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An introduction to estonia Home of Inspiration


10 reasons to come to Estonia CLEAN: it isn’t just the air that is impeccable but also the silky-smooth water of wilderness lakes, preservative-free organic food and golden silence away from civilization. Indeed, as some Estonian regions are home to just 6.5 people per square kilometre, it’s also easy to find quiet, which has become a scarce commodity in other parts of the world. SCENIC: foreign visitors often don’t hold back when it comes to praising the beauty of Estonian women. And indeed – Mena Suvari of "American Beauty" film fame has Estonian roots; Estonia is the home of the inimitable Kerli Kõiv with a style that could be described as Björk-meets-Lady-Gaga; and Carmen Kass and Karmen Pedaru have made into the crème de la crème of supermodelling. But the country’s natural splendour is just as visually appealing as Estonians themselves – crystalline and frosty in January, warm and sleepy in July, and in October, clad in the golden brocade of falling leaves. ACCESSIBLE: studies have confirmed that there are more mobile phones than people and this says a thing or two about how business is done in Estonia. There is little bureaucracy, and a company can be registered by anyone in just a matter of minutes. It’s also easy to find the people you need, as everyone knows everyone in Estonia. Thanks to the developed road network and ontime train and bus connections, you can get from across the country in just a few hours and almost every village has cosy farmstays and inns. RICH IN CONTRASTS: Estonia’s nature is just as full of contrasts as its history. The western coast is dotted by 1,500 picturesque islands. Dense spruce forests cover the eastern part of the country, and provide a habitat for bear, wolf and lynx. Throw in the golden grain fields of central Estonia, the dramatic limestone cliffs of northern Estonia and the lake-studded and valleycrossed hills of southern Estonia, and you get a picture of a truly varied place with near limitless opportunities for adventure. HIGH-QUALITY: holidaying and touring in Estonia is still cost-effective, especially when compared to the Nordic countries next door. Yet Estonia is becoming more of a destination for quality-seekers. That quality ranges from services to different goods designed by young artists – and you can be sure that the emphasis is on uniqueness and wholesomeness. FULL OF ATMOSPHERE: Tallinn’s medieval old town has bars that are open around the clock; in the Kalamaja area closer to the waterfront and in the university town of Tartu, those who seek shall find – intimate vinotheques, alternative art cafes and underground music events.

Or maybe you want to enjoy baked fish prepared medieval style or a mug of warm spiced beer? Be our guest! But nothing tops Estonian village parties where the singing and swinging (on gigantic village swings) don’t stop before the sun comes up. REJUVENATIVE AND CURATIVE: back in the early 19th century, the rich and powerful of tsarist Russia were fond of spending their summers in resorts in the Estonian province. Pine-clad Narva-Jõesuu, idyllic Haapsalu and cosmopolitan Pärnu are wellknown resort towns. Kuressaare sanatorium on the southern coast of Saaremaa Island was ranked among the top three sanatoriums in Europe already back in the 1930s. One of the most famous of Estonia’s health spas is in the interior, in Värska, where you can take a plunge into rejuvenative lake mud which is mixed with the 570-million-year-old Värska mineral water. DELICIOUS: if an Estonian is out of sorts, he is likely to reply with a surly mul on kama (“I don’t care”). But usually it turns out a second later that it isn’t so, for under the frosty exterior, Estonians tend to be conscientious and helpful people. Interestingly, mul on kama means something else – that they have a food product called kama – a mixture of ground wheat, peas, rye and barley that they might even share with you. Kama tastes best when mixed with ice-cold yogurt or buttermilk on a hot summer day. The menu might also include blood sausage (black pudding) still sizzling on the pan, dried Peipus smelt (tiny fish) and just-picked wild berries with cream, making a trip to Estonia a true culinary adventure! INSPIRATIONAL: there is something exciting in the air in Estonia that makes new ideas germinate. How else could it be that the voice telephony application Skype was developed by Estonian programmers and that University of Tartu researchers discovered an especially beneficial probiotic bacterium called Lactobacillus fermentum ME3? Estonians in London have now developed TransferWise, which promises to do the same for international money transfer as what Skype did to phone service. EASY TO VISIT: although we are much closer to the North Pole than to the equator, Estonia is in a plum location, making it extremely easy to reach from either Scandinavia or Russia. The capital Tallinn is just a four-hour drive from Riga and five or six hours from St. Petersburg. The Finnish capital Helsinki is reachable in just two hours on a ferry that departs from Tallinn’s city centre. From Tallinn’s Lennart Meri Airport – just four kilometres from the city centre – there are regular flights to London, Paris, Frankfurt, Moscow and many other cities.

