By Stephen Hartshorne
GoNOMAD Associate Editor
I just got back from a splended trip to Estonia, one of the most exciting and moving trips I have ever taken. It’s hard to say what I loved most about it.
The joy of newly-won freedom in one of the oldest countries in the world, the profound spirituality, both religious and non-religious, the spontaneous flowering of art and creativity, the fairy-tale medieval cities, with their twists and turns and shops and cafes, the palaces and castles, some restored and some in ruins…
And the food! I can’t think of a word! Pike perch, moose stew, elk sausage, veal cheeks, mushroom pie with chicken livers… And is it organic? It never wasn’t!
Estonia is the northernmost of the Baltic States, just across the bay from Finland, a strikingly beautiful country, half of it forest, with more than 1500 islands along the coastline.
It’s a popular vacation destination for people from Finland, and the two countries share a close cultural affinity.
We toured Talinn’s historic Old Town with Europe’s oldest pharmacy and the magnificent 12th-century St. Olaf’s Church, which was once the tallest building in the world. (See our photogallery, A Walking Tour of Talinn).
Biking the Beaches
We biked along the beautiful white sand beaches in Talinn harbor, past magnificent palaces built by Peter the Great of Russia, and dined at the Brasserie at the Talinn TV Tower with grand vistas all around us.
We also toured Estonia’s second city, Tartu, and took a cruise aboard the Jammu, a replica of the river barges that sailed from Estonia to the rivers of Russia.
We dined in a medieval palace and feasted and danced and sang into the night with the Setu, a tiny minority who live on the border with Russia.
There was plenty of hanza — Setu moonshine — and did we have a sauna? How could we not?
But I think what moved me most was the passion and energy with which the Estonians have embraced the opportunities that come with economic, political and artistic freedom.
50% had Telephones
Just 20 years ago fewer than 50 percent of Estonians had telephones. Now they have free WiFi just about everywhere and 99 percent of all bank transactions are conducted on-line.
They’re on the cutting edge of cyberspace. Skype was invented here. NATO has their Cyber Warfare Center here.
They faced some difficult sacrifices in transitioning to a free economy, but they made them, and now they have one of the strongest economies in Europe.
In Estonia, one senses that the people feel they are all in this together, and there’s something really glorious about that, especially coming from the US.
We talk so much in the US about loving freedom, but we hate all the people we’ve elected, especially the ones who tell us the truth.
In Estonia, they really love freedom. You would too if you had lived under the Soviets for fifty years, and before that the Nazis, and before that the tsars, the Swedes, the Danes and the Baltic Germans. They did gain their independence for twenty years between the World Wars, but that ended with the Nazi-Soviet pact in 1939.
A Strategic Location
By an accident of geography, Estonia has had enormous strategic importance in European warfare on land and sea over the centuries. Pope Celestine III declared a crusade to Christianize the pagans in the Baltic region back in 1193, which as far as I can tell meant killing and enslaving people and taking their stuff.
The Swedish king Gustavus Adolphus had to take Estonia from the Russians in 1620 before he could invade Germany in support of Protestant kingdoms there.
He was perhaps the most polite conqueror. He stood up for the peasants against the nobles and founded the university at Tartu, one of the oldest and most prestigious in the world.
In fact, after the Russians took Estonia back, the people looked back fondly on ‘the good old Swedish times.’ There’s a statue of him in Tartu, albeit a small one. He looks rather like a munchkin.
Here, in Rakvere, Hitler’s armies made their last stand against the Red Army in 1945 and more than 200,000 soldiers died in a single week. The Soviets rolled in after the war and deported tens of thousands of Estonians to labor camps in Siberia. Whole families were herded aboard cattle cars and shipped out. More than half perished.
They have been devastated by war and foreign occupation, generation after generation, and they survived chiefly by their wits and their inexhaustible courage, and now they’re free!
“The Singing Revolution”
A recent documentary “The Singing Revolution,” tells this thrilling story — three hundred thousand people gathering together to sing forbidden songs.
