Sunday, January 11, 2009
No doubt it's a sign of my masochistic northern temperament but I've always liked dour, end-of-the-world places. So it was fitting that my first trip out of Riga was to a city that my students optimistically described as "dirty, cold and full of pickpockets".
From the moment you step down from the train, Daugavpils feels very much like the back end of nowhere. The last jumping-off point before the Belarusian border, the station building's stab at monumentalism is neutered by a departures board listing four trains a day, half of which were returning to the capital. It's Latvia's second city, though the lingua franca on the slush-bound streets was Russian (Latvian speakers make up just 17% of the population, only slightly ahead of Poles).
There's lots of attractive early-20th century architecture in the pedestrianized centre (like the Czechs, the Latvians had a flourishing inter-war republic) but there wasn't a great deal else to see beyond the 19th-century fortress, a grid of decaying Soviet Aviation barrack buildings inside snow-covered red-brick walls built to repel Napoleon (they worked, for a while). Our 20 santimes were taken by a man in jeans and a leather jacket with a half-smoked cigarette wedged between his teeth. Over his shoulder, a rusted playground looked as forlorn as the city centre sign saying Work in UK. Hanging above a locked-up office, it wasn't apparent whether it was an advertisement or a cry for help.
Before leaving we ate at Gubernators, a posh cellar-pub on a corner opposite the city's university (one block west of where the Rough Guide map puts it). Meat and chips cost under 3 lats; half-litres of beer were just 80 santimes.
We stayed for a while.