WORLD TRAVEL NEWS ARTICLE
Historic Tallinn has a lively air, the countryside is stunningly unspoilt, and there’s a magical little island called Saaremaa – Sue Dobson fell under its spell.
Endless miles of coniferous forest and sunlight playing on myriad greens; Hansel and Gretel farms and rich, dark earth; wooden houses painted dandelion gold, calm lakes, seaside resorts and magical islands – Estonia’s countryside beckons visitors and welcomes all who seek the unspoilt.
Beautiful countryside of Saaremaa, Estonia
Batted backwards and forwards by successive invaders, including Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Russia and most recently the Soviet occupation, the country has had a chequered history. Fortunately, despite attempts to the contrary, years of repressive Soviet rule did not wipe out the Estonians’ strong national consciousness. Their longed-for independence (that came officially in 1991, the year their country became a member of the United Nations) is much enjoyed and 2011 sees Tallinn celebrating in style as a European Capital of Culture.
Despite its borders with Russia, Estonia has a much more Nordic feel than either Latvia or Lithuania, the other two countries in the trio previously known as The Baltic States. For a start, the language is related to Finnish – Finland is just sixty miles away across the water. The marvellous crafts, from the well-made wooden articles and hand knitted sweaters, socks and gloves found in the country to the stylish glass, ceramics, weavings and silks on display in Tallinn’s historic main square and beneath the 15th-century Town Hall, owe more to Finnish and Scandinavian influences in their style and presentation.
The main square in Tallinn
At its heart, Tallinn has a well-preserved medieval city of narrow streets and appealing architecture. The Danes built a fortress on the top of a hill in the 13th century and a town grew up beneath it. A member of the Hanseatic League, in the 15th and 16th centuries Tallinn was one of the biggest north European cities, a thriving port with great guild halls, churches and the splendid homes of rich merchants.
Since independence, the careful restoration of elegant, colour-washed buildings has restored the old city’s elegance. From the Upper Town are panoramic views across to the Gulf of Finland over the spires and red tiled roofs of the Lower Town below.
There are many churches worth visiting, including the modest Toomkirk (cathedral), seat of the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church and the Russian Orthodox Aleksander Nevsky Cathedral, which are both in the Upper Town. But the one that is truly unmissable is the 13th century Holy Ghost church. Walk down Pastry Passage from the Town Hall Square and look for its simple white exterior and intriguing clock on the front wall. The bell in its tower was cast in 1433.
Aleksander Nevsky Cathedral
Tallinn, with its shops, restaurants, galleries, museums, concerts, clubs and bars is all most people see of Estonia, but not to travel into the countryside or visit other towns is to miss some marvellous experiences.
Into the country
Just east of the capital lies Lahemaa National Park and here, among pine forests, rivers and a Baltic Sea coastline, lie baronial manor houses, many of them restored, set in park-like gardens and open to view. Palmse Manor has been decorated and furnished as it would have been in the days when the von Pahlen family resided there, and the splendid roccoco-style Sagadi Manor now houses a forestry museum.
Tartu, a university town since 1632, is Estonia’s second largest city and its story reflects the country’s turbulent history. Only a cathedral and a church, both in ruins, are left from the Middle Ages. Today’s buildings are in classical, baroque and modern styles. A leafy city, dotted with monuments to academic and literary figures and pleasant parks, it was the scene of early national awakening – the first Estonian language newspaper was published and in 1869 the first song festival held there – so it is considered the ‘spiritual capital’ of the country.
The Kissing Fountain in Tartu
Every town has a big Song Stadium. Singing has always been an important part of Estonian life but never more than in the last decade as the freedom movement gathered strength. The collapse of Soviet influence was dubbed The Singing Revolution by the outside world.
Pärnu, on the upper reaches of the Gulf of Riga, on the Baltic Sea, is different again. This is Estonia’s ‘summer capital’, a holiday resort and health spa where boulevards of silver birch, cedar, oak and horsechestnut trees cut through grassy parkland and lead to a long, sandy beach. Attractive wood houses and villas are set in flower-filled gardens bright with lilacs in spring.
Lakes and islands
Estonia is a land of lakes, forests and farmland. Lake Pepsi is huge, with picturesque Russian fishing villages hugging its shores, the wooden houses set in gardens heavily cultivated with vegetables.
Pühajärv (Sacred Lake) is, quite simply, beautiful, and a favourite with locals who love boating. The nearby town of Otepää once attracted such literary figures as Alexander Solzhenitsyn, André Sakharov, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. The Dalai Lama dedicated a monument on the lake’s shore.
The region around it is scenically stunning, with forests of alder, aspen, birch and spruce inhabited by wild boar, red fox, roe deer, beaver and over a hundred species of birds, including seven of woodpecker and the endangered black stork and spotted eagle. The Soomea National Park is a wonderland of swamps, flat meadows, bogs and primeval waterside forests full of rare flowers and birds. Estonia has so many nature reserves and protected areas that an ecotourism industry is beginning to burgeon.
A short ferry ride and a drive across a causeway takes you to Saaremaa, the largest of Estonia’s umpteen islands and a quite magical place. Kuressaare is its capital, a delightful town with a good craft market and an involving museum in a medieval fortress. The haunting sounds of a lunchtime recital in one of its halls will stay long in my memory, as will the isolated farming villages and a field of windmills, the 13th century churches and walks along headlands where seabirds wheel and cowslips grow wild beneath little juniper bushes. Saaremaa is one of the world’s special little places.
You may also like to read
Carnival revellers amongst our Tour-smart followers are pointed in the direction of Mainz.
Tour-smart's Editor Anna finds the right notes in Warsaw during a short visit.