The Tiny Jewel of Northern Europe: Estonia

I feel like I generally enjoy immensely the countries I visit on my travels. But rarely do I fall in love with a country. That, however, is what happened in the last stop of this vacation, Estonia.

It’s hard, even for a Eastern European history buff like myself, to say I knew much about Estonia before visiting. Sure, I could name the capital, talk a bit about the ethnic and linguistic groups in the country, and discuss its growing relevance as NATO’s frontline against Russia, but in terms of famous figures, key historical events, cultural traditions, cuisine – I would have only drawn a blank. And to be fair, Estonia is a country without much of an independent history – despite the best efforts of its national history museum (all of about three rooms). Estonia was essentially the site of battles, massacres, and other unsavory events as its territory was fought over and traded between Sweden, Germany, and Russia as each sought to control the Baltic, not existing as an independent country until briefly in 1918, and again after 1991. And its roster of celebrities is also thin (composer Arvo Pärt, anyone?). Yet despite the novelty of self-rule in Estonia, the country is truly a development success story.

Estonia is one of the most technologically advanced countries in Europe (it is the headquarters of Skype, and has free WiFi almost everywhere). Estonians we interacted with spoke better English than many more developed countries I had visited (perhaps because the Estonian language is one of the most difficult to learn in the world, English is much easier to pick up). The farms and small villages we saw are clean and prosperous – they look more like those in rural Wisconsin than in the other ex-Soviet countries I’d visited. Despite a significant Russian minority population, Estonia has had little ethnic unrest and has had a stable democratic government since independence. And public and private sector alike appear to have done much to establish a comfortable infrastructure for an emerging tourism sector, as EU membership has made the country very accessible.

Our trip had two parts, one focusing on the historic and one on the natural areas of the country. We started in the capital Tallinn, home to a strikingly well preserved medieval city center, still with its original fortifications and town square. While daytrippers from Finland, stag parties from the UK, and passengers on Baltic cruise ships have all discovered the city, leading to a profusion of tacky souvenir shops and overpriced restaurants, the old city is still very fun to explore, looking at the multitude of different faiths represented in its churches, learning about the relics of Tallinn’s status as Reval, one of the largest Hanseatic cities in the Eastern Baltic, which gave it a strong German influence and a Lutheran heritage (despite Tallinn’s numerous churches, Estonia is today one of the most irreligious countries in the world).

Tallinn Old City

Tallinn Old City walls, St. Mary’s Cathedral

Tallinn Town Hall and Main Square

Tallinn Old City walls

Tallinn Old City walls

Tallinn Old City walls, St. Olaf’s Church

Fat Margaret Tower, Tallinn Old City

Tallinn Old City east gate

Tallinn Old City fortifications

Viru Gate, Tallinn Old City

Tallinn Old City wall

Linnahall (Soviet Olympics venue turned public space) and Tallinn skyline

The second part was spent on Saaremaa, Estonia’s largest island. Saaremaa’s main city, Kuressaare, also features an impressive medieval castle, where we stopped briefly. Most of our time, however, was in the small hamlet of Kihelkonna, one of the gateways to Vilsandi National Park. Tiny as it may be, Estonia boasts a wealth of biodiversity and protected areas, and has more trees per capita than anywhere else in Europe. Vilsandi consists of dozens of small islands and a long stretch of Estonia’s westernmost coast, making it a key breeding area for various bird species, and in summer a destination for biking and water sports. But in a still cool May, the park was deserted except for the birds, some local farmers, and us. Even an orchid festival in Kihelkonna was not enough to draw in the tourists – we were the only guests in our church office turned bed and breakfast, one of only a couple accommodations in the area.

Kuressaare Castle

Kuressaare Castle

Kuressaare Castle (including more recent outer walls)

Bay, Vilsandi National Park

Marshland, Vilsandi National Park

Lighthouse, Vilsandi National Park

Marit at Papissaare harbor, Vilsandi National Park

Abandoned building, Kihelkonna

Kihelkonna church

I left Estonia wishing I had had another day or more to explore the country. But all vacations must come to an end, leaving only ideas for the next trip. And when that next trip happens, I’ll write about it here.

P.S. Special thank-you to Marit for putting up with my trip planning, poor navigation skills, and general impatience for these two weeks.