Wednesday, 29 September 2010


Bump, bump, bump……….bump, bump,…..…bump, bump, bump – That’s us driving on a Latvian road, though it always seems to be accompanied by the percussion ensemble we keep in the cutlery drawer and the oven. We think they’re playing experimental jazz, but it’s difficult to have a discussion about it because of the noise.

We entered Latvia at a town called Ape, and took the unpaved road to the district capital of Alūksne. Everything looked much like Estonia, but it was soon clear that Latvia has not received quite as much tidying up and renovation in the two decades of independence as its northern neighbour. Alūksne is draped attractively around a lake and has a large wedge of parkland surrounding a palatial former manor house at one end of the main street, but the number of bumpy roads, broken pavements and amount of peeling plaster reminded us more of Eastern Europe in the 1990s than did Estonia. For me (Rob) it had one added attraction, in a little narrow-gauge railway that runs from here to Gulbene, and still sees two ordinary passenger trains a day. I watched the 15:20 train leave, with three passengers on board. Alūksne was trying hard to promote itself for tourism, but in mid-September it felt far off the circuit.  Lunch in a café was fun, with hardly a word understood on the menu. According to the waitress they had “everything”, and there was sushi listed, which might have been interesting. In the end we opted for more pork products, in lashings of sour cream – heaven only knows what cholesterol levels are like round here. We found a campsite that was semi-open – well, it looked closed but the owner lived on site and opened the gate for us – on the lake, in a street of smart new wooden houses with neatly tended gardens, that had obviously been carved out of the forest in the last few years.

Alūksne manor house and railway

It turned rainy and colder as we left Alūksne on Tuesday, the 21st September, the day autumn officially arrived. The nights were also drawing in and to avoid fruitless drives along dark roads in search of a an overnighting spot we decided that we had to look for a place to camp sooner, and by no later than 7:30 if we want to have any light at all. We headed west to the Gauja National Park, an area of river valleys and thick woodland only some 80km from the capital Riga, and it was approaching this time when we arrived in Cēsis, the largest town. A great thing in the national park are the designated free camping spots for motorists, but with darkness falling we opted for the nearest thing, an out-of-season and closed campsite on the edge of town, where we parked by the river Gauja and had a peaceful night.


The next day we visited and shopped in Cēsis. With a well preserved centre of mainly pre-war buildings, in brick, stone and wood, around the Lutheran St John’s church and a ruined castle, it manages to cater to tourists while still remaining at heart a country town going about its own business. A fair amount of smartening up has gone on around the place, though some buildings require a lick of paint and it has enough unkempt corners to make it feel like a real town still and I (Rob) liked that about it. I found also the market hall, veg outside and a riot of cured and smoked pork products in, and was happy with that too.

Cēsis – Victory monument for the 1918-20 war of independence

We finished off one rainy day with a visit to a reconstruction of a dark ages village, on a swampy island in the lake at nearby Āraiši. The Archaeological Museum Park consisted of about 20 small wooden 9th-11th century Latgalian fortified huts on an artificial log island. These have been reconstructed from the archaeological findings in their original placement and are one of the liveARCH projects which promote living history, not that anyone was living in them during our out of season visit. On the site there were also the ruins of a medieval castle and a few reconstructed Stone and Bronze Age dwelling houses, and over the next hill was a restored Dutch style windmill, which operates during the tourist season – so was closed to us.

Āraiši ezerspils lake village reconstruction

That night we stopped at one of the national park’s free campsites, a field in the woods by the rushing Amata river. There were the remains of many campfires, but needless to say we were quite alone and it was all too damp to get our own fire to do anything other than smoulder.

