-eastern Latvia, which includes hangars for storing missiles, launchers, a bunker and a system of underground tunnels, as well as accommodations for the personnel of the base. In addition, this is the only place in Latvia where a statue of Lenin, made of stone, can be seen standing outdoors.