Estonia

THE BALTIC ALTERNATIVE

The Baltic States, and especially Estonia, are an excellent alternative to Scandinavia. The same dense woods, crystal clear lakes and lonely roads, but (for the time being) much cheaper and much less visited by tourists. In Estonia you will not only find unspoilt nature, but also remnants of a rich history; besides the numerous romantic castles and medieval towns, also the Soviet barracks have their own tales to tell.

 

Estonia: nature, history and sunny days

Without a good roadmap it is not easy to find the way.Luhasoo Nature Trail We are trying to take a shorter route from Latvia to Rõuge in Estonia, but all roads end in bumpy dirt roads. We bump into the highway that goes in the direction of Russia: an endless file of trucks. And the queue must be enormous, as the border with Russia is still a long way out to the east.
Rõuge is a tiny village. There’s a church, a small restaurant, a post office and the ATM can be found in the local supermarket. The campsite with the unpronounceable name Ööbikuoru lies on a hill with views of the little lake. There are just three tents. The remaining visitors prefer to sleep in tiny wooden cabins with just four mattresses in each of them. From here we visit the Luhasoo Nature Trail, a trail of four and a half kilometres through the swamps. Along its total length wooden planks have been laid out, but because of the severe drought of the last couple of weeks, today the area is not really swampy at all. We have come especially to look for the carnivorous plants. They can be found here in abundance. One of the round little lakes seems to be filled with pitch black water.

Luxurious shopping centres

In student town Tartu it goes without saying that we look for a room in a student flat. We forget about campsites for the moment, as we first have to buy some new equipment that was finished or destroyed during our journey thKauksi beachrough Latvia and Lithuania, such as a new air mattress and bottles of camping gas. Also we need a good roadmap of Estonia. And as Tartu not only consists of an old city centre, but also of modern suburbs full of luxurious shopping centres, we have come to the right place.

On the central square - Raekoja Plats - you can find remarkable buildings, but the weirdest of all certainly is the exaggeratedly leaning art museum, which makes Tartu the Pisa of Estonia. On Toomemägi hill stands the dilapidated cathedral surrounded by gardens with statues. While the toy museum is the highlight of our five year old son, a visit to the brewery of A. Le Coq is high on my boyfriend’s list.

Upon leaving Tartu, we come to drive on broken down roads and the pace becomes very slow. Everywhere in the Baltic States new roads are being constructed with money from the European Union. The countries are undergoing a complete make-over since the joining of the EU. We see groups of storks foraging in the fields. In Kallaste on vast Peipsi Lake we park the car. On the other side of the lake is Russia, but it is too far out, we do not see the land. The sandy beach of Kauksi, on the northern side of the lake, must surely be Estonia’s best beach, hidden behind forests and dunes. Sandbanks everywhere in the shallow water. One can walk very far out in the lake without it ever getting any deeper. Ideal for kids.

Two forts

Narva-Jõesuu is situated in the extreme north east of Estonia. Our sweet, pink painted wooden guesthouse lies in between two histories: on one side there’s the green,Married couple in Valaste wooden dilapidated villa built before World War I, and on the other side a shapeless concrete building constructed during the Soviet era. Narva-Jõesuu is a fascinating stretched out village in the midst of pine trees, with a kilometres long beach that ends east at the mouth of the Narva River, the natural border with Russia.

Narva itself is a typical Russian town with unspectacular buildings, but we are here to see the castle. The Hermanni castle faces the fort of Ivangorod, the Russian town on the other side of the river. It is amazing, the way these two fortifications seem to challenge one another. Groups of tourists are standing on the fort of Ivangorod waving at us. Cars and trucks on their way to Russia form a gigantic queue in the streets of Narva and on the bridge at the foot of the castle. Today is Saturday: wedding day. Married couples, followed by family and friends, walk about the place in search of picturesque spots suitable to take photos.