Amata river in Gauja National Park

For a landscape that barely gets rises over 100 metres above sea level, it is hard to see how the Gauja park can have so many hills. True, they are low hills, but the roads go constantly up and down, and some short stretches are almost steep. Mind you, in this country a 6% hill is exceptional, and is proudly marked on signposts so you can’t miss it. The rivers too have cut real valleys through the terrain, and at certain points run below red sandstone cliffs  - these are also a source of pride and are widely advertised. We visited the biggest of these, Ērgeļi cliffs near Cēsis, on our rainy Tuesday. The heart of the park lies in the thickly wooded areas around Līgatne. It is the site of a large paper mill, and mixes picturesque 19th century wooden workers’ cottages with grim Soviet-era apartment blocks nearer the river. It also has the last ferry on the river Gauja, connecting two minor roads, and possibly the last of its type in Latvia. The small wooden ferry can barely take more than one car, and is hand-operated, the ferryman tugging hard on a metal cable to launch it out into the river, and the current then pulls it across, restrained by the cable that runs from one bank to the other. The journey time must be about a minute.

Līgatne - the ferry and soviet-era housing

At the western end of the park we visited the town of Sigulda. It was hard at first to think of it as a town, as it seemed to have more parkland than buildings, and we could not identify a real centre until we realised that all this greenery around us was actually it. Sigulda was in fact built up as an inland resort, promoted as ‘Alpine’-style to the mountain-starved Russians and Balts in the late 19th century, and came complete with Swiss-style chalets. The last war put paid to the chalets, but post-war rebuilding respected the country-park setting of the town. The Alpine claim must have been based largely on the valley of the river Gauja, which here forms quite a deep gorge on the western edge of the town, and is spanned by a cable-car that shuttles across to the palatial Krimulda castle on the opposite hillside.

Sigulda – Lutheran church and cable car

We were looking for a campsite this time so that I (Lesley) could get some writing done while Rob went off to Riga on the Friday, as well as the chance it would give us to catch up with ‘stuff’ like washing clothes.  I had misremembered the contents of either an e-mail from Bob & Wendy or their blog and thought that they had stayed at a great campsite on the outskirts of Sigulda, but this turned out to be was pure fiction on my part,as the local tourist office informed us that there was no camping open out of season, and a text from Bob then confirmed that they had in fact stayed much closer to Cēsis. After some discussion we agreed to turn around and head back there despite a dislike of ‘going back’. The light was beginning to fade when we arrived at Apaļkalns campsite near Raiskums, but it was set in lovely countryside, on the shores of a lake, and was a great place – clean, well laid out, friendly and with all the amenities we needed.

Sigulda – Krimulda Palace and Turaida Castle

On the Friday I (Rob) left the van at 7.30 a.m. and rode the 30 or so kilometres to Sigulda. It was a lovely ride with the morning sun filtering through the trees, but cold to start with. By the Līgatne ferry however I had cast off hat and gloves, and when I stopped at a café in Sigulda it was sit-outside weather. I loaded the bike onto a Riga-bound train. It trundled at a sedate pace through more flat, sandy forest, and people got on and off with overflowing buckets of freshly-picked mushrooms.

Early morning ride through Gauja National Park and Riga train waiting at Sigulda station

I was in Riga just after 11. It is a big, busy city and a world away from the rural tranquillity of the other parts of Latvia we had seen. The first part of the city I wanted to see was right behind the station, and one landmark was strangely familiar. In the late 1940s, Soviet architects began erecting seven skyscrapers around Moscow in a style known as ‘Stalinist wedding-cake’, which rise in tiers to a spire or steeple after about 20 floors, and are finished in a sort of neo-classical/gothic crossover. The triumphant Soviet union then began exporting ‘gifts’ of identical buildings to the capitals of its client states, and lo and behold Riga and Warsaw now have their own wedding-cake skyscrapers. In Riga’s case it is the Academy of Sciences building, and is finished in a red-hued stone that gives it a warmth and colour not found in its siblings. In any case, I’m a fan of these buildings despite their pedigree, and couldn’t resist a trip to the 19th floor balcony for its panoramic views.

