A Very Estonian Bridge

Konuvere Bridge, linking Estonia with Estonia

The meditative qualities of a long drive become stronger with repetition. The familiarity of the sights along the way and the reassuring prior knowledge that the curve up ahead will end just so allow a portion of the mind – that would normally be wary of the unfamiliar – to wander. Fight against this tendency and the result is frustrated boredom. Trust your inner autopilot and you can end up at new destinations of the imagination.

Driving back to Riga from Tallinn generally takes around four hours. It’s a trip I have done dozens of times, usually in one go but occasionally – if feeling tired or adrift – I’ll stop somewhere along the way to see something new. Even if it is just peering around one new corner or approaching a distant hill, it feels as if an experience, albeit a tiny one, has taken place and if we really are the sum of our expeiences then the soul may grow by a few particles thanks to such detours.

Instead of a forgotten journey between two sites of experience, I now have memories of the juniper growing on the stone banks of the Varbola stronghold, the end of market day across the road from Marjamaa church, a huge stone with its own name in a muddy forest and the sound of a fishing smack’s machinery in the mist fleeing Kabli beach.

It may not be the Grand Tour of the eighteenth century but the intended effect of broadening the mind differs only in its order of magnitude. A stultified northern soul back then may have found a sudden exposure to classical antiquity and south European mores intoxicating and revelatory. While an Estonian manor house or nicely-beamed barn may not cause you to don a laurel wreath, drop to your knees and start declaiming Horace, there are small epiphanies to be had along Highway 4.

Most recently I was returning from an interview with Estonian Prime Minister Andrus Ansip, the results of which I will link to here when available. Having put various one-off questions to him at press conferences in the past it was good to finally sit down with him (with no-one else in the room) and he was extremely generous with his time.

I like Ansip. He may not be charismatic (an over-valued quality) but seems competent, hard-working and honest. He “sold” Estonia to me using phrases I have heard many times but it was in the small talk that I found the most interest. We chatted briefly about his love of sports, in particular cross-country skiing but also rollerblading and cycling. He said he tried not to talk about sports in public in case people thought he was just some dumb sports nut running the country but couldn’t resist telling me his impressive average speed on a recent cycle run while at the same time saying it was nothing special.

A first-class restoration job - but why?

I was turning over how to treat the interview as I drove back towards Riga. It was a warm, slighty humid early summer’s day. I decided to stop at Konuvere Bridge, a beautifully restored stone structure from 1861 that crosses the River Vigala. Originally it carried all the Riga-Tallinn traffic but today lies a few yards away from the highway and seems to serve no real purpose. I took my sandwich and coffee from the car and sat on the wooden steps beside the bridge, admiring its arches and the clever way the restoration had incorporated new floodlights, guttering and a viewing platform that uses one span to frame the watermeadows and fishing grounds of the river in a manner that the Grand Tourers would certainly have appreciated.

It's enough to make you cross

In Tallinn I had visited the new and much-criticised Victory Monument and had been disappointed with what I found. It seemed lumpen, heavy and predictable. The tiers leading to its base were impractical and impersonal – I was the ony person bothering to sit near it at 7 pm on a pleasant Wednesday evening, everyone else prefering the park above or the skateboard-friendly plaza below.

The expensive glass used to create its tall cruciform shape looked like cheap fibreglass that had been given a good kicking. At a glance the embossed central image of an arm wielding a sword looks like a revolver. Why had Estonia built this thing?  Were Estonians really fretting about their lack of a Victory Monument? I don’t believe so – the monument seems like an a dish served to satisfy an appetite that does not exist.

Looking up at Konuvere Bridge the contrast was obvious. This much more massive piece of architecture was light and elegant with something of the cathedral about its buttresses and masonry. It can be looked at from above, below, both sides, any angle. Bridges in any  case are the most interactive forms of architecture in existence, created to transport you physically from one place to another.

But the most interesting thing was that this functional piece of architecture had lost its function. It no longer served to carry traffic at all (apart from the farm boy on the monkey bike who periodically rasped across like a Hell’s Water Sprite) and it seemed a minor miracle that it had never been demolished or blown up. Only a few stones remain of the water mill that once stood next to it.

Yet recently it had been carefully and expensively restored. Why? The answer I formed came from the interview with Ansip, the Victory Monument, the plan for euro adoption, the way the country markets itself and a jumble of other images and words fermenting inside me.

It must have been restored because that was simply the right thing to do. It is not the bridge without traffic that is useless. It is the untidy, neglected and ignored bridge that is not only useless but actually something shameful and almost insulting. The Estonian thing to do was restore the bridge, so the bridge was restored. It doesn’t do anything, but it does be.

Konuvere Bridge is a much more interesting and representative Estonian edifice than the Victory Monument.

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