Estonia – Ya (Baltic) Beauty!
Rhona Maxwell – RSPB
The following is a brief report from an ARCH network trip to Estonia in August 2019, funded through the Erasmus+ programme and hosted by Maarika Naagel of Vitong – Heritage Tours Estonia.
“If you don’t know where you’ve come from, you don’t know where you’re going.”
It’s difficult to remember now what my preconceptions of Estonia were. I knew something of the country’s Soviet history and was looking forward to exploring a still largely un-touristy part of Europe. During the course of the week it became clear that it is important to Estonian’s that the rest of the world know what they have been through, that since regaining their independence in 1991 they’ve worked hard to re-establish a political and cultural climate that for almost half a century wasn’t possible. There is huge pride in everything from their language and morals to their wildlife and apple trees. Traditions (dress, song, recipes, sauna…) are now making a comeback, and many people have dedicated themselves to making sure they will never run the risk of dying out again. This is no war-torn country, painted in shades of grey. It’s vibrant, full of energy, and ready to show off its assets to the rest of the world. There’s a very clear sense that the Estonian people know where they’ve been, and they know where they’re going.
The capital city Tallinn is like walking through a film set. The old town, where every building seems worthy of an architectural beauty contest, was possible to explore in an afternoon with our excellent guide Markus, and we squeezed in a pit stop at Maarika’s favourite café for some local Sea Buckthorn juice and gorgeous cakes. Native trees are fiercely protected in Estonia (especially pine) so even here, everything has been built around them. Even the trees are happy here, boasting long lichen strands to demonstrate the air quality wherever you go. Tallinn has all the hallmarks of a modern city – seamless transport links (trams, trains and buses), trendy restaurants and alongside big commercial shops sit galleries and studios selling handmade jewellery, hats, textiles, wood work and art.
“What I value is the naked contact of a mind.”
-Virginia Woolf, The Pargiters
What drives me is human connection. The power, healing and learning that can take place by simply listening to someone else’s story never ceases to amaze me. I’ve come home from my trip all the better for having met some of our incredible guides each day, and the company of our host Maarika, who quite frankly should be at the forefront of any marketing campaign for Estonia. A one-woman ambassador for everything Estonian.
Particular highlights included Taavi Tuisk who as well as being able to walk us through his job as a tutor at a vocational school teaching traditional boat building is also a well-known folk dancer, member of the national guard and father of three. He talked so warmly of his students, showing off their work with pride including a finished vessel which took one man 460 hours to build and is soon to be launched.
Mari Lepik, a woman on a mission to conserve and teach the traditional skills of her Sõrve Peninsula ancestors is a force to be reckoned with. Mother of five, with a PHD in biology, who has written a published account of Sõrve traditions for future generations. She established the Sõrve visitor centre that I was so glad to have spent an afternoon in with her, and could have listened to her all day. Some of her children also joined us, and performed some runic singing as a family. The whole group were delighted to also take part in some children’s games with them, and hugely impressed by Mari. The world would do well to have more people like her in it, and I’ll be taking home a little of her approach to life, and motherhood, with me.
Jaak Mall, the head curator at Haapsalu Castle and one of three people responsible for it’s impressive restoration over the last 2 years, is someone that is impossible to forget. The nearest comparison I can make would be a combination of Rikki Fulton and Vinny Jones. We were lucky to be shown around the castle by Yaak himself, a personal touch that I doubt will be possible in future with increasing visitor numbers. They opened the doors only a month previously, and have already seen 16,000 visitors. Yaak tells us that he was insistent there should be no gimmicky technology used in the display, and wanted the castle to speak for itself. He was right to do so, as the result is in fact a cutting edge, sleek, elegant restoration that will stand the test of time.
Terves Kehas, Terve Vaim (Healthy Body, Healthy Mind)
Estonian’s are big on looking after themselves. A lot of what we might call ‘self-care’ is weaved into the very fabric of life for them.
Estonian’s enjoy an (at least) weekly sauna, either in the comfort of their private cabin or at one of many public saunas, which can be communal or booked privately. It’s true that saunas are always taken without any clothes or swimwear on, in order to reap the full benefits. The heat has a calming effect on mind and body. The full experience can be gained by ‘massage’ (gentle whacking!) with birch branches which we made ourselves and by stoking the fire with scented plants and flowers.
‘Curative mud’ is not a phrase we hear every day in the UK, but on the island of Saaremaa they know all about it. There are a vast array of spa’s (both medical and ‘wellbeing’) where local mud, dredged from the depths of a salty lake since 1924, is used to treat all manner of ailments. We visited a medical spa, where doctors refer patients for a treatment that involved being completed submerged in a bath of mud, heated to 42 degrees, for up to 15minutes. Most Estonians will have experienced this at some point in their life, and many make regular use of their local spa for treatments.
“People who love to eat are always the best people…”
We certainly didn’t go hungry on this trip! We did however travel extensively over the course of the week, and not once did I see any kind of fast food outlet. Meals are cooked from scratch, often using home grown produce, and in many parts of the country families still have their own small holding or even hunt for food. We were looked after like Kings and Queens during our visit, and Maarika’s choice of accommodation and dining venues were outstanding. Picked cucumbers and rye bread will forever remind me of my time in Estonia! As well as the fantastic cooking at Värava Farm on Saaremaa, during our trip we ate in school and university dining halls, a tavern, a community centre, a lighthouse café, a traditional eatery and many other wonderful cafes and restaurants. We even gutted our own flatfish for dinner one night at the farm!
Apple trees are everywhere you look. I suspect there is some sort of calculation about how you are never further than 10 metres from an apple tree. On a daily basis we’d pluck one and eat it straight from the branch, on top of the homemade apple jam in our porridge, washed down with freshly squeezed apple juice, and many variations of delicious cinnamon-y apple tart. I’ve been suffering apple withdrawn symptoms since returning home, and nothing I can get here quite hits the spot that those Estonian ones do!
“Take care of all your memories. For you cannot relive them.”
I’ll treasure many memories from our time in Estonia – swimming in the Baltic sea at sunset, climbing a lighthouse, seeing a moose, meeting Mari, but I also want to hold onto the lessons learned, and bring those home with me.
Estonia has a vast and diverse cultural landscape, with a deep rooted respect for it’s natural resources. Like anywhere else it’s has it’s city dwellers and those who live on islands like Saaremaa are regarded as ‘forest people’. Yet these many differing Estonians seem to have a mutual love for their country, and their heritage, of which they are (rightly so) immensely proud. They want to share that with visitors, and are ready to welcome increased tourism with open arms.
I can draw many parallels with Scotland – both have dramatic landscapes, vast wilderness and habitats, rich heritage and stunning beaches. And both have the same strongest asset- it’s people. I’ll be doing everything I can to embed what I’ve learned into helping connect, and reconnect, Scotland’s people with what they have on their doorstep, and the stories, skills and ancestry in their blood.
Thank you to our host Maarika and my fellow adventurers Mathew, Becca, Colin, Kathy, Nina, Susan and Carrie for an unforgettable week.
Rhona Maxwell – RSPB Scotland