A Place Not To See Before You Die

Ever since my travel book, 101 Places Not To See Before You Die, came out in June, I’ve been fielding a lot of questions about what criteria I used to pick the entries on the list. I got a very sweet email from the marketing director for the Blarney Stone, for example, asking if I were aware that there were many pleasant attractions at Blarney Castle beyond the stone itself and, besides, I didn’t need to worry about kissing the same stone kissed by hundreds of thousands of people, because it was cleaned each night. How was it cleaned? She couldn’t divulge the secret. But she did emphasize that the truly germaphobic visitor could ask for a special cleaning before their smooch. (I’m sure that’s a way to ingratiate yourself to the hundreds of people behind you in line.)

I fielded similar questions about Mt. Rushmore and, bizarrely, late night at Chicago’s Wiener Circle, where people engage in the charming pass-time of eating hotdogs while hurling racist slurs at each other. But despite my confidence in my own personal need not to visit these places, I felt a little bad about criticizing them, especially those I’d never visited myself.

So earlier this week, when Peter and I found ourselves in Liepaja, Latvia for two hours (we were waiting for a bus transfer) I knew there was something I needed to do.

One of the entries in the book is titled “Any Hotel That Used To Be A Prison,” and it focuses on Karostas Cietums prison in, you guessed it, Liepaja, Latvia. Or, more precisely, Karostas — a suburb of Liepaja that used to be a soviet military base but is now a crumbling neighborhood north of the city proper marked by wide boulevards and regal buildings in various states of decay. So despite our limited time — not to mention ominous gray skies overhead — Peter and I grabbed our bikes and headed north, stopping en route at St. Nicholas’s cathedral, an orthodox church next to some Soviet-style apartment buildings that said Soviets turned into a movie theater and, bizarrely, a sporting center (now it’s back to its original purpose).

It took longer to bike to Karostas Cietums than we’d anticipated (what do you know, most military prisons aren’t located in the center of town) and by the time we finally arrived at its imposing metal gate, we only had time for a quick photograph before heading back to the bus.

I ran quickly inside the gate to see if I could find out any more details for the road, and found a man standing by the door wearing a guard’s outfit, smoking a cigarette. In addition to an official-looking cap, he sported the sort of mustache that parents teach children to run away from — which was fitting since, as I explain in the entry for the book, the “guards” at Karostas Cietums are no ordinary prison docents. Part of their job is to act like they actually *are* guards, and subject you to verbal and faux-physical abuse — sort of like a sadistic version of Colonial Williamsburg. So I was a little worried to go up to the guy and ask for an informational brochure — let alone inquire about the so-called night time “surprise tour” that required signing something known as The Agreement. (For more information, check out their site — warning, there are gun shots.)

Luckily, this guard was actually just selling tickets. “You want tour?” he asked in a thick accent, holding the cigarette between his lips.

“Yes,” I said, “But I do not have time. Do you have information?” He looked at me quizzically. “Maybe a pamphlet?”

I glanced inside, but found nothing but a rack of fake rifles. The guard shook his head. “Only tour.”

“Okay, then, never mind!”

I jogged back to Peter and, after a brief moment of indecision — we had just enough time to make it to the bus if we biked quickly, we hopped back on our bicycles and started pedaling toward the station.

It only took me about 2 seconds to feel regret. I mean, come on. I was in Liepaja, Latvia, mere *steps* away from one of the places I had written about. What use was it to merely stand outside? What story comes from “I biked all the way to Karostas Cietums . . . and all I got was this lousy photograph?” No story. None at all.

One of the many reasons Peter is so wonderful to me is that he picks up on such emotions, even when they are behind him on a bicycle. We got to the bridge leading back to town when he made a hand signal indicating that he was stopping.

“Are you cultivating regret?” he asked.

“Uh huh.”

“Let’s go back.”

And so we did, trying to ignore the irony of not just going, but returning to a place supposedly not worth seeing.

