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Multicultural Daugavpils is reinventing itself

The Mark Rothko Art Centre. Photo: Latvia Travel

Latvia’s second largest city, Daugavpils, is located between the beautiful fields and forests of Latgale on the winding River Daugava in south-eastern Latvia. Just a few dozen kilometres from both Lithuania and Belarus, Daugavpils has been a strategically located city for centuries, and thus has been desired by almost all the ruling powers in the Baltic Sea region.

The city was founded by German knights, who conquered what is today Latvia and established the Dinaburg Fortress on the banks of the river as far back as 1275. After that the area belonged to Russia, Poland and then Sweden, after which it was once again conquered by Russians in 1656 and renamed Borisoglebsk. In 1893 it became Dvinsk by the order of the Tsar, and from 1920 the city has borne the name of Daugavpils.

The glory years of the first Dinaburg fortress were the 14th and 15th centuries, until the mid-16th century when Ivan the Great wanted to conquer the Daugavpils area, then Polish territory, and destroyed the fortress. The present city of Daugavpils flourished in the 1860s, when the railway connecting St. Petersburg and Warsaw was built and the city also received a railway connection with Riga. By the end of the 19th century, Dvinsk, as it was then, had become one of the most important industrial centres of the European part of the Russian Empire.

The rich history of Daugavpils is also emphasised by the diverse nationalities of its inhabitants. Nearly half of the population is of Russian nationality and only a fifth are Latvian, which is why you can more often hear Russian on the city streets than Latvian. A considerable number of Poles, Belarusians and Ukrainians also live in Daugavpils. The multicultural environment, the historically convenient location close to the borders of modern-day Poland and Belarus, and the magnificent scenery, are just a few reasons to stay in Daugavpils longer, not just make a quick stop in the city.


A walk in the autumn city

Daugavpils’ history unfolds with each step you take in the city. This is why it is best to start your visit with a walk in the city centre, which has maintained its 19th-century look, and with the golden colours of autumn in the background and the air pleasantly crisp. Classicist and industrial architecture blend together on the streets of the city creating a balance between modern and bygone times.

One of the most important sights and attractions of the city is the Daugavpils Fortress, which spreads over almost two square kilometres. The construction of this impressive army campus began on the orders of the Russian Tsar Alexander I in 1810 when the empire needed protection from the threat from the west – the army of Napoleon. When it was completed, this fortress was a modern defence structure, which for a long time was also one of the most important points of the Russian Empire on the Western Front. As it is on the route when travelling from St. Petersburg to Warsaw, the Daugavpils Fortress has hosted many Russian noblemen and rulers, including Alexander I, Nicholas I, Alexander II, Alexander III, and Nicholas II – the last ruler of the Russian Empire.

Daugavpils Fortress. Photo: Valdis Skudre

Today, the arsenal building of the fortress houses the Mark Rothko Art Centre. Rothko was a famous 20th-century expressionist who came from Daugavpils. At the centre you can see both Rothko’s own original work and the creations of several contemporary Latvian and international artists. Rothko, who emigrated to America, was born in the city and lived there until the age of 10, when the troubles of World War II forced his Jewish family to leave their homeland.

The arsenal building of the Daugavpils Fortress houses the Mark Rothko Art Centre. Photo: Latvia Travel

The most characteristic part of the Daugavpils panorama is the view of the Hill of Churches, where, despite the twists and turns of history, there are places of worship of four different denominations side by side. By the end of the 19th century, as the city was growing rapidly, more and more people were gathering in congregations, which in turn demanded the construction of churches in the developing city. The first cathedral, named after Martin Luther, was completed in 1893, the construction of Daugavpils Roman Catholic Church and Orthodox Cathedral was completed in 1905, and the Old Believers received their sanctuary in 1928. The complex of these four churches still stands proudly in the heart of the city.


Museums that save a rainy day

Daugavpils’ diverse population provides a reason and an opportunity to become acquainted with the development of several nations and cultures simultaneously. A good starting point for this is the Daugavpils Regional Studies and Art Museum, which was established in 1938. Featuring a magnificent Art Nouveau facade, the building combines an overview of Daugavpils history – beginning with the construction of the Dinaburg Fortress in the 13th century – and introduces local nature and also the historical art of Daugavpils, while taking you on archaeological and ethnographic trails.

If you are looking for bolder experiences, it is worthwhile visiting the unique Shmakovka museum. In the museum you can learn about traditional methods of making spirits, as well as the innovative modern technology used to make Latgalian spirits. Of course, the museum tour ends with a small tasting session!

Author: Therese Uuetoa