There are no distant places inEstonia, a country bordered by Finland, the Baltic Sea, Latvia and Russia. You can travel from one end of the country to the other in just four or five hours. Its small size translates to short distances so you can squeeze in lots of sightseeing and activities in a short amount of time. But make no mistake – Estonia is larger on the inside than on the outside with a vast variety of landscapes, seasons, weather and character within a few dozen miles. Yet, touring the country, one never feels crowded or claustrophobic. With a size comparable to, say, Denmark or Holland, there are many less inhabitants – a mere 1.3 million in the entire country.
It’s easy to be in Estonia. English is replacing Russian as the second language choice. There’s a sensible Lutheran pragmatism in the customs. There’s no panhandling, crime is minimal and streets are clean. New Yorkers, take note: Estonians are known as cool and somewhat aloof, not given to quick emotions. People won’t readily smile at you. Ahh, feel at home already? Just know that, like us, they are not being unfriendly. The natives just feel if you smile too much, you’re overly familiar or a bit daft. The good news is that there’s no phoniness to most Estonians, and they make fast friends.
Estonians have endured occupiers for the past 800 years from Teutonic knights, Danish and Swedish conquerors, Russian Tsars, German Nazis as well as the Red Army. Now independent, the country was occupied by the Soviet Union from 1944 to 1991. Tallinn, the country’s capital, is the best preserved medieval city in Europe with an original street system dating from the 13th century and houses, buildings and churches all still intact.
Everything Old is New Again
Known as the “Pearl of the Baltics,” an exciting introduction to Estonia is a tour of Tallinn’s Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s a mysterious place with narrow cobblestone lanes, ancient city walls, iron street lamps, Gothic turrets and medieval markets. Built from the 13th to 16th centuries when Tallinn was a thriving member of the Hanseatic trade league, this enclosed neighborhood of colorful gabled houses, Guild buildings and hidden courtyards is the city’s biggest tourist draw. All neatly packaged within the city’s walls, its high towers give it an extra dose of fairytale charm and looming overall, the spire of the Gothic 15th century St. Olaf’s Church.
By all means have lunch in the renowned 13th century restaurant, Olde Hansa. Waiters are dressed in authentic garb, and they will insist that before you eat you should do a blessing, breaking a loaf of dark bread into small pieces and sprinkling it with salt. Your luncheon table will be laden with aspic, olives, pickled cucumbers, berries, soft cheese, lentils, turnips, chicken and pork – truly a meal fit for – a Viking?
Finishing your bountiful repast, take a tour through Old Town with a guide dressed as a medieval merchant. He’ll take you to a brewery where you’ll listen to an elderly gentleman playing a haunting melody on a wheel fiddle. It might just bring to mind the Hurdy Gurdy man of Schubert’s Winterreise. Then you’ll be off to a small museum where you’ll hear a group singing in Latin and playing ancient music on tambourines and drums. Finally your guide will take you to an old, wood-paneled coffeehouse, a chance for you to warm yourself with espresso and steaming hot chocolate, watching a charming vignette – a man and woman, dressed as a scintillating 1920s couple, he will strum a guitar while she, with marcelled hair and cigarette smoldering between her lips, will gaze at him adoringly, evoking a flapper-era mood. This tour, traveling back in time, is an informative and entertaining timeline of Estonian history through people, music and song.
One day, you may want to take a ferry to Muhu Island and from there a causeway to Saaremaa Island about 125 miles from the mainland and Estonia’s largest island. There you can tour Kuressaare, the capital, and that evening dine in the Episcopal Castle which dates back to the 13th century and is one of the best preserved castles in northern Europe. Your entire meal will be one huge medieval adventure. Upon entering, you’ll be greeted by the “bishop” who leads you into a grand banquet hall, your only light being hundreds of flickering candles. There before you, a heavy wooden table will be groaning with food. The Episcopal Castle serves food typical of the period: dark, thick beef soup, black bread, nuts, berries, a huge leg of lamb, bowls overflowing with barley and plates of ham, juniper cheese, jellied meat and of course ale, lots of ale! Making the meal feel authentic and great fun, you’ll eat with wooden spoons and forks from dishes made of rough earthenware. Throughout the evening, you’ll be serenaded with the greatest hits of the 1300s – soft music of harps and violins – putting the perfect finishing note to this culinary adventure.
A Nation of Song
Estonia’s most famous event by far is the National Song and Dance Festival. Choral singers, 26,000 strong, perform for an audience numbering in the tens of thousands. UNESCO cites this a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity and the festival takes place every five years. Since the last was in 2009, one now must wait until 2014 to experience it again. However, not to despair. Each summer in Estonia brings countless wonderful festivals including Tallinn Old Town Days, Medieval Tallinn Festival, Black Nights Film Festival, and Jazz Festival among many others. And this year, New Yorkers (you, who are bereft if you’re not surrounded by culture 24/7), you’ll be happy to know that Tallinn has been designated (along with Turku, Finland) the European Capital of Culture. So, winter, summer, anytime – Estonia is a destination for all seasons.
Estonian Tourist Board
Flights from JFK, NY (1 stop)
Finnair, Estonian Air, SAS, LOT