Leaving our bikes outside, we raced into the dark building, and caught up with our tour guide (tour guard?) just as he was putting on a gas mask.

He stopped what he was doing to collect our 2 lat entry fee, then gave us a quick run-down of what we had missed so far. The gist? This was not a normal prison; it was a place to punish bad soldiers (not criminals or political prisoners). This statement was repeated back to us numerous times, in the form of call and response — “And why were there no beds in the cells?”

Because this was not a normal prison.”

“Very good.”

Our guard did not appear to care that this answer did not actually make sense. Instead, he recited facts about the various militaries that had used the compound — the Latvians, the Nazis, the Soviets, and the Latvians again (it was finally shut down when Latvia decided it might like to join the EU) — and explained the tenants’ daily routines: one hour of political study, three or four hours of running around in the courtyard, often wearing gas masks and/or pushing baby strollers full of bricks, more hours of work, and then a relaxing six hours’ rest in a small cement cell shared with ten other inmates.

“And after you stay here, two weeks, maybe three, you are re-educated,” said the guard, making me think for a moment that maybe it wasn’t so bad — unlike some of the other former prisons we’ve visited, he hadn’t mentioned any actual torture. Maybe this was more like a military retreat where you worked on your aerobic conditioning while studying up on propaganda before being released back into your normal life.

“Or, also, you could be shot,” he continued. “But not here. In forest across street. Follow me.”

As the tour continued, it quickly became apparent that our guide particularly enjoyed:

1. Rhetorical questions posed to us individually that had answers none of us would ever be able to provide. (“Who is this?” he asked, pointing at a portrait of Lenin and then at me. “Lenin?” I tried. “No!” said the guard. “Your best friend!”)

2. Referring to various rooms in the prison as “beautiful.” Sometimes this was combined with habit #1: “And what is this room?” he asked, in front of a closed door. “A beautiful toilet!”

3. Picking on me. “And so you each have five days of ‘education,'” he said, checking to make sure that we didn’t have our hands in our pockets — a prison no-no. “For you,” he said, pointing at me. “Maybe seven.”

Luckily, our tour was not a “reality tour” — one of the prison’s more popular programs in which the guards really do pelt you with abuse — and so the guard stayed safely on the side of being playful rather than terrifying. Nonetheless, it wasn’t hard to imagine him relishing the idea of chaperoning an overnight stay at the prison, which offers guests the opportunity to sleep on wooden planks on the floor. (Unpleasant, but a better choice than spending the night in pitch-black solitary confinement, which is another option offered.)

I will not be sleeping here tonight.

At the end of the tour, the guard finally offered us the opportunity to ask questions of our own — and then didn’t actually answer them. “So what led you to be the captain at this prison?” asked Peter, hoping to elicit some explanation for why a presumably sane guy would take a job as a faux-sadistic prison guard (then again, unemployment is high). Misunderstanding the question, he instead protested against Peter’s use of title. “I am not captain,” he insisted. “I am guard.”

Just before the tour ended, the sky erupted with a crash of thunder and rain began pelting down — leaving us with the unsavory options of biking through a downpour or staying in Karostas Cietums, whose unlit hallways and dank cells became no less creepy when illuminated by lightning.

As we contemplated our options, Peter glanced out the window and noticed that, given where we’d placed our bicycles, we might as well suck it up and head into the storm.

We couldn't have placed this better if we'd tried. (Note the crowd in the background.)

And so we did, arriving at the bus station dripping wet to discover that the next bus didn’t leave for another two and a half hours. Luckily, no one seemed to mind us pulling our bikes into the departure hall and sipping powdered cappuccino mix while waiting for our pants to dry — so that’s exactly what we did.

Would I visit Karostas Cietums again? If I happened to be in Liepaja with a bicycle, a clear weather forecast and several hours to spare? Why not — it was interesting.

But there’s still no way in hell I’d stay the night.

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