First Round Trip: Route to the North


A Comparative Approach

Indeed the post-socialist transformation took two very different paths in the Baltic Realm and in Bulgaria [1]. Nevertheless both regions do have some things in common: Both had been and still are characterized by a very low density of inhabitants (in 2011 Estonia had 1,294,486 inhabitants and a density of 29 persons per km2, Bulgaria had 7,364,570 inhabitants and a density of 66,2/km2, Austria has 8,504,850 inhabitants and a density of 101.4/km – despite the fact that the territory is occupied by large scale Mountain ranges).

The Baltic States – and especially Bulgaria – are characterized by a significant decrease of the overall population. Exceptions are only to be found in the larger cities which attract immigrants from rural areas, and at those places that benefit from EU- and Schengen-border economies, like Narva in Estonia at the Russian border, Marijampolė in Lithuania at the border to Kaliningrad and Poland, or Svilengrad and Dimitrovgrad in Bulgaria, which are located close to or at least at the main corridor to the Turkish border. Tallinn is both the attractive capital of Estonia and a EU-border city with harbors connecting the city with bigger urban agglomerations like e.g. Helsinki, Petersburg and Stockholm. Russe instead indeed suffered from the decrease of transport via the river Danube and the dissolution of the border to Rumania, which is not a EU border either.

In both regions ethnic minorities seem to have played a crucial role for establishing post-socialist markets early in the 1990s – both in border regions but also in the cities themselves: in the Baltic realm, especially in Tallinn, it had been ethnic Russians, in Bulgaria in had been ethnic Turkish Bulgarians (and to a smaller degree Roma). And in both regions these markets are target of gentrification processes.

The main regional and transnational public transport system for the majority of the less affluent local population are busses, since the bus system had been privatized and liberalized quite early after the fall of the iron curtain, and it is also of importance for transporting and/or smuggling small seize goods during cross-border trips. Train networks had not (yet) been modernized (only in and around Tallinn). Ships are still of importance for overseas transport of cargo (and Tourists). But over land the main transportation device for cargo are trucks – a business also immediately liberalized after the fall of the iron curtain. Besides – for the case of Bulgaria, and especially the harbor town of Ruse – the route via river Danube was blocked off during the Balkan wars, and transport capacities had therefore been reorganized to other routes.

The Baltic States joined the EU in 2004, Bulgaria in 2007. Both therefore theoretically could have benefitted from large EU infrastructure funds and cultural programs. But these programs show very different results: in the Baltic realm streets in general are in a pretty good shape, many public transport hubs are being renovated or under construction, the ancient cores of the big cities are beautifully renovated and some of the industrial heritage in the big cities was partly upgraded in a style, that is in pace with current trends in architecture and urban design. You do not only find new office parks but also chic housing projects and new museums. Of course the European capital of Europe might have triggered some additional investment (Bulgaria is still waiting for this title, held in Plovdiv in 2019). But surprisingly even the economic crisis of 2008–11, when all big projects came to a halt even in more affluent cities, the urban re-developments in Tallinn and Vilnius continued or even intensified. (Although not a main question of our project, this questions needs to be answered in the course of the project). In Bulgaria it is hard to find any significant equivalent to the Baltic boom, neither according to the visibility of new public infrastructure, nor to the aesthetic quality of the newly built private developments.


A re-evaluation about the dualistic discourse about the so-called East and West

‘In the light of current political discourse in the West, which fosters fear of an invasion of cheap mobile labour and goods from the East, via these very corridors, it seems pertinent to show our dependence on such networks, by recalling the extent to which these “imports” underpin our living standards. A re-evaluation of is also implicit in this focus on the nodes of mobility networks and the diverse range of mobility streams that pass through them. In the view of those multi-local social actors who work or stop at these nodes, the centre is increasingly far-removed from the (former) West, and the definition of centre and periphery increasingly needs to be challenged.’

Another interesting aspect according to an argument we stated in our paper is the surprising lack of traffic on the “North South corridor” connecting the Baltic Realm and the Bulgarian-Turkish border. Seemingly the chains of goods and humans are heading East West only – and even when they would move form North to South they would pass by stronger frequented hubs closer to the West, e.g. the logistic terminals south of Budapest (or the Euroline Bus station in Vienna?). But generally speaking there are hardly any traditional relations between the Baltic realm and Bulgaria, but there are surprisingly almost no relationship between Bulgaria and Romania, although immediate neighbors.


What we discovered during our trip to the North:


Poland seems to be nation that mots successfully had exploited EU infrastructure funds: it offers the best highways all over Europe and a plenty of brand new bridges crossing them. As if they had developed new systems of crossroads that afford more than one bridge (which we would have thought to be efficient enough): actually at each crossroad, they built two bridges connected to the highway – and an additional third one for the small regional traffic or for pedestrians.


Truck Stops and Second Hand Car Markets

On our trip to the North we had stayed overnight at „Port Radomsko“, a highway stop in Poland, at the E75 and right in between between the 2 mayor east-west corridors E30 and E40, designed to host up to 400 (!) trucks, offering security, food, toilet, shower, car repair, and car wash facilities: We had also visited the famous second-hand car-market in Marjampole, Lithuania, close to the Polish border (that became famous in academic circles, after being described in the book of Karl Schlögel) – more about the changes here later.


