Estonians like their gardens – and their mushrooms – and we liked their country, very much actually, as it turned out to be easy going, pretty in an understated way, and having loads of interesting buildings.
The 10.30 a.m. sailing from Helsinki to Tallinn aboard the MS Nordlandia offered sights you wouldn’t expect or want at that time of day, such as couples waltzing to a live band as the boat left port, and groups of Finns necking copious quantities of beer and spirits a few minutes later when the bar opened. We resisted both temptations. The ship arrived in Tallinn on time at 1.30 p.m., and we followed the line of vehicles out onto the dock. I (Rob) remembered very thorough passport controls here in 2005 and was expecting something similar now, maybe even worse with a vehicle, but instead we drove straight out of the harbour and into the town without so much as a glimpse of a customs official. Then it registered – Estonia has now joined the Schengen agreement, and we could drive from here to Portugal without a single passport control (if we were going that way).
Ferry journey to Tallinn
We dislike visiting cities on a Sunday when all the normal hustle and bustle is absent, so opted to start our stay in Estonia with a museum. The Estonian open-air museum (or tongue-twisting Vabaõhumuuseum in Estonian) lies in an area of parkland to the west of the city centre, in a leafy suburb with the strangely Italianate name of Rocca al Mare. It holds a collection of rural buildings gathered from all over the country and reconstructed here in their original form. Almost everything is made of wood, often with thatched roofs, but in truth there is nothing really ancient here – wooden structures do not last as long as stone, and farm complexes we would have taken to be mediaeval were often no older than the 1870s. Some, such as the wooden fire station and village school were presented as they would have been in the 1920s. Nonetheless, it gave an interesting snapshot of a rural world captured at a certain point in time and we left looking forward to finding out how much remained of these building styles in the Estonian countryside today.
Tallinn Rocca al Mare open air museum
Having seen and dismissed the city campsite, in its less than salubrious setting (which was not under the historic city walls, as several travel websites will have you believe) we parked up in the harbour of Pirita, the venue of the 1980 Moscow Olympics water events, and with a rather forlorn-looking Olympic rings with Soviet star emblem on the quayside to prove it. It was a much better setting and it was fascinating watching little children learning to sail in a special school every afternoon. Parking up here we met Kirstie, a lone Brit from Swansea, who was cycle touring Europe for several months - I won’t say bravely, as it would drive her mad if she read it! We had several long chinwags over the next few days, and this marked the start of a very chatty period as many more fellow travellers seemed inclined to make contact than in previous legs of the trip.
Pirita harbour & Kirstie
Tallinn felt relaxed and easy going as a city, and, despite being full of tourists, made for a very pleasant visit. We started off at the top of the old citadel, surrounded by its own sturdy walls and gates, and called Toompea or “Cathedral Hill”. It is indeed home to both the Lutheran and Orthodox cathedrals which sit perched like eagles peering out over the city. If you’ve never been in an Orthodox church it’s all very different and interesting, but this one is relatively modern, like most in Estonia, where there was a rash of Orthodox church building from the late 19th C onwards. It’s a bit frilly, not an architectural term, I know, but must have worked well as an imposing structure designed to remind the locals of their Tsarist rulers. The low key, whitewashed Lutheran cathedral of St Mary the Virgin is much more interesting, having an interior reflecting a long association with the nobility, its walls being covered in 18th C wooden plaques bearing the coats of arms of the ruling classes of Germanic extraction, descendents mainly of the Livonian Order of Knights, a branch of the Teutonic Knights who held power here from the 13th C onwards. The original wooden pew stalls remain, though I’ve no idea whether their chalky green paint is historically accurate, pretty as it is, and there are also some lovely glazed wooden pews on the walls, which served to keep everyone aware of their hierarchy in the congregation, if not in the eyes of God (though they probably thought there as well!). Toompea is also home to some of Estonia’s government buildings. Parliament is housed in the old castle and the Chancery and the Ministery of the Interior (the Home Office) have attractive old buildings near one of the many squares with excellent views over the city. We wandered along the cobbled streets and into someone’s garden here, thinking it was a viewing point, and then a resident left, closing the gates behind them and locking us in. After a slight heart-sinking moment of panic we managed to buzz a bell and the gates unlocked. Big “phews” there!
Toompea – Exterior of Alexander Nevskiy Orthodox Cathedral, Interior of St Mary the Virgin and view of Tallinn
Lower down the hill, the old town has a distinct medieval street pattern and the wealth of 15th century houses reminded me (Lesley) a lot of German towns – not surprising really, since the Hanseatic League held sway among the merchant classes in the same way the descendants of the Livonian Knights were the ruling nobility. The winding cobbled streets and alleyways host an impressive number of guild houses, which have survived well through the centuries. Raekoja plats (Town Hall Square) has a very rathaus-like 15th century town hall – all very gothic, though with dragon head waterspouts painted a very odd, garish shade of bright green – and plenty of tourist eateries to try some “real” Estonian dishes which seem to comprise of lots of pork products. There are also a wealth of amber shops, with jewellery in every conceivable style and every price range, the Baltics being awash with the stuff – so, if we had some sort of time travelling camper van and came here about fifty million years ago we’d still be saying “there a lot of pine trees”!
