Estonia Cultural Tour

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Estonia Tour 2018 David Ritchie


My visit to Estonia to study ‘Managing our Natural Heritage and Cultural Heritage Assets’ , was developed by ARCH and funded by Erasmus+.



Estonia is situated on the south shoreline of the Gulf of Finland with its largest offshore Islands of Hiiamaa and Saaremaa facing westward into the Baltic Sea looking across to Sweden. As the most North Western part of the extensive east European Plain, the Estonian Mainland measures 210 to 290 km from the Russian Border in the East to its coast in the west and between 190 to 220 Km from the Latvian border in the south to the Gulf of Finland North Coast at most points across the width of the country. The land is predominately flat with an average height of only 50 m as this has been as result of the intensive erosion of several ice ages. The exception to the rule being the highest peak Suur Munamagi which does rise to 318 m in central southern Estonia.

There are around 1,500 islands around the Estonian coastline (Taylor, 2014). Western Estonia’s two largest Islands of Hiiamaa and Saaremaa have jagged but mainly low flat coastlines that range from rocky, stony or sandy beaches and like the mainland are generally free from hills and rarely more than 50 meters above sea level. There are some low Clint cliffs on these islands northern shores with higher cliffs up to 56m on the mainland coast. These steep limestone cliffs developed in the Ordovician period, 500 million years ago. These limestone formations are so special to Estonians that limestone is has been declared the national rock. When the glaciers retreated from Estonia after the Ice age the land as elsewhere around the Baltic, started to rise as it was released from the massive weight of the ice. This continues to rise at an average of 2 mm per year with new coastal meadows continually developing. In addition erratic rocks of all sizes are found all over but most common in the North having been transported from the Swedish coast by great movements of melting ice.

This has resulted in a special type of habitat of the stoney alvars found on the shores of the western Estonia mainland including the islands of Hiiamaa and Saaremaa. The limestone bedrock with its very thin topsoil covering is unique and hosts some fragile plant communities which struggle to grab hold of much between the pebbles. Carpets of flowers and orchids growing in open forest areas are the result. Man has used this new land from the start, where it has evolved into a new type of landscape that can hold the highest number of species per square meter in the whole of Europe. (Species found are from the Arctic, Scandinavian, Southern and Western European, Baltic as well as Eastern Russia.) When the soil progressively turns a bit richer junipers start to grow. In the past grazing kept the juniper bushes down. Reductions or often the total absence of grazing animals today are starting to result in the over dominance of Juniper which is now threatening this fragile vegetation by overgrowing it resulting on this diversity and richness of species being lost for ever

The Eastern border with Russia is dominated by the two large lakes, Lake Peipus and Lake Pskoy.

The average winter temperature is between -5⁰C and 5⁰C. A summer average temperature of 20⁰C is normal but 30⁰C can also occur in July. However the coastal areas tend to be cooler in summer and the inland areas are more of continental influenced climate, being cooler in winter and warmer in summer. There is no identifiable rainy season.

One fifth of the country is covered by peat bogs and marshes and it has the most extensive area of living peat bogs in Europe. Almost half of the Estonian territory is covered in forest and woodland. The country is on the border where Euro Siberian taiga meets the Northern part of Europe’s deciduous forests. Scots pine is the most common tree followed by silver birch and downy birch, Norway spruce, grey and common alder and aspen. On the sandy light soils common in Saaremaa, pines were often intermixed with birch. Many forest woodlands are of natural regeneration and generally managed less intensively than in other European countries.


Evidence shows that the current territory of Estonia has had human presence for at least 7000 years. Archaeological remains show that from 5000 years BC until the late Bronze Age, around 1000 years BC there was extensive farming, hunting and fishing.

Baltic Germans and Russians both found it convenient to dismiss evidence of Estonian art and society in order to portray historic Estonians as savages in need of civilization. Only since independence in 1990 has this evidence of Estonia’s historical civilization been seriously recognized and recorded.