Back in 1945, the Soviets would have had no difficulty dealing with something like this, but now the world was watching! Two million people joined hands in a human chain across the Baltic Nations, 373 miles from Vilnius to Talinn.
American usually think of the Cold War in the fifties and sixties, but Soviet oppression, in the person of the KGB, continued into the seventies and eighties.
We spoke with young people here who still recalled their parents being called in for questioning, careers being ruined for perceived insults to the government and silly bureaucratic bulls**t fouling up their lives at every turn.
Laughing off the Ball and Chain
In so many instances, the Estonians dealt with these oppressive measures with humor, laughing off the ball and chain of the Soviet command economy — the shortage of consumer goods like automobiles and televisions and blue jeans, the restrictions on travel. Now they can really laugh about it. And they do! But back then it wasn’t so funny.
Of course now they still have to endure the horrors of European Socialism — you know, four weeks of vacation a year, eighteen months of maternity leave, free medical care, free college tuition — but they’re bearing up well and they have one of the strongest economies in Europe, which has a very solid base in low-tech indutries like logging and high-tech industries like computers.
After settling in comfortably at the Shlossle Hotel in Tallinn, we took a walking tour of the Old Town. Winding cobblestone streets, massive stone gates, palaces, churches, shops and cafes — really splendid. There’s a small upper town where the one percent lived, generally Baltic Germans, and a lower town for the regular folks.
In the late Middle Ages, Tallinn was a member of the powerful Hanseatic League that controlled trade in the Baltic and North Seas, and you can visit the massive stone towers from which they bombarded unwelcome ships in the harbor.
Continuing our tour into modern Tallinn, we visited the KGB Museum on the 23d floor of the Hotel Viru. The hotel was built in 1972, just about twenty years before the end of the Soviet era, and the top floor was a listening post for the KGB, which has been kept just as they left it in 1991.
More than 60 rooms in the hotel are bugged, and the joke was that guests only had to say, “Darn it, there’s no toilet paper,” and they would hear a knock on the door and a bell boy would bring them a roll.
Besides all the old-fahioned eavesdropping equipment, there are lots of artifacts from the Communist era — Soviet kitsch — and our guide had lots of amusing stories about how the KGB tried to present the facade of a workers’ paradise where nothing ever went wrong.
In the afternoon, we visited the Estonian Food Market in the harbor, with its many offerings of fresh, local foods.
In the evening we got a chance to eat some delicious local food at a home restaurant called Nano, run by Priit and Beatrice. The restaurant walls and furnishings are covered with whimsical works of art, including many photos of Beatrice, who is a famous model.
We had a magnificent meal, which included borscht, Byelorussian vodka, pike perch (a cousin of the Walleye) and strawberries with meringues and whipped cream.
We biked along Tallinn’s scenic harbor to the famous Talinn Song Festival Grounds where 300,000 Estonians gathered in 1988 to sing forbidden national songs, past the presidential palace, through the forest to the historic TV Tower, where unarmed civilians faced down Soviet tanks during the Singing Revolution.
The 1,030-foot tower is a classic relic of the Soviet Era. It was built in the 1970s to televise the sailing events of the 1980 Olympics, which were held in the Bay Tallinn.
The tower is set up as a museum with lots of interactive exhibits, including “space mushrooms” with touch-screen computer monitors, and glassed-over holes in the floor to look down to the ground, 558 feet below. There is also a newsroom set where visitors make their own newscasts.
There are splendid vistas all around the world-class Brasserie on the observation deck, where we had some more delicious local food, including foie gras, moose stew — a first for me — and a magnificent chocolate dessert, all concocted by Chef Priit Toomits.
View our photogallery, The Tallinn TV Tower.
From Talinn, we took a bus tour through the vasts forests of Estonia to Avinurme, a village in northeast Estonia that was once the barrel-making capital of Europe. At the Avinurme Way of Life Center, you can visit the museum, see demonstrations of local arts and crafts and take classes in woodworking, spinning and weaving.
