Estonia, There’s more than just Tallinn

By | Category: Travel destinations
Lahemaa National Park

Lahemaa National Park

It wasn’t until the early eighties that visitors to Estonia were allowed to explore outside the capital, Tallinn. The country, which is mostly flat has benefited from European Union money that has been used on its public transport and roads. As seventy percent of the population live in the towns, traffic in the countryside is minimal so getting around with a hire car is easy.

The country has 1,521 islands of which only 20 are inhabited. A quarter of the country has been designated a nature reserve with a lot of the land also covered in marshes. In the north of the country, Lahemaa – Land of Bays – is the country’s largest national park with hiking, bicycling, and horse-riding trails. For nature lovers it is an area of exploration covered with pine, Christmas and birch trees. All manner of fauna and flora grow here, and it’s a great place to go berry picking, In the autumn, anyone who knows their fungi, will find mushrooms here. It is also a heaven for bird watching with a seven-metre high observation tower, as the area is a stopping off place for migrating birds.

A guide led us through the marshes. Visitors are obliged to walk on the boardwalk. At one point we came upon a large and apparently quite deep lake where, if the weather had been better, we could have gone swimming. As the water levels are so inconsistent, visitors are only allowed to walk on the bog with a guide, wearing special shoes, similar to snow shoes. We had great fun trying it although some of us landed up with water up to our knees, as it wasn’t always easy to identify where to take the next step. It is easy to see why a guide is essential.

a "crime scene" at the Police Museum

a “crime scene” at the Police Museum

At Rakvere the extensive Police Museum (which opened last year)  is geared to both adults and children with a play area for toddlers. As well as exhibits covering a spectrum of things to educate visitors, there are also lots of items that we could try on, as well as a jail with an explanation of what it’s  like to be a prisoner. A coffin to warn people off drugs was covered with nails, each one being a symbol of an actual person who had died from a drug overdose. At the end, and geared to groups, situations have been created – a murder in one instance – where teams compete against each other to solve the crime using information learnt during the visit.

Settlers came to the Western shores of Lake Peipsi at the end of the seventeenth century. The Old Believers, people who broke away from the Russian Orthodox Church settled here, and their ancestors still live very much as they did, today. Their churches, lit by candlelight are covered with icons. The Old Believers are pleased to show people their treasures, but a visit needs to be planned in advance to make sure there is someone there, and more importantly to have someone who can speak their language. This is the area to drink tea brewed in a Samovar, which is drunk threw lumps of sugar. Russian Piroshki, buns with various fillings but most likely onions as grown in the area, are also a local food.

a stage coach from the Road Museum

a stage coach from the Road Museum

At Varbuse the Road Museum, open from May to September, is much more fascinating than it sounds. Displays with sound effects, go back to ancient times when there were only swamp roads. Descriptions are in Estonian but there are English translation sheets. An extensive outdoor area shows the different types of road surfaces, with a collection of vehicles going back through the ages. This includes a stagecoach; an electrical sports car; a self-made car, numerous tractors, and other work-related vehicles.

Otepaa in the South, with its undulating roads is Estonia’s Switzerland, and considered the most scenic part of the country. In winter it is a ski resort while in the summer Puhajarve, the holy lake, blessed by the Dalai Lama on a visit, is the place to swim. Estonians are very superstitious and not far from the waters edge a tree, the War Oak, has also been given the name ‘the hugging tree’. It is said that if you hug the tree, which of course we did, its healing and spiritual powers will take away your worries.

The university town of Tartu is the oldest city in the Baltics, and the capital of Southern Estonia. Over the years, the city has suffered from bombings but has managed to maintain its charm particularly in the area around Town Hall Square. On the southern side of the street, the architecture dates back to the eighteenth century. Cafes with outside seating give it a cosmopolitan atmosphere. At one end there is a huge yellow rectangle through which people are invited to take photographs, mimicking the cover of National Geographic magazine.

The University has 150 buildings of which 120 are in Tartu. In the main building, and used until the early 20th century, a lock up room is where students who misbehaved could be locked up for misdemeanours such as failing to return a library book or offending a lady. This building also houses the University of Tartu Art Museum with a collection of Greek and Roman art. Nearby, the University Restaurant has live jazz in the bar, and a lovely outside terrace.

Tartu Old Observatory was used as an astronomical research facility until 1964. Part of the Struve Geodetic Arc, a 2822 km section of the Tartu meridian, the observatory is included in the UNESCO World Heritage List, and is now a museum. Touch screen information is translated into English. A viewing tower at 25 m. provides wonderful views over the City. The observatory is sometimes open at night when weather conditions are suitable. Visitors can look at the stars through a powerful telescope at the top of the building.

Following on with Estonian superstition at Toome Hill which is in fact a park, we held our breath and made a wish while crossing the Angel’s bridge, which will hopefully make it come true. Within the grounds, the thirteenth century Tartu Dome Cathedral is in ruins although the choir section has been restored, and houses the university’s history museum.

mechanical puppets at the Tartu Theare Museum

mechanical puppets at the Tartu Theare Museum

With over 23,000 exhibits displayed by period, the Toy Museum is for both the young and old alike. Although the exhibits are in glass cases, each room has something for children to play with. There is also a large supervised playroom where children’s workshops are held, and a variety of period garments to dress up in. Adjacent is a children’s theatre, which also houses a mechanical puppet display. In its basement are the excavations of two medieval houses. In the same street St Anthony’s Guild houses workshops of up and coming designers who make and sell their merchandise. This includes pottery items as well as clothing and hats.

Museums tend to open from Wednesday to Sunday, and there is usually a charge. My guide Neil Taylor is the author of the Bradt Guide to Estonia  (£16.99.) which is invaluable for making sure you don’t miss anything.

Direct flights to Tallinn are available from Dublin, Gatwick, Manchester and Stansted. If you fly from Gatwick then the Gatwick Express is the fastest way of getting to the airport from London via Victoria Station. Southern Trains also run a cheaper, but slower service.

For more information about Estonia, click here.



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