While Estonia has no metal sources of its own, evidence also shows that some metal tools may have been imported from what is now Poland and other Baltic areas. While the Romans never made it to Estonia, the Vikings are said to have arrived peacefully around 800 AD with the primary aim of establishing a trade route through the country to access markets in the south. In around the 12th century Estonia was considered to be a state in its own right where it was strong enough to repel invaders and even raid other countries itself.

The following 700 years was then a steady procession of the suppressive invasions and foreign rule of Germans, Danes, Swedes, Russians and even combined rule of Germans and Danes, each at times along with the Russians. It would be 1991 before Estonia was a fully independent state in its own right again.

German influence in Estonia dates back to the early 1200 AD initially with religious missionaries followed by traders and land owners. This religious excuse to invade often hid the invaders real reason being their commercial and trade interests were repeated often in this 700 year history of continual invasion and occupation. Germans dominated trade, judiciary, and land ownership for hundreds of years suppressing the indigenous Estonians to a life of serfdom or peasantry. German presence lasted until World War 2 when they were driven out by the red army in 1944. Russia continually envied the ice free ports within Estonia as an all year round access to the open seas.

Estonia – Cultural Heritage & Natural History Heritage Tour 2018

Day 1

The flight from Glasgow to Schiphol (Amsterdam international airport) in Holland took just over an hour. This was followed by a 2.25 hour flight across Denmark and up the Baltic to the Estonian capital of Tallinn. As we neared our destination it was easy to see a flat landscape dominated by forest and woodlands with the occasional clearing of farmland and the odd house. Unlike many other European and world capitals, Tallinn is not dominated by high rise buildings and appears to blend into the surrounding woodland forest around it edges with the usual array of roads fanning straight out across the flat landscape around the city and into the surrounding countryside.

Estonia is in the EEC and also uses the Euro as its currency, as well as being a member of NATO. Tallinn is by far the largest city in Estonia with population of 420,000. The other major cities are: Tartu (98,000), Narva (63,000), Kohtla-Jarve (39,000), Parnu (42,000).

The quality of the road surfaces remained good to excellent at all times on our 320 km journey to N West Saaremaa. At about halfway, we boarded one of the two new roll on roll of ferries at Virtsu which operate a half hourly service from 6 am to 11 at night. At the other side we arrived at Kuivasta on the Island of Muhu. From here we crossed the 16km of Muhu to the causeway road between Muhu and Saaremaaa islands, then across a further 140 km of Saaramaa to Varava Farm.

We were met at the airport by Maarika Naagel from Viitong Heritage Tours who was to be our tour guide / historian for the week and taken to a hotel restaurant for lunch. When we started out on our journey to Saaremaa we left Tallinn on a dual carriageway which after a dozen miles or so, reduced to a wide well maintained two lane road. Traffic was a mix of Lorries, cars and busses. Overtaking was easy as traffic volume was moderate becoming light, the speed limit was 90km per hour and the road was wide and mostly very straight.

On the journey I saw evidence of 3 or 4 mostly dilapidated remains of Soviet state or collective farms. Up until 1990 there were more than 330 of these who normally employed 300 to 400 personnel and carried herds of 2000 cattle and 2400 pigs. Production was often supported by feeding imported Russian grain with output meat often being exported back to Russia.

These farms were progressively broken down into smaller privately operated units of up to 50 Hectares from the 1990s. By 2003 there were around 36,000 small farms averaging 21.5 Hectares which consolidated down in 2010 to around 19,000 farms of 48 Hectares. In 2016 farms actively farming cattle, pigs’ poultry or bees was down to below 7,000 units. It is common to see lots of small holdings or houses with the traditional large potato and vegetable patches and orchards of predominately apple trees which were all laden with mature fruit throughout our travels around Saaremaa.

