Route: London – Tallinn – Helsinki – Tallinn - Eru – Vihula – Tartu – Parnu – Kuressaare – Tallinn - London
12.06.2018 - 03.07.2018 20 °C
After four enjoyable weeks socialising in the UK, we were off travelling again. A two and a half hour flight from London Gatwick delivered us to the charming Lennart Meri airport in Tallinn, Estonia. For the next three and a half weeks Estonia, together with a short trip to Helsinki, Finland, will be our home.
The first thing you notice about Tallinn, and for that fact Estonia as a whole, is how light it stays at night. It barely seemed to get properly dark, which I suppose should be expected, as we are almost 60 degrees north and it is midsummer.
Four nights and three full days in a nice apartment just outside the old town gave us a good opportunity to experience what Tallinn had to offer. The old town, steeped in history and partially surrounded by its original fortifications, is a fascinating place. The narrow cobblestoned streets and passageways take you back in time, with modern shops and restaurants now filling the space once occupied by merchants and families. In this respect the authorities have done a good job in safeguarding the historic building without restricting modern trade. There seemed to be something interesting around every corner.
But Tallinn is more than just the old town, as there is plenty of interest outside the fortifications. There is the Rotermann Quarter where old factories have been thoughtfully rejuvenated in to a modern shopping and café district without losing the charm of the old buildings.
There is the magnificent Kadriorg Palace in its own park just a few kilometres away from the old town. We visited it in the evening, and although you couldn’t go inside then, we did have the outside to ourselves.
And there is the Seaplane Museum for everything nautical. The museum is filled with both navel and civilian crafts, a large selection of Buoy’s and a lot of interactive attractions. Both the boats and the Buoy’s are either suspended from the ceiling or supported on the floor, which gives you both a sea floor perspective and a sea level perspective when on the elevated walkway. All of this was housed in a massive concrete hanger built in 1916 and commissioned by the Russian government of the time. The strange thing was that post independence the Russians initially refused to hand over ownership of the building, even refusing entry to the Estonian president on one occasion. It wasn’t until 2002 that Estonia managed to legally acquire the building from the Russian authorities.
Day five saw us depart from Tallinn for a four-day side trip to Finland, and to its capital Helsinki. A comfortable ferry transported us across the Baltic Sea and into the port of Helsinki. Accompanied by a number of Fin’s, a bit worse for wear, returning from their Friday night partying in Tallinn. Alcohol is about half the price in Estonia than it is in Finland, so making the ferry trip worthwhile.
From the time you step of the ferry in Helsinki, you see and feel the greater affluence than in Estonia, with café prices to support that feeling. That is not to say that prices in Finland are sky high, as they appear to be cheaper than what we experienced in Norway last year, Helsinki seems more on a par with London.
We had four nights and three days in Helsinki, enough time to get a good feel for the place.
Helsinki isn’t a big city so exploration on foot is very doable. We walked to most of the attractions, but did take the tram to Seurasaari Island, which was fortunate as it rained heavily that day.
Helsinki is a city of 300 islands, so you are never far from water at any point. It is also a very green city with more space given over to parks than for retail and residential. With so much waterfront it is not surprising to learn that Helsinki has 11,000 places to park a boat, and from what we saw they are probably all in use. There was everything, from quite modest to some very flashy vessels. It was probably cheaper to park your boat then your car in town, as car parking in Helsinki made Brighton look cheap.
As is the case with many cities, the main attraction, at least for us, is its people and how it functions. We did our usual, head out on self guided city tours, with the aim of seeing the listed attractions, but also to observe how the city functions. Helsinki has many interesting buildings and structures, so it was these that we aimed for when out and about.
We left Helsinki the same way as we arrived, with the ferry back to Tallinn. Helsinki had wetted our appetite and we vowed that we would return one day and explore more of what Finland has to offer.
Back in Tallinn, and it was time to collect our rental car and start exploring Estonia more fully.
