Blat through the Baltics: Tallinn and Lahemaa National Park
If I’m to be honest, Estonia was the part of the Baltics I was looking forward to the most.
A tiny country within a (careful) stone’s throw of Russia, Finland and Latvia, more than half its land surface is covered by forest, the language is part of the insanely complicated Finno-Ugric family (with Finnish and Hungarian), its capital Tallinn is renowned for its fairytale old town and it’s home to a band I was obsessed with a few years back, Ewert and the Two Dragons.
The bus I’d booked from Riga to Tallinn turned out to be ridiculously luxurious, with ‘in-flight entertainment’ screens, heaps of leg room, a complimentary coffee machine and a fashionable seatmate who gave me a running introduction to Estonia as we drove through forests and the wooded suburbs of Tallinn.
After arrival and cross-town traffic I met my Couchsurfing host Siiri, and with a night of pigs ears and other ‘interesting’ bar snacks, seated dancing improvisation and attendance of a Estonian-drawled gunfight at the opening of a new Southern-style restaurant, my week in Eesti began…
The War of Independence Victory Column (or Vabadussõja võidusammas for the keen…), a memorial for those in fell fighting for Estonia’s short-lived independence after WWI. The E stands for Eesti (Estonia), alongside a brandished sword, contrary to the temptation of some to interpret it as a Euro sign and a backwards pistol.
St Olaf’s Church (dating back to the 12th Century) towers over the streets of Tallinn Lower Old Town. Taken next to a photo-loving seagull in the five minutes of sunshine that punctuated a very cold two hours of walking tour.
Rye bread before two fish and quail egg soup, elk casserole and trout. This is Estonian food grandma style, and game is very prevalent, as is anything with rye: rye bread chips, yoghurt with bread and cinnamon inside, fried rye bread…
A typical back street in the Lower Old Town, which was a flourishing merchant quarter as part of the Hanseatic League in the 13th-15 centuries. The left-hand wall features 14th-15th Century tombstones from St. Catherines Dominican Friary.
Above the mercantile quarter, rises Toompea Hill. This was the ruling roost of Tallinn way back to the first wooden fort back in the 9th Century, and now features the pink-painted Toompea Castle (home of the Estonian parliament) and the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. The cathedral remains controversial to some due to its Russian origins, and reflects some tensions still remaining with the ethnic Russian group which makes up 26% of Estonia’s population.
Time to order elk soup and mushroom pasties at the III Draakon restaurant under the town hall.
The day draws to an end at the Great Coastal Gate (Suur Rannavärav). Despite the numerous tourists drawn to the old town, it is nonetheless where many locals spend their evenings.
Following the sound of singing, I find a small Jewish congregation. Despite Lutheran and Russian Orthodox presence in Estonia, most people profess to have no religion, however there is also an undercurrent of neopaganism given the country’s pagan roots.
Night in the suburbs of North Tallinn.
Seaweed caviar sandwiches at Cafe Sesoon in the trendy Kalamaja neighbourhood.
My host introduces me to the concrete vistas of the Linnahall, a Soviet seaside relic constructed for the 1980 Olympic Regatta, used for events and ice skating since, and now abandoned.
Linnahall and Kalamaja (literally ‘fish house’).
Yet another charming wooden Estonian house in the upmarket suburb of Kadriorg, not far from the baroque Kadriorg Palace and the Presidents’ Palace, which opens up onto a lovely park and almost feels like you can stop by for a cuppa.
The Russalka Monument broods over the Tallinn foreshore, a memorial to the Russian military ship Russalka which was downed in a storm in 1893, taking all 177 crew with it.
Getting to grips with Estonian dried, salted fish – quite a hands-on ordeal, but for the most part worth it for what is essentially fish jerky. Also a novelty for my host and her friend.
The thriving bus stop of Ulliallika, my portal to the Lahemaa National Park.
Morning dew in the misty forests of Lahemaa Rahvuspark.
An enchanting Lahemaa pinescape. I’m claiming some sort of disorienting wood magic was at play, as I did get lost, ending up at some chap’s hunting perch twice before ending up in a village the bus previously drove through…
Where I stumbled upon the dilapidated 17th Century Kolga Manor and ruins of fortified buildings dating back to Swedish monks as early as 1230.
Before finding my way to what I had been looking for all along – the raised bogland of Viru Raba.
Viru Raba is intersected with 3.5 kilometres of wooden boardwalks and attracts golden eagles, cranes, and around the border areas, bears, wolves, lynx, raccoon dogs, wild boar and moose. My luck? I saw a few woodpeckers.
Look familiar? If not, go back and watch the video from Ewert and the Two Dragons.
Autumn sun while waiting (and waiting) for the bus.
Dusk, looking towards Rocca Al Mare and Öismäe.
The architecture is itself a work of art at the KUMU Art Museum. Not to mention exhibitions on Estonian Soviet art, Düsseldorf school of Realism, Ants Laikmaa and an oddball Icelandic collection including a contribution from Björk.
A hall of busts, broadcasting overlapping speeches in an unsettling multimedia exhibition.
The end of the Baltic Way. Or the start, depending on who you ask.