Riga – Academy of Sciences building, balcony and view of the city

Nearby was the central market, a vast expanse of indoor and outdoor stalls selling untold quantities and varieties of largely Latvian foods. One section had nothing but potatoes, the vendors selling a dozen or more varieties each labelled separately. That is what I call consumer choice! I worried slightly about leaving my bike unattended so didn’t get to see inside the great hangar-like food halls, but stocked up with what  
I could from outside. The food halls are indeed reputed to have been built from redundant Zeppelin hangars after World War I, and I can’t verify that but they looked the part.

Riga market

Riga’s Old Town draws all the visitors, but was the part of town that interested me least. True, there are some wonderful buildings and fine squares, but it is by and large so given over to tourism that it has lost its original purpose and has too much of a museum or history theme-park feel for me. By Friday evening the British stag parties had started to arrive, and the bar staff stood around expectantly waiting for rich takings.

Riga – Doma laukums, and St Gertrude Lutheran church

My favourite part of Riga was the so-called Centrs, an area of boulevards that spread outwards from the Old Town, and are lined with tall stone apartment blocks from the turn of the 20th century. This is where Riga’s main shops lie, and it is full of cafes and restaurants and the lively street life of a modern city. Many of the blocks are embellished with art nouveau designs, but somehow I failed to find the most famous examples.

Riga detail from building on K Valdemara iela, and freedom monument

The history of Riga is essentially a German history. Like all towns in Latvia, it was for centuries the domain of German-speaking commercial and aristocratic classes, a pattern that continued through periods of Polish, Swedish and Russian domination, to be broken only after World War I when the Latvian majority acquired a republic in its own name. The other non-Latvian element here are the Russians, encouraged to immigrate into Latvia by the Soviet administration in the 1950s and 60s, so that they now form almost half of all Rigans. I heard a lot of Russian spoken here, quite unlike elsewhere in Latvia. The situation and proportion of Latvian Russians is in fact remarkably similar to that in Estonia which has a very similar recent history. 

Riga – Soviet era Latvian Riflemen’s monument in the old town

All too soon it was 6 p.m. and time for my train home. I stayed on board as far as Cēsis this time. It was a hot, tiring two hours as the train was full and the windows didn’t open, but the moonlit ride back to the campsite at Raiskums was the perfect antidote.

Indian summer at Apaļkalns campsite

These last few days in Latvia can only be described as an Indian summer, and in the sunshine we couldn’t drag ourselves away from the lakeside and the scenery, so decided to stop another day at Apaļkalns campsite. We lounged about a lot in t-shirts and Rob tried a spot of fishing, using one of the campsite’s boats to row out on the lake. Needless to say we had pork for our dinner! We nearly stayed on Sunday 26th September too, but decided that it was time to go, and so we finally left the lovely Gauja National Park, intending to head due south to Lithuania. However, on a whim of Rob’s we ended up going west to the coast at Saulkrasti so that he could see the Gulf of Riga and catch his last sight of the Baltic for a while. The coast reminded us of the north coast of Estonia in many ways, with long, sandy beaches separated from the towns by pine forest in which very private holiday homes nestled.


We by-passed Riga and met the river Daugava at the amusingly named town of Ogre, which wasn’t monstrous at all. We crossed to the south bank at Ķegums where, driving across the hydro-electric dam, the sheer width of the river hits you. Almost by chance we came across the greatest little picnic spot overlooking the river which was the perfect place for overnighting, with evidence of where previous visitors had built open fires (we are still eking out gas!). Annoyingly, some harmless “yoofs” turned up in cars and participated in a bit of rally driving and playing their car stereo. We were OK with this though. It had happened before and they always seem to disperse at sundown. Once the young folk in their cars departed we could actually hear the real sounds of the riverbank. We couldn’t decide if the huge amount of noise was from freight trains on the main line from Riga to Russia (opposite bank), or turbines on the hydro-electric dam (1km downstream – or upstream – whatever).

