Our guide Maarika Naagel coined a phrase early on in our journey. She told us we would meet many “positive crazy people” on our Estonian adventure. She assured us that this was a great thing – we would see! With a glint in her eye she informed the group that she herself was indeed a positive crazy person. So, in a new country, unable to speak the language and with no other options, we all clambered aboard the bus with a self-confessed crazy person at the wheel and began our Estonian adventure.
Aado Haandi – Värava Farm
Our home for the majority of our stay on Saaremaa Island was Värava Farm, a collection of traditional “ginger bread” houses built in the 1830s. Aado Haandi’s family have lived here for 7 generations. As if to prove it, he starts telling us the history of a towering chestnut tree, planted here by his grandfather in 1893. His historical botanical tour continues, taking in a thriving hedge he planted as a boy and an oak tree planted on his wedding day 35 years ago.
Aado seems like a man who can turn his hand to anything and has a pragmatism required of an islander. For example, being able to catch, prepare and cook your own fish is vital for Saaremaa natives. Aado has been asked to give us a masterclass in the preparation of an Estonian favourite – smoked flounders. Those of us with strong stomachs and a can do attitude huddled together around a bountiful bucket and less then expertly, began to hack out the undesirable parts. The sight of a group of foreigners inexpertly gutting fish gathered a bit of attention, but no one seems surprised at what we are doing, and in fact it turns out that each Estonian present has a different method for preparing the fish, usually passed down through older family members. Later that night (I’m sure after Aado has cleaned up our piscine massacre) we skewered and smoked the fish in a metal cabinet over a juniper fire. The fish can be eaten straight from the smoker and goes nicely with a beer, but ours are served up with potatoes – delicious!
On the 4th evening of our trip, our travels and busy schedule have caught up with us and by evening, the group is visibly flagging… time to prep the sauna! Aado gets the burner going and the ever exuberant Maarika wrangles her sleepy Brits from all corners of the farm. She is determined that we must all get the full Estonian experience and that means we must sauna – there is no escape!
The sauna is an important part of Estonian culture and most people use one regularly. Traditionally the sauna is in a separate building, away from the house, as the wood burner which provides the heat poses a fire risk. It is the custom to have a weekly sauna, where whole families and groups of friends come together to recharge after a hard working week. Using their traditional botanical knowledge, bundles of birch, juniper and other therapeutic herbs are used to splash water onto the heat source, creating a steamy aromatic therapy for any ailment. The bundles are even used for massage (as some of the luckier members of the group discovered!). But far from just being a place of relaxation, the sauna has deeper significance to Estonians. In the past, expectant mothers would be taken to the sauna to give birth in the warm and relaxing space. At the end of life, people would be taken to the sauna to peacefully pass on. It was also a place where the sick would be tended and recuperate. Negotiations of power and business were also carried out in the sauna, with each person stripped naked, able to talk as equals in the humidity of the sauna. To the forest people of Estonia, the sauna is a place for bonding, of whole life, and equality, and still has an important place in modern times.
Priit Penu – Lime and Tar Distilling Park, Saare County
Priit began our visit to his Lime and Tar Distilling Park by passing round tubs containing a viscous black substance. It looked like treacle and I had to fight the urge to stick my fingers in. Passing it around he encouraged us to take a smell. The members of the group expecting a pleasantly sweet treacle smell were taken by surprise at the deep burnt aroma – slightly pleasant but overwhelming. Nice but not. Yet I still went back for another whiff. The tar in these tubs has been made from pine, birch and juniper and seems to have a many uses, from treating wood to medical issues. Priit is rightly proud of his product, which he produces alongside lime mortar and paint. His lime park has been open for 5 years but he has been producing high quality lime here since 1994. His products are bought for use on old and new buildings, set hard as stone and can last for 100 years.
Priit, who has a background as a soil scientist, had this crazy idea when he discovered a number of wrecked lime kilns in the area, decided to restore them and began to produce lime using techniques that haven’t changed in 500 years. The company he set up began selling lime paint and mortar to renovate older buildings, but in recent time the market has grown to include new builds too due to the non-toxicity and environmentally friendly nature. The park was added to the business when Priit renovated a small Moravian chapel (originally built in 1879) to serve as visitor centre, where we now sit sampling his product. He offers guided tours to tourists and students and the park is open for anyone to explore.
Priit took us on a tour of his lime and tar pits, following a trail though woodlands, and we visited a number of kilns. The park had modern, clean and detailed interpretation panels, which explain the process of lime and tar production and describes the renovation of the kilns. The scale of the restoration is incredible, both in terms of number of kilns and the effort required to convert what look like piles of rubble into working kilns. It is clear from the number of kilns that lime production was once a very important and lucrative industry in this part of Estonia.
