The bright lights of Jelgava


Students getting some after hours education at Ezītis Miglā. Photo: Filips Birzulis.

The words “party central” and Jelgava are not often used in the same sentence. But this is unfair to the capital of Zemgale, because behind its gritty façade, the place has lots of ways to get an awfully sore head the next morning.

Thanks to the University of Agriculture, Jelgava has a large population of students, who like the species everywhere subsist on cheap booze and pot… noodles. And because these bright scholars go home to the farm on weekends, their big night out is Wednesday.

The first port of call on a typical midweek evening is Ezītis Miglā, the southern branch of the alternative club in Old Riga of the same name. Jelgava’s “Hedgehog in the Fog” is obscurely located next to a curtain shop in the middle of the town bus station, so there’s absolutely no excuse for driving home drunk. When they’re not asleep in the worn out couches, the shaggy patrons are a friendly bunch and the collection of bras hanging over the bar suggests relations may get even warmer later on.

If you thought a dive couldn’t get any skankier than Ezītis, wait until you hit Melno Cepurīšu Balerija. “Black Cap Bar/Gallery” was originally funded by the EU as a youth centre, but it’s hard to see where the Brussels money was spent. The furnishings appear to have come from the same second hand store as the patrons’ anoraks, and the graffiti “art” on the walls would not disgrace itself on a railway bridge. Still, the beer is cheap, the wi-fi is free and guest bands play everything from death metal to reggae.

A slightly classier breed of youngster can be found at Tami-Tami. Set in Jelgava’s student dormitory district, the bright lighting and posters of smiley faced 1950’s-style squares make a stark contrast to the decaying apartment blocks nearby. The filling pizzas and prompt service draw respectable locals as well as students, and when Latvia is playing hockey on TV you can barely squeeze in. Upstairs from Tami-Tami is Jelgavas Krekli, the Jelgava outpost of the veteran Riga music venue Četri Balti Krekli. Krekli opens at 10 PM on Wednesdays and patrons go epileptic to deafening Latvian pop until sunup. During our visit, the place was overrun by students holding a “doctors and nurses” party, checking newcomers over with stethoscopes and prescribing glasses of carrot juice.  Who said staying up late was unhealthy?

For an alternative place to dance ‘til dawn, head towards Jelgava Market. In addition to babushkas haggling over potatoes, this neighbourhood is home to Tonuss, the elder statesman of Jelgava nightspots. Housed in the former town swimming baths, the club recently celebrated its 18th birthday – a remarkable survival act given changing tastes and fluctuating economics. Snobbier locals swear they wouldn’t be seen dead at Tonuss, but come Monday morning they show up in photos on the club’s webpage… With gyrating go-go dancers, visiting Russian acts and local Latvian groups and three dance floors, there’s just too much fun to miss. Oh, and they recently added a ten-pin bowling centre.

If mangy dreadlocks and bottle blondes aren’t for you, Jelgava also has some more sophisticated venues. With Old Masters reproductions on the ceiling panels and sports on plasma screens to stare at, and karaoke on weeknights and live music on weekends to listen to, you’d have to have chronic ADHD not to have fun in Plate. Pronounced Plar-the, which means “LP record” in Latvian, the bar of the stately Hotel Jelgava attracts an engaging mix of foreigners and local barflies for cold beer and tasty pizza.

A few minutes’ walk away, the chef at Chocolate and Pepper tries to please everyone with a menu that swings from sushi and stir fry to burgers and “chicken chest in Chinese way.” And the barman must busy making over 100 different cocktails. But even if they are stretching themselves a bit thin, the place gets thumbs up for its soft lighting and subtle music, a stylish coffee-and-orange interior, and the high spirited Latvian yuppies celebrating a birthday there during our last visit. It seems that in Jelgava even folks over thirty know how to live it up.

By Philip Birzulis and Jared Grellet.


Old Masters and Jelgava barflies at Plate. Photo: Filips Birzulis


Cuisine à la Valmiera


A wall mural honoring Valmiera sports legend Jānis Daliņš. Photo: Philip Birzulis.

Latvians Online is pleased to announce a new column about travel in Latvia – unusual destinations and the gastronomic delights they offer.

