Looking Across to Russia

Trip Start Aug 31, 2007
1
7
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Trip End Apr 19, 2008


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Flag of Estonia  ,
Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Narva, on the Russian border, is more the Soviet city I had been expecting when I came east. As Estonia's third most populous city, its 67,000 residents need a lot of ugly block apartments to live in. Not that it's all bad, it just meshes really well with my impression of Russian cities - almost out of the movies. I keep having to remind myself that those big, Russian mafia-looking men are really just big Russian men, minus the mafia, and that the mob would have little reason to take me out anyway.

Narva has been a fortified trading point since 1172 and has changed hands countless times, belonging to the Danes, Germans, Swedes, and Russians at various points in its history. Narva castle and fortress was built by the Danes in the 13th century and in 1492, Ivan III in Russia ordered a similar fort built on the opposite bank. Both forts were badly damaged in WWII, but that on the Narva side continues to undergo extensive renovations and I visited this afternoon. Viewing the castle grounds, including the only fully intact statue of Lenin remaining in the Baltics, neatly tucked away in a corner, is free, but to go inside the castle requires a ticket and a tour, which consists only of a moderator leading you around. My guess is they can't afford a moderatorfor each room and don't want people wandering around unsupervised.

As castles go, Narva's is not particularly impressive. Additionally, the majority of displays at the museum are solely in Russian and Estonian. I know five words of Russian (yes, no, good-bye, thank you, and vodka) and though my Estonian vocabulary is improving, it still has a long way to go before I can read museum exhibits. However, the castle museum does a wonderful job of portraying Narva's old town as it was, before being entirely destroyed during WWII and replaced with those fetching apartment blocks I mentioned earlier. I particularly enjoyed the before and after shots of parts of the town. The height of the fort also offered a good vantage point for peering into the Russian fort. Lacking $100 for a visa and any desire to wade through that much red tape, I will not be visiting Russia this trip. So final verdict on the castle: probably just worth the 30 kroon entrance fee. 50 kroon would be asking too much.

After the castle, I wandered up to the old town hall, now slowly crumbling in front of a depressing parking lot, and snapped a picture. I also visited a lion statue, honoring the Swedes' assistance at the battle of Narva in 1700, which was ultimately lost to the Russians. It seems to have been a very important battle, there are monuments to it everywhere. I saw Aleksandri Church, which was, unfortunately, buried in scaffolding, and a monument to the thousands of Estonians loaded into cattle wagons here and deported to Siberia in 1941.

All of this sightseeing was made possible by the excellent Narva tourist office and helpful signs throughout town. The office set me up with a map, called my hotel before I came over to make sure they had a room, and got me a schedule for buses to Tartu tomorrow. The staff was very friendly, as indeed everyone here has been - it's the friendliest place I've visited so far. Very few people speak English, but a smile goes a long way. Additionally, my attempts to pass as a local are meeting with unprecedented success! I've lost count of the number of people who have jabbered away at me in Russian today and then looked very confused when they realized I couldn't jabber back.

And now, a final word on my hotel: the women at the tourist office really weren't sure I should stay at the Hostel Jusian, but the next cheapest place was more than double their rate, so I headed over. Took me an hour to find the place, hidden among a complex of apartment blocks. I must be the only person who would find staying in an old Soviet apartment building exciting. I would have been a little sketched by the location except that hundreds of Estonian families live over here, so it's probably safer than Manhattan. The place is basic, but clean, and the staff friendly. I quickly talked the room rate down from 400 to 300 kroon and I am quite happy here.
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Comments

jeffwhan
jeffwhan on

Thanks Megan!!
Thanks for taking all of us with you. I am really enjoying your adventures and I hope you will continue to find the time and facilities to keep us informed.
Wow!! 10 or 12 years ago our little trips from Vienna brought us to Prague and Budapest and Brataslava and East Berlin and Dresden... I remember the scars from the war(s) and what followed and the hidden beauty and the people.. so much history... You are a great guide!
Jeff

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