How can one fail to be intrigued by a country that sang its way to freedom? Twenty years into bloodlessly shaking off the yoke of the Soviet Republic, Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, has also hummed its way into being named the European Cultural Capital for 2011.

My vast (I confess, almost complete) ignorance about the brave little country of Estonia was swiftly, if partially, remedied in my altogether too-short stay. Strategically nestled between Finland, Latvia, Russia and Sweden, Estonia (45,227 sq km, 15 counties, 1,500 islands, population less than 1.3 million) was coveted, conquered, claimed, gifted and reclaimed by many. From the thirteenth century onwards, it has variously passed through the hands of Germans and Danes and some other neighbours, and it is a matter of wonder that, with very little time to call their independent own, the Estonians still doggedly maintained their language, culture, cuisine and, yes, songs.

I land in Tallinn on a Monday evening in the month of June. I have to keep consulting my watch because the sun is hours away from setting (sunrise at about 4am, sunset ostensibly at about 10.40pm), but the dead of night is notional in summer. The old town of Tallinn is bustling at dinnertime; locals and tourists are out taking the sun on the terraces of the many restaurants. I am clearly not the first Indian to set foot in Tallinn. One of the large restaurants claiming pride of place in the Town Hall square is the Maharaja (one of three Indian restaurants in the city). I stride off however with purpose to the Olde Hansa in search of the authentic traditional fare of Estonia (erstwhile Reval). There, I skip the bear, elk and wild boar, and settle instead for a sampler plate of juniper-flavoured beef, French royal poultry liver pâté, onion jam, and so on, washed down with dark honey ale — all as exotically tasty as it sounds and served by waiters and waitresses in peasant outfits who spoke impeccable English.

Estonia’s long and colourful history is etched into the beautifully maintained and charming little ‘old town’ of Tallinn dominated by the weather vane of Old Thomas. My Tallinn guide, Rita, took me on an entertaining tour down cobbled paths from Epping Tower and past platforms affording splendid views of the valley. The erstwhile nobility of Tallinn inhabited the higher reaches of the medieval city with its lofty cathedrals and Lutheran churches, while the hoi polloi Reval merchants lived on lower grounds amongst their shops and bars. Eventually though, the merchants, richer than the nobles, disdainfully built a wall between their apportioned parts of town with guards who used to lock the gates at nights to keep the noblemen (who used to venture down regularly to the nether parts to partake of the festivities) at bay.

The rolling waves of invaders and thriving business also contributed to architectural profusion, most of it preserved in pristine condition — in a single street you can see a full spread of baroque, gothic, art deco, renaissance and ‘neo’ of all of these. And follow my guide’s advice — look up! Besides a penchant for carved doors and animal knockers, these buildings have ornate weather vanes or sometimes a large cat or a Peeping Tom sculpture looking down at you.

To take in just some of the many attractions of this mercifully small town still meant doing it on the trot — breezing through an old apothecary shop that still functions as a chemist, a brush past the Marzipan Café (did you know: Estonia created marzipan?), a cursory look-in at handicraft workshops. A guided ramble through the deep Bastion Tunnels and the Kiek in de Kök (literally, a peep into the kitchen, an old nickname for towers) offers a passage through history.

Tallinn 2011 has an incredibly diverse calendar of events in this cultural capital year — in the Kumu Museum, besides permanent art collections, they also have an unusual exhibition of internet-based art (did you know: Estonia invented Skype?). Almost as ephemeral is the black Straw Theatre, built for just a season’s performance before they pull it down.

Tourism in Tallinn is steadily on the rise; you can almost sense a vague alarm among the Estonians — they are pleased and justifiably smug about the appreciation of their country but they worry that they may lose their peace and their quiet, vast unoccupied spaces. The adoption of the euro as its currency this year may have pushed the numbers up even further but there is huge elbow room yet, unlike at the more popular and worn-at-the-heels European destinations. Many come in for just a day trip to the capital on the numerous cruise ships regularly moseying in on Baltic tours, ferrying out by evening to the next destination. Most others give the little city a weekend but what a shame to come all the way and miss the rest of wondrous Estonia.

