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Discovering the Baltic Islands

200904-a-baltic-islands

Photo: Blasius Erlinger

I wound my way out of Tallinn’s Old Town at dusk. I was going east, to the city of Narva on the Russian border, where, I had been told, I would find the Baltic’s most spectacular beach. That morning Elizabeth, the Nugget, and I had made our way to the capital, a pleasant ferry ride followed by two hours on a highway into Tallinn. There, I had set up Elizabeth and the Nugget in the newly opened Hotel Telegraaf, which occupies the renovated interior of the former post office at the center of the Old Town. With its black marble and glittering chandeliers, it exuded a solidity that made me comfortable leaving the two of them in their room, turning to the room-service menu as I walked out the door.

I had been led to believe that Narva was Estonia’s equivalent to the South Bronx, so I was doing this part of the journey on my own. I guided the car through the narrow cobblestoned streets of the Old Town, the buildings huddled together and medieval but also strikingly colorful and clean. In their brightness I felt the pulsating prosperity of the place.

I stopped for the night at Kalvi Kastle, a two-hour drive from Tallinn during which, other than forest and the occasional looming factory, all I saw were a few cars and signs warning of crossing moose. Kalvi Kastle looks like an English country-manor house. From the outside, at dusk, it was formidable, but as soon as I stepped through its doors I saw a suit of armor, an empty shell, standing at attention. It was a good symbol for the place. There was hardly anyone there. The waiters and the man at the front desk were quite professional, but at any moment I felt that they might break out into hysterical laughter, unable to sustain any longer the illusion that this was a real hotel.

The next morning I struck up a conversation with the one other person having breakfast in the dining room. He worked for a Danish furniture maker who co-owned the castle; they had a plant nearby. Eventually, it would be a top-notch resort; for now, it was a hotel for company executives.

After breakfast I took a winding road to a beautiful little beach populated only by some youths setting up a campfire and a volleyball net. I looked at the waves, tempted, but there was no time for a swim. I had to get to Narva to meet a local journalist who had agreed to show me around. A few miles outside of town I started passing trucks parked on the side of the road, one after another—a petrified forest of trucks. The town sits across the Narva River from the Russian border: it’s the end of the line, pushed up into the northeasternmost corner of Estonia. Huge medieval forts face each other across the river, leftovers from the centuries of battles between the Russians and the Swedes. For the truck drivers, crossing the border here can take more than a week. Estonia may have modernized—it’s now home to Skype, the Internet phone company headquartered in Tallinn—but as my guide, journalist Sergei Stepanov, himself a Russian, later explained, “On the Russian side they are all drunk!”

We met at a petrol station at the edge of town, and he drove me out to see the beach I had heard about. Some State Department guys in Tallinn had told me this was the secret gem of the Baltic—better than Jurmala. Perhaps it was my source, or the proximity of the Russian border, but I felt a bit like a spy. We drove past a huge monument featuring a tank sitting on top of a square pedestal with fresh flowers arranged at its base, down a quiet lane, then pulled up to a small carriage painted in red-and-white candy stripes and sitting at the edge of a little park.

Sergei got out and proudly announced that this was the symbol of the town. “A cabin for the shy girls who wanted to go to the beach in the beginning of the last century,” he said. Apparently these “shy girls” would enter the carriage fully clothed and change into their bathing gear, after which it would be pulled, either by horses or men, into the shallows. I couldn’t decide what was more touching—the image of the beach dotted with these carriages, with ladies emerging and returning, or the cheerful hope and optimism embodied by the fresh coat of paint on this specimen, and the nearby plaque explaining its history.

We walked down the beach. It was mostly empty. Sergei pointed out a yellow gazebo. “Tchaikovsky used to compose there,” he said. Now it was covered with crudely drawn graffiti—anti-American and anti-Estonian slogans, written by the angry Russian youth of Narva. Narva had once been the Hamptons of St. Petersburg, 85 miles away. The dirt road behind the beach was lined with gorgeous old wooden mansions, some in disrepair. The center of things had shifted to Jurmala. When I asked why, Sergei said, “Politics.” The fundamental tension of Estonia lies in its desire to separate entirely from its old Soviet occupiers. And yet a third of the population is Russian and doesn’t even speak Estonian. Many of these immigrants live in Narva. Could Narva rise again?There is no way to know. But that broad expanse of empty beach, so full of history, seemed promising.

On my drive back to Tallinn, clouds raced across a bright blue sky, and I raced along with them, heading toward my wife and the Nugget. I passed more houses with steeply angled roofs and meadows dotted with haystacks. I drove across a huge field of wind turbines—their narrow bases and three blades so gigantic it was surreal, like toys in a race of giants. The windmills were spinning to the rhythm of the clouds racing overhead, the future in the landscape of a fairy tale.

Thomas Beller is the editor of the forthcoming Lost and Found: Stories from New York (W.W. Norton), a collection of essays from his website mrbellersneighborhood.com. He teaches at Tulane University.

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