Explore Estonia: coast and countryside
Date Posted: 28/04/2010
In the first of a two-part feature exploring the country of Estonia, we discover what the coast and countryside of this up-and-coming European destination can offer visiting groups.
For centuries, invaders from Sweden, Germany and Russia fought to control the Estonian coast so that they could trade across the Baltic Sea. From time to time, the British navy intervened, usually to prevent Russian and then Soviet control. Now it is completely at peace, and open for everyone to enjoy, from bird-watchers and sailors, to families and groups, and above all, to spa enthusiasts.
From Narva-Jõesuu right beside the Russian border, to Lepanina a few miles from Latvia, and on Estonia’s largest island of Saaremaa, many visitors opt to slump into swimming pools, onto the beaches, or into individual mud baths. An hour or so later they return invigorated to normal life. Haapsalu and Pärnu are the largest coastal resorts in Estonia, and best-known for their diverse ethnic restaurants, seaside promenades and carefully preserved wooden buildings.
Haapsalu is well-known for its lace, first made famous by the Russian Tsars who came here regularly from St Petersburg during the 19th century. Tchaikovsky was equally happy in Haapsalu and wrote the renowned Song without Words here. Pärnu is recognised as Estonia’s summer capital, such is the variety of cultural activity on offer. Hardly a night goes by without an event in its brand-new concert hall or a day without a performance in one of its parks. Do not expect fast food or wild drinking in either town for both are proud of their gentility.
Life just in from the coast is very calm, with many places re-living the days of the 1930s. At Käsmu, in Lahemaa National Park to the east of Tallinn, groups can visit the Maritime Museum to see how local fishermen became smugglers, taking alcohol from Estonia to Finland which was then under prohibition. A little further east, at the village of Altja, the local restaurant serves groups with the same lunch that it has done for over 70 years, and quite rightly so. The fish is brought in daily from the sea, the potatoes are grown on local farms and the berries in the summer pudding come straight from the surrounding forest. In the neighbouring manor-houses of Palmse and Sagadi, the furniture is arranged as it would have been in the 19th century when the German landlords held court here.
The German landlords were diverse in their interests. At Palmse they have bequeathed an orchard, a distillery and a greenhouse, still displaying all the plants they managed to grow despite the bitter winters. One of the former granaries has become a motor and cycle museum showing how the lords and their servants travelled in the 1900s, when cycling was as important in Estonia as it is now.
Sagadi is the centre for local crafts, and groups can take the opportunity to purchase linen, or cutlery made from juniper and painted glass, for half the price as in Tallinn. In the evening, visitors can relax in the Palmse drawing room to chamber music as the local community used to do. Only the most necessary modern conveniences such as electricity and refrigeration intrude on the 19th century ambience, although there is of course a prominent 21st century intrusion, with the majority of the locals speaking excellent English.
The islands of Saaremaa and Muhu, linked by a causeway and a short ferry ride from the mainland, draw visitors for many different reasons, but all love the space, calm and wild scenery. While Saaremaa’s capital Kuressaare is hardly larger than a village, it is the site of a formidable castle – notably one of the best preserved in the country. Why not visit the local museum to discover why it is so impregnable, and while you’re there, take a peak down in the basement at the natural history section, to see the variety of animals that used to roam around the island. Innumerable battles have taken place across the island over the centuries, but it is hard to believe this as you drive from one church to another, as all are at least 500 years old. Groups can also enjoy Saaremaa’s windmills, lighthouses, grand cliffs, and even a meteorite crater.
On Muhu, linger in Koguva village, left to look as it was in the 19th century. Before taking the ferry back to the mainland, groups can gain an insight to the island’s 20th century history, with a peak at the rocket launcher left behind by the Soviet forces who occupied Saaremaa for 45 years, now harmlessly rusting in the undergrowth.
The entire population of Estonia (around 1.4 million people) could be fitted into a couple of sprawling British suburbs, so what a joy it is for tourists that they are scattered over hundreds of square miles of their own countryside. Towns are, perhaps fortunately, a rarity in Estonia, but instead there are a multitude of manor houses, parks, woods and beaches which the Estonians are happy to share with visiting groups.