Our first destination was a community called Eru and a cabin between the woods and the sea. Located in the Lahemaa National Park, the setting was beautiful, however that couldn’t be said for the cabin. Now, we knew the property was rustic and basic, but we had been misled to the degree of both. We knew there was no running water, but the garden hose that provided urine coloured water had only one pressure, fine if you wanted to wash the car but not so good for filling the kettle etc. The outside pit toilet wasn’t too bad, but the kitchen area fell short of what was described, some of the promised equipment was missing, the mosquito deterrent didn’t work and the Wi-Fi was a dream and not reality. With all these issues, together with other minor discomforts we decided to decamp after just one night.
For the remaining two nights in the Lahemaa National Park we moved up the accommodation ladder and stayed at Vihula Manor. Vihula Manor couldn’t have been more different to the cabin; the toilet was in the room and flushed, we had a shower and a bath, there was running water and we didn’t have to share the room with mosquitoes. Vihula Manor is in fact a number of historical buildings on a beautiful estate; it has both a windmill and watermill, a number of lakes and its own vodka distillery. Our room was the manor annex, with views out on to the lake and gardens.
Our time in this the northern part of Estonia was spent exploring the very varied environments of the Lahemaa National Park. The park is bordered in the north by its Baltic Sea coast, a wild and rugged area strewn with large boulders left by retreating glaciers millions of years ago. Our cabin was on the coast, so our local walks encompassed this environment. In additions to its coast, the park has large tracts of pristine forest interspersed by bogs (not toilets, but waterlogged soil), both of which we explored on two very enjoyable hikes. The park has a healthy population of Eurasian Brown Bears, Wolves, Moose & Lynx but we never caught sight of any of them.
Our journey then took us southeast to Estonia’s second biggest town, that of Tartu (population circa 100,000). Tartu is known for the prestigious, 17th-century university with its neoclassical buildings dispersed all around its old town. Our first attempt to explore the old town was cut short by heavy rain, which was a shame as there were a number of street performances going on that day. Our second attempt was much more successful, with a full day covering all the main sights.
For our last day in Tartu we explored further afield. We travelled about as far east as you can go in the European Union, to a village close to Lake Peipsi, and only a stone through from the Russian border. The village was called Alatskivi, and we went there to hike around the lake in the grounds of Alatskivi Manor. A very pleasant walk, if it wasn’t for all the flies.
From Tartu we travelled northwest to the coastal town of Parnu. Parnu is a holiday town with some of the best beaches in Estonia, although the summer season hadn’t quite kicked off when we were there, so it was relatively quite.
The town itself isn’t very attractive and our half-day stroll around its main landmarks was all it warranted. More interesting, for us anyway, was its surrounding landscape. The area’s beaches give way to some sizable sand dunes, which is what we went to investigate. However, what we found wasn’t the towering dunes we had expected but a dune forest instead. Now, we may have not been in the right place to be surrounded by great pile of sand, but we were certainly in a very beautiful forest. We chose a 10km circular route through this coastal forest and enjoyed the undulating terrain and unusual flora. The trees and plants grow out of the sandy dunes and you only realised what environment you were in, when the trail arrived a sandy hill that needed to be climbed.
From Parnu our route continued north, with the goal of reaching the island of Saaremaa. The goal was achieved by two one-hour drives and 30-minute ferry crossing, very straightforward.
Saaremaa is Estonia’s largest island, and we based ourselves in its capital, Kuressaare.
Our first full day on the island was spent doing a tour of the major sites. First stop was up on the north coast to visit Estonia’s highest cliffs. We had a very pleasant cliff walk but the cliffs didn’t blow us away, maybe because they are only 20 odd metres high, still, a nice place for a walk.
Next stop, still in the north, was a site dedicated to traditional windmills. Interesting structures, but the site was a bit too theme park for our liking.
Heading south, we called into see the Kaali Meteorite Crater. The meteorites stuck the site around 3000 years ago, leaving a number of craters, the largest being more than 100meters wide and filled with water. As usual the site is steeped in legends, from the water being used for sacrifices to the gods to them having healing properties. Today, the information boards concentrate more on the geological facts but do through in a few legends to make good reading.
Our last destination was on the Sorve Peninsula, in the far south of the island. I (Malc) had seen a documentary about a couple Viking funeral ships that were unearthed during excavation work at a school in Salme, so wanted to see the archaeological site for myself. I had an image of either archaeologist digging away finding new artefacts or the ships being entombed with glass lids for all to see. Of course there was neither, just a very informative board explaining everything and showing pictures of what was found. Glad we visited it though.