Our host small farm Varava, was surrounded by trees with a clearing of pasture at one side of the farmhouse. We were 150 m off the main tarmac, along a winding broken gravel road with more properties further beyond along the road. Accommodation was in traditional wooden outbuildings with an upstairs accessible by outside stairs and a similar style toilet, shower and sauna building plus a more recently constructed Kitchen restaurant again with accommodation at each end.

Sauna / Shower/ Toilet Kitchen Restaurant + Bedrooms Traditional Chalet

All of the buildings surrounded the grass covered orchard with the sizable farmhouse looking on to an open field area beyond. The surrounding woodland was mainly an established mix of pine and birch. In the garden / orchard there was a chestnut tree planted in 1966 by owner Otto’s grandfather as well as an oak planted on Otto’s wedding day. The homestead house was typical of many other dwellings in the area and had untypically in this, been in the family for 7 generations.

Our tour guide Maarika, explained that long historical connections with a place or area is exception rather than the rule. As a result of Estonia’s oppressive years of war and occupation where many people in the area were deported from Saaremaa coupled to the recent population movement from rural areas into towns and cities. This can be seen as it is not uncommon to see abandoned derelict property in the outlying rural areas.

Day 2

Our first outing was by cycle through the woodlands within the Vilsandi National Park which is one of the oldest nature reserves in Europe. The woodland was typically of natural regeneration consisting of mainly pines and birch plus random oaks, limes, juniper etc, growing on mostly shallow sandy soils. We passed houses with large trees often growing within meters of house walls and other buildings.

We arrived at Vilsandi National Park visitors centre built of reconstructed stone walled building with a red tile roof. Inside clean bare stone walls dominated with very tastefully timberwork along with very nice metalwork inside to give it a modern but traditional feel. The Vilsandi National Park has its origins way back to 1910 which is exceptional to the other 4 National parks in Estonia with very recent histories.

Visitor Centre German Landowners House

Our presentation included references to the unique habitat of the park including the Marsh Orchid and a study of bats which has won our junior ranger Karl an international young scientist award. Adjacent is a very nice looking German landowner’s house. After World War 2 the Soviet Russians forcibly took all such properties over for their own, or communist party uses.

Russian School Outside Theatre

We walked through the local village where we saw the large Lutheran church with its bell in a separate building on a neighboring mound. Lunch was provided at the local primary school which was built by the Russians and is very much a 1960 s functional square concrete structure with a very spacious interior capable of accommodating over 220 pupils but now is used by less than 20 local children.

The widespread school grounds included grassed areas, an outside theatre with bench seating for hundreds, playground swing and assault course, a large cultivated vegetable growing area in addition to other amenities. The main shop in the village was the Co-operative shop and post office.

The first afternoon visit was to the historical lime and tar distilling park where we met local Historical Curator Prit Penv, whose enthusiasm in the history and associated skills were shown to us in an English introduction film, followed by a demonstration tour showing us the development of lime burning through time, its qualities, uses, and its importance to local industries and the economy. Saaremaa stands on limestone bedrock so it’s a locally available stone in most areas. Prit also demonstrated and educated us on Pie Tar, another locally manufactured product where again we were shown production processes, its uses and importance throughout Saaremaa history.

Our visit to Leedri, village of the year 2015, started with a heritage tour of grounds of Liisi Kuivjog’s garden outbuildings including an old blacksmiths shop and sauna. We then viewed her recently expanded Juniper syrup production factory and its product for us all to sample. From here the previous Mayor Jaanika Tiitson lead the way as we walked across the village towards the park to the fairly recent village hall and its associated outbuildings. Once again the clean timber construction looked perfect in its setting in the middle of the field within the perimeter of the large village green. Jaanika was actively involved in regenerating community spirit within the village, which like others in western Saaremaa had been decimated in the not so long ago Soviet years of oppression and occupation. Many people were systematically removed from their homes and deported to far flung parts of Russia or Siberia usually never to return.

