Take a drive through the cross­roads of two mighty Euro­pean pow­ers: Es­to­nia and Latvia twist their own brand of North­ern cul­ture with a his­tory steeped in mil­len­nia.

Lonely Planet (UK) - - Travel Quiz - Bran­don Presser

A sea of pine forests un­folds be­tween me­dieval cas­tles, Soviet bunkers and Baltic-coast towns on this drive from Tallinn to Riga

At a din­ner in Riga over a decade ago, as I pushed around a slab of grey pork and side of boiled pota­toes, I learned that the Lat­vian lan­guage – one of the old­est tongues still spo­ken on the planet – has no word for ‘moun­tain’. The term kalns, or hill, serves as the best sub­sti­tute, as there are no true moun­tains in the en­tire re­gion; no bor­rowed term has been added to the lo­cal lex­i­con. And there’s re­ally no need for one: the en­tirety of the Baltic shield is blan­keted by an un­du­lat­ing cur­rent of tow­er­ing pine. The green car­pet, un­both­ered by the bru­tal win­ter weather, seems uni­form from the car win­dow year af­ter year, no mat­ter how many times I re­turn to visit. But a turn on to a lonely side road re­veals thou­sands of years of fas­ci­nat­ing geopo­lit­i­cal his­tory. De­part­ing Tallinn, Es­to­nia’s tur­ret-topped cap­i­tal with a dis­tinc­tive Scan­di­na­vian feel, I for­feit the heady brew of old­meets-new, and ven­ture south into coun­try­side. The hori­zon broad­ens, re­veal­ing the bat­tle­fields of both an­cient and mod­ern em­pires – scarred sto­ry­tellers of the re­gion’s nu­anced his­tory of sub­ju­ga­tion and glory. Latvia’s largest na­tional park, the Gauja, fol­lows its name­sake river as it snakes be­tween tribal war mounds and me­dieval cas­tle ru­ins; I do the same. Sub­tle bumps in the ter­rain mark the strongholds of the tribes that waged war in the re­gion over 2,000 years ago – ar­chae­ol­o­gists have un­cov­ered old stones from other parts of the planet lend­ing cre­dence to the no­tion that this area was an epi­cen­tre of global trade. A rich me­dieval his­tory comes to life at the rosy-red tower of Tu­raida Cas­tle and at the ashen stone spires of Ce­sis Cas­tle. In Sigulda, the park's gate­way town, I spot my first Soviet relic: a clus­ter of ten­e­ments and a strange rib­bon of con­crete. In the cities, the aus­ter­ity of the ar­chi­tec­ture seems like an unas­sum­ing patch of the ur­ban quilt, but in the for­est, sur­rounded by swatches of deep greens, the struc­tures are shock­ingly dour. It was in Sigulda that the Soviet bob­sled team trained for in­ter­na­tional cham­pi­onships, like the Olympics. The fa­cil­ity was

aban­doned af­ter the fall of the USSR, and to­day lo­cal busi­ness own­ers of­fer in­tro­duc­tory spins on the track with var­i­ous sleighs. Fol­low­ing a stom­ach-churn­ing ride down the con­crete corkscrew, I meet up with a friend-of-a-friend who has in­vited me to his pirts (sauna). Like the Fin­nish, Es­to­ni­ans and Lat­vians have an elab­o­rate and en­thu­si­as­tic sauna cul­ture, but with­out any of the mod­esty as­signed to the ri­tual by other western na­tions. Af­ter a hardy shake of hands, my friend-of-a-friend strips to his birth­day suit and lies up­wards on the thin birch planks of his pond­side sauna. I fol­low, and an older woman, the sauna mas­ter, im­me­di­ately en­ters the cham­ber hold­ing bushels of dried twigs and flow­ers. What fol­lows is a chore­ographed dance, as she swishes her branches through the air to raise the hu­mid­ity then beats us with gar­lands to open our pores. The branch-beat­ing ses­sion lasts some 15 min­utes, af­ter which I’m grabbed by the arm and tossed in the chilly lakelet out the door. Lather, rinse, re­peat, with a splash of vodka and some cured meats, and by the end of the af­ter­noon I feel fully in­doc­tri­nated into the Baltic way of life and ready to con­tinue my jour­ney. The trees con­tinue to march on like noble war­riors, apart from the odd clear­ing mark­ing a cool, dark lake in the near dis­tance, un­til sud­denly the crash of the frigid Baltic Sea breaks their stride. The sea­side en­clave of Jur­mala soft­ens the tran­si­tion be­tween worlds with its cot­tage ar­chi­tec­ture and Art Nou­veau flour­ishes. In sum­mer months, the beach teems with day-trip­ping Ri­gans, but out of sea­son the ve­neer fades on the hol­i­day town, and the so-called san­i­tar­i­ums lie bare along the coast like beached cruise lin­ers.

Latvia’s coast­line swerves north up to a point at Kolka where the Baltic Sea meets the Bay of Riga. A line, where the pur­ple seas lap over the clearer wa­ters of the bay, can be seen from the haunt­ing sea stacks formed by far­away tim­ber. The area was strictly off lim­its to civil­ians dur­ing the Soviet oc­cu­pa­tion, and there­fore feels lost in time, save the odd con­crete wartime watch­tower along the shore. The Cape of Kolka is the indige­nous ter­ri­tory of the Livs, or Livo­ni­ans, one of the an­cient regional tribes that guarded their land claims with the leg­endary fe­roc­ity of the Vik­ings. To­day, only a hand­ful of eth­nic Livs re­main. Their ocean-blue eyes catch your at­ten­tion as they tend to the small cot­tages and fish-smok­ing shacks by the sea. The soli­tude of the cape crescen­does with ac­tiv­ity as I pass through sea­side towns. In laid-back Pav­ilosta lo­cals are zipped to the neck in neo­prene, bat­tling the Baltic waves on their kite­boards. Fur­ther on, grungy Liepaja pro­vides an in­ter­est­ing con­trast, with its roar­ing night­clubs built in old port­side ware­houses. Turn­ing in­land, I fol­low an old ship­ping route back through the graz­ing fields and tea gar­dens of Latvia’s in­te­rior. A de­tour in the coun­try’s southerly Zem­gale re­gion brings me to Run­dale Palace, the Baltic’s ver­sion of Ver­sailles but with only a frac­tion of the crowds (if any vis­i­tors at all.) And with op­u­lence on the mind I head straight for Ho­tel Bergs upon fi­nally reach­ing Riga, Latvia’s cap­i­tal. Once held by the coun­try’s lead­ing fam­ily, the man­sion-like com­plex in the heart of the city – with its con­tem­po­rary em­bel­lish­ments – is now named in hon­our of its for­mer pa­tri­arch, Kristaps Kal­nins, who as­sumed the sur­name Bergs (Ger­man for ‘moun­tain’) to lend his en­tre­pre­neur­ial am­bi­tions a more cos­mopoli­tan flair. Turns out there’s a moun­tain in the Baltic af­ter all.

‘The area near Kolka was strictly off lim­its to civil­ians dur­ing the Soviet oc­cu­pa­tion and feels lost in time’

Clock­wise from top: Tallinn’s colour­ful faÇades; the sky­line of Tallinn from Toom­pea Hill. Next pages: blue skies over a Baltic beach; Tu­raida Cas­tle above the Gauja River

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