Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

The Estonian half of the town is called Valga and the Latvian side Valka. During the days of the Soviet Union, Moscow imposed a civic unity on the dual community. Now, with the extension of the Schengen area to include the Baltic States, that unity has returned.

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It is perhaps just as well that few people outside of Latvia have heard of Valka. Since 1991 it has been a town split by the border between Latvia and Estonia. On the Estonian side of the frontier, the town is known as Valga. Older folk who drive through the divided town, en route from Tartu to Riga, probably do not realise that they are lucky to be alive to see it. Had events taken a different turn in October 1962, Valka might have been deleted from the maps of Europe.

The Cuban missile crisis was at its height and key personnel in the Soviet military were based in Valka, in charge of the rockets that would have been launched had nuclear war broken out. Fortunately the great powers stepped back from the brink. If matters had developed differently, Valka would surely have been a prime target. The concrete dome under which Russia's military might sheltered now only covers stagnant pools and moss as it was abandoned fairly soon afterwards. However Latvians were not allowed into the old Soviet compound until they had won their independence in 1991.

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Neil Taylor is author of 'The Bradt Guide to Estonia' and editor of and principal contributor to 'Baltic Capitals' (also published by Bradt). Neil splits his time between London and Tallinn. He is a member of the British Guild of Travel Writers.

This article was published in hidden europe 21.