Flattened by frequent wars and smudged by heavy industry, Valmiera is not a beautiful looking place. But what this city of 25,000 in the heart of Vidzeme lacks in prettiness it more than makes up for with a winning attitude.

Take sports. To date, Valmiera’s athletes have brought home two Olympic golds (courtesy of BMX rider Māris Štrombergs in 2008 and 2012) plus a silver and bronze (for walkers Jānis Daliņš and Adalberts Bubenko in 1932 and 1936 respectively.) Add in a slew of medals won for Germany by champion dressage horse Rusty, born and bred near Lake Burtnieks just north of Valmiera, and Valmiera’s per capita Olympic ranking flies off the charts.

The town also excels in less sweaty ways. While the rest of Latvia struggles back after the crisis, its factories churn out stuff from fibreglass to fire extinguishers. Valmiera is home to one of Latvia’s top theatres, and a string of bars and clubs keep the students of Vidzeme University busy after school. And Valmiera is also home to a clutch of very good restaurants.

Top of the food chain is Dikļi Palace. This magnificent neo-Baroque manor just west of Valmiera hosted the first ever play performed in Latvian (a translation of Schiller’s The Robbers staged in 1818 with local peasant actors) and the first song festival in 1864, and today it is showing the nation how to cook. Celebrity chef Valters Zirdziņš creates menus based around game and produce so fresh and local you can literally watch farmers offering produce at the kitchen door. Hook some “matje herring tartar, rye bread, quail egg and cream”, swim over to “sturgeon fillet prepared in citrus butter with cauliflower puree and ginger carrot” then tipple with Valmiermuiža dark beer ice-cream with raspberries and caramel. The main dining room has a hunting lodge feel and a smart casual dress code, and if that’s a bit plebeian one may reserve the private dining suite. On the summer terrace you can savour Latvian-bred steaks and magnificent views of the manor gardens. And if you can’t move a muscle after dinner, you can crash in the four-star hotel littered with antiques or enjoy a massage with beer hops in the spa.

You can also find an elegant atmosphere and haute cuisine with local ingredients at Rātes Vārti. One of Valmiera’s oldest restaurants, the “Town Hall Gates” is a genteel, unrushed island in the centre of town. Park yourself in the Provencal-style dining room or the street-side terrace and feast on “fried river trout in herb butter” or “cheese parfait with black plumb tea sauce”. The restaurant’s owners also cater for big celebrations at the Brūtes (Sweethearts) events complex just south of Valmiera.

A few minutes’ walk from Rātes Vārti, Liepziedi un Rozmarīns is one of Latvia’s best pizzerias. Set picturesquely between Valmiera’s castle ruins and the Gauja River in a centuries-old bakery, “Linden Blossoms and Rosemary” is a marriage between fine Vidzeme produce and the Žentiņš family’s love affair with all things Italian.  You won’t find any pineapple or pickles here; only traditional toppings are used and the pies are baked to crispy perfection in a wood-fired oven. The “Al Salmone” and the “Frutti di Mare” are especially scrumptious. In summer groups of ten or more can attend the “pizza school” at the owners’ property “Vīnkalni” near Valmiera, where you learn to roll dough and sprinkle cheese amidst the rolling hills and storks’ nests. Of course, you get to eat your creations and a coffee and tiramisu are included too.

Compared to other towns its size, Valmiera positively buzzes after dark.  It even has its own theatre restaurant, Ceturtais cēliens, in the basement of the Valmiera Theatre. Joyfully mingling thespian nostalgia with voluptuous seventies furnishings, the dishes at “Act Four” like “beef-mushroom stroganoff in brandy sauce” and “dark chocolate mousse with strawberry soup” also sound a bit flared and side-burned. But an occasional time warp can be fun, and the potato pancakes we devoured last visit were outstanding. If you want to chew to a different beat, bop over to the Parks jazz club. On nights when Latvia’s top jazz, blues and rockabilly outfits play you won’t care if the food is cold (and you’ll be lucky to find a table), but when things quieten down they do nice lasagna and ribs.


Potato pancakes at Ceturtais Cēliens. Photo: Philip Birzulis.