Ogre town sign

It was on Monday 27th September that we drove south from here on minor roads, and crossed into Lithuania heading for the town of Biržai,

Lielstraupe Manor – now a narcological clinic

We told Charlie the next recycling bin was for “PET MONGRELES”

Friday, 24 September 2010

Estonia 2 – The East, Lake Peipsi and the South

We’d heard that the road east towards Russia went through an unpleasant, heavily industrialised landscape. We must have missed that then, because, while there were signs of the odd belching chimney or a towering slag heap, it was largely a pleasant drive. It was even pleasant in Rakvere, where we stopped for lunch and Rob reversed into an invisible Estonian car. The owners were very pleasant about it all. It was only a dented number plate on their car and nothing on our van. They asked for 250 EEK, about £15. Rob nearly laughed out loud. He was ready to hand over a thousand with no questions asked! We headed pretty sharpish for the main St Petersburg road  though, just in case.
We turned onto a smaller road along the north coast, that here consisted of high cliffs with few ways down to the sea and no places to camp, wild or otherwise. Just before the town of Sillamäe we saw a sign for tents and caravans. The place looked closed for the season, but luckily a woman turned up with a car load of quilts. She handed us over her phone and we spoke to the owner. It was agreed that we would pay 100 kroon (Kroon being the currency name abbreviated to the wonderful EEK). As this was about £6, and included use of the sauna, it seemed an offer not to be missed! Orava Talu campsite had rather a hippy vibe to it, set as it was around a partially restored old farmhouse. It had a little kitchen, a wood-fired sauna, and some old leather armchairs set out under an awning to provide a sort of outdoor common room. Around the house were a few wigwam-like huts, one of which held a grill area, and there was an outhouse with books and magazines to read and swap –alas none in English for us! We thought it was a great place, and we thought we would be the only people there, but some men arrived after their day of work to nick our sauna and sleep in a hut – and it dawned on us that was what the quilts were for!

Orava Talu camping

Next day, Tuesday 13th September, we visited Sillamäe and Narva. Sillamäe is a planned town built in the early days of Soviet Estonia between 1949 and 1955, to house workers from the nearby uranium works. For many years it was a closed city that wasn’t even marked on maps. It was built in the style that has come to be known as Stalinist, and shares with other Stalinist building projects a kind of strange Neo-classicism mixed with surprising borrowings from religious architecture. Among its showpiece buildings, the House of Culture recalls a Greco-Roman temple, and the town hall sports a tall tapering spire that could have come straight from a Lutheran church, and looks just like one from a distance. What is unusual though is the modest scale of the buildings – there are none of the towering symmetrical blocks and huge portals lining long prestige avenues, as you find in East Berlin or Moscow. Nothing exceeds two storeys in height, barring some blocks on a lower level near the harbour, where an extra storey improves the sense of continuity with the upper town. The pale yellow residential blocks that line the leafy geometric avenues of the centre may have sported some muted ornamentation typical of the style, but reminded me (Rob) more of the two-storey brick or stone buildings found in many a central European provincial town before World War 2, than of the overbearing monumental pieces that sprang up in the socialist capitals after 1945. This surely was Stalinism with a smile!

Sillamäe – Boulevard to seafront and Town Hall

The main public buildings in the centre had all been carefully renovated, and labelled for tourists like us, but the blocks on the side alleys were rather more run down. Ethnically it a mainly Russian town, and despite the appealing centre is clearly not a rich place since the uranium works closed in the 1990s.

Sillamäe – House of Culture and worker holding up the atom

We continued to Narva, which lies right on the border with Russia. This is a real old-style border, where all traffic is checked carefully in both directions, behind high metal security fencing that encloses the road down to the border bridge. A long queue of cars sat waiting in the town to be allowed forward to the checkpoint. The main sight in Narva these days is the castle, a huge structure behind massive stone parapets that towers above the Narva River, and glares at the equally massive Ivangorod fortress on the far side. What you see now is largely a reconstruction, as together with the rest of the town, it was pummelled to the ground during the Soviet advance in 1944. Virtually the whole town is therefore of post-war USSR construction, but could look a lot worse – and if it were in Russia today, it probably would do.

