Tallinn and beyond
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When our son, Robin, told us that he was giving up his job with Cosmos Travel in order to settle in Estonia we didn’t realise what an impact it would have on our lives. The reason, of course, was a girl, now our daughter-in-law and the mother of our lively grandson. For most of the last decade we have made our annual journey to Tallinn to visit them and, in doing so, we have come to discover much more about the country than you may find in the standard travel brochures and magazines.
Tallinn is a beautiful City and has become a well-publicised venue for short breaks. What you may have read about the Old Town, with its medieval towers, cobbled streets and historic buildings is all true but there is a lot more to Estonia than that. To start with Tallinn, we find a city of culture, host to festivals and artistic events of all sorts. We have visited the annual Beer Festival – the biggest in the Baltic – and a must for those who have done Munich and wonder what’s next. We have also been to the spectacular Song and Dance Festival and would recommend this to anyone with an interest in music.
The festival takes place every five years – the next being in 2014 – and involves the whole country. The dances are choreographed, taught to teachers who then take them to their regions, and, finally, learned by the village dancers. At the festival they come together to perform; eight thousand dancers from seven to seventy years old working to create an unforgettable spectacle.
Similarly the choirs have rehearsed and many have been disappointed in the selection process. Estonia is proud of its independence from Soviet rule which came through the ‘Singing Revolution’, when massed choirs sang their defiance in a chain which reached the length of the country. At the Festival as many as 18,000 sing together, all dressed in their regional costumes. When we were there in 2009, the procession of the choirs, from the city centre to the concert venue a mile or so away, started at midday. We watched for half an hour and then went to the pub to watch the British Lions winning a test match against South Africa. When we came out after the match, the last groups were just beginning their march to the stadium.
If you go there for more than a brief weekend, take the time to go to the woods to the east of the city where there are numerous cycle tracks which double as ski trails in the winter (no hills here so skiing means cross-country). You may also see people walking around secretively with carrier bags on their arms. They are hunting chanterelles. Whenever we go in the summer I buy these by the kilo to bring back and freeze for the winter.
Now is the time to go to the TIC and book a tour to other parts of Estonia or, better still, pick up some of the leaflets and find out where to hire a car. We still have places to discover but here are some of those we have already visited.
Haapsalu(South-west from Tallinn):We went here a couple of years ago on a bright summers day. It’s a small town with a number of special features, including the railway station, built to receive Tsar Nicholas II in 1905. We were able to introduce Oskar (our grandson) to magnificent old steam engines here. We also saw a beautiful beach and a bench dedicated to Tchaikovsky, who used to come here for his holidays. There is a house decorated with Paintings from the children’s books about Pippi Longstocking whose illustrator was born here. We had lunch in a local café, where Aliis, our Daughter-in-law, bought me a book of Estonian baking, based on the menus of the café itself. We went round the castle and cathedral, which compares with many of those in the care of our British Heritage Commissions.
Tartu (South-east): The University town in the centre of Estonia. The central landmark is the kissing statue in front of the Town hall. A couple embrace under an umbrella in a pose which Robin and Aliis gladly copied for our photo album. You can also be photographed in conversation with Oscar Wilde whose statue occupies a bench alongside his Estonian namesake. The university building is worth viewing as is the ruined cathedral, reached via the Devil’s Bridge and the Angel’s Bridge. Look out also for the leaning house in Town Hall Square, another photo opportunity.
Viljandi (South of Tallinn): We went there to find the folk music centre but spent more time exploring the castle park and relaxing by the lake. The city is small but has several interesting buildings as well as the lake where a summer’s afternoon can be spent on the sand, gazing on the water.
Setumaa (Far South-east): A region for exploration by the more adventurous, Setumaa has its own language and culture which are under threat in the modern world, though a revival movement is underway. Part of the region lies across the border in Russia. We went there with Robin and Aliis to see the annual Day of the Setu Kingdom, which was like a country fair with stalls selling local food and crafts and competitions for choirs and dancers and the Strongest Man. Everyone was dressed in traditional costume and the whole thing was a fascinating and colourful occasion.
We stayed overnight at a hotel, then Robin & Aliis went home by train leaving us to bring their car back after a couple of days exploring. We came north by the shores of Lake Peipsi –the fourth largest in Europe and part of the border with Russia. There are many villages where the onion sellers can be seen – Racks of onions in front of the house for people to help themselves, paying in an honesty box. Again this is a dying tradition as it becomes more profitable to grow for the larger markets of the European Union.
When we came to the Coast we turned westward back towards Tallinn. We stopped from time to time to enjoy one of the beaches. There is no tide in the Baltic so the sea is always available in summer and the beaches are pleasant and sandy. We also drove through the Lahemaa National Park, an area we returned to last year. As well as the Jägala waterfall on the fringe of the park – a drop of 8 metres, the highest in Estonia – there are several interesting manor houses to visit. These were the country estates of the ruling classes – German or Russian, many of which fell into decay in Soviet times and are now in various stages of renovation. Palmse is a showpiece and National Park Information Centre; we also visited Sagadi which houses a forestry museum and craft centre as well as tours of the house itself.
There is plenty more to do in this fascinating country and we certainly haven’t exhausted it. We have had the advantage of a family car but many of the places I have mentioned can be visited by organised trips, details of which can be found at the TIC in Tallinn. One booklet I have found fascinating is the Guide to Wayside churches, published annually. It’s worth going beyond Tallinn for the architecture, the forest trails, the storks walking round the meadows, the nature trails, lakes and beaches, canoeing and cross-country skiing. Something for everyone in all seasons.
Helpful websites: www.estadventures.ee (Daily tours to different destinations May – September) www.tallinndaytrip.com (Regular seasonal tours including cross-country skiing and the ice road in winter.) www.estonianexperience.com (A variety of tours in Tallinn and into the surrounding countryside.)
36 people found this review helpful
This review is solely based on the opinion of a Silver Travel Advisor member and not of Silver Travel Advisor Ltd.