Explore Estonia: a slice of local history
Date Posted: 10/05/2010
In the second of a two-part feature highlighting what Estonia can offer visiting groups, we explore the country’s fascinating history.
Estonia’s history is one of conquests and re-conquests by the Germans, Swedes and Russians. Only from 1918 to 1940, and again since 1991, has Estonia been truly independent and master in its own house. Each of these conquerors has left their mark on the country, with its abundance of castles, manor houses, churches and city walls. For centuries, these were a source of fear and awe for the local population. Now they can be enjoyed by Estonians and visiting groups alike.
It is immediately apparent to visitors that Tallinn is a medieval city, whether it’s viewed from the air or as groups sail into the harbour. The formidable walls have stayed largely intact, together with its towers, which surround a jumble of cobbled streets linking churches of all the major faiths. Groups can stroll through the Town Hall Square, where the successful have always flaunted themselves and where failures were cruelly punished. The market is as lively around Christmas as it is at the height of summer. Tallinn’s tunnels are now open to visitors, demonstrating how they have been used as a prison, a cold-store during the summer, as a nuclear shelter during the Cold War, and finally as a centre for punk art when mainstream galleries were not yet ready for it.
Rakvere, just an hour away from Tallinn, treats its history with a great sense of fun and colour. Its castle ruins provide a backdrop for medieval jousting, feasting and for a chamber of horrors. The castle museum concentrates on alcohol and the occasional, futile attempts made to curtail its consumption. The piece of sculpture that greets groups upon arrival is equally irreverent; a seven-ton pre-historic bison, with three metres dividing its large horns.
Narva has always had to take life more seriously, being a border town and the scene of many battles. Peer across the river at what is now the EU border with Russia or take a tour of its castle to see why the Swedes almost made Narva the capital of their empire in the 17th century. The Town Hall built by the Swedes during this time also survives. The Lutherans and the Russian Orthodox were great rivals in the late 19th century and groups can judge for themselves which community built the better church here in Narva at that time and which has been better restored. The rivalry continues!
The villages along Lake Peipsi provide a fascinating insight into Russian village life from 200 years ago. Established by religious communities, the Old Believers were banished here when they fell out with the main Orthodox Church. Admire their icons and the smell of their candles and also the care with which they maintain their smallholdings. The villages are also famous for their home-grown onions.
Estonia’s current university town of Tartu was formerly Russia’s going back to the 19th century, and once home to a formidable sect of astronomers, biologists and physicists. Visit the University Museum to see how they worked and how they spread their knowledge around the world in a pre-electronic era, with their statues now scattered around the university hill.
The rebuilt St John’s Church is a tribute to the local population, which was determined not to lose it during the Soviet era. Promoted as one of the best Gothic buildings in the Baltics, the thousands of terracotta statues, which can be seen both inside and outside the building, have now been restored. Groups may wish to plan their visit around a concert, for Tartu’s musicians are as talented as its scientists once were.
Estonians go to relax in Pärnu every summer, but groups can enjoy it all year-round. Pärnu’s architects always had plenty to spend and they were supported by visionary local mayors. See how they used this money to build churches, elegant wooden town-houses and spa centres. After all, Russian tsars and Swedish kings both had to be equally impressed. They did not skimp on parks either, which all skilfully combine flowers, lawns, sculpture and band-stands.
Saaremaa Island is where many tourists relax before leaving Estonia. The 20th century saw bitter fighting here in both World Wars, but fortunately this took place in the countryside and not in the villages. The island’s capital, Kuressaare, has therefore kept its Baltic German castle intact, looking as it did 600 years ago. There is no need to remember the names of Saaremaa’s villages but you will certainly not forget the churches you see in them. Look at their wall-paintings, their towers and their pulpits. Every element is a work of art and in some cases nature has assisted by providing a colourful backdrop. Take plenty of pictures on Saaremaa to keep it in your memory. This is after all what the Estonians themselves do.