Far less high-profile than its Lithuanian great sister – Vilnius was the European Capital of Culture in 2009 – Estonia is doubtlessly the most discreet of the three Baltic countries. It has, however, recently started raising its voice: in Tallinn, things are not said but sung, even… Revolution!
Try to picture a country so clean that you wouldn’t dare trample on the lawns.
Try to picture a country so green that it looks, feels and smells like an Alpine valley after an autumn rain; a country so deeply rooted in modernity that its internet cafes have long given way to a pervasive wifi network, and whose best designers rival even the neighbouring Scandinavian workshops. Well, this is Estonia, a country one might have thought crippled by the Soviet era and which now vibrates with dynamism on the beat of a Baltic chant.
Every five years, a gigantic musical event draws more than 100,000 Estonians to the stadium (also called “the shell”) in Tallinn, with more than 18,000 members of local choirs from around the country performing live. Across the vast lawns covered with umbrellas, a peaceful crowd listens to the songs while pecking at wild cherries and fresh green beans; no turmoil nor elbowing, but rather general politeness and blond kids running around, singing joyfully. You will find no big organization planning such events here, simply a genuine thriving for collective joy. So what’s the secret?
It could be the country’s recent fresh start. Estonia gives the impression of having been born just yesterday. Recent history, in particular the Soviet occupation, has left scars all around Tallinn’s suburbs: derelict warehouses, ruined buildings and other testimonies of the dark years were kept and preserved purposefully, and now serve as reminders.
Annexed by the USSR in 1949, Estonia broke its bonds during the “Singing Revolution” in 1988 before gaining independence in 1991. Tallinn’s identity, now more than ever, is rooted in its medieval past and its symbol, the massive city walls which circle the old city. Meanwhile, as elsewhere, new suburbs crop up silently over the countryside.
This freshness, one might say this youthfulness, allowed Estonia to jump on the bandwagon of modernity, including a rare sensitivity to ecological issues. Although mushroom picking is almost a national sport here, snails are a protected species and visiting French tourists had better watch out: the mandatory fine is high enough to make you swallow your beret.
This “eco-aware” culture, complemented by an acute sense of physical well-being, is no recent development. In Estonia even the most remote farms are equipped with saunas. Along with the singing and dancing which define the Estonian rural way of life, spas are the next most essential local ritual. Needless to say, your humble servant gave himself totally to this wonderful tradition after a week spent writing day and night. One has to keep his hyperactivity in check I suppose.
What to visit:
The Estonian open air museum, Vabaohumuuseumi tee 12, Tallinn
Discover the Estonian way of life from medieval to modern times across 11 villages spread over 30 acres of countryside. Various workshops centered on singing and dancing. Mesmerizing.
Where to stay:
Telegraaf Hotel, http://www.telegraafhotel.com/
Located right in the heart of the city, this hotel is probably the most elegant in Tallinn. The Baltic-influenced food is subtle and refined.
In Muhu Island:
Padäste Manor – Luxury resort & spa, Muhu Island, http://www.padaste.ee/
This magnificent 16th century manor is located on Muhu Island, which in the 13th century was the last stronghold of Estonian pagans. This luxury residence delivers exquisite comfort and quiet, and the manor’s restaurant offers creative Estonian dishes elaborated by a talented young chef.
The Estonians call it saun. Less than a century ago they were a popular place to deliver children, but nowadays they are mostly used for bathing and relaxing. Saunas are everywhere in Estonia: in hotels, refuges, camps, and in most habitations. Their wooden walls absorb the air humidity and produce a hot, dry vapor bath. Heat’s main effect is to open the skin’s sweat pores, to drain accumulated toxins and stimulate blood circulation. The more rustic a sauna the better: choose the ones in old wooden cabins lost in the forest. After taking all that heat, the protocol required you to dive through a hole into an icy lake; rest assured, you can however skip that step, but the experts will tell you that you should actually do it twice.
For those who are not fond of extreme thermal shocks, most local spas also provide quality mud, water and plant baths, as well as efficient massages. Often located in the elegant coastal cities of Pärnu, Haapsalu and Kuressaare, those spas combine open-air activities and curative balneotherapy.
Berries and Mushroom picking
Those are the local hobby. For centuries, Estonians have roamed their forests while picking berries and mushrooms. The harvest is usually consumed within the family or sold on local markets. Best is to find an Estonian expert to lead you inside the woods and share his knowledge of the local species; if you can’t get your hands on one, various organizations offer tours of the country’s forests specially aimed at tourists (www.maaturism.ee).
A healthy cuisine based on vegetables, black bread and smoked fish (eels, kippers). Tallinn canned sprats, a variety of tiny spiced fishes, are considered a local treat.
Ecotourism is paramount in Estonia: hiking, horseback riding, golf, rafting, ice fishing, balloon and LTA flights are all widely available while respecting the local ecosystems and landscapes.
The winter (November to March): it gets pretty cold and humid, and the days shorten quickly – 6 hours of daylight in December). As far as skiing goes, it is often wise to curb one’s enthusiasm: Baltic countries usually get the snow without the mountains … Ice Hockey would probably be your best substitute.
All that glitters isn’t amber. The country is famous for its rich amber deposits, but counterfeit products are commonplace. Genuine amber will not darken under a flame, and should cool down extremely fast.