There’s no evidence that there are more members of the International Flat Earth Research Society in Estonia than anywhere else but if there were, it wouldn’t be that surprising as the country is quite flat.
When you consider the average height for a male Estonian is only 176cm, compared to a lanky 181cm for their Swedish and Lithuanian near neighbours. As a result the impoverished Estonian country folk living near the National Parks have had to resort to building viewing platforms to see the wider landscape. It would also have meant in the past Estonians soldiers had to do a lot of jumping to see possible invaders coming.
Our first stop after leaving Tallinn was Estonia’s third largest town, Pärnu. Only 100kms south of the capital it was quite a shock as this seaside town felt decidedly ‘out of season’. I’m sure Covid is having an negative impact on visitor numbers. There were people sitting outside some of the restaurants but compared to Tallinn it felt markedly provincial.
The upside of course is there was no problem getting a table at the town’s one Indian restaurant. Both our curry’s were really good and we ended up eating way too much food, but the walk back to Margo through the park and past streets of traditional wooden clad buildings was definitely welcome.
After all the sight-seeing in Tallinn we both wanted some down time and once the regulation visit to the laundry had been completed, we found a great spot at Reiu to spend the afternoon watching kite surfers track back and forth in the shallow waters of Pärnu Bay til the sun went down.
Before we head off to Soomaa National Park I wanted to just touch upon a uniquely Estonian pastime.
With the Tokyo Olympics currently in ‘full swing‘ the Estonians are very interested in promoting a new sport called Kiiking. Invented back in the nineties by a man named Ado Kosk, participants attach themselves to a giant steel swing that must be rotated a full 360 degrees. It all sounds a bit ‘over the top’ to me, but lets see if it gets included in the Paris Olympics in 2025. Hey, give us a shove to start me off…!
Soomaa National Park
Soomaa National Park, is one of 12 protected wilderness areas in Europe. Visitors are invited to try their hand at amongst other things ‘bog-shoeing’. This is a bit like snow-shoeing, where you attempt to walk with a tennis racket on each foot to help traverse across the marshy ground – Can you imagine trying to run if you saw lions & tigers and bears, oh my!
Ok, so there aren’t any lions and tigers… but there are bears and wolves in Estonia.
According to a study, by the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Estonia is home to 700 of the continent’s 17,000 brown bears, 260 of its 9,000 lynx, and 790 of its 12,000 grey wolves.
We spent one of our quietest nights in the car park of the visitors centre, right in the heart of the Soomaa NP. From here, after all the the visitors (we only saw 4) went home, we set off for a walk along the 1.8km Koprarada õpperada (Beaver Trail).
We’d been advised that beavers are most likely to be seen at dusk and dawn (along with the mosquitos), so we crept silently along the raised boardwalks that took us over the marshy ground. I felt a bit like David Carradine, the “Kung Fu” star, walking across rice paper. In spite of our stealth and quiet, disappointingly we didn’t see any beavers. We did see trees next to the river that had been gnawed by the beavers to fell them and dam the river to raise its level to build and protect their lodges.
The search for a ‘Kohvik‘ for lunch brought us to Rohelise Maja pood ja kohvik which google helpfully translated into “The Green House café and shop”. Like other buildings on the street the café is was made entirely of wood which gave it a friendly earthy feel.
Inside was cosy, with cakes and a selection of coffee beans on display. “Do you speak English”? Immediately a tall young man was summoned who spoke with a confidence of someone who, although he had lived in Viljandi since he was 10, had been to university in the UK. With his help, delicious food was ordered and enjoyed in a large garden area.
The small-town atmosphere of Viljandi is cheered up by 8 big red concrete strawberries. These have been inspired by the painting “Strawberry Eaters” by native artist Paul Kondas, as the people of Viljandi are said to resemble the characters it depicts.
Viljandi Castle Hill Park is located on the slope of the ancient valley and is a confusion of huge earth banks or ramparts and deep ditches presumably former moats. We sat on a bench looking across to a building site, watching a JCB loading up lorries with soil. However when Castle Hill’s labyrinth of deep protective trenches were created, they would have been dug by hand.
