Sunday, September 21, 2008

Up & Down the Via Baltica

Day one, and an early start to Eurotrip 08/2. It’s a package tour, and the coach leaves Tartu at 5am sharp, heading up to Tallinn and then down to Pärnu, picking up sojourners along the way. It is now a quarter past ten; we’ve been on the road for over five hours, and have yet to leave Estonia. Mind you, had the bus gone from Tartu to Pärnu direct, we would not have saved more than an hour, since there is no decent direct freeway. Then again, had we headed south from Tartu, we would probably be in Lithuania by now.

One last stopover at a truck station, and the last chance to buy stuff for Estonian money. I eye the cans of Jim Beam & coke; not yet, but I don’t kid myself – I’ll be drinking before the day is over. There is a flask in my rucksack filled with Maxime Trijol VS.

I’ve surprised people with this trip, but then that’s kind of the point. It’s something that I would not have normally done, and it’s a new experience, which is the thing I’m really after right now.

Blew right through Latvia without slowing down; driving below the banks of the artificial lake east of Riga is unsettling, although not a big deal – I’ve seen the naughty side of 170km/h from the passenger seat of a Kia Pride in the Netherlands. Somewhere on the Internet is a picture of me rubbing the asscheeks of a bronze kid with his finger in the dike, as it were.

Got pulled over by border guards crossing into Lithuania, but fortunately nobody had forgotten their ID cards. Stopped for a late lunch at a combination roadside diner, museum and mini-zoo (ostriches and ponies, but might have been more). I’m tempted to remark that a lot of these roadside attractions in Latvia and Lithuania are log cabins, but then I remember that so is the Kükita Grill, my favourite eatery on the Tallinn-Tartu freeway – a dedicated truck stop that proves a universal truth: the best food and the best coffee will be found not where they are a matter of poshness, but where they are a matter of necessity. Three cheers for trucker fuel.

This is officially as far south as I have ever travelled overland, and it’s only 2pm. I’m very impressed by the coach’s progress, and keep thinking about driving down here on my own. The One Lap of the Baltic idea is still alive and kicking, but needs a relief driver, and to be honest, a better car. I’m working on it. Just hope the stock market bounces back.

It might be all in my head, but somehow I always notice a difference in the weather between Estonia and Latvia; Lithuania in the late afternoon is appreciably warmer than Tartu, or Tallinn, or Pärnu were this morning. Looks largely the same in terms of scenery though. We’re basically sticking to the Via Baltica, the main artery from Tallinn down to central Europe, renovated for EU cash. We are also getting further and further from civilization: WiFi is desperately thin on the ground. I’m hoping the hotel on the outskirts of Warsaw has it. Coach travel leaves a lot of free time to blog.

Just saw my first speed camera. They keep threatening to introduce them in Estonia, but haven’t so far, to my knowledge.

Closer to Poland, the landscape flattens out, far more field than forest. The Baltics have an established identity as small countries, but look at a map of Europe, and with a slight trick of distortion their total area will be roughly on par with that of Germany or other large European nations. Consumer goods manufacturers tend to lump us together as well – this is not entirely justified, as there are significant differences between Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, but together we are a market of some 7 million people – as much as Sweden.

This point is driven home as we cross into Poland, through by far the most elaborate border post yet. Maybe Germany’s will be bigger still, but this used to be the border of the Soviet Union proper, and while Poland was part of the Eastern bloc, it was a significantly different animal. The greatest difference is population density: Poland is a very large country, but with some 30 million residents, it also seems quite full. While it is conceivable to get from the Polish border all the way up to Paldiski or Sillamäe (for the cargo ferries to Sweden and Finland respectively) without driving through the heart of any population center, the road to Warsaw is a succession of towns and villages. I half-remember a story on the radio about some Polish townsfolk who were up in arms about delays in the construction of a bypass that would take transit traffic out of their community, but it’s a drop in an ocean. For all the transit business Poland does (2 euro per day for every heavy vehicle, that’s without a penny spent by crews in local shops and gas stations), its section of the Via Baltica seems curiously organic.

It is oddly, perhaps disturbingly comforting to spend fifteen hours on the road and end up in Poland just to stop off at a combination Statoil and McDonalds – exactly the same sort of place that we started from in Tartu. Wherever you go, you always know where to find a kabanoss. Makes you feel like a proper European.

Our Statoils have WiFi though.


Jens-Olaf said...

Reverse traveling, later I'll send you my pics. Times have changed. Great post. The other way around it caused a severe migraine. But this is 14 years ago.

Alan Mendelevich said...

Via Baltica died in Poland due to some conflicts between green activists and people of Augustow. Every time I drive through Augustow I feel so sorry for the people who live there and have to deal with all the traffic of cargo trucks and stuff. But apparently a small part of forest matters more than a city of people, so there won't be a normal bypass in the nearest future.

Unknown said...

, as it were.

As it what?!


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