Ben West, a writer from the UK whose work has appeared in Vogue, GQ, Harper's Bazaar and more, shares his impressions of Estonia. He is the editor and main feature writer of London magazine Black + Green, in which this article appeared. Travel writing is one of his passions and he has visited around 50 countries.
Why do so many people return repeatedly each year to the same countries for their holidays, whether France or Greece, Portugal or Spain, when there are so many other far less visited destinations to discover, with their own fascinating quirks and cultures, landscapes and cuisines?
One such place is Estonia, the smallest and most northerly of the Baltic states, and one of Europe's smallest countries. Tucked away in the far-eastern corner of Europe, bordering Russia, it boasts diverse attractions: there's Lahemaa National Park, a vast nature reserve in the north of the country. And Pärnu, whose long and smooth beach entices Estonians throughout the summer. You can wander back to Soviet times at Sillamäe, perhaps take in a festival, where much colourful traditional dress is on display, or peer into flooded meterorite craters near Kaarma.
A girl plays in the Kaali meteorite crater on Saaremaa island.Photo by: Visit Estonia
My visit seemed ideal, including the contrasts of its fairytale capital, Tallinn, with the wild beauty of a couple of its western islands, Saaremaa and Muhu.
Estonia has withstood centuries of Russian, German, Danish and Swedish rule, along the way absorbing their diverse influences. With a population of only around 1.35 million, it is a sparsely populated country, not least because thousands of Estonians were either deported to Germany or Russia or fled to Sweden in 1944, just before Soviet forces reoccupied Estonia. Many of those who remained ended up in collective farms whose bleak barrack-like structures can still be spotted around the otherwise beautiful countryside.
Our party visiting Estonia was fortunate enough to be in the company of Neil Taylor, whose incredibly detailed guide to Estonia published by Bradt Guides is a marvellous companion for any trip. Indeed, one of our Estonian guides told us: "You have the best guide in Estonia, his books are bibles for Estonian tour guides."
Neil told us that when he first visited Estonia, in 1992, there were no more than about 10 petrol stations in the whole country, it was so undeveloped. However, apart from the main towns, there seems to be not that much more development now: the roads are blissfully empty and we pass miles of unspoilt countryside, though enhanced by the occasional photogenic windmill or castle and regularly dotted with little simple farms and houses. Many Estonians own the latter as summer houses that they use to grow fruit and vegetables. In Soviet times it was vital to grown your own produce as food was scarce in the shops. There doesn't seem any possibility of the country becoming more crowded anytime soon: it loses around 13,000 of the workforce annually, who leave to find higher paid work elsewhere.
It's a very cheap country to visit: for example, a bus from the capital, Tallinn, to Riga in Latvia, which takes nearly five hours, costs just £3 or so. For residents, public transport is free. Cigarettes are incredibly inexpensive, so if you're thinking of taking up the habit this is an ideal place to come.
A tram line connects the Tallinn neighbourhoods of Kalamaja and Kopli with the city centre.Photo by: Erik Peinar
Lonely Planet has named Tallinn the best destination for travellers in 2018. Strolling its attractive, well preserved Old Town is a great introduction to the country. Compact enough to explore on foot, its cobbled streets, colourful houses and distinctive church spires, ancient towers and city walls are like something from a medieval film set. At some point it's a given that you take in the Baltic Sea views and a panorama of this beautiful city. A good vantage point is the flat roof of the City Hall.
Tallinn boasts handsome squares lined with cafés. restaurants, arts and crafts shops and museums, the newest being the treasure-filled Museum of Icon Art, featuring stunning icons from around the world. On the waterfront is the Estonian Seaplane Museum, set in a huge seaplane hangar, with everything from an historic seaplane to a World War II submarine you can clamber aboard. Worth checking out is Kalamaja, a fast-changing bohemian area of Tallinn, north of the old town, where fishermen used to live in traditional wooden houses, now lived in by artists and young families. The neighbourhood is peppered with cafes and restaurants, bijou shops and a market at weekends.
Muhu Winehouse makes their own libations and is a functioning guesthouse.Photo by: Pildi autori eesnimi ja perekonnanimi
Having driven from Tallinn, passing miles of forest and pastureland, and many wooden houses and barns (often sporting red roof tiles for some reason) on good roads that are noticeably very quiet, we take a 40-minute ferry from the mainland port of Virtsu to Kuivastu on the small island of Muhu and its 1800 residents.
There are also frequent buses from Tallinn, which stop at both Kuivastu and Liiva and continue to Kuressaare on Saaremaa). Briefly during winter there is another way also: the coastal regions of the Baltic Sea freeze over, to the extent that you can do the journey by driving over the ice. Our guide on the island, Elle Mäe, is a Muhu native who, as a girl, regularly heard rockets being fired from the island's Russian military base. Her and her friends would slip past the Russian border guards to visit the beaches, which was strictly forbidden at night time.
Muhu's attractions are low key: we visit Muhu Farm Winery, an example of the fledgling wine industry on the island, where we are greeted by a man inexplicitly opening bottles of wine with the swipe of a garden spade. At the village of Liiva we drop in on a small roadside complex with a brewery producing some impressive beers and a small bakery selling a local speciality, black rye bread. At the former fishing village of Koguva, a group of centuries-old limestone buildings house the Muhu Museum and a collection of hand-woven fabrics, colourful traditional clothing and various other artefacts, and which used to be the home of a celebrated Estonian writer from the Soviet era, Juhan Smuul, who wrote about life on the islands as well as embarking upon a Soviet expedition to Antarctica. With a liking for "alcohol, cigarettes and women", he was a hero of the island. But perhaps Muhu's greatest attraction is the unspoilt wildness, the opportunity to wander or cycle the vast landscapes.
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