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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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