For foreigners Russia and Soviet history is intriguing but visas for Russia can be complicated. Part of Narva’s allure is its Soviet nostalgia and everything Russian. This small town in #Estonia is easiest the way to see Russia – without actually visiting it.
As with most of my trips, I always try ahead of time to find locals who’ll help me understand my next destination. It doesn’t always work. Unfortunately Couchsurfing didn’t come good this time.
Hoping to meet other travellers I went with the hostel, underestimating the language barrier. The hostel staff spoke broken English and the other travellers just assume everyone’s Russian. They’re friendly though. I’m greeted with “Здравствуйте” several times a day.
Nobody else checks-in. It’s pretty lonely to be honest. The Löfbergs coffee poured into my cup without a filter or French Press is lousy company. I head off pretty early to see Narva in the morning.
Narva Town Hall on Raekoja Plats
In Tallinn and Tartu – Raekoja Plats is the Old Town’s central meeting point for locals and tourists alike. It’s an open square completely surrounded by life. Tour guides frequently pass through en mass explaining local culture and history to their followers. The sounds are a blend of many languages, music and the clinking of beer mugs.
Narva’s Raekoja Plats on the other hand waits for the day it too will be celebrated and visited by people from around the world.
Overlooking Raekoja Plats is the beautiful historic Town Hall built in 1671 (Narva’s Council meet elsewhere). The empty space encourages children to play football.
Narva Kolledž off Raekoja Plats
The Raekoja Plats revival beings with Tartu University’s Narva Kolledž (College). Aside from the obvious – the building itself has several functions. It’s open to the public and developed with tourism in mind.
The college has a court yard and even a beanbag lounge area. Perfect if you want to read a book or get online for a bit.
Visitors can take a lift up to see views of Raekoja Plats from the building’s protruding roof ‘beak’. Tartu University’s website accurately describes the building’s design as paying homage to heritage while combining style with innovation.
Inside the impressive Narva Kolledž is Café Muna. They proudly display TripAdvisor‘s Certificate of Excellence in 2017, 2018 and 2019. Café Muna’s pretty good. I highly recommend visiting.
When I arrived, there was a large group of Japanese tourists sat at reserved tables tightly packed together. The group’s completely shielded from outsiders. Even trivial interactions like ordering coffee are controlled. Orders are placed through the group’s coordinator to the waiter.
In my case there’s no coordinator. I order “kohvi sojapiimaga“, but receive instead “kohvi sooja piimaga“. Estonian is a second language for the both of us but still we manage. The waiter doesn’t switch to English, which is nice.
Off to the side, I people-watch and imagine one of the tourists turning rouge and escaping the pack. He ends up in a bar, the locals are as interested in him as he is in them. The following morning’s breakfast is like no other they’ve had on tour. They all lean in to hear the story about one of their own painting the town red.
Relations between Europe and Russia are steeped in history. Hermann castle is just one example of how far back that history goes.
Originally built by the Danes around 1256, Hermann castle was then purchased by the the German Livonian Teutonic Kights Order in 1346. On the other side of the river is Russia’s Ivangorod Fortress, built in 1492 to oppose the Teutonic Order. Russia’s Ivangorod Fortress ended up in the hands of Sweden after the end of the Livonian War in 1583. Today it’s back with Russia.
There’s plenty to see around Hermann castle for free if you don’t want to buy a ticket. The outer fortress area is impressive. You can explore the old fortress walls easily. There’s gardens, a fountain, an icecream kiosk and café to name a few things worth doing.
The area also makes for a good resting point. I saw one exhausted cycle-touring couple taking refuge there. I wanted to strike up a conversation but the man’s wife seemed to be comforting him. Looking at their state, I could only hope the journey onward from Narva was through Estonia’s calm country side.
Narva River Promenade
Estonia seeks to integrate its Russian citizens and the development of Narva is critical to that vision. EU funded initiatives like the Estonia-Russia Cross Border Programme have contributed to what is now the Narva River Promenade.