Estonia – land of contrast in the North One of the first songs that nearly all Estonians learn begins with the words: “My home is tiny but it is dear to my heart.” And yes, Estonia is tiny – with its 45,227 square kilometres, we are just a little bigger than Denmark, Switzerland or the Netherlands.

Although Estonia is in northern Europe – so far north that it’s on the same latitude as parts of Alaska and Siberia – summer is often so warm that the white sandy strips of sand (there are four major beaches in Tallinn alone) fill up with thousands of sunbathers. “Everything is so delightfully compact in Estonia. A few hours will get you from one end of the country to another, you can replace the hubbub of the city with a sylvan lake.”

Estonia is closer than you think Tallinn is closer to Dublin than Naples is to Dublin. Tallinn is closer to Frankfurt than Malaga is to Frankfurt.

Ketlin Kalle, nurse

Tallinn is closer to Shanghai than Sydney is to Shanghai.

White nights of summer

Tallinn is closer to London than Reykjavik is to London.

Contrasts in time and space Every corner of Estonia is different and the thousands of islands off the western coast offer a totally different experience than the expansive forests along the eastern border. Yet before we return to Estonia’s top sights, consider the contrasts offered by the weather in Estonia.

Summer is a time when the water in the Baltic Sea warms up to over the 20 degree C mark, the sun shines for 18 hours and total darkness never falls. In June, for instance, the nights in Estonia are so light that one can read a book outside without artificial light. “St. John’s Eve, 23 June, is the most magical time in Estonia – it’s believed that if you pick seven kinds of flowers and put them under your pillow, you will see Mr. or Mrs. Right in your dreams.” Sirje Laas, accountant

The Leigo Lake Music Festival offers experiences for all senses. 3

Tallinn’s Christmas market on Town Hall Square conjures up a medieval fairy tale.

Snow and such The Estonian winter is often like a Yuletide fairy tale – the entire land is brilliant white under a coat of snow! The white stuff isn’t just beautiful to look at; it opens the door to pastimes incoznceivable in summer – skiing, skating and sledging. The possibility of zipping down hills appeals most of all to people in the single-digit age bracket, while grown-ups have a greater appreciation for areas that require more motor coordination, like skiing. Gliding through the forest with an imperceptible effort is a true enjoyment, but in February the more extreme ski enthusiasts are prepared to compete in the 63-kilometer Tartu ski marathon.

Cold records and hot saunas The Estonian winter is usually fairly mild thanks to the moderating effect of the sea. If a warmer spell sets in, Estonians might even throw a party around a bonfire or have a picnic in January. In the coldest winter on record, way back in 1941, the temperature dropped to -43.4 degrees C, which caused alcohol in railway cars to congeal, and crows froze in mid-flight (a tragedy for the crows, while the vodka was unharmed upon returning to a liquid state). But even normal, much milder winters are dark for 18 hours straight in December, around the time of the solstice.

An ice road connects islands to the mainland. 4

The long period of darkness is one clue to why so many Estonians sign their letters and e-mails with a cheery “Päikest!” (roughly “Wishing you sunshine!”) And why they’re so fond of saunas, dimly lit spaces heated with hot rocks to more than 80 degrees C. The skin’s pores open and a companion uses a birch, juniper or oak whisk to flail their skin (said to improve the circulation), followed by an immediate plunge into the nearest ice hole or pond. “One of the greatest winter experiences is when the sea freezes so solid that you can drive a car across an ice road to the islands.” Krista Paul, shopkeeper

The migratory birds leave for the south with yearning cries and the trees glow bright in orange, golden, red and auburn tones. And who can resist spring, when nature comes to life after the winter’s nap, when the fragrance of the blooming bird-cherries and lilacs drifts on light breezes and Tallinn’s parks are filled with birdsong? Without a doubt, Estonia’s nature is in constant change thanks to the five very distinct seasons and “change” is an important keyword for describing Estonia as a country.

