Sitting on the edge of my bed, I took the wreath of stale flowers off my hair. A sigh escaped my lips as I rubbed my eyes and stifled a yawn. It had been an extremely long day, oscillating between happiness and despair. In between unpacking my bag and inhaling the lingering smell of the wildflower wreath, I felt drowsy– the glasses of kvass (local drink made of rye bread) I had chugged may have been a tad strong. But it didn’t matter; I hummed to myself, looking out of the window. It was close to midnight, but Tallinn’s Old Town was abuzz, celebrating not nightlife but, in fact, daylight.
I was in Estonia with a plan to go all the way down to Croatia over five weeks. A European summer is what one dreams of, and this time I was going to explore the eastern part of the continent. However, after spending a night on the floor of a really cold airport outside London for an earlier than early morning flight to Tallinn, if you’re given a scare at immigration, you do tend to hyperventilate. The last thing you want is the immigration officer telling you to “please step aside”.
I learnt an important lesson that day–always check your visa with care before departure. Thankfully, the confusion was cleared up and I was allowed to enter the country as long as I promised to cut my trip short or have an extended chat at the Indian embassy in Helsinki, the capital of neighbouring Finland, just a ferry ride away.
Estonia is often described as the Silicon Valley of Europe. With more start-ups per head than anywhere else in the world and free public wi-fi, it was here that Skype was born. Breaking free from the former USSR in 1995, Estonia had no choice but to adapt to technology. The government realised it was the only way forward to compensate for a small workforce and the lack of physical infrastructure. For Estonians, the internet is entwined with their national identity.
The bus ride from the airport to the Old Town was about getting acquainted with the city. With free wi-fi, phone connectivity wasn’t an issue, and while I looked at alternate routes and airline tickets for my journey onwards, I thought the city was unusually empty. Was I imagining things? “No, not really,” said Joe, the receptionist. “You do know it’s midsummer eve, right?” Seeing my blank face, he tried again, “You know the summer solstice” Of course I knew what the summer solstice was, but it had slipped my mind that it was today.
Everyone knows of midsummer celebrations in the Scandinavian countries. It’s probably the most important holiday here, where darkness and long winters linger. The arrival of summer is much appreciated, and celebrations of the summer solstice predates even Christianity. In the neighbouring Baltic countries, the midsummer is celebrated with equal gusto, as I found out. While locals head out to the countryside, tourists descend to witness the traditional celebrations.
Tallinn’s Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its wonderfully preserved medieval architecture, was abuzz. Along its cobbled alleys, as in most old European towns, Tallinn looked pretty as a postcard. A sense of modernity intertwines with the medieval Gothic architecture here. A flea market had been set up at the Raekoja Plats (Town Hall Square) where one could find wooden spoons to scarves, magnets to kvass, all under the shadow of the spiralling town hall, one of Tallinn’s most recognisable landmarks. Passing by restaurants and cafÃ©s and you head towards Toompea Hill, which houses most of Tallinn’s historic monuments, such as the magnificent St Alexander Nevsky Cathedral and the 13th-century Cathedral of Saint Mary the Virgin. Saint Olaf’s Church nearby was, in the 16th century, the tallest building in all of Europe. Just walking along the Old Town, seeing monuments juxtaposed with modern cafÃ©s serving food made from traditional recipes like elk and ox, and climbing up steps to see a sweeping panorama of the skyline made me realise how alive the city was.
It was strange to register the time as I made my way to the bus stop outside the Old Town. My watch said evening but the natural light refused to corroborate. To experience St John’s Eve (also called JaanilaupÃ¤ev or JaanipÃ¤ev; celebrated on June 24), it’s best to go to the Open Air Museum. Like all traditional festivals, midsummer celebrations have strong folklore roots. Picking up a wreath of wildflowers and placing it on my head, I got a nod of approval from a smiling old woman at the entrance of the museum.
Walking along the lush green forest, I came across exhibits that showcased Estonian traditions. The place was buzzing with activity. Going a little further, I came to a large clear area where a bonfire was being stoked. The jaanituli (bonfire) is one of the most important aspects of the celebrations. It is said that if you jump over the bonfire, it guarantees a life of prosperity and no misfortune. The fires also keep mischief-making spirits away to ensure a good harvest, as agriculture was important in earlier times. Superstitions play a huge role; it’s even said that sacrificing something like a twig or branch to the fire can grant you all your wishes. Then there is the folklore of the fern flower–that those who find it, will instantly gain wealth. The celebration is also tied in with the country’s victory in the War of Independence (1918—20).
The faint music that filled the air got louder as I walked towards another clearing, through a muddy path with a green canopy covering the fluffy white clouds in the blue sky. Men and women dressed in traditional folk attire, in shades of white, red and black with intricate patterns, were dancing in a circle. They went round and round in pairs, dizzyingly coordinated to perfection as folk music blared around us. The fun and laughter was contagious and before I knew it, I was tapping my feet to the beat. People jostled for place with their mobile cameras out, trying to capture the perfect shot for social media.
The best part, though, was the display of food. Estonians love their meat, but with new food trends on the rise, there are ample meat-free choices. I surveyed the situation and chose traditional sausages, barbecued meat with potatoes and fresh salad, washing it down with kvass.
Midsummer celebrations are called by different names across the Baltic. It’s Jani in Latvian and Jonines in Lithuanian, but the traditions are similar. The importance of the fire, the search for the flower, the long weekend celebrations with near and dear ones away from the cities–midsummer ranks even higher than Christmas in the region.
To be able to stay awake through the longest day is a plus as it leads to basking in the morning sun and rolling in the magical properties of the morning dew, but I was too tired. Making my way back to the hotel, the emptiness of the city streets was a stark distraction from the joyous celebrations. While Riga, the capital of Latvia, and Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, too would be similar during midsummer as I would later come to realise, I was glad to have stumbled upon these traditional celebrations accidentally. There’s sheer joy in marvellous discoveries, even more so after a harrowing start.
As I burrowed under the covers, the sky showed no signs of darkening. A wildflower was carefully tucked away between the pages of my travel journal where it would forever remain. A memory, never to be forgotten.