Thankfully the Latvia-Estonia border is not the cartographically satisfying but extremely boring straight line such as one finds between certain of the United States or countries owning shares in the Sahara Desert. On a large-scale map it looks fairly consistent, but the closer you zoom in, the more irregular and oddball it becomes, Latvian public broadcaster LSM's Mike Collier writes in the second installment of a feature series.
Consequently, the northernmost point of Latvia and the southernmost point of Estonia are not located at the same place along the 340 kilometer border. In fact they are just over 100 kilometers apart, as the stork flies.
From space – or Google Maps, which amounts to the same thing – the border runs roughly east-west, but manages to incorporate a shallow "sine wave" configuration, giving the impression that Latvia did well to grab portions of the western section at the expense of Estonia benefitting from a bulge downwards in the eastern section. It's almost as if there is a theoretical straight-line border but that moving one little section north must necessarily result in a mathematically unavoidable adjustment south elsewhere.
It might be argued with some justification that one point along the border is very much the same as another. Nevertheless, we have an in-built love of handing special status to places that are the highest, lowest, oldest and biggest (newest and smallest are rarely worth mentioning), or, if we get really desperate, we try to persuade people we are precisely at the center of something.
Due to the notable lack of any mountain ranges along the Latvia-Estonia border (the lumpy hills of Korneti/Pillardi are the closest things on offer), our only real options are the northernmost point in Latvia and the southernmost point of Estonia. Happily, it is possible to visit both and be amazed by, well, the fact you are there.
The northernmost point in Latvia is located on the road between Latvia's ice cream capital so beloved of Estonians, Rujiena, and the unnervingly named Estonian city of Kilingi-Nõmme. More precisely, it is between the village of Ipiki in Latvia and the tiny town of Mõisaküla in Estonia. On the Latvian side of the border is a layby attesting to the fact that you are at the right place. If you go so far that the gravel road turns into asphalt, you know you have gone too far and are now in Estonia.
Now, not even my loyalty to Latvia, or a desire to be quoted by travel guides, can prevent me declaring that this is one of the least impressive monuments I have ever seen. In fact, even to use the word "erected" is flattering, giving as it does an impression that some thought and effort went into designing and constructing this frankly puzzling ensemble.
There is a square of bricks with some stringy plants in the center losing the evolutionary struggle. The standard of brickwork suggests it was someone's first attempt in the medium. There is a well – featuring some of the leftover bricks tucked around the rim – which is covered by €10 worth of plasticized garden center weatherboard. There is a bench where wasps are waiting like the long-gone border guards to inspect your picnic and there is an easy-to-miss small granite sculpture by Vilnis Titans erected in 1998 which confirms your current coordinates and resembles one of those cup-and-ball games you sometimes get from a Christmas cracker.
Taken altogether, the scene is so cheap, mismatched and weird that it is impossible not to like it. I greatly prefer it to the enormous flags or cannons on plinths that excite people with no imagination. You can sit there on the bench, watching the wasps ransack your sandwich, coughing as an occasional car goes by from which a farmer will peer at you with pity before disappearing in a cloud of dust and meditate on being at the northernmost point of Latvia.
What does it mean? It means brick square well bench granite ball.
It's as if the location itself is saying, "Look, we know this is not of earth-shattering importance and you'll probably forget to tell your grandchildren about today, but for what it's worth you can't go any further north without being in another country. But it's okay, because we're both in the Schengen zone so, you know, just chill. Sorry about all the wasps."
Unfortunately, this laid-back attitude only goes so far because it turns out you are not at precisely the northernmost point at all, as a quick look at your position on Google Maps will tell you. The actual northernmost point is a few hundred meters away across some fields. A passive-aggressive "No Entry" sign bars the way.
I was unwilling to accept this state of affairs and decided upon a radical approach. If Latvia was not prepared to let me access its northernmost point from within, perhaps I could attack from the north?
Mõisaküla (Meizakila in Latvian), with a population of just 756, is the smallest city in Estonia. The name literally means "Manor village" and an Estonian friend told me the name is considered a bit of a joke "Because there is no manor and it's not a village." It has 32 streets. Whether that's more or less than one would expect I don't know, but it is very Estonian that someone has counted them and is upfront with the facts. It was once an important railway town, as the small local museum will explain. Then the railway departed and Mõisaküla was left behind. But it has a cooler flag than any other city in Estonia.
Led by the app, I moved through what felt like all 32 streets of Mõisaküla, in the general direction of the northernmost point of Latvia. After passing the interesting railway-influenced architecture of the derelict Estonian Orthodox church, I arrived at the end of a private driveway to a small wooden house. The app told me I was just 200 meters from the northernmost point of Latvia. I could hear wood being chopped.
I walked up the driveway, knocked on the door and a shout told me to come in. I was in the kitchen and a matronly woman with her hands deep in a bowl of meatball mixture looked up. A man with an axe appeared. They were both extremely nice and after pointing at the app and explaining my quest they very kindly allowed me to walk through their back garden, climb over some brambles, hop across a ditch and make landfall on Latvian territory where the real northernmost point of Latvia was revealed in all its glory as a large barber's pole on a mound.
I obtained the necessary evidence of what I suppose was technically my trespassing offense and retraced my steps, thanking the elderly couple profusely for their permission to revisit my own country via such an unorthodox route. Probably they are used to such requests from strange Latvians. After all, for them, Latvians are just like fairies who live at the bottom of the garden. My only regret was that I hadn't left it a few minutes later because those meatballs smelled really great. I suspect the Estonians have a secret recipe.
Next week: the southernmost point of Estonia!
Editor: Aili Vahtla