Not that I could do it all or even a large part; the rest of my plate for tourism tasting included two more county islands. Veiko, infinitely patient, chauffeurs me around as we do the rounds at a spanking pace. We are disgorged by the ferry at Muhu Island in Saaremaa where Inge waits to show me around. Nothing has quite prepared me for the stunning beauty of the green, green island, the open, empty roads, the wide open skies, the blue, blue waters, the expansive space. We go, though, where people go. We start with a visit to the very posh thirteenth-century German Pädaste Manor, where resident guests generally stay at a fairly hefty price to do — nothing. The more activity-driven go for walks, canoeing, horse riding, or submit to the spa. We drive through the lush island to quaint and quainter stops that include a Lutheran church, the Koguva village museum, past charming rural cottages and adamantly beside them, in stark contrast, squat brick blocks of the Soviet era.

We wind our way to the crater of the Kaali meteorite lake that dates back 4,000 years and tuck into a delightful meal at the Kaali Tavern before veering off the beaten track to visit the Muhu ostrich and kangaroo farm (other exotic fauna too). In summer, the café offers up culinary delights that include ostrich omelettes.

While Estonia, post independence, saw a steady outward flow of their younger work force from their rural lands to urban centres or other countries, one couple returned to the hinterland and set up a successful and sustainable organic cottage industry — soap. In their nifty kitchen, they lather up a variety using many local ingredients, including the famed curative mud of the island. The village, Kaarma. Their brand, appropriately, GoodKaarma. They are also expanding to homemade chocolate and out of the same kitchen came a very fine fresh rhubarb bake.

The benign journey continued with altogether no need to tilt at the Angla Windmills with its adjoining Heritage Cultural Centre before repairing for the night to the biggest town of Saaremaa, Kuressaare. The sun is still high in the sky but it is too late for me to partake of the local spa town speciality, a mud bath.

The coastal town of Kuressaare boasts its own thirteenth-century bishopric castle, and the little town square has maintained all its old world charm. We flit past the market that sells everything from curios to fresh fish. In contrast to my ignorance, most Estonians I met had either visited India (mostly Goa) or planned to visit. However, none of the Saaremaa residents seemed to recall having seen an Indian here. I printed India in caps in all the visitors’ books and was even briefly interviewed by the local newspaper about my impressions.

My next visit, to a small part of the Vilsandi National Park, made me feel like I should plant the flag to summon the uninitiated. Our most affable and delightful hostess, Marika, of Loona Manor, escorted us to a couple of the peninsulas on the archipelago to delight in the orchids in bloom. From the watchtower of Kihalkonna, we can see the lighthouse of Vilsandi eight kilometres away. Two pairs of shoes — one for overland use and the other to wade through the shallow waters between the islets — and you can have an entertaining summer trek. In winter, you can drive across on ice: a novel activity that is bringing in several European winter visitors. You can even cross from the island of Saaremaa to Hiiumaa on the strait when it’s all frozen over. Rumour has it that unusual accidents have occurred on these waters — between vehicle and boat — as they ply the same waters. There isn’t time enough to take a boat, visit the seals or turtles, to keep an eye peeled for the migratory swallows, to find the elk that left his hoof mark in the sand… We return to the very charming Loona Manor for a fine meal of tench (doctor fish) and a quick round of the grounds. Close by is an ancient archaeological site, one outbuilding showcases the teeming natural history of the region while another is a fossil museum.

It’s the empty roads again, past disused windmills and charming homes that mainly serve as summer getaways, a leisurely walk at the thickly wooded Panga cliff overlooking long blue miles of coast.

Technical difficulties with the ferry meant that we only reached Hiiumaa nigh on 11pm and, on the roads, I once again exclaim, as I have been wont to do over the last couple of days, “But where are the people?”

The notion that Hiiumaa is virtually uninhabited was not entirely dispelled the next day as Helgi conducts me around. As is not surprising for two neighbouring islands (there was a time when they actually belonged to different countries — Hiiumaa to Sweden, Saaremaa to Denmark), the inhabitants of Hiiumaa are happy to take little digs at Saaremaa — they pride themselves on their quirky wit (they even sell a joke pot in their souvenir store) and have a poor opinion of Saaremaa’s sense of humour (or lack thereof). They are amused by the notion that the Saaremaa people forgot to name their land; Hiiumaa means ‘land of the giant’ or ‘holy forest’, while the mellifluous Saaremaa quite simply means ‘island land’. They each have their legendary giants — Saaremaa has its happy giant Suur Töll (whose statue distinctly resembles Shrek) and Hiiumaa has Leiger. The Leiger statue is not built life-size but he was (is?) actually ten feet tall, which proved rather useful when Hiiumaa once found itself floating loose in the sea. The legend says that Leiger sank an anchor attached to a wooden pole to the bed of the sea. They celebrate this event every year with much festivity and the commemorative pole has large nails with the names of donors who contribute towards keeping the island anchored.