As if reconstructing the kilns was not enough work, the interpretation boards dotted along our route had been translated into 14 languages. Yes, people from 14 different countries can understand how lime is made in their own language!
As Priit keeps telling us, his product is good, and it sells well, but his achievement here isn’t just the product, it is his desire to share the process with other and to celebrate a forgotten industrial heritage. He is passionate and interesting and he clearly loves making lime – he sounded really miffed at the recent dry weather which has prevented him from safely lighting the kiln that has been packed, ready and waiting for months.
Liisi Kuivjõgi – Orbu Farm, Leedri
T o survive on an island, you must be positive and creative says Maareka as we arrive at Orbu juniper farm. Liisi, the owner, is the creative person to whom our guide refers. She takes us on a tour of this ancient farm, which, like all homes in Saareema, is surrounded by a huge garden and bursting with fruit and vegetables. Liisi shows us to their fantastically old sauna and adjacent blacksmiths – like stepping back in time – which is filled with wonderful old farming knick-knacks. We have a quick game of “guess what this does”! Sadly, the beautiful old sauna can no longer be used as its ancient timbers are not fire proof but Liisi hoped one day to be able to restore it.
Not everything here is old however, these farmers have come up with a new idea – juniper syrup. Using old farming techniques, Liisi farms juniper, combining it with fruits, nuts and plants to create flavoured syrups to be used in baking, added to cooking sauce and drinks, served with ice-cream, eaten with bread and well, just about any other use you can think of! Liisi and her mother started production in the farm kitchen, but with help from an EU grant, now have a state of the art syrup producing factory. We tasted every flavour they had to offer, competing with the wasps, who seemed to love the syrups as much as we did. At Orbu farm they celebrate the old and the new together, embracing the skills of the past, adding a modern twist, to ensure the survival of this rural community.
Jaanika Tiitson – Former mayor of Leedri Village
There has been a village at Leedri for 500 years and its high stone walls and winding road layout are protected cultural artefacts. The village was crowned Estonian Village of the Year in 2015, so a title a long time in the coming! The former Mayor, Jaanika, gives us a guided tour of the village, beginning in the community hall, a venue for regular community celebrations. Surrounding us on the walls of the hall are photos of local families. Jaanika proudly explains that the community is as tight knit as the houses.
This community spirit is fostered by keeping each house in the family, maintaining ties between the past and the present. As the older generation pass on, in the first instance, houses will be taken on by relatives. A result of the long family ties to property is that the village has a good balance of old and young, which is a great boost for community spirit. Jaanika also acknowledges that welcoming the odd “hipster” from Tallinn also helps to keep the community fresh and interesting (apparently a music producer from the big city has recently moved to Leedri). This village seems idyllic and reminds me of a community on the western isles in Scotland, and just like on the isles, the people of Leedri need to have multiple marketable skills, such as quilting or juniper production, to allow them to survive in this remote area.
Jaanika also tells us of less happy times during Soviet occupation of 1945 until 1991. She points to a small abandoned farm and explains that the family were removed and sent to Siberia, their farm taken over as a lookout post by the Soviet army. The land was never reused, so is just left as a reminder of a horrific period of Estonian history. The risk of deportation was always present during the occupation, with those seen as a threat removed, which included teachers, doctors and other well educated people. Families were forced to pool resources and animals, and their movement was severely restricted. The occupying forces feared the locals would flee to neighbouring Scandinavia, so despite Leedri’s position on the coast, the villagers never got to see the sea. This first-hand account was a startling and thought provoking experience.
Our tour of Leedri finished at the town’s restored windmill which Jaanika had campaigned to save. It doesn’t mill anymore but is a building that unites the community by preserving shared happier memories of childhood.
Merike and Egon Sepp – Sõrve Wool Factory
The Sõrve peninsula, the most south westerly point of Estonia, saw some of the heaviest battles of WWII. In the course of their labours, farmers still find German shells, shrapnel and even bodies. During the period of Soviet occupation that followed the war, large areas of Estonia were cleared of residents, with whole families sent to far flung reaches of Russia. Egon Sepp’s family was one of those forcibly removed, ending up in Germany. Egon’s family, including his grandfather, walked back to Estonia and were amongst the first families to resettle in Sõrve. More recently, a second clearance has taken place, this time voluntarily, as the remoteness of the peninsula combined with the attraction of city life draws people away.