South of the border: Latvians in Akmenė

Latvians of Akmenė

Some members of the Akmenė Latvian community pose for a wintery photograph. Back row from left to right: Tomas Pliuskys, Alvīne Jankauskiene and Valdis Bogavičius. Front row: Valda Pliuskiene, and Spodra Bogavičiene. (Photo by Philip Birzulis)

While most Latvian diaspora communities are thousands of kilometres from their ancestral homeland, Akmenė in Lithuania is almost within walking distance. Latvians have lived in and around this small town, just 20 kilometers from the current border, for two centuries.

The first settlers were farmers from Zemgale, Latvia’s southernmost province, who arrived in the early 1800s to buy cheap land. Although assimilation and Stalinist terror have reduced their numbers, today there are still 30 Latvian families in the town of 3,500, for a total of about 360 people in the Akmenė District. These are some of the roughly 4,700 Lithuanian citizens with the nationality “Latvian” written in their passports. Based on the number of out-of-country voters at the last Latvian parliamentary elections in 1998, the Latvian embassy in Vilnius estimates that there are additionally 120 citizens of Latvia residing in Lithuania.

Unlike their Catholic Lithuanian neighbours, the Latvians of Akmenė still observe the Lutheran faith of their ancestors. A wooden Lutheran church was erected in 1829 in the village of Alkiškiai, 7 km from Akmenė, and a stone one built in its place in 1841 is still used for services. A cemetery adjacent to the church contains numerous Latvian names and inscriptions. One of the headstones is dedicated to Edvīns Švāģeris, a parish priest who served seven Latvian parishes along the border, even under Soviet rule, until his death in 2001. Today, a Latvian minister from Kaunas, Lithuania’s second city, makes frequent visits.

The Latvians in Akmenė say that before the war there was a thriving community based around the Alkiškiai church, which supported two choirs and two Latvian societies. There were even two Latvian schools that closed when the teachers were shipped off to Siberia in 1951. The local people were successful farmers, a quality that brought tragedy for many of them during the mass deportations of 1949. Some hid with relations in Latvia to escape persecution, while others who returned from Siberia were banned from resettling in their old homes. Others moved to Latvia after the war because life there was more orderly than in Lithuania, say the locals, leading to a sharp reduction in the numbers of Latvians.

Life is not easy today either. During the Soviet era, several factories making cement and construction materials provided a relatively high standard of living, but the closure of these plants after independence has led to high unemployment.

These economic worries make it hard for Akmenė residents to travel to Latvia. They are especially annoyed at rules forcing them to buy insurance every time they cross the border. Furthermore, they complain that while the Lithuanian government builds houses, sends teachers and help its co-nationals living in Latvia in other ways, Rīga doesn’t do much for its own people. They would like a Latvian teacher to visit them at least occasionally.

Despite these frustrations, the community is still active. Unlike Lithuanians, the Latvians celebrate Jāņi (Midsummer’s Eve) and enjoy singing Latvian songs. The local council gives them free use of two rooms in a community centre where books, maps of Latvia and other items demonstrating the pride they have in their origins are displayed. Several hundred Latvians come together at the annual kapu svētki, the day for the remembrance of the deceased, at Alkiškiai. While intermarriage with Lithuanians has been taking place for at least two generations, some young people in their 20s and 30s still speak Latvian, although their own children may be assimilated.

This process is reflected in the life story of Valda Pliuskienė. Her grandmother and mother moved from Rīga to live with relatives in Akmenė during World War I, while her father, who was born in Auce in Zemgale, joined his family in Akmenė before 1914. Pliuskienė married a Lithuanian, and while her son Tomas Pliuskys speaks Latvian, he thinks of himself as a Lithuanian. Only one of Pliuskienė’s four grandchildren speaks Latvian.

Nevertheless, the community still maintains contacts with its ethnic homeland. Choirs and folklore groups from Dobele, a town in southern Latvia, often visit Akmenė to give performances. The Akmenė Latvians also have strong ties with their compatriots in Klaipeda, Joniškis, Kaunas, Vilnius and elsewhere in Lithuania. And they show off their Latvian language and culture at festivals in the local district.

It seems likely that this southern Latvian outpost will be around for a while yet.

Latvian church near Akmenė

The Latvian Lutheran Church at Alkiškiai, near Akmenė. (Photo by Philip Birzulis)