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!
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.
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!
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.