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New Europe

Day Eighty-seven: Aluksne to Riga

The Aluksne-Gulbene train 
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Latvian railways. The Aluksne-Gulbene local gets under way.
Michael Palin - New EuropeStill can't get used to the brevity of the nights up here in northern Europe. Scarcely has the sun gone down than it's up again. Morning sunshine blitzes through the fragile curtains from four o'clock onwards.

It seems hardly necessary to push the curtains back, but I do, only to be greeted by the sight of a decommissioned industrial plant below me. It looks to have been abandoned some time. There are piles of rubble, patches of thick oily slime and entwined around this whole mess are the discarded entrails of a heating system, cladding peeling off the pipes.

From a small station in Aluksne, a narrow-gauge railway runs for just over 20 miles south-west to the town of Gulbene. It's all that remains of a longer line, opened in 1903, built by the Tsarist authorities when Latvia was part of the Russian empire. A hundred years later it was saved by the new European empire, the EU, under an industrial heritage preservation programme.

Thank God for empires, I feel, as I climb aboard, for I've seen few services as modestly appealing and manifestly uncommercial as this one. A single diesel railcar, complete with guard and ticket collector, rocks and sways through woodland and meadows of wild flowers, stopping at eight small halts to pick up and put down the locals. A lady with a bucket of cut flowers in her huge, wide arms settles opposite me, two seats down from a man with one leg, who, with a cheery farewell to the guard, hops off at one of the stops and disappears into the birch woods.

The terminus at Gulbene breaks the mood. No picturesque woods here. A big, rather gloomy old station built for busier and grander times and a plaque on the wall whose chilling inscription commemorates the thousands of people who, in 1940 and 1941 were packed into cattle-wagons here and shipped out on a one-way ride to the Gulag camps in Siberia.

I stand and look down the line. There is nothing to see but distance, and no sounds either. In fact, nothing to distract the imagination from what must have happened here. Up to now, I've always found railways inherently friendly. Here at Gulbene it's not so easy.

Sixteen years after Latvia's second independence in 1990 (their first lasted from 1918 until the Russian invasion of 1940) the Russian presence is still surprisingly strong in Riga. The capital, the largest city of the new Baltic republics, is home to as many Russians as Latvians.

There are, on a less permanent basis, visitors from Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Germany, and of course the scorned, but economically appreciated, English, lured over by cheap flights for stag and hen weekends.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day Eighty-seven: Aluksne to Riga
  • Country/sea: Latvia
  • Place: Aluksne
  • Book page no: 208

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