Driving in, I know I expected something else. It is a place that defies categorization - a unique historical site in Europe with the potential to be much, much more. In fact, it is a ghost town. A victim of time and circumstance, Daugavpils Fortress is an empty, abandoned architectural treasure trove that has been ransacked and abused. Despite this fact, this relatively intact 19th century fortress with its ramparts, bastions, and dungeons with massive brick arches, unique in all of Northern Europe, should be included on your list of must-sees in Latvia.
The fortress as it stands today was built in the beginning of the 1800's at the order of Czar Alexander I as a western front defense against French invasion. It is said to have been constructed on the foundation of an earlier fortress by a crew of 10,000 workers divided into two shifts who worked non-stop. Construction continued throughout the 1800's, but it has been said that due to conflicts, floods and other events construction was never actually completed to plan.
Over the years, the fortress has been a war hospital, warehouse, headquarters of an independent Latvian regiment, Red Army headquarters, German occupied territory, a concentration camp, and until 1994, home to the Daugavpils Technical Aviation School. Today the land is controlled by the municipality of Daugavpils and the state.
Daugavpils Fortress is now open for those who would like to visit. There is an admission fee of 40 santims to see the site and a map is available in English for an addition 60 santims. The young man who sold us the tickets told us that we could just look around as we wished. Imagine wandering through a ghost town. Boarded up windows, and silence everywhere. One could almost envision the tumbleweed. We were able to go into the old gates and see the bastions and wander around the dungeons. We were able to go into areas no other museum, it seemed to me, would ever allow. It was quite interesting but it had its unnerving points as well. In some sections of the fortress, there are residential houses where people still live. This added an element of surrealism to the place that I found a bit disconcerting.
One priority in the future will surely be to develop the Fortress as a tourism and cultural heritage site. While I enjoyed the freedom of being able to just wander around and look where I wanted, there remains the risk of vandalism and destruction to this inarguably important historical monument. This place is a gem that should be better protected. Perhaps this is what I had expected. Preservation. In reality, the fortress is simply a historic place in limbo. It is a museum of sorts on the land where people still eek out a daily living.