ROVING THE BALTIC: ESTONIA TO LATVIA
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.
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