Narva castle - Pikk  Hermann tower and Ivangorad Fortress on opposite Russian shores

Narva border crossing

We ended the day by returning for a second night to the charming hippy campsite at Orava Talu, after driving back along the coast through Narva-Jõesuu, which is a beach resort favoured by Russians during both recent empires. Villas old and new mix in the coastal pine forests with brash new hotels and derelict holiday facilities from the old order. We noticed a number of incredibly ornate wooden villas of unmistakeably Russian design crumbling away among the trees. This stretch of coast boasts 7km of sandy beaches, but again we found it largely unreachable by road.

Old style Russian villa at Narva-Jõesuu and Udria beach near Sillamäe

Onwards and downwards was the cry on Wednesday as we headed south towards Lake Peipsi. They make a drink in these parts which seems to consist of fermented dark rye bread – variously called kali in Estonian, kvas in Russian, gira in Lithuanian. I’ve always thought that it tastes just like Pepsi and Coke and was convinced it must have made its way to America from this very area – well, you can see why – but Rob assures me that this is unlikely to have been the case. Still, you never know…

 Kuremäe - Pühtitsa klooster (nunnery)

Anyway, before we reached the shores of Lake Peipsi we made a brief stop at the Orthodox nunnery at Kuremäe. It was a pretty complex, with a lot more flower beds and floral decorations than we had seen at most Orthodox places. We wondered whether this was down to the feminine touch, but it was probably more to do with 2010 being their centenary year. In the grounds the nuns were out in force, gardening, painting window frames, mopping floors and a strong meaty smell of cooking was coming from their kitchens. In one corner there were several amazingly stacked wood piles, which were the height of small trees. After seeing them at Kuremäe we began to notice smaller versions on farms and even outside the old style workers’ apartment blocks in villages.

Kuremäe - wood pile at nunnery

Our first stop on Lake Peipsi, at Mustvee, afforded the worst joke of the day with “it must be Mustvee”, but there was not very much to the place apart from the harbour and lake stretching out to the horizon with no sign of its far Russian shores. It could have been the sea for all we knew – well, if we didn’t have the map showing us it wasn’t – and if it wasn’t called “lake”. Garmintrude had no idea what it was as her selection of maps doesn’t include Russia, which starts half way across the water, so she just left it as blue or green rectangles. We did notice several border guard posts with look-out towers and small military looking boats, and wondered how much smuggling of one kind or another must go on round here.

It must be Mustvee harbour at Peipsi järv lake

We were really pleased to find the woods near Mustvee jam packed with picnic spots, all beautifully laid out with flat parking areas and cast iron grill stations. It boded well for some good wild camping later on and we drove round the lakeside villages looking forward to a good BBQ that evening.

Peipsi järv lake-near Lohusuu

At Alatskivi we looked around a manorial complex. We had seen our first examples of these in the Lahemaa National Park and since then we had passed several ruined manors, or mõis. Estonia has tons of them though, scattered all over the countryside. Their origins stretch way back into the 13th century and are a by-product of the crusades in many ways, when large areas were conquered, and people forcibly baptized, by the Livonian Knights, an autonomous (and pretty wild, by all accounts) branch of the German Teutonic Knights. These Livonian Knights settled, bringing with them a feudal system and an ability to build large strongholds, all very 1066 and all that, and through the   few centuries they formed the basis of the Estonian nobility.

Sagadi mõis (manor house) and Palmse mõis
Their heyday seems to have been in the 18th C, when the conquering Russian Crown granted the Estonian nobility privileges which guaranteed all their former rights and added a few more for luck (the so-called special Baltic order). Of course, the poor old peasants had no say whatsoever in anything much, but then they never have had in feudal societies. From the 1750s onwards huge manorial complexes were built, right up until about the start of the First World War. By 1910 there were about 1245 of these manor houses, with associated complexes, across Estonia.

Sõmerpalu mõis

The first wave of these had at their heart Baroque and Neoclassical palaces, rather in the style of French chateaux, but later buildings reflected varying architectural fashions, including Art Nouveax and something called “Historicist”, which seems to be mainly mock castles. The one at Alatskivi was of the latter type, being a rather whimsical version of Balmoral, the noble lord at that time having visited Scotland and been much taken with the summer des-res of good old Queen Vic.

