On the surface Liepāja isn’t the most striking of cities but the real attraction of Latvia’s third largest city lies in its collection of eccentric entrepreneurs and its free-thinking, bohemian attitude. An attitude that can probably only be developed after years of oppression. When the Second World War ended the Soviets seized the naval base located here and Liepāja became completely isolated, closed off even to the rest of the country.
Efforts to reinvent the city as a spa town are gaining increasing traction and dotted among the spa centres are a growing amount of boutique and designer hotels. One of which is The Lux Pod, a retro-modern luxury penthouse which pays breathtaking attention to detail (from underfloor heating to bathrooms complete with a chromotherapy sauna). The owner of the Lux Pod is the very personable Judith Abraham. She became enamored with Liepāja when visiting on holiday a few years ago and knew immediately it was the perfect place for her creative vision. She also loved the music and the art scene and the fact many of Latvia’s favourite musicians hail from Liepāja.
Among the sea of greyish buildings are an eclectic collection of excellently preserved churches, art galleries, museums dedicated to traditional crafts, quirky shops and stylish restaurants (try the funky Pastneika Maja for traditional Latvian favourites as well as more exotic offerings).
There is also a large amount of once-loved mansions left abandoned after the Russian troops left the city reducing the population drastically. The run down effect of the huge wooden structures have eery beauty in itself and this part of town is strangely photogenic.
And then of course there’s the beach. Liepaja is justifiably proud of its Blue Flag beach – an endless stretch of pristine white sand which is an excellent place to party especially when the sun sets. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays are the biggest beach party nights, with the hub being the Red Sun Buffet Beach Bar. Run by two charismatic brothers, Red Sun Buffet is styled on their favourite Ibiza beach bars and fits in perfectly with the progressive city’s hipster ideals.
Another interesting part of the city is the ‘Fontaine Empire’ which is a collection of fabulously kitsch hotels, rock bar (which holds legendary nights such as Sexy Tuesdays) and even an annual local music festival. Run by entrepreneur/musician/local celebrity Louie Fontaine and his party loving wife they bring their own brand of style and fun to Liepāja. Louie even won himself a seat on the city’s local committee through a tongue-in-cheek western movie style campaign and there’s not many cities that can say that!
Heading North you will find yourself in Karosta – a former secret military encampment which is now a fascinating ghost-town-of-a-place. Famous for its notorious Prison hotel and its creepy but surreally beautiful former naval buildings and derelict Communist housing blocks. Attracting photographers and curious tourists from all over the world, highlights include picturesque blasted forts, a Russian Orthodox Cathedral and old nuclear bunkers which are best explored with a torch and a knowledgeable guide.
Only an hour’s drive from Leipaja in Skrunda (and handily on the way to Riga) is the Milk Manor a beautiful ‘Boutique Chateau’ providing visitors with Cleopatra style milk baths, organic food, daunting looking but apparently extremely detoxing ‘black saunas’ and peaceful rural surroundings. There’s even an on-site milk museum where you can milk a plastic cow and learn how to make butter.
After meeting some of the friendliest people we have met in a long time and sampling some of the Leipaja lifestyle (especially the gorgeous beach) it’s pretty safe to say the city has gained some new fans. More posts on Riga and Karosta Prison hotel to come!
All photos taken by Becky Padmore