Estonia was swept into Christian Europe in 1227 when 2,500 of its native pagan inhabitants succumbed to a 20,000-strong army of Teutonic crusaders. It was controlled for 764 years by a succession of Danish, Swedish, German, and Russian rulers until the country permanently secured its independence in 1991 from the Soviet Union, emboldened by the Singing Revolution and the Baltic Chain of the late 1980s. Today, it is noted for the high degree of personal, religious, and press freedom enjoyed by its citizens. Powered by a robust information technology sector that gave birth to Skype and an electronic government that enables online voting over the country’s nearly-nationwide Internet infrastructure—submitting a tax return takes less than five minutes!—Estonia boasted the 2nd highest level of economic freedom in the world in 2017, putting it on track to be one of the EU’s top economic powers.
Most visitors to Estonia begin their journey in Tallinn, the country’s capital, where the courtyard of the Schlössle Hotel greets guests with the sound of songbirds and trellises laden with summer flowers. Located in Tallinn’s Old Town amid quaint cobblestone streets, the hotel faithfully preserves its 500-year history in the stout wooden beams and stone walls found in its lobby, but the most convincing detail of the hotel’s Medieval past are its rooms’ irregular corners that refuse to join at 90-degree angles and a 13th-century staircase that leads to breakfast in the stone-walled cellar.
Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997, Old Town grew in stature under the Hanseatic League, which made Tallinna a trading post in 1285, its merchants growing wealthy from frequent trade. Popular sites in Old Town include Toompea, the hill where the Danes built a castle in the 13th century and where now the country’s Parliament resides. Toompea is evinced by the nation’s blue, black, and white flag (representing the sky, earth, and purity) fluttering from the top of Tall Herman Tower. Another well-known tower is Kiek-in-de-Kök, the name of which originates from the ability of those inside to take a peek (kiek) in the kitchens (kök) of houses below during earlier times.
Nearby, Alexander Nevsky Cathedral boasts four massive onion domes, but the cathedral is generally avoided by Estonians, as it represents former Russian aggression. The mere size of the edifice and its interior’s Neo-Byzantine style suggests a Russian Orthodox majority, but many Estonians do not adhere to any established religion whatsoever. While Estonia’s overall spiritual mood may be reflective of its history of occupation–after all, part of the Soviet plan was to eradicate all Estonian national identity – there is the sense that the dearth of instituted religion during those years has created room for a shiftback to an atavistic past, rooted in pre-Christian folk beliefs.
A sweeping panoramic picture can be taken at the Patkuli viewing platform, considered one of the best places the get an iconic picture of Tallinn that truly captures a striking blend of Medieval and Gothic architecture.
A bit lower down the hill, a large car-sized rock overlooks a shaded park below. It is one of the very rocks used by the Soviets to barricade entry to the Toompea during the Singing Revolution. The Toompark is where Estonians held impromptu demonstrations of speech, song, and solidarity against occupation while farther east are the Song Festival Grounds, the site of the nation’s most important music festival, considered to be one of key underpinnings of its freedom from Soviet rule and the nerve center for the Singing Revolution.
Walking back through Viru Gate, possibly the most famous of Tallinn’s photo ops, puts you in the middle of the day market at Old Town Square, providing opportunities to buy every handicraft imaginable from clothing and glass wares to amber and wool–a young man hollows out a canoe from a log nearby and another pounds an anvil to make rustic iron candle-stick holders. The Town Hall, its current form dating from the early 15th century, is the only remaining Gothic town hall in Northern Europe, dominating the square and serving as the main meeting point for civil affairs since Medieval times.
The best handicraft shopping is found in Katariina kaik – St. Catherine’s Passage–home to St. Catherine’s Guild, a collection of craft workshops that date back to the 15th century. Continuing the city’s rich mercantile heritage, local artisans ply their trades in the open, allowing you to first watch a craftsman huddled over his bench delicately decorating a piece of handmade jewelry before you browse a selection of leather goods and ceramics just down the row. The passage’s stone walls display the remnants of 13th-century tombstones and after seeing the five clay-tiled vaults that span the stone alleyway, you can see why a short, informal queue has formed to take a snapshot.
A dinner at Olde Hansa is a must for anyone wishing for a Medieval dining experience. A multi-floored candlelit interior, decorative tapestries, and plenty of wooden benches and tables bound in wrought iron hardware work in concert with a menu that transports a visitor back hundreds of years with a plump, flowing script. This archaic atmosphere compels one to try the roast wild boar, which is served in a wooden trencher overflowing with typical root vegetables from the period. The meal is best washed down with two ceramic flagons of honeyed beer and even better when local musicians playing period instruments launch into Guillaume de Machaut’s 14th-century standard Douce Dame Joile with convincing realism.