Egon and Merike, along with their 2 sons and daughter, returned to the land of their ancestors 7 years ago, bought an area of farmland for sheep and cattle and settled near-by. They are the only family left in the village as other families left to find an easier life in larger settlements. Many of their friends and family questioned why the couple would uproot their young family and move to the middle of nowhere to start a business from nothing. This “crazy” couple built a wool factory on their land where they make yarn from the wool of their 100 traditional Saareema sheep. They also utilise clippings from the local dog grooming parlour and from their own beautifully fluffy canine pets! The work is hard, and the couple admit that they sometimes stay over at the factory to get things finished. Further income comes from the conservation grazing management to prevent the scrubbing over of woodland meadow known as alvers, which have a high floral diversity. This unique habitat is a result of dry thin soils, limestone bedrock and warmer temperatures, due to closeness to the sea. As farmers leave the peninsula, with no grazing pressure to maintain it, the alver habitat is being grown over by forest.
There is no grid power in this part of the peninsula, so Egon undertook the reams of paperwork required to install a field-full of solar panels. In the end, it took a visit from the then Prime Minister, who was so impressed with their determination to re-settle Sõrve that he made the red tape disappear, almost overnight!
The couple ran two workshops for us. Merike demonstrated traditional weaving, creating thick-weave woollen throws, while Egon, a keen Viking re-enactor, showed us how to make Scandinavian jewellery from metal salvaged from German shell casing. It was lovely to have a hand-made memento to take home with is. As we worked, to ease the burden of our labours, Merike and Maarika serenaded us with Estonian folk songs, just as her ancestors would have done in days gone by.
Mari Lepik, Anseküla Village, Sörulase
Mari Lepik is on a mission to reconnect with her true culture – to know it; live it; use it and pass it on. Mari was probably the most impressive and busy of our positive crazy people. Not content with completing a PhD in Biology and raising 5 children, she is a driving force in her community. Growing up she had heard stories of beautiful woodland meadows, of a thriving community where men fished while women working the fields in one of the most peopled areas of Estonia. After the Second World War, under Soviet occupation the population crashed and the beautiful biodiverse meadows became overgrown with trees. As well as making everyday life difficult and removing people from their land, the Soviet regime had discouraged celebration of local culture, trying to remove any sense of self and community – they wanted Estonia to be part of the Soviet Union, and any differentiation within regions threatened this. Estonian culture was watered down and generalised, ignoring regional differences and local tradition. Knowledge of traditional dress, songs and games started to fade from memory.
After true independence in 1991, the people of Sörulase had the freedom to act as a community once more and to celebrate their small part of the country. Mari first became involved in a project to rebuild their local tea house. This building had had many functions over the years, but it was as a school that it had become the heart of the community. Mari herself had attended the school and had many happy memories, so wanted to save it for her community. She felt sad that her own children could not experience education in this wonderful old building. The restored tea room opened its doors in 2013 and serves traditional Estonian fayre inspired by the original menus from the turn of the 20th Century.
Having grown frustrated with the lack of knowledge of local Estonian culture, Mari then turned her attention to discovering as much as she could. Using her academic mind, she researched the cultural history of Estonia and Sörulase county in particular, discovering that much of what was in the reference books was generalised and often wrong. She began to collate information which she felt better reflected true Estonian clothing and how it was worn. She acted on her findings, by designing and creating traditional clothing for herself and her family and by wearing them day to day. Along with her daughters, she hand stitched traditional bags and encouraged others to do the same. She researched traditional children’s games and songs, and taught them at local schools (and to an enthusiastic group of British visitors!). Mari has put together teaching packs to share her knowledge with as many young Estonians as possible.
Her greatest achievement however was publishing a children’s ABC book, a type of textbook used by all Estonian school children. Mari’s Sörulase version, which was 9 years in the making, is packed with traditional stories, local songs and dialect and celebrates the unique culture of the area. The book is beautifully illustrated and is a joy to flick through, even if you can’t understand a word!
Somehow, in-between raising her family and her ongoing study, Mari also has time to help her mother manage a traditional small holding, spin yarn (using traditional methods of course!) and is a member of a folk choir, where she encourages true understanding and connection to the songs. Mari believes passionately that to truly understand a culture, you have to do more than study it, you have to live it. She is a truly remarkable woman who follows her own philosophy and is determined to pass it on to the next generation.
Muhu Heritage School, Liiva
Our guide to the Heritage School greets us with a baby in a sling around her waist and another young daughter patiently waiting outside a beautiful old wooden building – another mum trying to preserve Estonian culture for her family. The Heritage School, now a protected cultural monument, originally served as the parsonage for the adjacent church and was built in 1832. Over the years the building has been used as a government office, doctor’s surgery, cinema and school, but is currently in a sorry state. It is now safely in the hands of community volunteers, who have set up a charity to restore it to its former glory and allow it to serve the community once again.