We found the variation in the castle construction a little puzzling, as the walls in some parts have bricks mixed in with stone in walls above the original stone stronghold of 1224. We read that the fortress got its final shape and size at the beginning of the 16th century but it’s not clear if that was made of brick, stone or a mix of both?
It is slightly incongruous sitting next to the much older ruins, but in 1931 in order to make it easier for the townsfolk to visit the chapel in the ruins, a rope suspension bridge was built over a 15m deep trench. From the ruins, there is a beautiful view over Lake Viljandi.
We enjoyed our time in Viljandi but elected to spend the night in Oiu – Oi! U. Yes, that’s you!
Estonia’s 2nd largest city was a struggle for Margo to find somewhere to park during the day. In the end Euro Parks made it easy with a spot close to the centre and an easy walk to the tourist office. After stopping for a nice lunch at Krempel Kohvik, armed with a map we headed for a walk in the park.
Tartu is known as Estonia’s main university town which is located close to Toome Hill Park. Close to the centre of town the park isn’t difficult to find, as its name suggests it’s on a hill. Although they probably could have called it statue or sculpture park – as well as some medieval ruins, it contains lots of statues and monuments, mostly to people we hadn’t heard of.
Struve Geodetic Arc – The Struve Monument is dedicated to the former director of the Tartu Observatory, Fr. G. W. Struve, a Russian astronomer and geodesist of German origin. Under his leadership, the meridian arc was measured between 1816 and 1855 to help determine the shape and size of the globe.
Devils bridge and the Angels bridge – They both cross the same road so how do you decide which one is for you?
Be yourself; everyone else is already taken – Oscar Wilde
A casual wander around and you soon stumble upon the towns popular sculptures like Father & Son or the Kissing Students (clearly dated by the miniskirt) in the town square’s fountain.
Well it just wouldn’t have been a comprehensive tour of all of Tartu’s cultural highlights without a visit to the Upside Down House.
Valga and Valka
The Russian revolution in 1923 changed everything for the people living in the former Russian empire, including Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
But after much fighting eventually the three Baltics states won their independence. A new border was drawn up between Estonia and Latvia on the basis if there are more Estonians than Latvians in a town, then the border would go south of the town and vice versa. That was fine until to the town of Walk, where there was no majority. No-one wanted to give the town up, and tensions started to rise.
An Englishman named Tallents was called upon to work out a solution, which he did, by drawing a border which ran through the town. Which meant the residents, now needed a passport to walk from one end of town to the other, not to mention a different currency when they went to the shops.
However the Soviets effectively re-united the town in WW2 after defeating the Germans, again with a single currency the Ruble and even one language – Russian (whether you liked it or not). When in 1991 the Soviet Union itself dissolved, it meant once again the borders were back.
Crazy stuff happened: the Latvian fire brigade couldn’t attend a fire a few meters away, and people had to make 30-mile journeys to hospital when there was a bed a couple of minutes away.
In 2004 the people of Valga and Valka were delighted when the Baltic states joined the EU. It removed the border (Schengen) and it gave both towns the Euro. Now days their cooperation is much more positive, although they still speak two completely different languages on either side of the border. Credit to Jay from Our Tour for this summary.
Before leaving Estonia I think we must also mention Estonian Wife Carrying prowess. Although the sport was first introduced at Sonkajärvi in Finland, a few years ago the Estonia invented a new style (wife upside-down on his back with her legs over the neck and shoulders) now referred to as the “Estonian Carry”.. So successful were they with this method that Estonia’s dominated the World (I know it’s crazy) Wife Carrying Championships for 11 consecutive years between 1998 – 2008.
According to ‘estonian world‘, in a boon to Estonia’s chances for capturing Olympic gold, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced in 2016 the addition of wife-carrying to the summer Olympics schedule.
And finally – There may be some reading this who are starting to wonder if we have come across any evidence of shorter than average Estonian men intending to compete in both
swinging Kiiking and Wife swapping Carrying championships. Surprisingly the answer is no.
Dave & Lesley