Saturday, September 16, 2017

across the countryside

There are two ways to get from Tallinn to Riga, Latvia without a car. One is to take Lux Bus for 10–20 euros, plug in your headset, watch a movie, or take a nap for 4 1/2 hours. The other is the Tallinn to Riga shuttle bus tour which takes 11 hours and includes stops in villages, forests, and an Olympic bobsled track.
Six of us from Indonesia, Norway, and the UK piled into a comfy van with our local driver–guide Triin, who gave us a crash course in Estonian history.

Kind of primeval setting, along the riverside
First stop: the town of Viljandi, gorgeously restored and most famous for hosting the annual folk music festival.
Triin: This really is Game of Thrones.

It was raining, but we were lucky to have blue skies for an easy hike in Sietinizis National Park, along the sandstone cliffs.
Along the trail were mushrooms including chanterelles and some Triin thought were poisonous.
The park is enormous and includes several towns. It was really peaceful to take a walk in the woods.

Cool trees with moss
Wherever you are, a walk in the forest is good for what ails you.
 Next it was on to lunch and then the Soviet Military park.
This is a weird and fascinating place, with sculptures made of old bombs and recruiting posters and lots of mannequins in uniforms.

Triin kept us spellbound with the story of the Soviet Union invading Estonia during World War II, after 20 years of freedom.
Then the Nazis arrived and compared to the Soviets, they actually looked good. For centuries, Estonians and Latvian had been enslaved as serfs, occupied by empires that exported their food and left peasants to starve, and punished any form of dissent.
Triin's great-grandparents were deported to Siberia, her great-grandmother summoned in the middle of the night with three daughters and put on a cattle car in 1949. Somehow they survived. Most Estonians didn't. They returned to Estonia, not sure if their home or village remained. And nearly ten more years later, her great-grandfather returned too. 
Reunited, they lived happy lives, she said. They even lived long enough to see Estonia free again, in 1991, in a bloodless revolution, united by song and a belief in their own destiny. I guess anything is possible.

"We were the battle ground of someone else's war, as always," Triin commented.

Taylor Swift recruiting soldiers to join the Estonian reserves? 

One of many symbols of Estonia, many borrowed from neighboring countries. For the moment, Estonia enjoys extraordinary prosperity, EU membership, eurozone, the prestigious presidency of the EU. And next year the centenary of the first free Estonia.

We cross the border into Latvia (no longer barricades or passport stamps, since Latvia and Estonia are part of the Schengen area), making a short stop in the medieval town of Cesis. 
 The sun even came out and blessed us with a rainbow.

Latvia, while not extremely religious, has a distinct Lutheran presence.
 There's a beautifully preserved castle and this bizarre Germanic manor, with a turreted tower.

And saving the best for last, we stopped off in Sigulda at the former Soviet bobsled track, built as a practice ramp for the Sarajevo Olympics in 1984. Yes, that's the bottom down there.

Imagine racing down on an icy, winding track at 130 kph! A Georgian athlete was there practicing, though we didn't get to see him speed down.
 Or just watch Cool Runnings again and stay cool.

A few more trees and moss as we say goodbye to the countryside. 
After a long, wonderful journey, I've arrived in Old Town Riga for the next 48 hours. It's Saturday night and the town is buzzing. Just as I'd gotten used to Tallinn, here we are in another country, another language, a different culture.
Breathe deep and inhale the rich scent of chanterelles and apple trees and birch. Remember what this land and these people have been through the last 700 years. The last 70 even. No one in the early 90s, hungry, captive, willing to risk their lives for independence, could have imagined today's Estonia. What's possible in the next 25?