Alatskivi mõis – in Balmoral style

Events since 1919 have taken their toll on these manors, with firstly expropriation by the new Estonian republic, then the ravages of the Soviet period . Many were turned into schools, orphanages, sanatoria, community centres and so on, while others were left to fall into ruin. There are over 400 left now, and since the 1970s these have begun to be restored, with about 100 of them preserved and now firmly on the blossoming tourist trail of modern Estonia. We half expected to see a British Saga coach tour pull up outside one as we visited!

Varnja village

After Balmoral – I mean Alatskivi, we drove south of Kallaste where the small lakeside fishing villages of Kolkja, Kasepää and Varnja run from one into the next with little or no break. You wouldn’t know it to look at them, apart from a few tiny churches, but these villages are home to the main bulk of Estonia’s “Old Believers”, a branch of the Russian Orthodox church which broke away in the 1600s because they didn’t like the new fangled liturgical changes. They do look strikingly different to the farm and manorial villages though, with most of the houses facing the lake and having their own little boathouses or garages looking back from the lakeside. The old houses were of two main styles, single storey brick buildings, similar to those we saw in north Germany, and low wooden houses in soft pastel colours, with small barn doors in an arch on the front. Almost every house had a well tended garden, and many of them had produce for sale outside. The rich looking black soil is obviously ideal for growing onions, as these were the predominant items for sale, but there were also squashes and smoked fish from the lake. We bought two small smoked fish for 14 EEK, about 75p. We thought they’d make a lovely starter to the BBQ we planned when we reached a great wild camping spot.

They know their onions in Varnja!

We drove up and down the villages. We drove on little mud roads. We drove through woodland – all the while saying there must be an overnighting spot soon. Things began to get a bit fraught and a small amount of bickering occurred. As the light faded we decided to go for the easy option and headed down the road to the guesthouse with camping that Peter & Brigitte had recommended. As we drove onto their field there was only one other van - a left hand drive Hymer with UK plates. The freaky coincidences didn’t stop there though – Wendy and Bob were about our age (OK, a bit younger, but not much!), came from Leicestershire originally and had IT and education backgrounds. We spent a good while chatting to them over drinks and eventually dragged ourselves away to cook – no BBQ though, since it had started raining by then.

Ruined wooden church in Varnja

The next day we headed our separate ways, saying we might meet up in the evening if we were in the same area. We made for Tartu, and parked right in the centre of this busy, well-kept university town. By chance we were just across the road from the market – and what an upmarket market! Rob could barely keep in the drool at the sight of well stocked stalls containing high quality, fresh produce and kept muttering about how much smarter than Tallinn it all was. I had to physically drag him out in the end and even then he popped back in to buy eggs – massive, jumbo ones.

Outside Tartu market – they do like their pork products in these parts.

The centre of Tartu was compact and it was easy to get round the main sites in a few hours, with time for a small snack thrown in. It all felt very elegant and appealing, quite contrary to what some other motorhomers had described to us. There were lots of Neoclassical buildings dating from around the 1780s to the 1820s. Rob spotted a hammer and sickle motif as part of the decoration on one, but apart from that you could have been in any number of west European city centres. The town hall square, Raekoja plats, had lots of life to be viewed from its many street cafes. There were the inevitable drunks – it wouldn’t be Estonia without a few of those staggering about. One amusing pair took about an hour to make it up the street and round the corner, lying on benches along the way. We saw them as we walked back to our van, fumbling blindly with the number pad on their apartment door and wondered if they ever made it inside that evening.

Tartu – Raekoja plats (Town Hall Square)

The city was largely built with money from the Baltic nobility who seem to have been awash with spare cash at the end of the 18th century. Not only was this the heyday of manor house building, it was also a time when they were ploughing money into Tartu’s university buildings and the town generally though we’ve yet to find out where all their money came from.