Walking in through the front door, I think we are all shocked at the amount of work required. The floor boards are pulled up, there is barely any plaster on the walls and piles of rubble block access to some rooms. In one of the more restored areas, an umbrella hangs from the ceiling to catch drips from a hole in the roof. It seems, the more layers they peel back, the more work they discover needs done. But even in this state the old manor house has started to benefit the community. Pupils from the local school (which abuts the Heritage School) have begun a project to restore the old wooden windows and the 8th grade have produced a book, collating stories and information to celebrate the building’s history.
Our guide can see past the mess, the required work and inevitable headaches. She is absolutely committed to this old beautiful building. Another strong family woman doing amazing things with such great drive and determination to celebrate a piece of history. Whatever this building finally becomes, it will have a role in educating generations of children as to what it is to be Estonian.
Martin Kivisoo – Tihuse Horseriding Farm, Muhu
Prior to the arrival of Christianity, which came with German occupation (“Christianity by sword”), the people of Estonia were nature believers and followed pagan rituals. They respected Mother Earth for her ability to make the flowers bloom in spring and for providing a harvest in autumn. Nature believers would open their hearts and minds to the power of the forest and made offerings to the Forest Father, the soul of the forest. When they left the forest they felt refreshed – as if they had taken some of the Forest Father’s power with them. When asked why ancient Estonians haven’t cut down all their trees, as we have in the UK, Maarika reacts in horror and can’t even bring herself to answer – “No! You just don’t do it!!” is all she can muster! Estonians still think of themselves as “forest people” and there still seems to be a strong connection to nature in modern times – in fact it is forbidden to cut down trees on your private property, meaning that most have pine trees all over their yards, including right next to their dwellings.
Martin Kivisoo’s family have owned Tihuse Horseriding Farm for 300 years. Martin is a forest person and as well as caring for 100 horses and 300 cattle, he has created an Ancient Culture Trail which allows riders to explore the many pagan sites around the farm. Martin cannot join us in person when we visit, but he ensures that we get the full pagan experience. His guides take us on horse carriage to the Crossing of 7 Roads, a clearing in the woodland where many trails meet. Such places are suitable for greeting the Forest Father, who dwells in the West and by making an offering of grain we earn access onto his lands and ensure the animals will accept us into their forest home. This is apparently also a good place to greet the lighting master Uku, who mediates wishing rites, and so we each take it in turn to tap three times on the wishing rock, taking care to keep our gaze west and our knee pushed firmly against the rock. We cannot wish for ourselves, only for others. The guides take the rituals so seriously that we wonder if our wishes might actually come true.
By remembering the pagan past, Martin is keeping Estonian culture alive, honouring those that have gone before and acknowledging a history that still shapes modern Estonians, many of whom still see themselves as forest people. They have managed to hold onto a greater connection to nature than their pagan cousins in Britain, which is important to their cultural identity. As he puts it, “By remaining attached to our ancient perception of life, we preserved our identity and remained whole as a people”.
At the end of our trip, as we drive along the very straight Estonian roads towards the airport (in what has become known as the A-team van), the original positive crazy person is at the wheel, brandishing her fist and scolding other road users. I understand now what Maarika meant by positive crazy people.
Each of our hosts has taken on a huge cultural challenge, that to some would seem impossible. To open a thriving wool business on a remote peninsula; to write a cultural history text book; or imagine a tourist attraction from a heap of old rubble, requires vision, drive, creativity and above all a determination to see it through. To do so an individual needs to persevere and overcome; to answer difficult questions and to make things happen, and of course necessitates huge amounts of positivity. This positive drive and passion creates a glint in the eye that some may interpret as crazy!
Something that ties all the projects together is family or family ties to land. This is where their passion comes from. For Martin, Egon, Aado, Jaanika and Maarika it is about celebrating their ancestral home, and with Mari and our Heritage School guide, it is about connecting their families to their local culture. Maarika spoke of a belief that the people of Saaremaa have maintained a deeper family connection to the land than is common in many modern cultures, an unspoken feeling that is passed down the generations and creates a true sense of home. Perhaps this is what we have seen in our positive crazy hosts and many are not just sharing it, but are living it.
A second source of determination to celebrate being Estonian, is the relatively new freedom to do so. After centuries of occupation by Denmark, Sweden, Germany and Russia and experiencing cultural oppression, the people are now free to celebrate and share their story. Occupation links to the desire to remain connected with your land, family ties and culture, as it is these values that are under threat of being lost. So it doesn’t matter if you are playing kids’ games or making lime – you are celebrating your culture – not because you are crazy – but because you are free to and with their positivity they are making up for lost time!