Breakfast in the Bunker
The dining room was austere and breakfast was sparse; a slice of cucumber, a slice of tomato, a slice of cheese and salami. Some stale black rye bread. A juice in a little carton. We ate. A woman watched from the serving hatch of the old soviet building. She scared me. Next to us a huge red table cloth formed swirls on a long table, looking like it was waiting to grace a wedding. Who would want to get married here, in this decaying giant of a hotel?
What’s for breakfast?
My thoughts were interrupted by the woman coming forward with three plastic plates loaded with scrambled egg. I cheered a little. I liked fresh scrambled eggs; a nice change from protein supplements. But I knew Matthew didn’t so indicated this politely to the lady. I was a little taken aback when she shot him a look of death, then strode back to the kitchen, her flowery dress and plain white apron draped unflatteringly across middle aged hips. I took a spoonful of my scrambled egg and choked. It was scrambled but it wasn’t egg. And it certainly wasn’t from NutritionFix.com.
It was the most disgusting thing I had ever tasted; a cheesy, vaguely rice-like pile of yellow slop. What was it? Watery cheese polenta? I would never know. But it was clear that we had four plates of the stuff on our table. And we were the only people in the vast dining room. And that she was watching us eat. Or rather not eat. We looked around for a solution to the dilemma; how to get rid of four plates of vomit without anyone clocking us.
How do we get rid of it?
“We could hide it under that red tablecloth,” said Cameron following my line of thought.
“Or throw it out of the window when she’s not looking?” said Matthew.
“Sugarbowl?” suggested Stuart, opening the cheap glass pot to see how much room there was for four platefuls of slop.
“I don’t like my breakfast,” said Hannah, starting to cry.
I couldn’t meet the woman’s eye when she came to remove it from our table after an endless amount of time had elapsed. Apparently Cameron did and she gave him the look of death.
We ran down the corridor, passing people on crutches and zimmers. It seemed we were about the only able bodied people in the hotel. I wondered how had they coped with cheesy polenta for breakfast in their condition?
A rehabilitation centre, with a secret
I hadn’t wanted to come to this hotel. I had wanted to go to the nearby ‘teddy bear hotel’ where every room was stuffed with little bears, a massive teddy bear stood on the doorstep, and even the pillows were bear shaped. Outside a closed tourist information centre in the village of Ligatne, I had just persuaded Stuart this was a good idea when he spotted an advertisement for a former Soviet nuclear bunker that, since decommissioning, had been turned into a museum.
“And there’s a hotel nearby. It’s called a rehabilitation centre. Perhaps it’s like a spa hotel? ” he said.
I reinforced the idea that children love teddy bears as a man got out of a car just in front of us. He came over to chat and introduced himself as the husband of the lady who ran tourist information.
“There’s a nuclear bunker in the forest, just four kilometres up that hill. You should go. It’s very interesting. There’s a hotel you could stay in.” he suggested.
By then I knew that nuclear bunker trumped teddy bear pillows and I surrendered and got on my bike.
Something didn’t seem right
There was something very odd about this hotel. There were broken people everywhere; in plaster, limping along or just looking a bit green. I sat on a chipped balcony on a white plastic chair and looked down on a decaying swimming pool in the shape of a deformed kidney bean but without any water, a strange round basketball court, and what looked like a square grassy hill.
Our room was like something out of Coronation Street in the 1970’s. “Oh look, we’ve got Hilda Ogden’s house,” I said to Stuart as I paced the flowery carpets, and pulled down the door of the walnut drinks cabinet, that unfortunately revealed no hotel mini bar. There was no bar at this hotel, not even a drinks machine with Coca Cola in it, and the café didn’t open until midday the next day. There was just a typical Latvian shower that wasn’t quite plumbed in, and a drain that didn’t quite remove water from the room.
It turned out we couldn’t have a bunker tour until 3pm. In fact we couldn’t have one at all until we’d offered to pay the hotel receptionist the museum fees, and on top of that buy our own guide to show us around. Public tours were normally only on offer at weekends. Then in a rush, a phone call was made and we had an appointment. We whiled away the hours by trying to translate what was on the café menu as a tea trolley went out to do its rounds. Now we understood that the rehabilitation centre was more Latvian hospital than western spa hotel. People were bustling around in white coats, or waiting outside shut doors for consultation on problems regarding various damaged limbs.
Down the stairs and into a nuclear bunker
Our tour guide arrived and we failed to catch her name. We then failed to keep up as she marched off down the corridor towards the café of the rehabilitation centre. How would we be getting to the bunker? By shuttle bus? I wondered. Was it walkable? Or did the tour include a tea stop? At the café, the woman turned right, and went straight through a door we had assumed led into the garden. It didn’t. It led down. For nine metres. It soon became apparent we had been sleeping on top of the bunker.
“This is a very secret place and you need a password to get in,” said the woman to the kids, pretending that protocol should still be followed as we stopped at a steel door.”What is your password?” she said with a mock fierceness. Hannah looked panic stricken.
“Why don’t you make your password ‘Puffle,’ like our DS pets?” said Matthew, cottoning on to what was going on.
Hannah whispered ‘Puffle’ without taking her eyes off the floor.”
The woman said ‘Puffle’ into a telephone attached to the door and pretended to listen for the reply. Then she nodded and opened the door, saying “The KGB also had ‘Puffle’ for their password so you are through.”
She led off down the corridor. “I’m choosing ‘Ninja Puffle’ if she asks me, said Cameron solemnly.
This was no high-tech fantasy
It wasn’t like the bunkers you see on TV. In ‘The West Wing’ and ’24’. They are always high tech shrines to war planning and technology. Warning us we weren’t to take photographs as there might still be secrets here that the Soviet authorities didn’t want anyone to see, she gave us a tour of a handful of rooms. I wondered what they were afraid of us discovering as we went around the rooms covered in flock wallpaper or chipped plaster, looking at old typewriters or the earliest version of a printer, or the big samovar in the canteen. She told us to hold our ears as she turned on the ventilation system, and I held my nose against the smell of damp. The whole place smelt like our cellar.
But slowly the place revealed its secrets to us. The hill we had stayed on overnight was not a natural forested hillock, but the square of the bunker. The whole rehabilitation centre had operated then as it does now, but had been set up as a decoy. The site was in fact a 2000 square metre fully functioning and equipped nuclear facility, whose secrecy grading was only removed in 2003. It was built for state administration in case of nuclear war and the plan was to provide the secret concealment of the Secretaries General of the Soviet Communist Party. It was one of the most strategically important places in Latvia in the event of a war. It contained plans and projections as to what would happen and how the largest towns would be affected. It had a telecommunication unit that secured direct communication with the Kremlin.
Now it all became clear. The hotel was a decoy. In fact the whole area was. The cocktail cabinet in our rooms once possibly held the vodka of a KGB commander! We learnt that the basketball court was a helicopter landing pad. The disused open air swimming pool was in fact a map of Latvia. I wondered if in fact, the woman serving breakfast this morning was a member of the Russian secret service who couldn’t bring herself to leave once decommissioning happened. We passed out of the steel door.
“Puffle” Hannah whispered.
“Ninja Puffle” said Cam.
“Cheesy polenta,” I said.