Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Circling Estonia (Part 2 of 3)

We left Tallinn and headed southwest toward Pärnu, the start of our counter-clockwise trip around Estonia. We drove from one historic spot to another following the ubiquitous brown signs pointing to historic/cultural sites. Thanks (or curses) to its strategic location, Estonia has long been fought over and, thus, has an enormous number of castles, fortifications and other ruins.

Our first stop was Padise Monastary, whose construction began in the 13th century. It had a vaulted church and was fortified, but had fallen into ruins. There was no entrance fee and a large sign provided a detailed history.

We meandered along back roads. There was little traffic, the signage was good and there were virtually no billboards nor litter. It was peaceful and restful.

The steepled church at a small village beckoned. The cemetery was beautiful. A monument to more than 100 people massacred by the Russians gave an insight into the sad decades of oppression that Estonia suffered.

With “Agnes” (our Estonian-speaking GPS) giving directions, we drove through a flat landscape with birch forests, wetlands and occasional farms and villages.

We arrived at Pärnu, a popular sea-side resort with a long sandy beach, many parks and a rich cultural life. However, at the end of September a cool wind blew along empty streets. The town centre featured a walking promenade and, delightfully, no big chain stores. At a small, back-alley restaurant, we enjoyed a cheap, tasty meal while a chess game was contested at the next table.

Next morning the breakfast table was elegantly adorned with a fresh rose and candles in pewter holders. Omelettes were followed by Estonia crepes — one of my childhood favourites!

We drove leisurely toward Saaremaa, Estonia’s largest island. The ferry was cheaper, more efficient and more comfortable than those plying Canada’s west coast.

We wandered around Koguva village, a national heritage fishing village with moss-covered stone fences, log buildings and thatched roofs. My camera clicked constantly.

The highlight of Kuresaare, Saaremaa’s capital, was the castle, the best-preserved medieval (14th century) stronghold in the Baltics. A small exhibit dedicated to the Estonians murdered by the Soviets in 1941, brought tears to our eyes.

Next morning, we headed toward Võru, passing wooden houses and remnants of the Soviet-occupation days: deteriorating apartment blocks and large abandoned collective-farm buildings. A small detour led us to Karski Fortress (1248) along with its pretty Baroque church. Wildflowers bloomed alongside the ruins.

Motoring eastward, the countryside became rolling and more forested. We popped into Valka, Latvia. There was no border stop, just a sign. Latvia looked the same as Estonia except the signs and names were incomprehensible.

Nearing Võru, “Agnes” led us to the farm of my cousin, Matti, whom I had never met. His family greeted us with open arms and sat us down to a hearty farm meal. They spoke no English but we managed quite nicely, aided by a few glasses of Vana Tallinn, a liquor they explained was more valuable than money during the occupation. Then we visited the neighbouring farm, now abandoned, where my father grew up. I was moved.

Finally we arrived at the Kubija Hotel-Naturespa, south of Võru where roller-bladers and runners raced along forest trails. Erki Nool, the legendary gold-medallist in the decathlon at the 2000 Olympics, trained here and the lobby boasts a statue of him pole-vaulting.

If You Go
- Villa Wesset Hotel, Parnu:  www.wesset.ee
- Kubija Hotel-Naturespa, Võru:   www.visitestonia.com/en/kubija-hotel-nature-spa
- General information: http://www.visitestonia.com/en/
- Impressions of Estonia, useful book with 124 photos: www.blurb.ca/bookstore/detail/3850029

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