Estonian Escapades

My 3 country Baltic tour began in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. I was touring with a British based tour company called Explore, which focuses on small group travel for the over 30’s crowd. My tour mates included an American, 2 other Canadians and 12 Brits, along with our Estonian tour leader, Tounal. Aside from Tounal, our average age was about 65, contained 2 smokers, a rocket engineer, 2 Toronto lawyers, a bunch of teachers, a former banker and a lot of IT people, none of whom were able to explain how to use the Fongo phone app. which theoretically allows you to keep your local phone number.

We started our tour in the wonderfully preserved medieval city of Tallinn, with its imposing walls and watch towers which both provided protection from foreign invaders and divided the city into the High Town and the Low Town. Some history is needed to appreciate the significance of High vs. Low in Tallinn, so let me give an abbreviated version:

After the Ice Age (circa 10,000 BC), the ice receded, leaving the Baltics fertile and inhabitable by early hunters/farmers. These people enjoyed a happy, pagan life until 1227 when  German crusaders invaded, forced Christianity on the locals, grabbed the best land and made themselves nobles. These Germans occupied the high land in Tallinn; the locals had the low land. Hence the need for walls. The Germans and the Estonians, who were reduced to serfdom, lived more or less together until Estonia declared Independence in 1917 (from Russia) and took back the land held by the German nobles. In 1939, the last of the Germans were expelled.

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Tallinn City Wall and Tower

Of course, plenty of others invaded Estonia. It occupies a strategically important place in the Baltics, bridging east and west, its lands are fertile (rye, flax and wheat) and forested and its seas swarming with fish. It was, at various times, overrun by Swedes, Danes, Poles, more Germans and Russians. Russia seized control of Estonia from Sweden during the Great Northern War between 1700 and 1721 and retained it until the events of the Russian Revolution allowed Estonia to declare independence in August, 1917, whereupon it was promptly invaded by Germany. Following WWI, it was granted independence until the Nazis invaded. The Russians “liberated” it from the Nazis, annexed it into the Soviet Union and didn’t leave until 1991.

The attitude of Estonians to their former Russian occupiers (as they are always referred to) is extremely negative. Notwithstanding the dislike of the Russians, of the 1.3 million people in Estonia, nearly 1/3 are “the Russian minority.” When Russia departed, it left Estonia without social services, insurance, pensions or a currency. It banned all fish from Estonia, since the fish had, overnight, gone bad. Estonians need visas to go to Russia, even though a river dissects the city of eastern Estonian city of Narva from Russia.

Against this backdrop, in Tallinn, we saw the medieval walls of the city (built by Germans), Lutheran churches, Orthodox churches ( for the Russian minority) and a Guild Hall, the 14th century equivalent of an old boys club/community center where important matters were decided and significant events performed, all under the watchful eyes of the married, male nobility. It is perfectly preserved and currently a museum of Estonian history.

Adorning the old market square are buildings of various centuries, numerous restaurants and souvenir shops. When I asked what the famous Estonian dishes are, the response was “rustic.” Most restaurants featured schnitzel, burgers, salmon and dark rye bread. Creamy mushroom sauces and butter grilled fish were ubiquitous, but nothing particularly Estonian. My two significant finds were September raspberries in the fruit market and a decent selection of not too expensive wines in the supermarkets from Europe, Australia and Chile. None from the USA and the 3 vineyards in Estonia did not produce wine in commercial quantities.

Estonia is famous for other things, notably folk singing festivals in every town, every season and marking every event (declare independence? let’s sing about it…). There is also a plethora of kooky statues, honouring everything from poets, scientists, the pig and fisher people:

From the main city of Tallinn, our tour proceeded to the Baltic island of Saaremaa, where we explored the well preserved/reconstructed Bishop’s Palace. It was built as early as 1380 by the German crusaders seeking to consolidate power, but Danes, Swedes and Russians occupied it over the centuries. As medieval castles go, it is fine, but the more offbeat exhibit is one of Soviet life in Estonia during the most recent occupation. The kitchen is miniscule, food is rare, the single bedroom has multiple beds, the bathroom has a toilet and a bucket to heat the water. On the stairs, were different jokes about the Soviets (Lenin was good, Stalin was bad, Gorbachov? We will get to know when he dies….). The exhibit was not a tongue in cheek look back at the Soviet occupation; it was a stark reminder of how difficult those times were.

We visited a fishing village on the island, learned the timetable of the airport (two flights weekly from Tallinn and charter flights from Finland) and other fascinating facts about the area. It was basically a former fishing area which could no longer sustain itself from fishing, so it promoted itself as a tourist destination –the lake country of Estonia. It boasted that hallmark of capitalism, the first golf course in Estonia, naturally constructed after the Russians departed. As a bit of trivia, the first golf course in Russia was not constructed until 1993.

After two days in Saaramaa we returned to the mainland. We looked at the remains of another medieval castle at Viljander and some churches (Lutheran and Orthodox). Our last stop was in the second largest city in Estonia, Turtu, which has the remains of a medieval cathedral, some Lutheran churches and a pub in the old gun armory of the medieval castle, which hosts a weekly beerpong tournament. Naturally, there was a pretty market square, food markets and its symbol, the Fountain of the Kissing Students, reflecting its large student population.

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After a week in Estonia, I had my fill of medieval Castles, Orthodox churches, the former Russian occupation and schnitzel. It is a wonderful country- very clean (it is famous for its garbage clean-up campaigns) and lots of historical buildings, and a gentleness or naivete, depending on your point of view, from having true independence for less than 30 years. Time to move on.

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