Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Completing the Circle of Estonia (Part 3 of 3)

The sun sparkled as we drove south from Võru and up a gentle slope to Big Egg Mountain, the highest point in Estonia and, well, more like a subdued hill. From the top we looked upon a rolling landscape of forest with patches of farmland.

At our next stop, the Võru Museum, we were the only visitors, a reminder of how peaceful the tourist path is away from Tallinn. The museum was grim, mostly about wars. I was drawn to a bunker where the Forest Brothers lived while they fought guerrilla 

warfare against the Russians following World War II.

We often visited cemeteries to enjoy the greenery and listen to the stories the stones tell. At Elva, I visited the graves of my maternal grandparents wishing we had gotten to know each other.

Then we were in Tartu (population 105,000) and could feel the vibrancy of a university city. We set off on a walking tour. At the main square, a regal town hall loomed over a cobble-stoned square lined by outdoor cafes. Statues proliferated and we particularly enjoyed the bronze Oscar Wilde and Eduard Vilde casually chatting. Then we were on Tartu University (established 1632) campus, which is heavily treed. Especially impressive was the History Museum located in the majestic ruins of a cathedral dating to the 13th century. Then we came upon the main university building with its dominating six tall Doric columns. Soon we were in 14th century St. John’s Church with its almost 1000 terra cotta figurines. An orchestra was rehearsing, a reminder that Estonians love music and that the peaceful Singing Revolution helped the country gain its freedom.

After two wonderful days we departed Tartu. At a tiny village we bumped aboard an old one-car barge and were hand-winched across the Ema River. Estonia is a delightful mixture of old and new!

Driving north along the shore of Peipsi Lake, we passed through small villages where old ladies sold onions and smoked fish by the roadside.

We arrived in Narva (95% Russian population) under dark ominous skies. The border crossing to Russia had long line-ups and menacing barbed wire. Narva castle is well preserved and, surprise, only a short cannon-shot across Narva River in Russia is the almost identical Ivanogrod Fortress.

I photographed Lenin’s statue in an out-of-the-way corner of the castle grounds and learned that strong Russian pressure had prevented its consignment to the scrap heap after independence. The large Russian population in Estonia (25%) is certainly awkward. We were happy to head westward.

In Rakvere, the Aqva Spa Hotel included an extensive indoor water park, saunas, a spa and lap-pools, which were packed. I entered the sauna, where I sweated in the semi-dark, enjoying Estonian voices and the slapping of birch twigs against skin. In the morning we visited Rakvere Castle and then drove westward.

Estonia is dotted with hundreds of manor houses, but none is finer than the baroque Palmse Manor in Lahemaa National Park. We wandered around its extensive, immaculate gardens, marvelling at the rich elegance, a contrast to the surrounding rural area.

A short drive took us to pretty Käsmu on the Gulf of Finland, which has many trendy summer homes. I walked along the shore, thinking of my mother who escaped, pregnant with me, from a cold shore like this in a crowded small boat as the Russians invaded.

That evening, I nursed a dark beer in Tallinn. I had learned that Estonia is about history and people. It was heart-warming to meet relatives, and satisfying to see Estonia blossoming after 50 years of repression. I regretted not having visited earlier.

If You Go
Aqva Spa Hotel, Rakvere:
Hotel London, Tartu:
General information:
Impressions of Estonia, useful book with 124 photos:

No comments:

Post a Comment