Technological wunderkind Starting in 1991, when it regained independence, Estonia has developed very quickly. Great success has been achieved in restructuring its economy (government debt is among the lowest in Europe) and the country is often called “e-Estonia”. Ultra-high-speed 4G mobile Internet covers almost all of the country and even in Estonia’s most isolated place, Ruhnu Island in the middle of the Gulf of Riga, there are five different Wi-Fi spots.

Five seasons Yet the bright summers and harsh winters are not the only seasons. Besides the very distinct autumn and spring, Estonia has a fifth season – the spring floods – when low-lying areas become inundated and everyday trips are made by boat. The velvety autumn also has a charm of its own, calling mushroom hunters and berry pickers into the forests.

Wi-Fi is everywhere – maybe it’s time to move your home office to the woods!


Tallinn’s medieval Old Town, featured on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, takes you on a trip through time. Wireless Internet, often free, is considered practically a human right in Estonia, as more or less everything is done by computer in Estonia – companies can be founded, tax returns filed, doctor’s appointments made, petitions filed with state agencies, contracts signed, meter readings reported, votes cast in elections, and of course, Skype is used to talk to friends. The voice telephony application was developed in 2003 in none other than the Republic of Estonia.

New and ancient, hand in hand Cosmopolitan modernity is well in evidence in Estonia, and you could almost say the future is already here: chic five-star hotels, boutiques with wares by young fashion designers and world-famous brands, trendy nightclubs and intimate street cafes, a place to take a load off, browse the Web from a tablet (Wi-Fi is everywhere!), the latest newspapers and refuel with a strong coffee and a pastry with a light and crisp crust enclosing a sweetened curd filling. Although the future is encroaching fast, the past has not disappeared in Estonia. Not far from the 100-metre-plus-high skyscrapers are quarters perfect for romantic walks, with vine-draped wooden houses at least a century old. If we forget about Tallinn for a second and head to the countryside, the past is doing just fine in those untold numbers of traditional Estonian farmhouses, where jars of plum preserves made the way granny did line the shelves and Estonian language books from before the First World War can be found in a back room.

Rotermann Quarter is the modern city landscape next to the old town.


Skills forgotten in Western Europe live on here – almost every Estonian knows how to identify the tastiest fall mushrooms and remember picking their first wild strawberries accompanied by their grandparents out in a sun-washed glade.

A cobblestoned time machine Many other things in Estonia – take for instance buildings – are equally old as nature. Tiny Ruhnu has Estonia’s oldest wooden structure – a unique church built in 1644. Even more surprising is the fact that the church is once again serving its original, sacral purpose! While wandering the cobblestoned streets of Old Town Tallinn, you could find yourself back in the year 1154, when the city high on its limestone perch was first mentioned by the Arab cartographer Muhammad al-Idrisi, who had been compiling a map for the ruler of Sicily.

Ever since the fateful battle waged against the Danes near Tallinn on 15 June 1219 (during which the Danish state flag, the Dannebrog, fluttered down from the sky like some divine sign and emboldened the Danes to win the battle) pagan customs have nearly disappeared – the exception being the popular tradition of lighting bonfires all over the nation on

A mysterious and wild past Estonians have lived in Estonia for millennia (the first signs of human habitation here go back nearly 10,000 years), which means Estonians have lived continuously in one spot for longer than many other nations in Europe. Yet it isn’t clear how many of today’s Estonians would want to get closely acquainted with their forebears, as one 11th century text (Data on Hamburg’s Clerical Leaders) advises travellers to steer clear of a dangerous island called Aestland (Estonia) as its inhabitants are known to sacrifice people bought from merchants to “dragons and birds”. The unbridled midsummer traditions of St. John’s Day are still alive and well. 23 June and then leaping over them (or into them, if one’s coordination is impaired) – and Estonia is a very safe place to visit for everyone. As a recent survey showed, Estonians have never been less worried about crime as they are now. Provided that the same basic precautions are followed as in any larger city, a tourist can walk around the Estonian capital of Tallinn day and night with no worries.