The cliffs on the north coast remain invisible for a long time due to the heavy growth of trees and plants. Only at Valaste, where we have come to visit the well known waterfall, we can climb down the steep rocky coast by means of a metal staircase. While I would not exactly call this a waterfall - "a few drops" is closer to the truth -, there is nonetheless a lot of action to be enjoyed here: numerous married couples have themselves photogLahemaa National Parkraphed in this place. They attach little locks on the platform high above the calm sea, with their names engraved in it.

On the campsite of Altja, in Lahemaa National Park, we find a couple of tents and two stinking holes which serve as toilets. The calm seawater is full of grass and reed. We walk along the coast, through the woods, over the rocks and pass huge erratic boulders, that have been pushed from Scandinavia to Estonia during the ice-age. In the evening busloads full of Russian Estonians stop at the restaurant next door to our campsite. The Estonian owner of the campsite does not seem very pleased with this. She is fed up with the Russians, she says. Happy music sounds all through the night, drunken families are dancing wildly, and we join them in the fun.

Disneyland?

The full dust-bins on the campsite and the strewn around dirt on the ground, let us know it is high time to move on. Pretty soon we are driving through an extensive industrial area. What follows are the vast suburbs of Tallinn. Tallinn; it looks a lot like Disneyland! And when we find a sticker with the text ‘Welcome to Disneyland, Tallinn’ we are a hundred percent sure: this must be a fantasy town. The old centre is just too beautiful, too clean. The personnel of restaurants, cafés and souvenir shops are all dressed in medieval clothes. You can buy roasted chestnuts with the troubadour with pointed hat and pointed shoes on the corner of the street. Imposing buildings abound in this old Hansa city. Churches, town walls, merchant houses, even the post office looks amazing. From the St. Olaf’s church we have a grand view of the city and the harbour - the huge cruise ship seems to be lying at our feMouth of Narva Riveret. The city centre is very small and you can see all the sights superficially in a very short amount of time. The cruise ship has brought large groups of Spanish tourists. Slowly they shuffle through the narrow streets of Tallinn, holding umbrellas against the fierce sun.

‘Welcome to hell.’ When you read this, you want to see it for yourself: Paldiski, the most known marine base during the Soviet years. Typical Soviet buildings and army barracks. A sad sight. We try to find the famous ‘Soviet Pentagon’, where submariners were being trained. But it is hard to recognize a ‘darkly imposing concrete structure’ in the midst of a forest of other grey buildings... The picturesque red lighthouse - the highest in Estonia - makes up for all the ugliness in Paldiski.

Tropical swimming pool

The ferry brings us in half an hour to the island of Muhu, connected with bigger Saaremaa by a causeway. We camp near Kuressaare along a narrow beach full of grass and reed. It is raining, and that’s a real bummer, as this is actually our second rainy day during our five week trip through the Baltic States! We have grown to rely so much on the ever shining sun. Alternatively, we spend a day at the tropical swimming pool of Kuressaare.

The next day the sun shiLighthouse of Paldiskines once again and that’s a good thing, as this is going to be our last day in Estonia. We are back on the road again. At the tip of the Sõrve peninsula stands the prominent black and white lighthouse of Sääre. Many Estonians spend their day on this beautiful spot. We sit and hang around for hours on the shingle staring towards the sea and the coast of Latvia, right in front of us. When visiting the so-called most beautiful beach of Saaremaa - according to our guidebook - we find the usual grassy sand. It is clear to us that one does not come to the island for the beaches. But the wooden windmills that we have visited along the way were definitely worthwhile!

Estonia may not feature dreamy beaches, but beautiful stretches of coast can be found in abundance. In many places, along the coast as well as inland, one can make wonderful hikes. Cycling holidays are also very possible, given the flat countryside. And Tallinn, the fairytale-like capital, provides the tourist with the necessary bit of culture. The country has lots to offer, the tourists only have to discover it yet.

 

© Monique van Gaal

The Dutch version of this story has been published in Nordic Magazine in 2008 (see portfolio).