Exploring the War Remnants of Karosta, Latvia

Northern Fort, Karosta

Walking out of the city of Liepāja on Latvia’s southern coast one morning, I couldn’t have guessed where I would end up later that day. After spending the previous day exploring Liepāja, I had decided to venture north of the canal and visit the neighbourhood of Karosta. Armed only with a brochure that I had gotten from the tourist information centre but hadn’t really read, I took the bus out with little idea of what I had in store.

You see Karosta has served most of its existence as a military base, first constructed in 1890 for use by the Russian Navy under Tsar Alexander III. As the turmoil of the 20th century transpired, the base passed first into independent Latvian hands, then to the invading German army during WWII, to the Soviets for much of the 20th century until Latvia’s restoration of independence in 1991 (although Russian soldiers didn’t leave until 1994).

This troubled area may seem like an unlikely spot for tourists, but this unfortunate history has crafted a fascinating set of attractions for the opportunistic tourist.

 

Karosta Prison

Karosta Military Prison

My first stop in exploring Karosta was the Karosta Military Prison, one of the area’s main attractions. Throughout the history of the military base and the countless changing hands, this building’s purpose remained fixed. Originally built to serve as a hospital, it soon was put to use as a military prison and with each successive regime continued on as one until 1997. It was mostly used to enforce short-term disciplinary measures on sailors and non-commissioned officers.

This may seem like a morbid, or “dark tourism” attraction, but it’s important to keep in mind that it was a military prison and not a site of anything quite as macabre as prisoners of war or torture.

Soviet Items, Karosta Prison

That the prison is open to tourists, who may tour the facilities, is actually pretty incredible. Karosta is actually the only military prison in Europe open to the public. The prison offers a variety of tours, varying in length and dare I say it, intensity. I opted for the basic tour, which takes you through the facilities, lasts an hour and costs 4.5€.

As most of the other people on the tour were Latvian, the guide staggered the tour slightly and would provide a special and brief translation in English after explaining in Latvian. Through the tour you learn about the history of the prison, the treatment of prisoners and rooms like the cells and even toilet facilities.

Prison Corridor, Karosta

The best part though is that you’re guided by an actual prison guard or, in our case, the captain in charge of the complex. True to his military background, he walked us through in a very orderly manner and even semi-jokingly pointed out infringements that would have burdened us with extra prison time were we soldiers.

As we went along the tour, we came across the other tour group who were taking part in what is known as the “Behind the Bars” Group Tour. In this interactive tour, visitors are treated as military prisoners and expected to march, obey instructions and are even locked in a cell. In all seriousness, participants are asked to sign a waiver agreeing to the conditions, so it’s not for the faint of heart!

Karosta Prison Tour

Last in the offerings of Karosta Prison is the opportunity to actually spend a night in a prison cell! Had I known this in advance, I definitely would have given it a go for a night.  As with the tours, there is the basic option which includes a night’s accommodation on a prison bunk and meal, or the interactive “Extreme Night” option which mirrors the “Behind the Bars” tour. For more information and prices, take a look at their website here.

 

Karosta Base

Abandoned Factory, Karosta

Once I had finished my tour of the prison, I decided to walk around and explore more of the former Karosta base. Karosta has seen considerable neglect over the years and while it is now a semi-residential area, that still very much comes across. Much for the area is covered in derelict buildings and woods, which can lend it a bit of a spooky feel to it. If you’re a lover of abandoned areas, then you could get plenty of enjoyment out of exploring here.

Karosta Street

Abandoned Building, Karosta

 

Northern Forts

Beach Bunker, Karosta

The other major attraction of Karosta is what’s known as the Northern Forts. Originally part of the encircling fortifications that protected Karosta’s Naval base during the late 19th/early 20th centuries, today the forts are in a state of disrepair but make for an incredible view. Spread across the coast north of Karosta, what is left are a series of collapsing concrete bunkers that are slowly crumbling into the Baltic Sea. Even by the time you spot your first one, you’ll be enchanted by these decaying remnants of conflicts long past.

By the time I decided to head for the Northern Forts it was already mid-afternoon. Based on a single landmark on the map on my phone, I ventured north past apartment blocks and abandoned buildings until I found myself engulfed in forest. When it became unclear where the path going into the forest was meant to be, I decided to simply cut through to the beach and just follow it north.

Karosta Coast

Beach Bench at Karosta

Shortly, I reached the beach to find a long sandy stretch of coast absolutely deserted. Once I had figured out how to get down to the water’s edge, I simply made my way along, the place to myself. It dawned on me that I had finally found myself at the beach with decent weather in the Baltic, somehow totally by accident. Occasionally, the odd concrete remains popped up, like the make-shift bench above.

As I rounded a slight corner further up the beach, I found my first bunker on the beach. Lying beyond a fallen tree, the mass of concrete sort of looked like a UFO had crash landed on the beach. Sliding into the Baltic Sea, what really completed the scene to me was the small tree seemingly popping up out of it. Climbing over the fallen tree that had found itself half buried in the beach, I walked up to the bunker to admire the ruin up close.

Beach Branches, Karosta

First Northern Fort, Karosta

At this point, I wasn’t sure whether I had found the Northern Forts or not. As the bunker stretched out into the sea, if I wanted to see what was past it, I was going to have climb up around it in land. Once I had cleared the bunker, I noticed further obstructions up the beach and decided to follow trails that led back into the forest.

