We visited Obrenovac, just outside Belgrade, Serbia. This lovely area went through hard times: in the spring of 2014, 90% of it was submerged due to the heavy rain. Here's the story about how it came back to life!
Similar sounding names, the border between two countries, three different languages, and a story of division and unity: the sliced-up town of Valga-Valka is emblematic of the turbulent Baltic history.
Valga is the Estonian half of the town, Valka the Latvian half. Today, although a border crosses their territory, life flows peacefully, a sense of unity has returned and the local authorities act together, with the support of the EU, to make living and working there as seamless as possible.
The extension of the Schengen area to the Baltic States in 2007 and, more recently, the introduction of the Euro in both countries greatly contributed to make everyday life easier. But back in the early 90ies, when the Baltic States regained their independence after the fall of the Iron Curtain, and even during the first years after Estonia and Latvia joined the European Union, Valga-Valka had to go through a period of adaptation, with townspeople suddenly needing their passports just to go to the end of their road.
This situation had already happened when Estonia and Latvia declared independence for the first time in 1918 – exactly a hundred years ago! – from the Russians. The paradox of this place is that it used to be one town when it was governed by foreign powers battling over the region since the Middle Ages: the Russians, but also the Poles, the Swedes, and the Baltic Germans.
The people in Valga-Valka are somehow still dealing with the strange everyday consequences of the past centuries. To try and capture the oddity of all this, it is worth going along the Light Traffic Trail that runs along the border and the Pedeli river. It’s like walking down memory lane. That’s what Luna did with Dainis from the Valka tourist office, who told her the story of the place (fellow traveller Achilleas was unwell on that day so it was a solo mission for Luna).
Luna also visited one of the best examples of today’s spirit of togetherness : the Valka art school for children between the ages of 8 and 14. School director Maruta was there to share her passion about this really special school. Although teaching is done in Latvian, the pupils, who come from both sides of the border, can use all three languages of the region – Latvian, Estonian and Russian, and the teachers understand all of those – very different – languages! And of course, there is art, a universal language that everybody can understand, as Maruta put it. Art, and education, bring the children and teenagers together and let them find their identity, as Estonians and Latvians and EU citizens growing up in a very special place.