Many accomplished people have called Latvia home over the years including Jacob W. Davis, the inventor of Levi’s jeans, and, more recently, everybody’s favourite New York Knick, Kristaps Porziņģis. But even we were surprised to learn that British TV personality, author, motorcycle racer and Guinness Book record holder Guy Martin has an ancestor who grew up not far from the laid-back seaside town of Liepāja. The daredevil who claims to be most comfortable when travelling at high speed or tinkering in his shed, decided to discover his grandfather’s roots in Latvia and documented his adventure in Channel 4’s TV programme Our Guy in Latvia, which first aired in December 2015.
Guy, not surprisingly, begins his journey at Riga’s International Airport after taking a short, and no doubt cheap, Wizzair flight from the UK. He first visits the iconic Freedom Monument and then walks around Old Riga where he meets Aleksandrs Feigmanis, who coincidentally is the only genealogy expert that we’ve listed on our website in the past 10 years. Afterwards he walks straight past the Riga In Your Pocket office on Laipu iela before renting a 1982 Lada that will serve as his transportation to Western Latvia. He takes one of the nation’s notoriously bumpy gravel roads to reach the former schoolhouse where his grandfather Voldemārs grew up and gets directions to his family’s ancestral farm, which no longer exists, save a few foundation stones.
The crux of the film, however, seems to be Guy’s uneasy relationship with the revelation that the man he admired and loved so much admittedly fought for the German side during World War II. Although this was actually quite common in Latvia, we can see how this would be a disturbing fact to someone who was brought up in the UK or the West in general. Stuck between the two expanding imperial powers of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, Latvians rarely had a say about their future during the war and young men were forcibly conscripted by both sides, an act that is now outlawed by the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949. In many cases brothers and cousins ended up on opposite sides fighting one another.
Guy attends a screening of a Latvian history documentary at the Splendid Palace cinema in Riga and then visits the Latvian Museum of War to discover whether his father was a willing recruit of the Nazis or a conscript forced to join the German army at gunpoint. Thankfully, records show that Voldemārs, whose real name was Žanis Ķidals, was a conscript who most likely deserted the army only to be caught and sent to the front as cannon fodder. After the war he was held as a prisoner by the British and then, realising that returning to his home now occupied by the Soviets was impossible, he finally immigrated to the UK.
To see what conditions were like as a prisoner of the Soviets, Guy travels back to western Latvian to the Karosta Prison museum in Liepāja where he spends the night as an inmate. This has become a popular tourist attraction for people who don’t mind being verbally abused in Russian all night in a prison that was described by the TV show Ghost Hunters International as ‘one of the most haunted’ destinations they’d ever visited. Naturally, you don’t have to spend the night here, but it is one of Latvia’s best Soviet-style attractions.
The next day Guy visits the Northern Forts, abandoned Tsarist-era concrete fortifications that are now slowly receding into the sea. It’s here that he discusses how his grandfather, like many other Latvians, made his way to the UK after the war and reads from a British newspaper that explains what these ‘displaced persons’ were meant to do. The 1946 article states: ‘They are here to do the dirty jobs that English people will not look at.’
Guy returns to Riga to meet his long-lost relatives for the first time, but before he joins them at the LIDO Latvian restaurant on Krasta iela he makes a pit stop at Riga’s legendary Central Market, so he doesn’t have to show up emptyhanded at the family reunion. At the end Guy admits that he loved his trip to Latvia and that he would definitely return. After all, what’s not to love?
Despite the cheesy use of a mock Russian font for the title of the programme, we found the nearly hour-long film to be informative, slightly cheeky and even a bit moving. The narrator also does a good job of explaining Latvia’s complex history between scenes. Although Guy may be remembered by many as the bloke who set a Guinness Book speed record on the infamous vertical Wall of Death, we’ll always fondly recall his touching journey through our adopted country of Latvia. For the full programme visit Our Guy in Latvia on YouTube.
Martins first visited Latvia in 1991 and swore to all that would listen that he would never return. Two years later he was back in Riga and after a few more visits he finally made the big move from the US to his father’s native land in 1998. He has been editing In Your Pocket city guides and writing freelance travel articles in the Latvian capital ever since.