Several acquaintances of mine live throughout what has traditionally been called “Western Europe”. They are enjoying life among the historical sites and rich old cultures of their host nations. A frequent observation (if not necessarily a complaint) is that while those Western European towns and cities are old, they have a tendency toward uniformity in their age, appearance, style and so forth. “You’ve seen one castle, you’ve seen ‘em all,” they will jokingly yawn.
Kidding aside, it is difficult for someone from west of, say, Berlin, to maintain a jaded mindset in his or her surroundings in places like Liepaja. This small-town city has a population of around 85,000, but makes enough noise for twice that many. Liepaja prides itself on being a blue-collar kind of place, and night-clubs are not quite as flashy as those in Riga or in oligarch-owned Ventspils to the north. If you’re looking for a fun (if loud) place well-represented by all age-groups, try Fontaine Hotel down along the canal next to the large Promenade Hotel. There’s a wide range of music, and you can move from hall to hall in search of the live band most suited to your taste for the evening. This place very much reminds me of a town on the New Jersey coast, where music coexists with amusement parks in such an effortless way that you don’t feel like the place is trying very hard to take your tourist dollars. The money you do part with is fairly negligible, but the fun feel of the place is ubiquitous, free. Cover-charges at the fanciest places are in single-digit dollars, and you walk in and out of most places for nothing. The town is marketed in some of the tourist handouts as a tough, dockside Latvian rock haven, but everyone was courteous and friendly, crowds and bar-employees alike.
Along with its well-developed nightlife, Liepaja also has some interactive ways to teach tourists about the Soviet era. One of these is a Soviet military prison at Karosta, where visitors can spend the night as “inmates”. The other is a challenging game called “Escape from the USSR”, the premise of which is that you and fellow players have to smuggle an allied serviceman to a submarine waiting off the coast. You don’t want to be spotted by the guards or their dogs, or else the gig is up and your mission fails.
Both were closed for the season when I traveled through, and I was haunted by the refrains of smart-alecs of the “You should’ve come in June!” crowd. Curiosity brought me out to the prison, a naval brig during Soviet times. I’m not too upset to have deprived the pretend guards of the opportunity to bark at me for 24 hours straight; I’ve been yelled at enough for one lifetime. But people – mostly retirees – flock to this place for the overnight game, and from what I am told they love it.
The other destination, the location of the “Escape” game, is a series of coastal forts along the Latvian coastline. These bunkers and strongholds are somewhat reminiscent of Normandy, site of the famed summer 1944 invasion. I’m including some pictures here for you, but stories of this obstacle-challenge game will have to be postponed until I can get back here in the summer.
“Goodbye” in Latvian is easy for me to remember. Uz redzēšanos sounds almost exactly like “who’s reddish nose?” The other parting phrase, Visu labu (“all the best”) is just plain fun to say. Well, goodbye, all the best, and I will write again soon.