‘You did not come to Narva at the right time’ told me the waiter. I had just finished my lunch when we started talking, it was quite late and the restaurant was almost empty. It was cold outside so I thought he was talking about the weather, maybe summer would have been a better moment.
‘There is work ongoing everywhere’, he added. Then I understood. ‘Yes, I’ve seen a lot of construction work all around, are they renewing the city?’. He nodded. ‘It should be finished in a year or two’.
He told me he was born and grew up in Narva, he had spent several years abroad and had come back only 3 months before.
‘After a lot of travelling, you understand that the best place to be is… at home’.
He asked me why I had chosen that destination for my holidays. I smiled. He was not the first one, during my trip I received the same question several times. A lot of people were surprised about my interest in their land, but they were pleased as well.
‘I was interested in Estonia because of its nature and its history, and I came to Narva intrigued by its border position’.
Narva is a city placed on the easternmost point of Estonia, right at the border with Russia. Due to its key geographical position, it has been inhabited for a long time, being an important settlement for factories and commercial trade.
However, due to this strategic settlement, it has often been in the war front line. The construction of the Narva castle began in the 13th century, when the city was under the rule of Danish. During the 16th and 17th centuries, it was mainly Sweden and Russia fighting to control it. During World War II, the city was bombed and most of its ancient baroque buildings were destroyed, and its castle was severely damaged.
During the soviet period, the city was rebuilt, and the soviet style is still visible all through the town. Narva is different from all the other European cities I’ve seen. It looks grey and old, a lot of buildings are alike and not all the streets are in good state. On the other hand, it is spacious, the buildings are not all next to each other but there are green areas in between.
On the other side of the river, joined by a bridge, there is Ivanogorod. The Narva castle, which has been reconstructed, offers a nice view over the city, the river, and the fortress of Ivanogorod. The border crossing is right in the city center. It is indeed a border town.
During the soviet occupation, Narva received a large number of immigrants from Russia and other URSS regions. Nowadays, most of the population in Narva (about 90 – 95%) is Russian native speaker. What surprised me the most, however, was to learn that only 46% of the inhabitants are Estonian citizens, around 36% are citizens of the Russian federation and 16% have undefined citizenship (data from 2010).
People with undefined citizenship are migrants or descendents of migrants from former Soviet Republics. After the fall of the URSS and the independence of Estonia, they were unable to obtain either the Estonian neither the Russian citizenship. This fact filled me with questions for which I had no answer: how do they feel? do they feel Estonian, Russian, or citizens of no land? what do the other people think about it? what about integration? I would have liked to further investigate, but I did not dare to ask. It seemed a sensitive topic.
The restaurant waiter asked me what I had seen in Narva and what I was planning to do next. We talked about the city, Estonia and the forests, and he recommended me to visit a place which does not appear in the touristic map: Äkkeküla, a park which is located north of the city. There are circuits for cross country skiing in winter, and bird watching between the woods in summer. I followed his recommendation and went, and I enjoyed it a lot. Äkkeküla is a nice place to relax, walk, run or ride a bike, and to feel in the nature.
Overall, I find it difficult to describe the impression that Narva gave me. It is a city that has known better times. I found it grey, melancholic and complex to understand. At the same time, it is slowly waking up, opening its eyes to the world. Narva is different, interesting, and it has a lot of history and perseverance.
Pin it for later!