I just got back from a two week trip to Estonia. Although the main reason for going was to attend a family reunion on the island called Saaremaa, on this, my fourth trip, I also wanted to explore Estonia on my own - at my own pace, with no set itinerary. The best way to do this to my mind was to rent a car.
I also needed accommodation since I would not by staying with relatives this trip. Hotels in Estonia have become somewhat pricy so I went on the internet to see what was available in the bed and breakfast category. It turned out that there were lots of these. I booked two places in Tallinn and one in Tartu. Tartu was to be my home base for 5 nights while I explored southern and central Estonia. I had never visited that part of the fatherland and was quite looking forward to it.
Both places I booked in Tallinn were in a nice quiet residential suburb of individual houses with large leafy back yards. One was Allee Guesthouse on Tedre Street and the other was Tihase, located on the street with the same name. To my mind they were excellent value and both were spotlessly clean. I was easily able to walk to the old city area in about 20 minutes. Both of these B&Bs have their own website and both operate in English.
English seems to be the universal language at almost all tourist facilities except those that cater to older bus tour groups from the former Soviet Union. In that case Russian is the language but you still get by nicely with English as my son found out. Most signs now are bilingual but quite often the English version made me smile and on a couple of occasions I had to read the Estonian version to understand what they were trying to say.
I noticed quite a few Latvian tour groups both in Kuresaare and Tartu. Some hotel staff confessed that since the Baltic States regained their sovereignty they no longer found speaking Russian repugnant.
The B&B at 8 Tihase was operated by an energetic personable woman with the help of her two teenaged children. My landlady made a great breakfast and drove me downtown to the car rental agency. This turned out to be right beside the office where she worked as the business manager for the newspaper Eesti Päevaleht.
I must have still been a bit groggy from having arrived after midnight because she decided to walk me right into the offices of the rental agency. My Estonian was a bit rusty so she took over and bargained the price down to the extent that my stay at her place was free and then some. During my last day in Tallinn I managed to somehow lose my airline tickets in the basement café of the old town hall. My landlady immediately called the town hall manager, who turned out to be a very young looking woman who had been in charge for 3 years. She found my wayward tickets in the washroom garbage pail. My hostess then ordered me a taxi right away with a personable Estonian driver and I easily got to the airport in time. Great service indeed!
The old city of Tallinn has become a tourist jungle and unbelievably crowded. Things are expensive and it is the kind of place that once you have seen it a couple of times is best avoided. I went there solely because I wanted to visit the Museum of Occupations that had been built since my last visit 5 years ago. It would be nice if the museum opened a bit earlier as I had to kill a couple of hours wandering around and waiting.
The most interesting place I stayed at was in Tartu (or Dorpat as it is sometimes called) at a guesthouse called Uppsala Maja. This was located right beside the ancient Jaani Church at number 7 Jaani Street. The plaque on the wall stated that it was the oldest wooden house in Tartu. As far as value is concerned you simply cannot beat this place for price, amenities and location. I shared a bathroom but since I was up very early and away all day this did not cause any inconvenience.
Staying in a living museum was a unique experience for me. The place had been completely restored a few years back with all the modern conveniences you would expect, except that the doorways retained their original height of just over 6 feet. The other guests were either older German tourists or university professors attending a conference. The main university building was perhaps a hundred meters away and the old town hall was nearby. As well it was close to historic Rüütli St. with its cafes and restaurants, most with an outdoor patio. Tartu itself is a very pleasant place with an atmosphere very different from Tallinn.
Uppsala Maja staff are efficient and friendly. The breakfasts that are included are great. You have the use of the kitchen including fridge and freezer and there is a secure parking yard. The only minor drawback was that between the church and Uppsala Maja was one of the few remaining “Khrushchev Boxes” - seeming populated mainly by non-Estonians. All was not negative though as some of the antics that went on early one morning were quite entertaining. The locals at the church said that this was one of the most expensive lots in Tartu and that the eyesore of a building was slated for demolition. In the meantime they were using the basement as a workshop to restore or replicate the famous terracotta figures that Jaani Church was famous for.
The site of the old Tartu prison is located directly opposite the church and it was here in the courtyard that the Soviets executed about 200 innocent prisoners in cold blood during the night of July 8 and 9th, 1941. Not much remains and the courtyard now has a wooden floor and functions as an outdoor theatre. At one end is a rusted steel door set into the stone wall. There is a small plaque indicating that this was the site of the massacre. I knew about the place from talking to the custodian on duty at the KGB Cells Museum and found out from her were it was.
I was only able to locate this place with the help of one of the older custodians at Jaani Church who walked me over. When I first asked the young women there she was unaware of what had happened just across the street. We had to duck through a building to get there. I joked about his name which translated into English as “Cold” and told him he was anything but a cold man. Turned out he was a professor of art at the university and that his father had helped retrieve the bodies from the well in the courtyard. I asked him why the site was not better marked. He said that there had been a sign on Jaani Street but the city had taken it down.
I spent 5 nights at Uppsala Maja and during the day I would head off in various directions in my little rented car. Sometimes it was to place names that had stuck in my mind from childhood such as “Vändra” which brought to mind a half forgotten song about a couple of hunters that shot a bear in the forest and headed off to a tavern to celebrate their good fortune.
Driving through the many large woods I was surprised to realize how sparsely populated tiny Estonia is and how much of the country consists of forests and swamps. I could better understand how the resistance fighters known as “forest brothers” could operate as long as they did before finally succumbing only when the collectivization of agriculture cut off their supplies.
On a couple of occasions I got lost taking a wrong turn at forks which were not well marked. Once I drove from Suure-Jaani to Kolga-Jaani by mistake. I had intended to visit Kolga-Jaani the next day. In particular I wanted to see the old church located there since I had met the pastor while he was visiting Ottawa. When I went into the church nobody was there. This was the first and only time this happened and I missed having a chat with the custodian. I looked around, admired the organ and took photographs of the church, its adjacent chapel complete with two coffins on sawhorses in the centre of the floor.
On another occasion almost by accident I stumbled unto the schoolhouse made famous by the Estonian writer Oskar Luts who wrote the popular book “Kevade” (Spring). I remembered my mother used to read to me from this book about the antics of its main character “Toots” who I gather was an Estonian Huckleberry Finn type of person.
One of the “must see” places for me was an ancient hill fort known as “Leola”. It was here that the German knights defeated and baptised the Estonian leader Lembitu and his people. Thus began the German occupation that lasted 700 years. The site was important for me because as a member of a university fraternity known as Korp! Leola, I remembered singing a song decades ago that translated went “Leola, Lembitu’s city …”.
Coming out of Suure-Jaani I got completely lost and stopped at a farmhouse for directions. It turned out that the place was locally known by a different name but the farm-wife drew directions for me on a sheet of paper. When I finally did find it I was surprised how small and deserted it was.
Evenings in Tartu were spent in the numerous pubs and restaurants such as the Gunpowder Cellar and Godfather’s. The food everywhere was great and very reasonably priced. The city was fairly lively at night during the week but surprisingly quiet on the weekend. One of my more memorable moments was running into a group of young Hungarians that were studying Estonian at the university. As well, I met a Latvian woman from Australia who was also there learning Estonian. They all spoke the language better than I did.
The director of the language school turned out to be Russian, something I had not expected. Talking to her at length forced me to reconsider that stereotype image that had been instilled into me about Russians as a child, both at church and Estonian school.
Russians like Estonians seem to come in all flavours and it has become almost impossible in many instances to pick out who is who anymore. On more than one occasion I was taken aback when some shabby intoxicated street persons turned out to be Estonians.