Traditional Stone Walls Village Green and Hall

We were shown the cold remnants of buildings and small farms from which the occupants were forcibly removed and never seen again. Traditional stone walls survive from the past as well as a restored heritage windmill on the on the outskirts of the village. The rejuvenated village had a relatively prosperous look about it where many professionals travel to work outside the village and newer housing blended in with the old. We had supper in the very nice traditional Lumanda restaurant, dining on tasty traditional fare.

Day 3

Travelling west we passed through a soviet military only area. Again it was easy to see evidence of abandoned small farm ruins on the west coast and a glimpse of the Kaugatuma limestone cliff. Further south and down the Sorve peninsula the shoreline at the water’s edge is little more than a meter or so above the high water mark. The land is dominated again by sandy light soil and random stones and boulders deposited from the ice age.

On arrival to Sorve Wool factory we were greeted by Egon and Merike Sepp. Egon has been farming sheep and cattle here at Sorve for the last 7 years or so and wife Meriki has developed a wool works with a range of wool spinning and weaving production machines all under a common roof with the living space. The area around the farm saw some of the fiercest battles of WW 2 with the result of an abundance of artillery shell cases, soldier helmets and human remains often discovered when the surface is excavated or moved. Egon was in the process of making hay at the time of our visit which he interrupted to demonstrate and helped a group of us decorate and form a small ring from the recovered metal from a recovered shell casing using his range of metal cutting and forming tools. Others from our group were taught how to hand weave a woolen scarf or small rugs.

Spinning Machine Boulders in Fields

Lunch was again traditional Estonian fare in Ansekula tea house which was restored by local community volunteers with help from European money. From here we experienced and were taught the importance of singing within the Saaremaa traditional culture by Mari Lepik and her daughters. We walked out to remains of Ansekula church destroyed in 1944 beside the now restored lighthouse site, where we learned about traditional clothes and dress, then to Mari s mum’s house where we were shown round a traditional farmhouse garden. We then participated in traditional farmhouse skills including wool spinning, harvesting and preparing fruit, traditional jam making, picking potatoes and vegetables plus soup making, which we all readily consumed in the family garden for supper.

On the way back we visit a Viking ship burial site, the first of 2 only recently discovered in 2008 when excavating ground for road improvements. Had this been discovered in Soviet times little interest would have been shown towards this important historical discovery. These Viking graves date back to around 750 AD and further confirm the early Scandinavian Viking activities on Saaremaa. Our final activity of the day was a swim in the Baltic Sea (Bay of Riga) with its sandy beach and was surprisingly warm. The temperature remained around 32 degrees C for the first 5 days of our visit.

Day 4

Flounders prepared for smoking Kipsaare headland

We started the day with a demonstration of fish gutting and preparation for smoking or salt drying as a means of fish preservation for future use. Saaremaa people regularly relied on the availability of the flatfish shallow sea flounder as a valuable source of protein to supplement their diet. The fish were loaded into wire girdles and hung inside the steel smoker which used Juniper wood to produce the smoke.

On route travelling out the Harilaid peninsula we came across the relics of the area Russian security check point, which beyond, indigenous Estonians were not allowed. It was effectively the Estonian Berlin wall similarly designed to stop Estonians from fleeing occupation across the relative short crossing to freedom in Sweden. The site is now open to all with an 11km circular walk along the west shoreline and along the remains of a Russian security track. The coast again is only 2 meters or less above the shoreline where the tides are less than 0.4 of a meter. The coast is a mixture of gravel and sandy parts with pioneering Juniper bushes common along with sea kale and rosehip bushes. There was the rusting remains of a Russian torpedo boat half buried in the sand dunes. Kipsaare lighthouse was leaning slightly and standing in the sea around 50 meters from the sandy beach with a newly forming spit of curving sand beach extending beyond the headland. The route back follows the adjacent sandy coastline dominated by Dunes with an inland lake between the tapered coastlines and bordered by a planted pine forest which looked like it was struggling in most places on the very sandy poor soil of the peninsula as there was little other competitive growth.