Border Stations

In Estonia we have visited a new high tech border station to Russia, but also border stations to other Baltic states erected after gaining independence from Sovjet Union in 1991, but which became obsolete after a few years only, when the Baltic States joined the European Union in 2004. At most of the border-checkpoints many of the services, including e.g. customs and passport control, are outsourced to private companies. The services imply new organization of the space and architecture of border stations. We saw e.g. at the border between EST and RUS a brand new terminal and a checkpoint where you had to draw a ticket and wait at a big parking until your number shows up at a display.


History of Road Mobility

The Estonian Road Museum is displaying the history of the construction of roads from ancient times to the present, but also the development of vehicles for building roads and those driving on them, and even the development from old post stations to modern gas station. Very nice: an old communist gas station, an old Lada full with consumer items imported from West Berlin, and a forest of traffic sign from different historic decades We had also visited a company producing street traffic signs (cause we wanted to import some typical signs of this region with Estonian letterings to Austria)


Key sites for further investigation

Tarmo Pikner – our local partner – gratefully had introduced us to a selection of 3 places of relevance. We also do share his pre-selection:

Russian Market

Next to the main train station (newly erected at a new location after the bombing during second world war) a market was established in early 1990s after the fall of iron curtain. It is a fenced in market used especially by Estonians with ethnic Russian background and Russian post-perestroika immigrants. Currently it is endangered of being redesigned and gentrified, since the station was recently upgrades by the construction of new platforms and the introduction of brand new light trains (but also the old wood houses in the neighborhood and the industrial sites close to the rail tracks get discovered by artists, architects, academics and hipsters of all sort). And like in Sofia there are already some young scholars, activists, and urban designers committed in “saving” the market from investors plans – we had already met one of them, an anthropologist from Spain, who studied 1 year in Russia before moving to Tallinn, to make his PHD about the market! And: We also had made a mapping workshop with vendors at the market.

Tallinn airport

Despite its small size the modernization of the airport had triggered the development of a high tech mixed-use business park by a Finnish company, addressing international expats and therefore even hosting a private international school for their kids. The first prominent tenants of large space are local enterprises: the Estonian tax authority, and the formerly state-owned Telecom company, and a private university of applied science (for Business administration). But there are also some well-known logistic companies (like Kühne & Nagel) that already have smaller offices there. This Finnish company specialized on business parks close to Airports. It acts both as developer and investors. And they hope that the economic and political crisis in and with Russia will trigger investment from Russian citizens who are looking for a safe haven for their capital in a nearby EU country. Tarmo Pikner had arranged a meeting with the Real Estate Manager.

Tallinn harbor

Tallinn harbor actually manages several (5) harbors, specialized in different sort of goods. The central Tallinn harbor specialized on large ferry-boats and more recently on large cruise ships, that are spoiling the city with several 1.000 of tourists, most of them purchasing enormous amount of alcohol in large supermarkets in the harbor area before getting back on their boats. But the same ferry-boats are also carrying large trucks that transport goods from Finland to Europe and vice versa (most notably by the Danish company DSV).

The rhythm of the rush of tourists is of course structured by the different arrival and departure times of the big ships: cruise ships (once a day, usually arriving in the morning) and ferry boats (arriving every three hours). And the tourists have their own beaten baths they use to follow from the harbor to the core of the ancient town and back to the harbor. Most of them are walking by themselves, generating significant streams of people (like ant trails). But older passengers are often packed into busses with travel guides speaking their language and bringing them from the boats to the attractions within the city. Along these beaten paths of tourists there are several bars, pubs and restaurants, hotels, souvenir shops, but most significantly – on the open terrain close to the harbor – large super markets selling above all alcohol. Experienced tourists from Finland arrive with empty trollies they use to pack with as much boxes of hard drinks they seem to be able to carry. The harbor administration also transformed its own old warehouses into consumption zones. And even in front of the pier for big cruise ship they established an improvised open-air market, to address the thousands of passengers getting on and off the boats there. The harbor and the hotels are largely benefiting from the different price level between Finland and Estonia. If these levels would get more balanced the harbor would get into serious trouble. Therefore the harbor is starting to develop its own land as a real estate property. The design competition is already decided, just a few adaption necessary to start – and the capital of investors of course.

Since Tarmo Pikner had arranged a meeting with the Real Estate Manager, we have got access to very good photographs, plans, and statistics about the history of the harbor – and its projected future.


  1.  As mentioned in the research paper our 2 dislocated research areas are “located close to each end of the north-south axis of the PAN-European corridors where (post-socialist) transformation unfolded against different geo-political backdrops: in the border and port cities of Russe/Giurgiu (BG/RO), and in Tallinn (EST). The clusters differ radically owing to their historical and current geo-political location, the quality and degree of their regulation by the state and legal formalisation, and the design of the hubs and nodes.”