Tartu university and decorative motif from a certain era

We met up with Wendy and Bob later that evening, and spent a pleasant time as the only customers of a motel bar, discussing music, cheap beer and our experiences of touring Scandinavia and Estonia. We parted the next day with a cheery “might see you in Poland” and I hope we do – spooky coincidences almost dictate it!

Taagepera- Rob and Lesley at a loss (you have to read the text to get it!)

Our next destination was Võrumaa, the hilly (by local standards) district in the south-east corner of Estonia, and it should have been a short drive to get there. Instead, we diverted on a whim many km westwards to visit the manor complex at Taagepera, which is claimed to be one of the best examples of Jugendstil – or Art Nouveau if you like – in the country. Indeed, Taagepera is no mere mõis (manor) but a loss which comes from the German word ‘Schloss’ and is more like a palace. Taagepera is striking though, and many of its features looked familiar from grand houses built in Britain around 1900. We decided that at home much of this styling would be ascribed to the ‘arts and crafts’ movement. The main house was open, and we took a coffee in the enormous wood-panelled lounge, where we could have imagined ourselves in a Scottish castle. It is today a swish hotel, but owes its good state of repair to its use as a sanatorium from 1919 to the 1990s, so that it never fell into disuse as so many others did.

Holdre mõis and Sangaste mõis

We carried on the day by visiting almost every single manor on our route. Of these, ruined Holdre and immaculate, red-brick Sangaste (the latter compared to Windsor Castle – have they never seen it??) stand out, but ultimately there were too many and we started to avert our eyes whenever another brown ‘mõis’ sign hove into view. We arrived eventually in Võrumaa, at the picturesque village of Rõuge, but light was fading and the few campsites we could see looked either unfinished or closed. A short way further on we came to the carpark for Big Egg Hill (Suur Munamägi), which at 318m is a small hump to us but a giant of a hill in the Baltics, and must pull in the visitors at the right time of year. But at least now, in the dark, it was somewhere quiet to stop, so we closed the blinds and settled down there for the night.


The next morning we were woken at 7.45 by the first coach party disembarking for the short climb up this little Baltic mountain – all of 5 minutes walk. The coach door was right by our heads and the sound of loud Latvian conversation put an end to our slumbers. The mist and drizzle didn’t make it a good day for going up any hill, but I (Rob) followed them up later to see what the fuss was about. The 318 metres are topped by a white concrete viewing tower bringing the height to – wait for it – nearly 350 metres! Despite the gales and rain, the top offered 360° views over undulating forest in autumnal shades of gold and orange.

Suur Munamägi hill and viewing tower

With the weather rather bad, we decided to stop somewhere early and catch up with writing etc, but could again find nothing in the Natural Park area around Haanja and Rõuge, so instead drove to the nearby town of Võru, where we settled in in the grounds of the Kubija hotel. It could have been different – we were looking for a traditional Estonian meal to mark our last few days in this country, and found a lovely kõrts, or olde-worlde tavern, also near Võru. It also had space for motorhomes, and we thought our luck was in, until we opened the door and there saw three women line-dancing in glittery red Stetsons. We beat a retreat to the hotel Kubija.

Entrance to Forest Brothers’ hideout - museum at the hamlet of Vastse-Roosa

We left Estonia for Latvia on Monday 20th September. Our final stop, just before the border, was at a museum to the Forest Brothers at the hamlet of Vastse-Roosa. The Forest Brothers were anti-communist partisans who took up arms against the new Soviet regimes in the three Baltic states after the return of the Red Army in 1944. The resistance was at first widespread and was put down mercilessly – and was no doubt a major factor in the Soviet decision to arrest and deport millions of citizens from the new territories to labour camps and prisons in Siberia. The movement petered out in the early 1950s, but a few individuals escaped capture until the 1970s or 1980s. The museum was not open, but not fully closed either, and you could climb down through a trapdoor into a small section of reconstructed underground hideout.

Inside Forest Brothers’ hideout - museum at the hamlet of Vastse-Roosa

Two kilometres further on lay Latvia.