The Museum of Occupations covers the country’s history of occupation between 1940 and 1991. The lobby greets visitors with a concrete example of what life behind the Iron Curtain was like for the average Estonian who ran afoul of the established order or who seemed like they might have rebelled: a row of eight partially rusted prison doors that stand end-to-end. Sliding metal panels reveal coin-sized speaking portals that were used by
the incarcerated. A well-organized, chronological group of Estonianartifacts such as pamphlets, radios, clothing, and home goods. These are accompanied by a set of 20-minute videos spanning the country’s occupied history. A collection of bulky Soviet audio equipment, including a drink vending machine that still displays its communal plastic glass, is stuffed into a corner while a gigantic bust of Lenin resides in the basement.
Culturally, Estonia is considered a Nordic country, with a language closely related to Finnish and a similar sauna tradition as its Scandinavian neighbors. Yet the country still adheres to its rural and ancient past– just over 50% of its land mass is forested and many Estonians flock to this natural setting on summer weekends and holidays, returning to family cottages and ancestral farms for a slower pace of life. A perfect location to experience the country's rural life can be found on the 125 sq. mile island of Muhu, just a few hours south by car and ferry.
The journey to Muhu passes through unbroken boreal forests populated by wild boar and elk, a direct result of Soviet rule: much of the nation’s land escaped development due to areas being off-limits to anyone but the military, which allowed Estonia’s fauna to flourish unmolested.
The drive passes by agricultural clearings that feature abandoned collective farms from the Soviet period, now repurposed as supports for signal-boosting antennas for wireless Internet reception in rural areas. Eventually, the sparkling outline of Estonia’s Baltic coast and the inlets and smaller islands of the Väinameri Sea brings the Baroque building of Padaste Manor into view.
Originally granted to one of the island’s powerful families in 1566, Padaste Manor is Estonia’s best hotel outside of Tallinn, situated on the southern coast in a 17-acre park surrounded by an additional 50 acres of forests, meadows, and salt marsh, noted for its biodiversity and protected natural status.
The manor’s acclaimed spa is known for the fact that every oil, cream, and skin-spread used for treatments is prepared daily with local ingredients. Booking a traditional Muhu hay bath ensures an experience like no other: a honey and salt scrub awakens the skin before one “takes the hay” by being ensconced within a waterproof gel blanket and immersed up to the neck in a warm water bath while breathing in the intoxicating sweetness of freshly harvested grasses and drying yellow rattle and saw wort hanging from the walls. This is the same natural, detoxifying odor that warm hay has imparted to Muhu’s inhabitants for centuries.
Alexander, the manor’s restaurant, is a jewel of haute cuisine orchestrated by Chef Peeter Pihel, renowned for a devotion to nuance and detail that has brought the restaurant nationwide acclaim as Estonia’s Best. An icon of Nordic Island Cuisine, it relies on local and seasonal ingredients, from the lovage used in the salad to the wildflowers that garnish the dessert. Crisp cumin flatbread served with herbed aioli on a chilled slate slab introduces hay smoke squab-under-
glass, followed by dill ice and freshly-made raspberry ice cream made with milk from a nearby dairy. The final touch to the evening’s meal comes in the form of petits financiers– tiny blueberry cupcakes formed in the shape of two birds, the pair protected within a nest of roughly twisted twigs.
The following day, a brief drive through an abandoned Soviet military site in the forest, where bunkers built into the hillside once concealed mobile missile launching platforms, leads to Koguva, a village that remains faithfully genuine to its past, thanks to the charter than granted freedom to all of its inhabitants in 1532. Enjoying historical protected status, it is Estonia’s best-preserved village with buildings that date back to the 1700s. Low farm buildings with small doors for conserving heat during the winter are hallmarks of the village. An original wood-burning sauna can also be seen. The village’s walls are over 200 years old thanks to the fact they were built several yards into the ground for durability during the winter. Some are topped with old, decommissioned fishing boats (now considered family heirlooms) that protect firewood while imparting charm and character.
A stop at the 13th-century St. Catherine’s church provides an up-close encounter with its original Byzantine-inspired mural artwork, but what really stirs the curiosity is the trapezoidal stone used in the top of the door frame for the church’s staircase. Thought to date back to the Bronze Age, its tree of life and horn of plenty symbolism is a clear marker of the country’s pre-Christian past.
The circular Muhu Stronghold marks where Estonia’s centuries of occupation by other nations was solidified in 1227 after a six-day siege. Nearly 100 yards in diameter, the raised slopes of the grass-covered defensive walls are the only original remains, their stones having been dispersed across the island over the years for use in field walls. A stone memorial in the center provides an easy photograph.
Returning to the manor, you decide that for the rest of the day, you are going to focus on "being" versus "seeing" and enjoy relaxing on the private sun deck along the manor’s private canal that leads into the Baltic, allowing other guests to commandeer the row boat, kayaks, and canoe moored nearby. A casual dinner outside at dusk convinces you to end the day with a soak in the outdoor wood-burning hot tub along the grassy canal, a fitting end to a pleasant Nordic summer’s day at latitude 58°32’N when there is still ample light long after the sun sets into the sea.
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