We visited a village of the Old Believers, who migrated from Russia in the 17th century to settle on the shores of Lake Peipus, where the Russian Prince Alexander Nevsky famously defeated the Teutonic Knights in the Battle on the Ice in 1242.
We dined at the beautifully restored Alatsivi Castle, built in the 1880s by Arved von Nolcken, who wanted a replica of Balmoral Castle in Scotland.
The structure was used as a school, an army barracks, and other purposes during the Soviet period, and recently underwent a decade-long restoration project by the municipality.
From there it was on to Tartu, Estonia’s second city, and home to one of the oldest universities in Europe, Tartu University, founded by Gustavus Adolphus in 1632, the pinnacle of Estonia’s educational system, which, like Finland’s, is among the best in the world.
As a university town, Tartu has lots of concerts, films, and theatrical performances — all told about 4,000 cultural events per year, and there are many great art galleries, shops. cafes, and restaurants.
We toured both the modern and the medieval city and the ruins of the famous cathedral, as well as St. John’s Church, currently being restored.
Kissing Students Fountain
Tartu is an eminently walkable city, with beautiful public spaces and lots of murals and sculptures, most notably the “Kissing Students” fountain in the town square, designed by Matti Karmin.
This sculpture is emblematic of Estonia’s newfound freedom because even this innocent display of affection would have been forbidden in Soviet times.
In the afternoon we took a cruise on the Emajõgi River aboard the river barge Jommu, a replica of the barges which carried cargoes from Estonia to Russia during the days of Hanseatic League, back in the 14th century.
These barges were all destroyed during WW I and WWII, but the replica was built by the Emajõe River Barge Society using historically authentic building methods. The society has also reconstructed a Viking ship, “Turm.”
The trip gave us the chance to view the beauty of the Estonian landscape, with its great diversity of wildlife.
Meeting the Setu People
From Tartu we took a bus to Setumaa in the southeast corner of Estonia to visit a tiny minority called the Setu. (Estonia is made up of many ethnic groups, with twelve official minorities and many smaller ones).
The name ‘Setu’ means “not this and not that,” because the Setu speak a version of the Estonian language, but practice a version of the Russian Orthodox religion.
We visited the Setu Farm Museum, and learned about the Setu way of life. While they practice Christianity, they also worship their old pagan divinities like Peko, the God of Fertility. The women wear a picturesque national costume with a unique silver breastplate called a suur solg.
We visited St. George’s, a Setu church in Varska, where we learned about their custom of communing with the spirits of deceased loved ones in the graveyard with feasting and singing and offerings of food.
Singing has been a central unifying part of Setu culture for centuries. Their choirs, made up mainly of women, practice a unique form of choral singing called Leelo, with songs passed down from generation to generation.
These songs, as well as many Setu customs, were banned during Soviet times, and it was the Lauluimä, “Mothers of Song” who preserved the tradition.
We met the members of a Setu choir who have been singing together for 48 years. They have performed in New York, Moscow, Paris, and many other places, and even sang for the Pope in Rome. It was like visiting Liverpool and being greeted by the Beatles. Watch the videos!
Then it was off to the Setomaa Tourist Farmstead, where we enjoyed a true Setu feast with great food, singing and dancing, with lots of ‘hanza’ — Setu moonshine — followed by a 200-degree sauna and a plunge into the icy waters of the pond. What a great time! I was sorely tempted to cash in my return ticket and settle down among the Setu.
On our way back to Tallinn Airport, we had another view of the beautiful Estonian countryside, dotted with picturesque cottages and less picturesque vestiges of the Soviet-era collective farms. Now that they have achieved independence, the Estonians are finding new uses for some of these old buildings.
Stephen Hartshorne is the associate editor of GoNOMAD.com. He writes a blog called ArmchairTravel about books he finds at flea markets and rummage sales. He lives in Sunderland, Mass.