Tour of Estonia — The Finish

HANS TAMMEMAGI 3. dets. 2012

The sun sparkled as we drove south from Võru and up a gentle slope to Suur Munamägi (Big Egg Mountain), the highest point in Estonia and, well, like a subdued hill. From the top of the tower we looked upon a rolling landscape of forest with patches of farmland, typical of the southeast.

Tour of Estonia — The Finish
Oscar Wilde and Eduard Vilde. Photo: Hans Tammemagi

At our next stop, the Võru Museum, we were the only visitors, a reminder of how peaceful the tourist path is away from Tallinn. Overall, the museum was grim, mostly about wars, with photos of tanks, soldiers and mass graves. I was drawn to a display of a bunker where the Metsavennad (Forest Brothers) lived while they fought guerrilla warfare against the Russians following World War II.

We often sought out cemeteries to enjoy the greenery, sit on benches and listen to the stories the stones have to tell. At Elva I visited the graves of my maternal grandparents wondering what kind of people they were and wishing we had met and gotten to know each other.

Then we were in Tartu, relying on 'Agnes,' our GPS, to direct us through the busy streets of this metropolis (population 105,000) to our Hotel London. We could feel the vibrancy of a university city with a large student population.

The best way to see Tartu is by walking, so with guidebook in hand we set off. The Ema River bisects the city with the city centre and university rising up the western slope. At Raekoja Plats, a regal town hall looms over a cobble-stoned square lined by outdoor cafes with the patio umbrellas promoting the Tartu beer, A. le Coq (instead of Saku). Statues proliferate and we particularly enjoyed the bronze Oscar Wilde and Eduard Vilde casually chatting. Then we were on Tartu University (established 1632) campus, which is heavily treed and like a park. Especially impressive was the History Museum located in the majestic ruins of a cathedral, whose construction began in the 13th century. Then we came upon the much-photographed main university building with its dominating six tall Doric columns. Soon we were in 14th century St. John's Church with its almost 1000 terra cotta figurines. An orchestra was rehearsing, a reminder that Estonians love music and that the peaceful Singing Revolution helped the country gain its freedom. The church was in need of repair, perhaps not surprising since Estonia is the least religious country in the world.

After two wonderful days we departed Tartu. At tiny Kavastu we bumped aboard an old one-car barge and were hand-winched across the Ema River. Estonia is a delightful mixture of old and new!

Driving north along the shore of Peipsi Lake, we passed through small villages where old ladies sold onions and smoked fish (suitsu kala) by the roadside. We could feel the Russian influence growing.

We arrived in Narva (95% Russian population) under dark ominous skies. The border crossing to Russia had long line-ups and menacing barbed wire, reminding me of John LeCarré's cold-war spy novels. Narva castle, however, is well preserved, attractive and, surprise, only a short cannon-shot across Narva River in Russia is the almost identical Ivanogrod Fortress.

I photographed Lenin's statue, in an out-of-the-way corner of the castle grounds, and later learned that heavy Russian pressure had prevented its consignment to the scrap heap after independence. The large Russian population in Estonia (25%) is certainly awkward. We were happy to turn the car westward and leave.

The Aqva Spa Hotel in Rakvere included an extensive indoor water park, saunas, a spa and lap-pools, which were packed with young and old. I rushed to the sauna, where the occupants tossed water on the rocks to welcome the newcomer. I sweated in the semi-dark, enjoying the sound of Estonian voices and the slapping of birch twigs against skin. In the morning we visited the Rakvere Castle and then drove westward.

Estonia is dotted with hundreds of manor houses, but none is finer than the baroque Palmse Manor in Lahemaa National Park. We wandered around its extensive, immaculate gardens, marvelling at the rich elegance, which contrasted with the relatively poor looking rural areas.

A short drive took us to pretty Käsmu on the Gulf of Finland, which has many trendy summer homes converted from old captains' houses. A cold wind carried rain as I walked along the shore, thinking of my mother who escaped, pregnant with me, from a shore like this in a crowded small boat in 1944.

A motorway carried us to Tallinn, where 'Agnes' naughtily directed us through the main square of Old Town – luckily, we weren't caught.

That evening, nursing a tume õlu (dark beer), I reflected on our immensely satisfying trip. I had learned that Eesti is about history and about people. It was heart-warming to meet relatives, and satisfying to see Estonia blossoming after 50 years of repression. I was proud to be Estonian, and regretted not having visited much earlier.