The charms of Tallinn’s Old Town are irresistible: pastel-coloured houses and lantern-lit alleys, brook-no-invader castle walls and delicate spires. A waiter in medieval garb doesn’t appear startlingly out of place… until another tourist group surges by. And that’s the problem. Very few people can resist Tallinn, and like many other European cities it is feeling the strain of overtourism. Yet there is so much more to Estonia than Tallinn.
One of the most sparsely populated countries in Europe, Estonia offers mile after mile of forests, fertile fields, peat marsh and wetlands. That means delicious local produce: mushrooms and berries, robust vegetables with real flavour, river fish and wild game – and home-baked bread that’s a meal in itself.
Red barns, wooden farmhouses, and meadows of rolled haystacks pop up only sporadically in a landscape that in summer is so green it’s almost liquid. Quiet roads lead to movie-set Old Towns, and communities where crafts are not fodder for nostalgia, but still part of everyday life.
A wander through the west of the country gives you just a taste.
About 60 miles southwest of Tallinn and retreating slowly from the Baltic as rising land and drifting mudbanks join islands together into peninsulas, Haapsalu is pure Chekov.
Clapboard houses – ochre, pale green, blue, some tumbledown – in rampant gardens line streets that reach languidly for the Promenade. A lacy wooden bandstand. A lanternlike Kuursaal that seems to hover over the water. Swans glide by. Someone sits painting a watercolour. If you heard the world was going to end, you could come here and forget it was going to happen.
Haapsalu bay mud is famous. In past centuries, a succession of Czars and Russian aristocrats flocked here to lie in it, emerging with their aching joints eased, but smelling faintly of old oysters and sulphur. You can still take mud-baths and other treatments in workaday town spas, and buy the woollen Haapsalu shawls aristos favoured: knitted lace, as light as breath, that can be drawn through a wedding ring. Haapsalu girls still have to be able to knit one before they are allowed to graduate from high school.
A pixie-hat-towered Episcopal Castle (linnus.salm.ee) dating back to the 13th century presides over all, with an excellent interactive exhibition inside (try on medieval armour; aim an arquebus), and wild forests ring the town.
Soomaa National Park
About a fifth of mainland Estonia is covered by bogs and wetland, and the peat bogs of the Soomaa National Park, some two hours drive south of Tallinn, rank among the most bewitching. Flat, seemingly endless, with fairytale stunted trees, their scrubby green gashed with the scarlet of insectivorous sundews, the bogs are particularly beautiful at dawn or sunset, when colours move in pools of muddy purple and amber and mysterious mists seep across the landscape.
The park covers nearly 250 square miles of bog, forest, meadows and wetland, and experiences a springtime flood season, when much of it is covered by up to 16 foot of water from snow melting in the uplands.
Soomaa (soomaa.com) can take you canoeing on one of the rivers running through the park, past waterlilies and wildflowers (Siberian irises, yellow rue), hazelnut trees and bows laden with seasonal berries hanging over the water, beaver dams and burrows. Then a forest walk among spruce, aspen, rowan and oak, foraging for mushrooms and berries, and along boardwalks over the bogs, or waddling on bog shoes (adapted snow shoes) over the springy turf itself. Along the way a picnic – nutritious barley porridge, perhaps and homemade bread – and a rejuvenating swim in a peat-water pool.
Estonia’s ‘summer capital’, Pärnu, stretches beside a long, wide beach on Pärnu Bay, on the Gulf of Riga. People come to party, yet outside of the clubs and live-music bars the atmosphere is sedate. A Beach Park so big it is practically a suburb flanks the strand, graced with rather grand wooden villas from the turn of the 20th century, in cheerful seaside colours. People stroll quietly along tree-lined avenues that feel for all the world like the corridors of an outdoor luxury hotel. Children tumble about in a large playground: good old-fashioned fun, with not a game screen in site. In a fickle climate, people retreat indoors in nippy weather to sweat away in saunas, in places like the 1920s Hedon Spa (https://www.hedonspa.com/en/#).
Wide avenues connect the Beach Park to a quirky Old Town, a pleasing jumble of 17th-century, Baroque and neoclassical buildings, replete with antiques shops and with a small farmers’ market. Enterprising Pärnuvians have put villas along the way to new uses: a cocktail bar, perhaps, that doubles as a vintage dress shop and a mini-supermarket. A holiday atmosphere pervades, with each generation happily finding its thing to do.
Mare Mätas is passionate about Kihnu, and is known across Estonia for her campaign to maintain the island’s identity and keep its customs alive. Kihnu is renowned for its patterned knitwear, the women’s colourful striped skirts and paisley aprons, its folk singing and dancing, and – as the menfolk once spent so much time at sea – its matriarchy. Mare joins a long line of strong island women.
Now just an hour from the mainland by ferry, Kihnu (permanent population 350) was in the past quite isolated. Its distinctive dialect, and traditions such as a three-day wedding ceremony (probably harking from pagan times) have earned it UNESCO recognition for ‘intangible heritage’. Local social codes are strict; there’s no island police force. Children can happily leave home after breakfast and roam free until supper.
Visitors trundle about on the back of an open lorry, or on motorcycles with improvised side cars (which have run up against EU legislation), visiting the island’s four villages, the museum in the old schoolhouse, farms selling home-smoked fish and scrumptious breads (such as rye-and-potato with cumin), or the lighthouse, where the (female) lighthouse keeper has a side-line in homemade ice-cream.
At her old farmstead, Mönu, master-craftswoman Härma Roosi sells intricately patterned knitwear and exquisite embroidery, while friends sit about in traditional dress, knitting. They occasionally dance and sing folk music for visitors. It’s aimed at tourists, but it’s authentic. Mare’s campaign to keep island culture alive also has to contend with commercialisation, too. “Non-islanders can buy motorbikes, or skirts from the museum shop and try to do this sort of thing, but it’s not real,” she says.
Air Baltic (airbaltic.com) offers comfortable direct flights from London Gatwick.
If you do spend time in Tallinn, the quietly luxurious Hotel Telegraaf (telegraafhotel.com), in the heart of the Old Town is a prime place to stay. Restaurant Ore (orerestoran.ee), frequented by Danish royalty and Hollywood film crews serves fine local cuisine, while the restaurant at the Fotografiska photography museum (fotografiska.com) is a must, for its imaginative local, sustainable, vegetable-focussed cuisine.
In Haapsalu, Fra Mare Spa (framare.ee) offers accommodation, mud baths and other treatments, surrounded by forest yet just five minutes’ drive from the Old Town. Hapsal Dietrich (dietrich.ee) and Müüriääre Café (muuriaare.ee) both offer excellent meals (especially cakes!) made from local ingredients.
In Pärnu, stay at the new Wasa Resort Spa Hotel (wasahotels.ee) in the Beach Park area is the place to stay, while Raimond (hedonspa.com) and the Ranahotell Restaurant (rannahotell.ee) both offer fine dining beside the sea.
The most convenient way to get to to Kihnu Island is by ferry (visitkihnu.ee) from the port of Munalaiu. Accommodation (visitkihnu.ee) is largely in homestays, and meals from farmsteads and small cafés.
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