For our second full day we decided to explore Kuressaare. Kuressaare is a small and attractive town and easy to explore on foot, however, we choose to take to the saddle for our exploration (bicycles not horses, I hasten to add). But then it rained, and the bicycle seemed a less attractive option, so we did our city tour on foot after all.
And that was it for Estonia; we re-traced our steps across Saaremaa, caught the ferry back to the mainland and flew to the UK from Tallinn.
Personal Observations & Interesting Facts
Estonia Facts & Figures
Estonia is located in northern Europe and has borders with Russia and Latvia. It has a small population of only 1.3million people, of which 450,000 live in its capital of Tallinn. Most recently, Estonia was part of the USSR, but gained independence in 1991. Estonia then joined the EU in 2004 and adopted the Euro as its currency in 2011. Its economy has prospered since joining the EU, with a growing GDP that will soon be challenging that of Finland.
Finland Facts & Figures
Finland is located in northern Europe and has borders with Russia, Sweden and Norway. It has a small population of only 5.5million people, of which 620,000 live in its capital of Helsinki. Finland has only been an independent country since 1918, before that it either belonged to Russia or Sweden. It joined the EU in 1995 and now uses the Euro as its currency.
There are exactly 187,888 lakes (larger than 500 m²) and 179,584 islands within the territory of Finland. Both are world records.
Finnish athletes have won more Summer Olympic medals per capita than any other nation. As of 2012, Finland had won in total 302 Summer Olympic medals (including 101 gold medals) for a population of only 5.4 million. That is an average of 55.9 medals (18.7 gold medals) per million people. Finland is only second to Norway for the number of Winter Olympic medals per capita (28.8 medals/million).
Drivers from Finland have won more World Rally championships (14 titles) than any other country, and more Formula One championships compared to their country's population (4 titles for 5 million inhabitants).
The current president of Finland, Tarja Halonen, is a woman, as are 12 of the 20 government ministers.
According to the World Audit study, Finland is the least corrupt and most democratic country in the world as of 2012.
Finish or English
Almost every Fin we spoke to, spoke English. Not only were they fluent but many didn’t even have a hint of an accent. Very impressive, and a reminder of how bad my language skills are (Malc that is, and not my multi-lingual partner).
Estonia’s Large Mammals
Many European species extinct in other countries can still be found in Estonia. There are around 100-200 Wolves, 600 Eurasian Brown Bears, 1,000 Lynx and a large population of Moose. In fact the wolf is doing so well its numbers became unsustainable at one point, around 500 roamed the forests, that a controlled cull was initiated. Protection versus control of the large predators is a very sensitive political issue in Estonia, leading to serious conflict about their management. A recent poll revealed that the public would accept around 200 Wolves as being acceptable for this small country.
View of Estonia from behind the wheel
Outside of the main towns, Estonia is a joy to drive, the roads are quiet and in good condition. The first thing you notice is Estonia is very flat, I can’t remember driving up any major hill.
Once you get used to the road layout you start to take notice of your surroundings. The country is sparsely populated, so outside of town you only see a few farm dwellings, the rest is forest, usually with a bit of cultivated land between the road and the tree line. Not surprising it is home to a healthy population of large mammals (see above), in fact you regularly see road signs warning of Moose.
Estonia is a country on the up, and is now competing strongly with its other more established Scandinavian neighbours. The evidence is all around you, with new commercial and residential properties going up everywhere. Much smarter modern apartment blocks, that wouldn’t seem out of place in Norway, Sweden or Finland, are fast replacing the ugly old Soviet apartment blocks.
Estonia’s Medieval Festivals
Throughout the summer, Estonia celebrates times gone by with a number of medieval festivals. Most of the major towns have one and in the case of Tallinn, they have two. It was then not surprising that we encountered a couple of them, first in Parnu then in Kuressaare. People dress up in traditional cloths of the day, parade the streets and congregate at a suitable historic site to rein- act life and activities of the Hanseatic period. This is a very colourful event, with lots of dancing and singing, food cooked in a traditional way and even a bit of joisting.