A sweet and Westernminded destination

The right costume is the only time machine you need during the Hanseatic Days festival.

No matter what the popular stereotype, tourists – sorry, foreigners – haven’t always come to Estonia with just a camera and billed cap! During the long dark Middle Ages, Estonia was ruled by turns by the Danes, Germans, Poles, Swedes and Russians and when Estonia became independent on 7

Odd but exquisite tastes Although Estonians might seem introverted, individualistic and reserved like other Nordic peoples, any Estonian friend would be proud to be able to fix you a sprat sandwich – a little salty treat where rye bread meets hard-boiled egg and a particular silvery Baltic sea fish in a spice-laden marinade. If you ask, an Estonian will be sure to lead you to the best tasting kohuke (a local delicacy consisting of a cube of sweetened curd covered with chocolate glaze) or the best kama bars (another legendary kids’ favourite made of sugar and milled grain). Thanks to the influences of German cuisine, Estonia makes roast pork with crispy skin and sauerkraut, which when coupled with oven-roasted potatoes, blood sausages and cowberry sauce (yes, it’s a match made in heaven!) are a traditional Estonian Christmas dish. All of Estonia’s folk costume designs and every generation is represented at the Song Festival. 24 February 1918 (and when it became independent after more than half a century of occupation, on 20 August 1991, following what was known as the Singing Revolution) many saw it as nothing short of a miracle.

“Estonia has recipes for the tastes of strict vegetarians and devotees of vampire movies. When spring arrives, magazines are full of recipes involving weeds like ground-elder, nettles and sorrel, while winter is a time for dishes heavy on blood and pork fat.” Kristel Vokk, food blogger

That is no doubt why the idea of statehood is held so dear by Estonians and maximum efforts have been made over the last decades to integrate with the West as much as possible; the country has joined the European Union and NATO, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Council of Baltic Sea States. Whereas other countries in Europe have abolished compulsory military service, Estonians – the older generation in particular – still feel strongly that all “real men” in Estonia should learn how to handle a firearm as a conscript in boot camp. Although the size of the nation is tiny – just over a million worldwide, less than the population of New York’s Bronx borough or Beijing’s Changping district – it is worth knowing that Estonians have a language and cuisine different from that of their Baltic friends the Latvians and Lithuanians and that they’ve had their own culture and university education for centuries.


Estonia’s most popular sweet – the kohuke – is made of soft curds inside a chocolate shell.

Estonia’s appetizing competitive platter in the finals of the Bocuse d’Or 2013. You can’t get around the fact that while people in many Western European countries have lost their connection to wild plants, nearly every Estonian has gathered aromatic wild raspberries or wild thyme, which has a number of medicinal uses. Nearly every Estonian has savoured the joy of midsummer’s first new potatoes served with a chanterelle mushroom sauce – the golden-yellow mushrooms having been picked just a few hours prior – and knows the secret paths to the best cranberry and porcini mushroom grounds. “The strongest, most famous home brews in the country are made on the largest island, Saaremaa, where it’s said that a proper beer has such a head that it can support the weight of a cat and its kittens.“ Timo Hartikainen, executive director

The musical language of a singing nation As you get to know an Estonian better, he or she will be proud to take you on a tour of the Song Festival Grounds, where every five years, tens if not hundreds of thousands of people gather to sing Estonian songs (since 2003 the national song and dance festival has been included on the UNESCO Oral and Intangible Heritage list).

A stylish picnic in the forest? Why not – forests cover over half of Estonia!


The Song Festival’s concerts are attended by over 100,000 people, with around 30,000 performers. After a few shots of the strong Vana Tallinn (old Tallinn) liqueur (a spiced rum-like libation with natural additives such as citrus oils, vanilla and cinnamon) your friend in Estonia might play some most famous Estonian composer Arvo Pärt cantatas or harder-rocking songs from the best of Tanel Padar, Estonia’s only songwriter and performer to win at Eurovision. And certainly any Estonian would be prepared to teach you Estonian, which like Finnish is rich in vowel sounds and mellifluous sounding. Unfortunately, as many foreigners have admitted, it’s complicated to fully master the language – for example, there are no fewer than 14 case endings in Estonian. As a crash course in Estonian, here are a few nicer Estonian expressions and their English counterparts: lumememm - snowman (lumemem:) heinamaa - hayfield, pastureland (heinʌmʌ:) öötuul - night wind (ə:tu:l) jõeäär - riverside (jəe-æ:r) asjaajaja - administrator (ʌsja-ʌjʌ-jʌ) millimallikas - jellyfish (mil:imʌl:ikʌs) palun anna andeks - please forgive me and (pʌlun ʌn:ʌ ʌn:deks) ma armastan sind - I love you (mʌ ʌrmʌstʌn sind)


