Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Relics of the Past: Karaosta, Grobiņa, Cold War Museum

Breakfast at Hotel Vilhelmīne was the most diverse buffet I had ever seen. In addition to more traditional Latvian breakfast foods, it included everything from pickles to Laima chocolates! After fortifying ourselves, we took a stroll to find the post office to mail some postcards. We walked past this fun sculpture of a stork in its nest.
Then we hit the road, and headed to part of Liepāja known as "Karaosta" or war port. Initially built by in the 1890s as a naval base for Russian Tsar Alexander III, it was subsequently used by the independent Latvian navy and then by the occupying Soviet forces for whom it was a base for their fleet in the Baltic. During Soviet times the area was strictly off limits, and once Soviet forces finally left, it was almost a ghost town. Karaosta is now less creepy and depressing than when I have visited previously, bet there are still many abandoned buildings. Some are just ruins at this point, while others are still standing, but clearly empty and neglected.
Even many of the currently lived-in apartment building don't look so great, although this is not atypical of older Latvian apartment complexes, many of which were quickly and cheaply built during Soviet times.
An exception to the neglect and decay is the beautifully restored St. Nicholas Orthodox Maritime cathedral, on which restoration continues.
The city's northern breakwater is also located this area. We expected it to be empty, but it turned out to be a hugely popular fishing spot. The small parking lot was overwhelmed with cars, and the breakwater was full of people and their fishing equipment! It was very windy and a tad chilly, so after a short stroll I returned to the car, while Bryan spent a long time taking photos of the water, fishermen, and birds.
Before driving to Lithuania, we stopped in the town of Grobiņa, just east of Liepāja, to check out the castle ruins. Grobiņa was founded by Teutonic knights in the 13th century!
Grobiņa Castle Hill, site of even older castle dating from the 9th century
Driving through some very rural and barely inhabited areas of Kurzeme, which happens to be the region my mother is from, we left Latvia and entered Lithuania. Now that both countries are members of the European Union, only small signs remind a traveler she is in a different country.
Arriving in Latvia's neighbor to the south, we first hit up the cash machine. While Latvia has been on the euro since January of this year, Lithuania is still using the litas and is scheduled to begin using the euro next year. Then we quickly found the tourist information office and were given so many maps and brochures by the very friendly helpful young women that we were overwhelmed. Seriously, if you are ever driving through Skuodas, stop at the tourist bureau - you will get all the information about Lithuania you could ever need! We also sought out a recommendation on where to find lunch in their town. After our meal at a fusion Lithuanian-Italian restaurant, we continued on, this time in the direction of  Žemaitija National Park.

Initially the plan had been to do some hiking in the park, as well as visit the Cold War Museum. Given how late in the afternoon it was, we headed directly to the Museum. We made it just in time, as the 3pm tour (tours are offered on the hour) had recently begun. The entrance fee was 12 litas per person, with an additional 3 litas fee to take photographs. 
The museum is located in an old Soviet ballistic missile base, which was built in the early 1960s, when thousands of soldiers were forced to use shovels to dig the deep holes to house the missiles! Once the base was operational, it housed four medium-range ballistic missiles, each armed with a 2-megaton thermonuclear warhead. Being deep in the woods did not mean that secrecy and security were taken lightly. Security measures included everything from a high-voltage electric fence to the fact that only Russian soldiers and officers worked there. The base was used only until 1978. When locals discovered it, anything that could be removed and taken away was looted.
Security checkpoint upon entering the site
A young female guide (she was as tall as me - cool!) gave us an overview as she escorted us underground, and then we joined up with the tour already in progress. We doubled the size of the tour group - previously it had only been two young Dutch men. The young male guide (also tall!) did a good job of explaining the exhibits and the base itself. Just being in this former missile base was strange and interesting enough, but the museum exhibits on the Cold War are nicely done.
Old Soviet anti-West propaganda
The so-called highlight of the tour was entering one of the missile silos. I found it creepy, but all the guys loved it. They even crawled into it via the old crawl space, while I chose to use the more dignified stairs. Looking down into the silo made me dizzy, and looking at the numbers on the side which would have been used for aiming the weapon just reminded me what a tense and frightening time the Cold War was.
Looking down into the missile silo
Numbers on side would have been used to aim the missile
I wasn't too sad when the tour ended, and we could finally walk out into the bright sunshine again. This place is off the beaten path, and not accessible via public transit, but if you are in the area, I do recommend visiting!

Getting back into nature after the dark cold underground tour was much needed. The park contains several lakes, including the large Plateliai lake. We hung out at the shore of the beautifully clear and calm lake for a while.
Then we drove through the rest of the park on our way back out to the main road, and headed west toward Palanga.

A cute beach town, Palanga is well known in this corner of the world as a great place for a summer getaway. While searching for lodging, I was amazed by the number of choices, with everything from luxury hotels where a room will set you back several hundred euros a night, to small cozy-looking guesthouses with far more reasonable prices. I chose Senoji Palanga, which was an excellent choice. Located a 10 minute walk to the nearest grocery store, a 10 minute walk in the other direction to the beach, and a 12 minute walk to the main drag, the guesthouse was in the perfect location. The innkeeper, Ingrida, is friendly, sweet and very helpful, and speaks English quite well. That weekend turned out to be Palanga's 'summer opening weekend', so she printed out the schedule of events, and translated them for us. 
Guesthouse Senoji Palanga. Almost every room has a balcony or patio!
We spent our first evening getting settled, including going to the nearby grocery store for some necessities (i.e. delicious European yogurt for me, bananas and Lithuanian beer for Bryan). Bryan also made his way to the beach for his first Lithuanian sunset.


  1. When you told me about Karaosta I fully expected the entire place to look like a ghost town. Instead it didn't look too bad, yes there were plenty of old, falling down buildings, but there are some that were kept up too. The old breakwater, where everyone was fishing, was really starting to fall apart though. There are a ton of fish there though as I was constantly seeing people pull fish out of the water.

    The war museum was quite interesting as well, makes one wonder how they managed to live underground all that time, even in shifts. The locals stole almost everything they could after the Russians left, except for one large generator that they couldn't move.

    The B&B in Palanga was really nice. The sunset the night might have been much better if there were clouds, so I played around with putting my camera down low to catch the waves coming in instead.

    1. Yes, that area is not as horrible as it once was, but we also only saw a part of it.

      Agreed, working down in that missile base must have been pretty horrible. I cannot quite recall what exactly the tour guide said, but the total number of employees was actually rather small: no more than about 25 or 30, I think. So, if you didn't get along with those folks, you probably were miserable.


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