Valka: Split personalities on the Latvian Estonia Border
We cycled into Valka with high hopes. It was our last night in Latvia; time for a celebration. A beer or two, maybe dinner out. “This town must be good,” I said to Matthew. “The Estonians and Latvians both wanted it so much when the two countries were fighting over borders after the First World War that the guy in charge of settling the disputed land put the border right down the middle of it.”
Matthew looked concerned, “We have to make sure we don’t accidentally go into the Estonian half then. Latvia is much cheaper for hotels.”
The hotel we chose on the Latvian side of the town was indeed cheap and could do two rooms for us, but no food. The manager pulled a glossy town map out of a huge box of town maps. Every hotel, restaurant and bar on both the Estonian side of the town (Valga) and the Latvian equivalent (Valka) was marked on the map, with a list at the end indexing each establishment. The owner took out a red pen and started crossing out the bars and restaurants.
A little map and a big red pen
“This one closed. This gone. This one Estonian,” he slashed quickly through the list with his pen. “ Closed. Estonian. Gone. Estonian. Estonian, Estonian, Estonian.”
With each slash of the pen the red marks got deeper, making me wonder if there was an element of racial tension in this town? The manager left one solitary bistro, at the edge of town.
“Latvian!” he declared, throwing his pen onto the bar, folding the map and thrusting it into my hands. I took Matthew with me to scout out the joint, while Stuart was in charge of showering Hannah and Cameron after a dusty day’s riding.
All shut up
“Closed!” said Mathew as we stood outside a bistro that shut at 6pm. So we took a walk around town. The manager was right. All Latvian bars and restaurants; ‘closed, gone, closed.’ We found a tiny Maxima supermarket and bought some new slightly stale bread. This was dinner. We spent some of our last Lats on chocolate and drinking yoghurt to wash it down, saving just a few for a breakfast shopping spree. Our tour of Latvia ended as it began. Out of food and out of money.
Across the border life was different
The border post was indeed in the middle of the street. With the demise of border controls, we hardly noticed we were crossing into another country. Until we turned the corner at the end of the road. Then it was like we had entered another world. Two huge supermarkets with attached bakeries stood like the gates to a more Western World. A line of banks followed, and then a selection of cafes and restaurants. Not gone. Not Latvian. Not closed.
In a square further up the road, twenty sculptors were busy with huge columns of wood and power tools, carving sculptures including chairs, a motor car, and a giant cello; presumably to populate a sculpture park. Further on by the river, we came across the first proper playground we had seen in weeks; replacing Latvian rusty and quite dangerous metal monkey bars with swinging tyres, curling slides, and a ten metre net climbing pyramid, all painted bright colours. The potholed road became smooth traffic free cycle trail through the park. “How can you get two such different experiences within two kilometres of each other?” wondered Stuart.
How can two places be so different?
The differences became clearer as we wound through the countryside. The Latvian scrubland, scattered with tiny smallholdings and closed in by forest, became wide open fields with wheat and rye that went on for miles. Huge New Holland combine harvesters effortlessly scythed swathes of crops. The Soviet tower blocks were gone, replaced instead with picturesque wooden clad houses. People waved cheerily as we went by.
Later, we finished up at a campsite with gentle rolling hillocks that looked like the grass had been trimmed with nail scissors. A giant wooden swing overlooked three lakes. We pitched at the top of the hill, took a plunge in the lake then took a rowing boat, a pedalo and a canoe out onto the water, splashing around in the evening heat. Then in a barbecue pit, we made a fire and discovered that sweating salami tastes like bacon if burnt to an even crisp.
We happily ate our first evening meal in Estonia as the sun went down over the lake. But in all the manicured loveliness and Western style wealth, a part of me missed Latvia. I couldn’t so easily forget its’ crumbling Sovietness and grimy yet real ‘take me as I am’ charm.
Then Cameron piped up, “I know why you liked Latvia so much Mum. You liked Latvia because it was cheap. I like Estonia because it has bacon butties.”