On return we were involved in a traditional wood working workshop where we all managed to produce an article of kitchenware from pre prepared Juniper wood and had smoked flounder for supper along with potato and vegetables.

That night we sampled the delights of traditional sauna. Maarika explained that sauna is a very important Estonian tradition. Many houses had a sauna built usually away from the dwelling house as it was deemed as a fire risk as a result of the wood burning heat source as was ours at Varava. The fire was lit around two hours before it would be ready. Also at our wood working class we were shown how to make Juniper, birch and oak string bound twig bunches which are used to scent and whip water onto the hot stones on top of the fire and each other. Whole families normally attend sauna together, traditionally without dress. We men decided to let the girls go together to save any blushes, we took our turn when they cooled off outside the hut in the evening air, flavoring the experience which is very relaxing and calming, especially when having a beer.

Day 5

We visited Kuressaare Castle which has in recent years been much restored, especially the outside protection walls. Kuresaare dates back to the 14th century when its original owners were the Livonian bishops. From 1559 to 1645 it was sold to the new Danish rulers then was passed over to the Swedes as part of a peace treaty. It was Swedish from 1645 to 1721. From then Russians drove out the Swedes and ruled over Estonia until 1918. In 1711 the Russians mined the bastions and set the buildings inside on fire. It lay in ruins until repairs started in 1788 and lasted to the turn of the century. It was then again sold to the Saameraa Knighthood in the earl mid 1800s as it was not deemed to be important to the defense of Russia at the time. It was then used for civilian purposes with some of the outer walls dismantled for their stone throughout the remaining 1800s.

Kuressaare Castle Horse Farm

Inside the main square building rises up behind very thick inner defense walls and a very significant vertical port cullies gate. The new director Rita met us to take us round on a guided tour of the basement areas with chapel and adjacent rooms which can be used periodically to host events. The upper floors house the main Saaremaa museum with one area purely about the second Russian occupation period from 1944 to 1991. It was not until Estonia’s independence in the 1990s that work finally started to repair the castle to that of today.

On passage eastward we visited the largest recorded meteor site in Europe and its new build tourist facilities constructed of local stone and décor inside. The outcome is a very pleasing high quality build. The restaurant has a very nice new, but traditional feel to it inside with its lovely creative tables and chairs and large modern windows. The meteor site is certainly worth the visit and of unique scientific significance.

At our next venue at the horse breeding and training farm at Tihuse on Muhu Island where we were greeted by two of the young trainer girls preparing two horses each with a trap. We set out on our ride down the farm roads and then through the adjacent woodlands. This farm has up to 200 breeding and working horses on both the farm grounds and a nearby grazing island. Again the buildings were of a very traditionally styled new build, situated in an open spacious environment. We were taken on ride through the woodlands on an ancient cultural trail, accompanied by one of our two driving mare’s foul running freely alongside and eventually arrived at the wishing stone where we all made a wish for somebody dear to us. On return we were shown through the visitor centre and its unique feature of an oak tree in middle of the room complete with branches extended. We were told of its old Muhu cultural importance as well as the importance of forest spiritual power and of its importance to all Baltic People.

Next we visited Liiva village and the old wooden Parsonage House originally built in 1839 where it replaced a previous building which also stood on the stone base but was destroyed by fire. It is a rare survivor of a building of its time which was last used as a school with the new school immediately beside. Walls are lathed sometimes with reeds and used horsehair to support the lime plaster covering. The local community and volunteer custodians still have to decide upon the final plans for the building.

On the final event of the day we boarded a replica Viking influenced clinker built boat The Uisk of about 15 m in length which was recently built on the Island of Muhu and constructed of Baltic pine. It was recently fitted with sails only a few days before which the crew of two part time sailors said had not been fully commissioned. We motored on the boat engine travelling from Kuivastu harbour along the coast for 7 km or so and had supper of stew potato and vegetables (very nice) on the way under the setting sun of another very nice warm day, returning again back to the newish harbour at Kuivasta. We retire to local accommodation in family house cabins in shared rooms again a mix of traditional but modern design.

