By Sergey Chernov
Estonia is a popular tourist destination, but its southern area has only recently opened up for tourism and still remains an unknown territory for many.
The southern regions, with Tartu as the main city, are mostly rural, noted for their rich and largely untouched nature, with lakes small and large, hills, meadows and woods.
One of the most intriguing attractions is Setumaa, Estonia’s unique historical and ethnic region, located in the Baltic country’s far southeastern corner, where a people named the Setu live.
Bordering with Russia, Setumaa is a mix of traditional Estonian and Russian cultures.
It is populated by native Setus, who speak their own dialect. Some claim, that it is a fully-fledged language in its own right, though it does borrow heavily from Russian. Setumaa is a divided territory, with a large part of it, including the largest town of Petseri (Pechory in Russian), remaining in Russia when Estonia gained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. This is in spite of the fact that during Estonia’s first period of independence in 1918-1940, the whole of Setumaa belonged to Estonia.
Setus are famous for their traditional costumes, with massive breastplates decorated with silver coins — a throwback to the Russian tsarist era — and its traditional singing style, the ***leelo*** — a verse sung by a soloist is repeated, polyphonically, by the entire choir several times – no musical accompaniment is provided.
Unlike most Estonians who are Lutherans, the Setu people are Orthodox Christians, having predominantly converted in the 15th century, when a monastery was built in Pechory, now in Russia’s Pskov Oblast. The first Orthodox Christians were reported to have appeared in the area between the 10th and 13th centuries.
Despite this, elements of a more archaic, pre-Christian religion are present, such as Peko, the Setu god of fertility.
Though not yet fully researched, Setumaa’s early history is reported to date back around 8,400 years , to when the first humans populated the area, with the eldest settlement from the Stone Age having recently been discovered in Meremae village.
The Setu singing and dance tradition is kept up by Kuldatsauk, a female ensemble which dresses in varied traditional clothes and performs the Setu’s authentic multi-voiced runic songs.
Kuldatsauk originally formed in 1988, when Estonia was still under Soviet rule, in the village of Varska. Of its current lineup of 12 members, nine have been with the band since its foundation.
Established in 1998, the Setu Farm Museum in Varska shows the traditional Setu farm, with domestic animals such as horses and goats, as well as warehouses, old tools and handicrafts works. Most of the buildings are original.
Traditional Setu food is served in the traditional wooden Seto Tsaimaja (Setu Tea House), built in 2004.
Varska also boasts a spa famous for its mud and mineral waters.
In Obinitsa, another Setu village, there is the Seto House Museum, whose collection includes over 20,000 artefacts taken from Setu culture.
The St. Petersburg Times was a guest of the Estonian Tourist Board, Enterprise Estonia (13/15 Liivalaia, 10118 Tallinn, Estonia. Tel : +372 6279 770).
HOW TO GET THERE
Visitors from many countries can enter without a visa, but Russians will need one. If a tour is less than five days long, no invitation is needed; if it is longer a tourist agency can provide one (the list of local agencies dealing with Estonia is available from the Estonian Consulate General in St. Petersburg’s website, www.peterburg.estemb.ru.)
From St. Petersburg, Tartu can be reached, without transfers, on Eurolines buses (www.eurolines.ru), which take about 10 hours (including customs checks). Buses depart from the city’s central long-distance bus station (and can be also caught at the Baltiisky Railway Station a little later) at 11:15 a.m. and 11:35 p.m., arriving in Tartu at 5:50 p.m. and 6:35 a.m. respectively.
The other option is to take the train that now runs at night to Tallinn, from where it takes another 2.5 hours to reach Tartu. The GO Rail train (www.gorail.ee) departs from Vitebsky Railroad Station at 11:25 p.m. and arrives in Tallinn at 6:26 a.m. Note: Starting from Sept. 14, the train will be cancelled. The last departure from Tallinn will be on Sept. 13, and from St. Petersburg, Sept. 14.
You can take a short cut and skip a stop in Tallinn by leaving the bus at Tapa, a small town on the way to the capital, and take a bus or train from there. There is also a diesel train service between Tallinn and Tartu that takes 2 to 3 hours.
There are several daily buses between Tartu and Setumaa’s villages of Varska, Haanja and Obinitsa.
For more information, check out www.visitestonia.com