“It’s a total shithole.”
“It’s a dangerous shithole.”
“It’s a shithole full of crazy people.”
My friends’ reactions when I voiced my travel plans only made me more curious to check out Latvia’s second largest city. Daugavpils, with a population of over 100,000, is the most Russian of the Latvian cities and lies just 33km from the Belarusian border in the Latgale region. Anyone who’s spoken to a ‘real’ Latvian will probably have heard horror stories about Daugavpils – in short, it sounded like just my kind of place.
I hopped on an express bus at 2.30 on Thursday afternoon, and steeled myself for another 3 hours and 40 minutes of tree porn. However, this route would turn out to be a pleasant surprise, dotted as it is with lots of little towns and villages along the way. I even managed to finally go through the wonderfully-named ‘Ogre’ (pronounced something like wo-AH-greh). The road mostly follows the path of the Daugava River so the views were pretty, if not spectacular. Finally, at just after 6pm, we rolled into big bad Daugavpils.
I headed for the loo where I was charged 30 cents for the pleasure. The attendant was saying something but it took me a couple of seconds to realise what she was gesturing at. Then I noticed it.
Having demonstrated that I could use toilet paper responsibly, I left the station. In a rare moment of organisation, I had printed out directions to my hotel. Google said that it was a distance of 3km and would take around 38 minutes. What Google had failed to mention was that it was 3km of mainly dug up pavement, crumbly embankments, railway lines, Mormon-dodging, and weird pipes sticking out of the ground.
I arrived at the hotel around 45 minutes later, looking a bit like the wild woman of Borneo, sweaty, sandy and with stones in my trainers.
To my dismay, but not total surprise, the door was locked and the reception in darkness. I had chosen this hotel because it was cheap, not too far from the centre, had alright reviews, and had furniture like this:
But now it seemed that I would never get to see it. I walked around to see if there was another entrance but couldn’t see one, so I called the number on the door.
Me: Um, is this Hotel Paradize?
Me: Right. Well, I’ve got a reservation and I’m standing outside. Is there any chance I could get in?
A light went on a few minutes later and she materialised from the gloom. She managed to figure out that I did indeed have a reservation and then asked me:
Unhh: What time do you want breakfast?
Me: What time is breakfast?
Me: Right. Well, around 10 then?
She then took off at a run up and down a bewildering array of staircases, pointing out the door that was actually open (it seemed the main door never was), and the breakfast room which doubled as the hotel café. I then paid, which also seemed to be impossible at reception, and she brought me up yet more stairs to my room. The room itself was actually OK, though the bedding could induce an epileptic fit, and the toilet had definitely seen better days.
At this stage, I was ravenous but a stroll around the local area revealed no cafés or restaurants. (On a side note, seriously, what is it with all the bloody flower shops in this country? I’m hungry, for God’s sake – I can’t eat flowers.) So, in a rather depressing move, I bought the world’s worst chicken sandwich and a bottle of wine from the local supermarket, went back to my room and had the most depressing ‘first night in a new city’ meal ever.
The next morning, I showered, dressed – and then realised there was no hairdryer in the room. So I trotted down to reception. No sign of Unhh. I went to the breakfast room. No sign of her there either. I went back to reception and there she was.
Me: Is it possible to get a hairdryer?
Unhh: Unhh. OK…
She did the stairs trick again while I obediently followed. With my hair finally under control, I made my way back to the breakfast room again, which was in darkness. I walked over to the kitchen door where I could see Unhh and the cook standing. Clearing my throat to get her attention, I asked if breakfast was still available.
Unhh: Unhh. Sit.
She switched on the lights and the TV, which was set to some dodgy Russian shopping channel. I’d arrived at 9.59, and by 10.16 I was leaving with a belly full of ham, cheese, bread and fried eggs. All in all, pretty good.
Unwilling to chase Unhh all over the hotel again to ask how the tram system worked, I worked my way through the jungle outside my door, and walked, as instructed, through the car service place next door, getting on the first tram that came along.
It had a conductor, something I hadn’t seen in a while, who charged me the bargain price of €0.43 for a trip to the end of the line – the train station.
So, what do you think? Will Daugavpils delight or disappoint? Stay tuned for Part Two to find out!
I know, I’m such a tease.