Day 6 and 7

We started the morning with a refreshing swim in the fairly warm Baltic Sea where the beach was mostly solid or broken limestone gravel. Return to Tallinn via 20 minute Ferry and 2 hour trip across the mainland to accommodation in a large Russian square block built hotel in the Tallinn suburbs with both rail and bus links into the city.

Tallinn’s old city is claimed to have one of the best preserved middle age walled cities in Europe. In spite of its history of occupation by Germans, Danes, Swedes and Russians it was never seriously damaged when it’s occupying nations changed, unlike the severe destruction experienced in other principle Estonian towns and cities. Our tour guide Maarika along with her assistant professor Riin Altala explained that with the exception of the last Russian take over in 1944 when a significant part as of one of old town streets was seriously bombed. The Germanic town square is very pretty, owing its influence and design to the dominance of the Baltic traders who were prominent within the city for hundreds of years of being a principle trading port of the Hanseatic League. Many of the most dominant and impressive buildings were creations of the Danish, German and Swedish, historical influence periods from Tallinn’s past. There is also a very impressive looking Russian Orthodox cathedral with some less illustrious creations from the recent Russian Soviet occupations between the 1950 s and 1980s including our hotel. The city grew in size from under 68,000 during the late 1890s to around 430.000 today benefiting from a steady march from countryside to city throughout the last 100 years.

City Gates Suburban House from 1880s

Rinnii took us around a suburb of the old town near the railway station where we were shown the standard house design of the 1870s onwards which consisted of stone based Wooden 2 leveled structure made from Baltic pine timber. Multiple homes shared a common staircase which reduced construction costs and build times. We were also shown examples of suburban houses built as seen in Saaremaa with trees almost touching their sides being built within the recent Soviet rule period. The Soviet era is commemorated in the museum of occupations which focuses on the emotional effects of occupation, persecution and suppression had on the people. The other exhibit is about 8 Km from the city at Tallinn TV tower and is more about the food shortages and the limitations of domestic aids including cars between the 1950s and 1990s. The TV tower is a spectacular soviet concrete tower 314m to the top with a visitor viewing deck at 170 meters and completed in time for the Soviet Olympics where sailing competitions were staged in Estonia.

The old walled town of Tallinn has many very old but beautiful buildings, all mostly in a very good state of repair and buzzing with activity. Endless attractions, bars and restaurants all busy with people from everywhere on the planet as well as the European and Asian tourists. You will be hard pressed to find so many spectacular old historical buildings all in one place elsewhere in the world, which have survived through so much of a nation’s traumatic history.

Overall Estonia appears to have come out of the Soviet years of suppression very rapidly and now has a dynamic buzz and proud satisfaction about itself that is definitely as strong as can be witnessed anywhere else in Europe, but most important they appear to be a very proud and happy nation! This expression within their nation is witnessed in their fondness of art, good design and bright colour, used wherever possible and appropriate! In only 27 years, Estonian culture, has resurfaced again and fast redeveloping itself along with much of its forgotten Natural, Cultural and Heritage Assets, which have been very suppressed and often completely buried for so many centuries of its past.

Estonia has demonstrated that it can present its natural, cultural and heritage assets for all to see!

The result is that now, Estonian people are definitely some of the most modern, proud, reflective and openly friendly nationals I have ever met!

I would like to especially thank Arch for making the experience possible and convey my special thanks to Maarika Naagel for her endless enthusiasm and efforts to show, explain and provide first class guidance throughout the whole tour.

All has combined to produce a unique and memorable educational experience I will never forget!


Taylor, N. (2014) Estonia: The Bradt travel guide. Chalfont St Peter: Bradt Travel Guides Ltd.

Statistics Estonia (2017) Available at https: (Assessed 17 August 2018).

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