From bog-walking to fine dining, kayaking to sun-worshipping, Estonia offers a range of activities to suit every vacationer.
TALLINN — While a lot of fuss was raised by the Kremlin over the Bronze Soldier, a Stalin-era monument that was relocated from the center of Tallinn to a military cemetery, there is another monument which might give a bigger, more detailed picture of the country’s history of the last 100 years.
Located in Kuressaare on Saaremaa island, the Monument of the War of Independence is a statue of a wounded soldier with a saber leaning on the rock with bronze plaques with 160 names of the fallen in the Estonian War of Independence on its back side. During this war that lasted from 1918 through 1920 the Estonians fought both communist Russian and German troops after Estonia proclaimed its independence amid the ruins of the Russian Empire in February 1918 (since the reestablishment of independence in August 1991, February 24 is Estonia’s main state holiday).
The monument was erected opposite the County Government building by famous Estonian sculptor Amandus Adamson in June 1928 to commemorate the islanders who lost their lives in the battles. In June 1940 it was one of the first monuments that was demolished by the Soviet Army that had occupied the country by then, but it was restored and erected to its place in autumn 1942, under the occupation of Nazi Germany. In spring 1945 the victorious Soviet troops destroyed the monument again, and it was again restored in July 1990.
While Kremlin propaganda accuses Estonia of pro-Nazi sympathies, both occupations receive equal treatment at the Kuressaare Castle/Museum, which is divided strictly in two halves — each devoted to the periods under the Nazis and the Soviets, and the institution in Tallinn that commemorates the times of non-freedom is called the Museum of Occupations, in plural.
Beautiful examples of Saaremaa’s natural history can be seen in a private museum in a village on Sorve peninsula, which can be reached only by a car, which are displayed alongside a huge mass of rotten mines, torpedoes and bombs, supplied with notes — “saksa” (German) or “vene” (Russian) — both inside and outside the wooden house where the museum is located. A horse skull and a horse shoe lying on the land outside recalls the practice of killing every horse on the island before retreating in battle, which was used by the both sides.
With all the respects to the past paid, Estonia offers a refreshing contrast to Russia under President Vladimir Putin. Already part of Europe, it is opening itself to the world and is looking forward, unlike Russia’s current drift toward restoring the Soviet past and isolationism.
A Russian coming to Estonia has a lot to envy, be it cleanness, better roads, or beautiful nature. Support for small businesses comes from both the state and the European Union. And the progress that the country has made over the past 16 years of independence from the Soviet Union —politically, socially and ecologically.
Or take technology. Without even mentioning the highly successful Skype Internet-communication system designed by Estonian developers (and bought by eBay for $2.6 billion in 2005) and national ID cards with a computer chip containing the owner’s digital signatures (these were used, for instance, for the parliamentary elections held online earlier this year), every camping site in the woods appears to have an online computer and even a small cafe out of town is equipped with Wi-Fi and a website. Apart from Tallinn’s medieval beauty and the almost pristine natural environment of Saaremaa, there are plenty of other attractions in Estonia and the tourist industry uses them much as it can.
Nature tourism is one of the most important directions for the country, whose national plant is the cornflower and national bird is the swallow. Estonia is the land where about 1,500 different species of plants and 65 mammal species such as moose, roe deer, wild boar, raccoon dog, beaver, wolf, bear and lynx, have been counted.
Apart from nature photography, fishing, bird watching and the other activities, nature tourism includes bog walking, an experience provided, for instance, by small company Seikleja.com that provides groups with “snowshoes” and, if needed, walking poles.
Walking through an endless swamp in Soomaa National Park, an area with huge bogs and swamp forests interlaced by numerous rivers and small lakes, might seem hard and even boring after a while, but a rush of adrenaline coming some time after the trek is finished compensates. Seikleja.com also offers sea-kayaking and skating (www.seikleja.com).
Just a short drive away, there is Parnu, known as the country’s summer capital and the “Baltic Riviera” visited by about 300,000 people during the season. Built on the River Parnu in 1251, the town has been a holiday resort since the 19th century and offers luxuries that are a far cry from bog-walking.
One of the stops was at Ammende Villa, arguably Parnu’s most luxurious hotel set up in a fully restored Art Nuevo mansion built by the order of local wealthy merchant Hermann Ammende in 1904, with suites, rooms and dining halls furnished with the restored furniture from the period. In the summer time a temporary tent terrace restaurant is erected in the garden in front of the mansion, where regular jazz and quality concerts are held (recently the South-African funk band Freshlyground stopped by to perform there as part of its European tour).
Haapsalu is a small resort town on the western coast, also with a great history and its own 15th century bishop’s castle, is a more quiet place, described in tourist guides as “romantic.”
How To Get There
The GO Rail company operates a daily train service between Tallinn and St. Petersburg, with coupe, seated carriage and "Emperor's Lounge," a luxury car for five or six passengers with breakfast and coffee available. It departs from Vitebsk Station in St. Petersburg at 6:57 a.m. Moscow time and leaves Tallinn to return at 3:30 p.m. Tallinn time (www.gorail.ee)
The alternative is a Eurolines bus. These depart from Baltiisky Station eight times a day, between 6:45 a.m. and 11:20 p.m. (www.eurolines.ee)
Buses to Haapsalu and Parnu depart from Tallinn’s Bus Station. Parnu is 130 km and Haapsalu is 100 km from Tallinn. There are also buses between Parnu and Haapsalu.
Where To Eat
Muuriaare kohvik (Muuriaare Cafe), an arty cafe filled with paintings and art objects occupying a standalone wooden building. Huge portions of very fresh salads, sandwiches, quiches, tarts and cakes. “Each salad, slice of quiche or sandwich is prepared specially for you and it may take a bit more time than you expect,” warns a notice at the bottom of the menu. With a ban on smoking in bars and restaurants introduced in Estonia earlier this year, a backyard can be used by smokers. (Haapsalu, 7 Karja, Tel: +372 473 7527. www.muuriaare.ee)
Piccadilly veinikohvik (Piccadilly Wine Cafe), a cafe complete with a wine bar room, with a menu similar to Muuriaare (see above), albeit a larger selection of drinks (Parnu, 15 Puhavaimu, Tel: +372 442 0085. www.kohvila.ee)
Ammende Villa, an a la carte restaurant with French and Mediterranean dishes served in splendid redwood interiors of Hunting Hall, Blue Dining Hall and Wine Hall. Gourmet meals both in Estonian and European traditions, a wide selection of aperitifs and wines from France, Italy, Spain, Germany and Austria. (Parnu, 7 Mere, Tel: + 372 44 73 888. www.ammende.ee)
Where To Stay
Ammende Villa, Parnu’s arguably most luxurious hotel set up in a renovated early 20th century Art Nuevo mansion. The suites are furnished with renovated original furniture of the period, with all the modern facilities added. (Parnu, 7 Mere, Tel: + 372 44 73 888. www.ammende.ee).