The introductory visit to the Kassari Exposition House is an absolute delight, with exhibits ranging from the informative (seafaring to wooden crafts) to the quaint (a quadruple mousetrap, testament to the prosperity of the 1930s, it would appear) to the downright unexpected (a large stuffed wolf, also known as the Terror of Hiiumaa). That intrepid wolf apparently walked across the ice once and remained to terrorise the scarce populace until he was shot down in 1971 at the age of sixteen.

We move from the wolf to the sheep and visit Hiiu Vill, a family-run woollen enterprise that still runs machines left behind from another era. The Mikhli Museum Malvastes is a warm and congenial nineteenth-century Estonian farm complex with a large collection of daily-use farm and household items and a functioning smoke sauna.

After a delicious lunch at Rannapaargu adjoining the Kärdla beach park, we do a quick stop at Long House, which effectively showcases life and times when the economy of the island flourished around Baron Ungern Sternberger’s cloth mill, founded in the early 1800’s. The mill itself burnt down but the pretty row houses with large gardens remain in good repair.

We have set our sights on the Köpu lighthouse but we make a few other stops — a rhododendron garden, a little walk at a nature trail with water that runs red with the iron content (large mosquitoes with the mettle and intent of steel) and a curious local phenomenon, the hill of crosses. The origins of this tradition are now obscure but residents and visitors alike make a stop to leave a cross of natural wood or stone.

The view from on top of the lighthouse reinforces the impression that we might be the only persons on the island, with maybe Leiger lurking in the thick woods. If you’re seeking a bouquet of bustle and history and activity, all bundled in charm, Tallinn is the place for you. But if you are seeking pure leisure, away from it all, while yet being pampered with all attendant creature comforts in the lap of bounteous nature, these islands are treasure troves.

 The information

Getting there

By air The most economical and shortest routes to Tallinn from Delhi are via Helsinki on Finnair or on Aeroflot via Moscow (Rs 40,000–45,000 return). Lufthansa, which also operates out of Mumbai, has flights via Munich and Frankfurt (approx. Rs 55,000 return).

By boat There are innumerable Scandinavian and Russia cruises that include Tallinn as a port of call. There are also regular ferries from Helsinki (2–3hrs; adult fares from € 17). See the Estonian tourism website (tourism.tallinn.ee).

Visas

A Schengen visa is valid for Estonia. Estonia is represented by honorary consul generals in Delhi (011-47289900) and Mumbai (022-24968882–4).

Tallinn

Getting Around It is best to stay near the old town, which is where most of the sights, restaurants, cafés and bars are clustered. A good pair of walking shoes will take you everywhere—the newer city that hosts highrises and large shopping malls adjoins the old town. Taxis are available at principal intersections and frequent trams and buses are available for longer distances. You can purchase a Tallinn Card for 6, 24, 48 or 72 hours to get free or discounted access to transport and also to many of Tallinn’s museums and places of interest (adults € 12–40). If you wish to hire a car, the tourism website provides a full list of vehicle rentals. Rent a Car Estonia gave me impeccable service (rentacar.ee).

Where to stay The options range from five-star hotels to B&Bs and camping sites. At the higher end, the Radisson Blu Olumpia hotel is ideally located in the city centre (from €

121; radissonblu.com). In the mid-range, L’Ermitage’s rooms, facilities and location are excellent (from € 85; lermitagehotel.ee). A full list of certified accommodation is available on the Tallinn tourism website.