Land of good things Besides their language, Estonians hold many other things dear, like dark Estonian rye bread. If you ask an Estonian in exile, what he or she misses the most – and, mind you, there are many Estonians out there; even Hemingway wrote in "To Have and Have Not" about two “Esthonians” in every southern port – the Estonian will probably sigh and say he yearns for the bread the most (and, although not nearly as romantic, rich Estonian sour cream). Although it’s true Estonians have tended to become heavier in the years following re-independence, they aren’t always thinking about food. Estonians also love traditional Estonian folk costume (long jackets and knickerbockers for the men, and headdresses and colourful woven skirts for the women, different from one county to the next), juniper butter knives and salt cellars, Western Estonia’s romantic windmills (and miniature versions in souvenir shop displays), Vana Toomas (weathervane Old Thomas), who has been guarding Tallinn Town Hall since 1530 and of course the national flag, the blue-black and white tricolour banned under Soviet rule, but which now is hoisted on top of Pikk Hermann (Tall Hermann) tower in the capital every morning at daybreak.

The melody of the Estonian national anthem is the same as for its northern neighbour Finland, but the words are different. If you really want to make Estonia’s souvenir sellers happy, buy one of the above items, not Russian matrioshka dolls or amber jewellery (which are still in massive circulation in Estonia due to market forces and tourist demand). There’s a wide selection. Whether it’s smoked ham that has been prepared using a centuries-old recipe or a creamy-white woollen sweater, more and more items bear the semi-official quality label Hea Eesti Asi (Good Estonian Thing), which talks about traditions, maker’s pride and true quality.

The blue, black and white tricolour is hoisted to the top of Tall Hermann tower every day at sunrise.

Something for the soul Besides souvenirs you can touch, if you also value experiences that are permanently stored in memory, Estonia offers that as well. Romantic Kadriorg park (loveliest when leaves are turning, in September and October) has an attractive palace dating from 1725, which Russian tsar Peter the Great had built for Catherine I. Today the best of the international paintings in Estonian art collections can be admired there – from Gillis van Valckenborch and Jacob Jordaens to Ilya Repin. A stair just a few hundred metres away climbs the steep limestone cliff, to a place with a great view of the sea, with the architecturally imposing modern art museum, the KUMU carved into the cliff below. Many tiny and alternative art galleries have themselves a home in Tallinn’s Old Town. Muhu folk costume includes a bright yellow striped skirt, an apron decorated with beads and woven leggings and floral-embroidered footwear. 11

Tsar Peter the Great was the man behind Kadriorg Palace and Park.

Music for every ear Every August, southern Estonia offers a majestic musical experience when Leigo Lake Music Festival joins the setting sun and hundreds of lighted candles floating on the lake surface in a concert. If classical symphonies in a dark summer night aren’t your cup of tea, Estonia holds other aural treats in store, as the selection of musical events is truly broad, from the Pärnu Contemporary Music Days to Sõru Jazz, Muhu Future Music Festival Juu Jääb to the Jõhvi Ballet Festival, the CREDO Orthodox Music Festival to Viljandi Folk Festival. “Music fans and culture vultures in Estonia really do have a lot to see and do! There’s more than 200 festivals each year!” Maali Käbin, project manager

Black Nights As autumn wears on and the nights get longer, the Black Nights Film Festival takes Tallinn’s cinemas by storm. It’s been held since 1996 and is still gaining in popularity as it cements its reputation as one of Europe’s elite festivals.

