Rīga to Tallinn

Onto a coach again for the journey from Rīga to Tallinn, this time by daylight so I can see a bit more of the countryside. It’s a great trip – seeing the towns and villages you pass through is one of the few benefits of coach travel – along the Via Baltica, the EU-funded road that runs from the Lithuanian/Polish border up to Tallinn. It’s two-lanes all the way, which makes the modern coaches swerve around quite a lot as they overtake Soviet-era trucks.

Scenery description after the jump.

The most spectacular feature of the journey is the landscape around us – such a flat bleak landscape, even on a sunny spring day. It’s like a long journey through Lincolnshire, and I don’t necessarily mean that as a criticism. After the colours and bustle of Rīga, the villages and (few) towns we pass through look as washed out as the countryside, all concrete greys and pale browns. I can see how you might love this countryside if you grew up there, but certainly at this time of year it looks very cold and alien to an outsider.

Particularly noticeable, at least for this Englishman, is the colourless substance under the trees, presumably dead needles or bark, mixed with the sandy soil of the coastal plain. Growing up on the edge of the Chilterns, my mental forests are broadwood with grass, ferns and bushes underfoot, but underneath the huge expanses of evergreen and silver birch, there’s just a pale dust, like a bleached version of the bark chips you get in children’s playgrounds.

The sky is immense, blue for part of the journey, and grey clouds for the rest. I was listening to my iPod for part of the journey, and one of Purcell’s Secular Songs came on: there was a real clash of senses with my eyes looking at this scenery and my ears listening to an English song about Richmond Hill and nymphs and shepherds. Latvia does not have a nymphs and shepherds landscape (although it does have an enormous treasury of folk song and legend, as do the other Baltic states).

The breadth and flatness of the landscape draws your eye into it, and the absence of markers like hedges or villages means that your line of sight travels along what for England would be enormous distances. The flat landscape and the tall, spindly trees make for a vista full of straight lines and distance. I got lost in the thought of how distant it would be to be lost in that terrain, and how far you would have to go to find another human being. And this is the comparatively populous part of the old USSR: I had a shudder imagining what exile in Siberia would be like.

At one point we passed through a small coastal town called Saulkrasti – a real example of how things have developed in recent years. There were shiny new houses overlooking the most perfect sandy beach running right the way along the coast, and a scattering of older houses, some crumbling, a couple burned out. We got glimpses right down to the coast and out to sea: some of those houses must have fantastic views from their verandas, but I expect most of them are strictly for summer use. Further along, away from the coastal strip, were some neglected Soviet-era apartment blocks – physically, politically and architecturally a long way from the symbols of the new Latvia.