The promenade is completely new, it’s pedestrian and cyclist friendly. There’s several benches for resting and admiring views to Russia which are fantastic by the way.
I wasn’t expecting the promenade to be a highlight of my trip to Narva, but it certainly was. Considering how wonderful the promenade makes Narva – I’d recommend visiting any event that involves the promenade. Consider mixing something like the Narva Energiajooks (Narva energy run) event into your travel itinerary.
Hahn’s staircase was an initiative by Narva’s first Mayor – Adolf Theodor Hahn in 1875. His name’s unmistakably German I thought, although I read he was born in Russia. During those times Germans were everywhere and they owned everything.
Pockets of resistance were slowly growing against the Germans. In Estonia, the period of resistance is known as the Estonian National Awakening (between 1850 – 1914).
Just 45 years after Hahn’s staircase was built the first Republic of Estonia was formed. 2 years after that the Soviet Union began and the world completely changed forever.
Today the staircase’s greatly reduced in size but remains a useful entry to the promenade.
Streets and Sights
I walked Narva’s streets with the Hostel’s paper tourist map in hand. A nice little break from Google Maps. Overall the streets felt reasonably safe by my standards. The round-a-bout for Aleksander Puškini, Tuleviku and Paul Keresse streets was a little shady at night though.
Interestingly, Eurostat reported last year Estonia’s murder rate is the third highest in Europe, behind neighbours Latvia and Lithuania. To be honest you wouldn’t really notice it. I often feel safer in parts of Estonia than Australia.
The Russian-Estonian friendship bridge made for interesting people-watching. I saw many people crossing between Russia and Estonia by foot.
My understanding is that Estonia’s Russian non-citizen residents (referred to as Aliens in law or otherwise “grey passport holders“) have visa free access to their Mother Russia. It’s their gateway between Europe and Russia. Two very different worlds I would imagine. But for the visa process, I’d walk over there myself. Another time…
Most of Narva’s tourists are Russian, usually from Saint Petersburg. I only heard Estonian spoken just once on the streets. It was a family walking along Narva river. They stood out like tourists and seemed to be enjoying their trip.
Further from Narva river, historic buildings like the Town Hall were fewer, the Khrushchyovka more common.
Khrushchyovka are Soviet low-cost housing projects seen all over the post-Soviet world. Usually grey, drab, depressing and unchanging. In Narva, even the original apartment signs remain as they were in Soviet times. Renovations are possible although that requires cooperation between many, many people. It’s possible to buy a Khrushchyovka in central Narva for as little as 10,000€. Alternatively you could simply book one through Airbnb.
Outside one Khrushchyovka I saw a couple of kids playing happily on old rusty Soviet swings. I wondered if the adult inhabitants felt a little condemned or satisfied – living in their Khrushchyovka.
Here and there are sings of artistic expression, like this bit of Banksy inspired graffiti. The promising words “elu on ilus” (Estonian: “life is beautiful“) are balanced against a pessimistic portrait of life. Estonians are known for dark humour and sarcasm.
They’re also know for their digital innovations. However, I was still surprised to see this graffiti on a wall nearby the Russian border.
A harmful Linux command which deletes all files. Someone’s way of telling the world to make a fresh start in Narva perhaps?
Narva has some pretty big aspirations for the future. Narva’s is presently the underdog in competition for the European Union 2024 Culture Capital against Tartu and Kuressaare. The title was previously held by Tallinn in 2011.
Most importantly, many fractions in Estonia actively support Narva’s development and the integration of the Russian community. Estonia’s honourable President Kersti Kaljulaid moved office to Narva for several weeks in support of the town and its people.
Right now though Narva is what it is. A sort of Russian enclave within Estonia. Tourists can expect to experience Soviet architecture, plenty of history and I guess a town with a lot of potential. It would be interesting to know what investment opportunities lay ahead for Narva being so close to Russia.
After reading this post, would you visit Narva?