Edge of the Forest, outside Karosta

Forest Trails, outside Karosta

Signs of the fortress were becoming more and more frequent, with the occasional entrance to a submerged bunker appearing and a large concrete tower lying conspicuously in the woods. I also began to the hear a low whooshing sound that would soon turn out be a wind turbine. It was once I was under the turbine that I realised that I found my destination – a long row of concrete bunkers that made up the Northern Forts.

At the back of most of the bunkers were stairs that brought you up onto their roofs. From there you could look out over the row of collapsed concrete structures that had once defended the area, but now were left to slowly decay. I’d never expected to see such a hauntingly beautiful sight during my visit, let alone that day. It actually reminded me a little of the movie Inception, where there is the beach with derelict buildings that collapse into the sea.

Shadow Bunker, Karosta

Bunker Row, Karosta

After a long while taking in the view, I decided to make my way down to beach level. Once on the beach, you’re able to weave your way through the immense concrete blocks, many now with graffiti on them. Eventually, I reached a point where I couldn’t go any further and headed back up. Most definitely an unusual place to explore, but worth the long walk back to the closest bus stop as the sun set.

Northern Fort, Karosta

Concrete Bunkers, Karosta

 


Have you heard of the neighbourhood of Karosta before? Would you dare spend a night in the prison? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

*Note: I did not receive any compensation for this article. Views on Karosta, including the military prison, are purely my own.

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Exploring the War Remnants of Karosta, Latvia via @travelsewhere

 


This post is part of Wanderful Wednesday at SnowinTromso and Weekend Travel Inspiration at Albom Adventures. Please head on over for more great posts.

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16 Comment

  1. How incredibly interesting! Reminds me of the WWII bunkers we found in the cliffs in Cinque Terre. They’re not really falling into disrepair, but still interesting to find such things! #WanderfulWednesday

  2. I’ve never heard of Karosta before, but as I’m a dark heritage buff I’m pretty sure I would love to explore all this places. Thanks for this lovely post! #WanderfulWednesday

  3. vanbrune says:

    That prison seems so grim! Seems like a really interesting thing to do though and I think “dark tourism” is pretty important just to keep the memory alive of how things have been once!

  4. How fascinating! As dark as it is, it’s always so important that we learn about these things.

  5. Thank you for visiting our home town.
    I participated in day time Prison experience, when in school, and what started as fun experience for us soon turned into gloomy one very soon, when you start to realise what people had to go through while in there and we only got a small glimpse of it. Daytime program isn’t as full on as night experience. It is not for faint hearted.
    Also if you venture a bit further into Karosta you will find Russian orthodox Cathedral of St. Nicolas, it’s quite impressive also.
    If anybody need some advice on visiting Liepāja or Latvia please don’t hesitate to contact us, will be glad to help.

  6. A very interesting and surreal visit. What was once valuable strategic property is now derelict and of little use as the politics and boundaries of countries change. The prison tour by the captain (I assume former captain) must have given you real insight into the prisoners were treated.

  7. gordonearthur says:

    I have not heard of Karosta before, but know a lot more now about this period of history

  8. It must have been interesting to be able to visit the prison as a prisoner. It seems like it would be an unique learning experience, but it’s definitely not for everyone. The shoreline of the Fortress parts was very intriguing to see and think about how they were previously used. #flyawayfriday

  9. The bunkers along the beach are so photogenic, very cool! Thanks for linking up with #wkendtravelinspiration, see you next week!

  10. I had never heard of Karosta, but it doesn’t surprise me at all that you’ve found someplace I’ve never heard of. Happens pretty often. 😉 It’s funny you mentioned that bunker on the beach looked a bit like a UFO. The first thing I thought of when I saw it was Hans Solo’s Millennium Falcon!

  11. Never heard about Karosta before, but it sounds like a good adventure. Spending the night at the prison sounds scary but also very interesting. Loved the way you described your walk to the Forts, made me feel like I am there also. Thanks for sharing!

  12. Midori says:

    woooow, love those constructions in the middle of the beach! It looks so melancholic and beautiful!

  13. Your pictures of Karosta are enthralling and feel desolate. It must be beautiful to get caught up in the history and feelings of this place. We will save it for our future travels 🙂

  14. Wow, what a fascinating day you had and all rather unexpected by the sound of it! Amazing that Karosta have different “levels” of entry – I would stay the night for sure I mean, why not?! It can only be as bad as sleeping in some hostels (haha). Love that you went for a wander and stumbled across that lovely beach as well – brilliant adventure. Thanks for sharing, I have pinned for future reference #feetdotravel

  15. A very fascinating insight into the Karosta Base and Northern Fort. Love the history, stunning photos and how you decided to explore around to see where you ended up. I say though I don’t think I could spend the night in a prison cell. Not sure If I will ever make to Lativa but I am happy to learn about it. Pinned it for later use. Thanks for sharing 🙂 #feetdotravel

  16. Super interesting read – I would have loved to be able to stay the night in the prison and I think it would be a very memorable experience. Loved the walk to the fort and the bunkers – Karosta certainly has an interesting history!

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