Where to eat & drink Most of the eating and drinking establishments are concentrated in the Old Town. Multiple cuisines are catered for. For a taste of medieval Estonia, go to Olde Hansa (Vana turg 1) or Peppersack (Viru 2). A younger, tucked-away bar and café is the Von Krahli Baar (Rataskaevu 10/12). Or catch old rockers doing an outdoor gig at the trendy Varblane (Harju tn. 6)

What to see & do Take a walking tour with the audio guide (audioguide.ee) that you can rent for the day (€ 12.75) from the tourist information centre in the Old Town (+372-645-7777, turismiinfo@tallinnlv.ee). It comes free against the purchase of a Tallinn Card (see ‘Getting Around’). You can also book a guide four days in advance from the Centre (€ 30 an hour for a minimum of two hours). Take a guided tour in the Kiek in the Kök Tower Museum (Tue–Sun 10.30am–6pm; entry € 4.47; linnamuuseeum.ee/kok). Visit the Kumu Art Museum (open Tue–Sun 11am–6pm; entry € 5.5; kumu.ee) and the Alexander Nevsky cathedral or the Russian Orthodox St Nicolas Church. Go shopping for dining ware in fragrant juniper wood and souvenirs in multicoloured limestone, both found everywhere. At St Catherine’s Guild (Katarina Kaik), there are traditional craft studios where artists create and sell wares from clothes to hats. Gaily painted marzipan can be bought at many places, including the historic Kalev Marzipan Room on Pikk 16.

Muhu And Saaremaa

Getting There Estonian Air operates small aircraft from Tallinn (approx. € 25 one way) to Kuressaare (estonian-air.ee). Ferries ply regularly between Virtsu harbour in Tallinn to the Kuivastu barbour on Muhu island (laevakompanii.ee). You can make the journey in a hired car but a more practical and economical option is to take a bus from the Tallinn bus stand near the airport (bussireisid.ee) and then perhaps hire a car locally for a better price. The Saaremaa tourism website lists car rentals (saaremaa.ee).

Where to stay At the higher end, Padaste Manor and Spa (from € 186; padaste.ee). The Georg Ots Spa Hotel is situated on the coast in Kuressaare and has excellent-value rooms (from € 50; gospa.ee). The Loona Manor (from € 63; loonamanor.ee) has simple, charming rooms and is an excellent base from which to visit the national park of Vilsandi. The Saaremaa website lists other options, including holiday homes, tourist farms, cottages, apartments and B&Bs.

Where to eat & drink If you visit the Kaali meteorite lake, time it to take in a meal at the Kaali Trahter (Tavern). You can also feast on Estonian fare in a windmill at Veski Trahter (veskitrahter.ee). If in season, don’t forget to tuck into an ostrich omelette at the Muhu ostrich farm and have a relaxed coffee and whatever else comes out fresh from the GoodKaarma (goodkaarma.com) kitchen.

What to see & do The Koguva museum village, Kaali meteorite lake, the Muhu Ostrich Farm, GoodKaarma gift shop. Visit the 13th-century Bishop’s Castle in Kuressaare, the Angla Windmill Park, Panga Cliff for views and the Vilsandi national park.

Hiiumaa

Getting there Ferries go back and forth two or three times a day between Saaremaa and Hiiumaa.

Where to stay The Dagen Haus guesthouse was built on the grounds of a 15th-century Swedish manor and is warm, pretty and intimate (from € 45; dagen.ee). Hiiumaa has about 1,700 beds in all varieties, all listed on their tourism website (hiiumaa.ee).

Where to eat & drink The Raanapargu café bar is a popular restaurant by the Kardla beach and there are good cafés in the vicinity of the popular tourist spots, such as at the wool factory or the Kopu lighthouse.

What to see & do lots: the Suuremõisa manor house, the Vaemla Wool Factory, the Soera Farming Museum, the Hiiumaa Museum in Kärdla in the Long House, the Tahkuna Museum, Reigi Church, lighthouses at Kõpu and Ristna. In summer, there are a variety of pebbled or sandy beaches in Kassari, Kärdla, the Tahkuna peninsula and sand dunes at Luidja and Kaleste in Kõrgessaare. Outdoor activities are very popular here—nature hikes, cycling trails, horse-riding in Kassari and Kärdla, kayaking, surfing in Ristna, tennis or other sports in the Kärdla stadii.

Top tip

In 2011, do check out the calendar of events for European Capital of Culture Tallinn — Stories of the Seashore. The programme can be found on tallinn2011.ee.

 



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