Tallinn old town – Town Hall and streets
The city walls still run largely intact around the old town, and on market stalls below the ramparts you can buy woollen clothing at Estonian tourist prices, which are markedly cheaper than Norwegian prices for the same sort of thing, so if you are planning to tour both countries hold off any purchasing of Nordic style jumpers until you pass this way. There are not many ordinary shops round here though, it’s all really been given over to tourism, but very nice, nonetheless. For anything remotely resembling everyday life in Tallinn, however, you need to move outside the walls and into the more modern suburbs.
Tallinn walls & Tallinn skyline
That is exactly what I (Rob) did the next day, when I got on my bike and went off to see some other sides of the city. Starting from Pirita, I followed the broad sweep of Tallinn Bay, with its good cycle paths and great views of the old town skyline. This took me past a Soviet-era war memorial where a concrete needle loomed above the corniche road, to the leafy grounds of Kadriorg Park where a baroque palace of French inspiration spread in terraced gardens down a hillside. I was soon cycling through backstreets of two-storey wooden buildings, which was clearly the standard design for Tallinn’s houses and apartment blocks as it first expanded beyond the old walls. This style still predominates in many suburbs, and ranges from dilapidated, through picturesquely aging, to shiny-new renovated, with bright colours and new window frames.
Wooden houses in Tallinn
I arrived at Keskturg, or Central Market, in a dusty backstreet outside the main commercial district. Inside I was in market heaven, with the sights and smells of fresh, seasonal, and largely local food, in the varieties that only a genuine market can provide. These had been absent all the way through sanitised, shrink-wrapped Scandinavia, and I was glad to be back in a land of Real Shopping. I stocked up with sausages, sauerkraut, wild mushrooms and veg, while trying to decipher the Estonian names. I soon realised, however, that the language being spoken here was not Estonian but Russian, and with the little Russian that I know I was far more successful in buying things.
The attractive surroundings of the central market and Balti Jaam market, Tallinn
It is estimated that around 30% of Estonian residents have Russian as their mother tongue, rising to 50% in Tallinn. I can believe this. Estonia only became an independent state in 1919, having spent the previous 200 years in the empire of Tsarist Russia, and was then swallowed up by the USSR in 1940 – Stalin had much the same imperial ambitions as his tsarist predecessors. It was the Soviet era after 1944 that saw the greatest influx of Russians to work in the new heavy industries, and now a lot of these people and their descendents find themselves in the poorest sectors of the Estonian population, marooned in a new country that feels ambivalent at best about them. The older and less educated in particular are held back by poor knowledge of Estonian which is vital for advancement in the new state, and a number are stateless, having acquired neither Estonian nor Russian citizenship after the breakup of the empire.
Soviet war memorial
Nonetheless, the discovery that I could use Russian without dirty looks was a boon to me, and kept me from being absolutely speechless in this country where the pinnacle of my Estonian was saying ‘Kas see on sealiha?’ or ‘Is it pork?’ (used later at Tartu market where choosing the oppressor’s language did not seem so politic). As for the wonderful markets – sad to say, I think a lot of modern Estonia is heading the other way, away from freshness and character into the homogenised, air-conditioned hangars of the supermarket.
Stalinist spire – Josef S was here!
Not far from the Central Market I found another calling-card of the USSR, in the form of a corner building on the main Tartu road in Stalinist wedding-cake style, although much scaled down from its cousins in Moscow, Warsaw or Kiev. A Soviet star still adorned its little spire. It stood directly opposite the new glass-and-steel tower of Tallinn’s branch of Finnish department store Stockmann, a symbol of the new order that towered over this shabby little relic.
A lonely Lenin in the garden of the history museum
Leaving Tallinn was exciting in an odd way. We stopped for a visit to Gaasi, or ‘Gas Street’ (I kid you not) and had both our 5kg bottle of propane and our 2kg Camping Gaz 907 filled, though we think it was done with propane rather than butane! The mix of English, Russian and Estonian we were using made communicating a bit confusing, but at last we hoped to be cooking on gas once again. So that is probably the answer to these gas problems in E. Europe. Find the local gas company and get your bottles filled. In E. Europe chances are the gas company will only be in one centralised place and finding it will be the trick. I bet we could have got these bottles filled in the same way somewhere in Finland too. So for a short while we are no longer rationing gas, but winter looms and if we put the heating on that will eat into supplies rapidly so I daresay we will be back to eking it out before too long.
Pärispea Purekkari Neem – The northern tip of Estonia and abandoned Soviet military buildings
Our next stop was the Lahemaa National Park, west of Tallinn. The main road eastwards reminded us of the old motorway corridor from West Germany to Berlin – long, straight and bordered by wide grassy strips (though no watch towers here), and beyond that just forest. We headed for the headland of Purekkari Neem on the Pärispea peninsula. This is the northernmost point of Estonia, and we noticed a free camping area indicated on the tourist maps. It turned out to be the most beautiful spot, despite being once home to Soviet military installations, the ruins of which stood eerily in the woods round and about. In fact, being for so long a closed zone probably accounts for the survival of this unspoilt, natural landscape of boulder-strewn spits of land edged by reed beds stretching out to sea, backed by pine forests among which sit fishing villages with pastel coloured wooden houses and gardens so well tended that Rob commented “you know, I could just see your mum in one of these”. There are some fine examples of erratic boulders to be seen in these parts – giant chunks of rock carried along thousands of miles by glaciers during the ice ages, and standing out due to their size and the fact they are generally of a different type of rock to the surrounding landscape. In the Lahemaa Park, the largest erratics have all been named and are pointed out for the curious tourist on brown signposts.
Lahemaa National Park erratic – in Estonia even the rocks have names
We were alone at this beautiful site apart from a German couple, Peter and Brigitte, who were touring in a motorhome that Peter had built himself. Every cubic centimetre and spare gram were accounted for and made our panel van feel like a great hulk by comparison! We had a couple of good nights round the camp fire with them, and Peter gave us a few hints on gathering the local mushrooms.
Lahemaa National Park - Turbuneeme shore
All through the forests here we had seen cars parked by the roadsides, and their occupants returning from their forays with buckets full of mushrooms on their arms, and so we were pleased to get this advice. Since then we have enjoyed a range of fungi based meals – Braunkappe in German, aka bay bolete in English (boletus badius) stewed with potatoes and ham was gorgeous, as were puffballs and shaggy inkcaps (we knew about those last two already though) lightly fried in seasoned butter, but the best by far were parasol mushrooms (macrolepiota procera) the size of dinner plates which Brigitte said could be dipped in egg then flour or breadcrumbs and fried like schnitzel. On a day following rain the pine forests and grassy road sides are literally crawling with Estonian mushroomers. We were so tempted to stop the van and just look in their baskets to see what they are collecting, but we are far too British for that!
A tasty feast
We left Purekkari Neem on Saturday 11th September, saying our goodbyes to Brigitte and Peter who were heading towards Tallinn. All four of us had already stayed a day longer than planned, so struck were we by the place. We spent the day driving round the villages in the national park. Although it was out of season, there were still several tourists around. We even spotted a small British camper, though never got to meet the occupants. In season this is obviously a very popular holiday destination, and has been for over a hundred years. Before the First World War some of the coastal villages seem to have been the playground for the elite of St. Petersburg. Many of the elegant wooden villas, with their striking glazed porches, in villages like Võso and Käsmu, had plaques mentioning the Estonian great and good who had stayed in them. At Palmse we came across our first example of an Estonian manor complex – a mõis. The Neo-Classical, double fronted house largely dates from the 1780s, and has accompanying outbuildings and manicured parkland, but the whole place was restored through the 1970s and 80s, and is now a museum, a hotel and a centre for the Lahemaa National Park. We had some typically Estonian fare in what was once one of the manor’s taverns, a körts. The sauerkraut was particularly good and seemed to have been stewed in milk, a style we have been trying to perfect since then. We also tried the very tasty drink kama, which was sweetened buckwheat flour in thick, creamy milk, like a grainy lassi.
Lahemaa seaside villa at Võsu
By 6 p.m. we had managed to drive a mere 30km from our lovely camping site on the headland, and there seemed to be nothing to compare to it on the horizon. The overcast skies, drizzle and closed for season campsites did little for our mood so we headed back in the fading light for yet another night at Purekkari Neem. We half expected to see that our German friends had done the same thing, but no, we had the whole area to ourselves. Waking on Sunday to warm sunshine, we decided to stop here for one more day with the excuse that it was a good opportunity to get our washing done, but really it was more a desire to linger in this exceptional place. Several day trippers came and went. Many seemed to be collecting the large, juicy hips from the rose bushes growing all over the headland, biting into the odd one or two as they mooched around. Rob did a bit of foraging resulting in another fungi starter for our evening meal and we marvelled at the fact that we had this wonderful opportunity to stay in such gorgeous places with no time restraints to make us push on if we don’t fancy it. Still, we couldn’t stay there forever, so on Monday we packed up and headed east towards the Russian border.
Rose hips on Purekkari Neem