Viljandi Folk is Estonia’s largest traditional music festival. 12

An oasis for poets and writers Thanks to the first church schools, Estonia already had a high literacy rate back in the early 18th century and by the end of the 19th century, it was 91.2 percent. Estonia has a greater than average share of educated people even today – 89% of adults has at least a secondary education (3rd in the OECD) and 36% have higher education (11th in the OECD). It is thus no wonder that Estonian-language literature has bloomed for centuries.

Estonians place a great deal of stock in the written word. At the peak, Estonia had close to 5,000 different book titles published each year (that’s for a population of just over a million), and thus there are just as many writers and poets in Estonia per capita as poets in Ireland - everyone knows a couple personally.

The 2010 European Film Awards gala was held in Tallinn. If you’re still under the weight limits on the flight back, consider buying a copy of "Kalevipoeg" the national epic written in trochaic tetrameter, of which every Estonian knows...well, if not one, then two passages. Estonians, it should be said, really like to read (almost as much as they like to post online comments).

The late Jaan Kross, a novelist who explored European history through an Estonian prism, was shortlisted for the Nobel Prize a number of times in the 1990s, while the new generation of writers instils hope that Kross will not be the last Estonian to vie for the prestigious award. “Hope springs eternal for Estonians: “As long as butter melts in one’s mouth, there’s still hope to find a spinster a husband,” goes an old saying.


The twin citadels on opposing banks of the River Narva are beautiful in all seasons.

Eastern influences just a stone’s throw away The areas along the Russian border are the best place to partake of the unique culture of Estonia’s biggest minority, the Russians (25.2 percent according to the latest census). There are fewer ethnic Estonians in the border town of Narva than there are in the Finnish capital of Helsinki and it could be said that thanks to their tea-houses, pelmeny cafes, numerous Orthodox churches and Slavic hospitality and sincerity, Estonia’s eastern area can be thought by the romantically inclined as “Russia Minor”. The nature in this area is exquisite and beautifully wild. The primeval valley carved by the River Boroni, a 55-metre limestone headland at Ontika and picturesque beaches in Narva-Jõesuu leave an indelible impression. Narva-Jõesuu is also home to Estonia’s only official nudist beach and, thanks to the proximity of neighbouring Russia, a good place to appreciate Estonian-made vodkas, some made from sophisticated centuries-old formulas and quadruple-charcoal-filtered.

Convent founded in 1891, which is today home to Orthodox nuns, and at sunset, admire the ash hills – surface features formed from deposition of semi-coke, a by-product of the oil shale industry – some of them more than a hundred metres high. Right after the first sanatorium was opened in the 19th century, the now-popular resort town of Narva-Jõesuu became popular among the wealthy class in Petrograd, who called the city the Pearl of the Baltic and the Nordic Riviera.

Estonia’s best onions Let’s head south. Europe’s fourth-largest lake, Peipus, is on our left, and the shores are lined with idyllic sandy beaches but also vegetable gardens that produce Estonia’s best onions, sold at marketplaces all

Thanks to Russian influences, great solyanka is easy to find everywhere – a tangy soup made from tomatoes, onions, olives, spices, meat and kidneys. Of course, Estonia’s north-east has more on offer – a sample one-day tour might start by departing at dawn for Kohtla mining park and museum, where one can ride a train underground, check out the Pühtitsa


Lake Peipus is home to the tastiest onions, which are sold in the form of braids.

“Did you know that the fish known as the Peipus smelt smells like a cucumber? Those who want a more pungent experience can hang an onion garland around their neck.” Mihhail Krassohhin, onion farmer

In Vino Veritas A ways closer to the Estonian heartland is Põltsamaa, which has been producing unique berry and fruit wines since the 1920s. Even the Estonian president serves it at receptions.

Local fruit wines have been made in Põltsamaa since 1920. over the country. This would be a good time to recall that “everyman’s right” entitles the public to fish with a hand line (with certain restrictions) in Estonia, and the Peipus boasts cisco, perch and close to metre-long pike. The Old Believers religious sect also inhabits these shores: after changes in the Russian Orthodox Church, they arrived here as religious refugees in the 17th century and have preserved their unique religion until the present day. Their culinary treats are “water-fried” fish, the Easter dishes – kulich (sweet bread) and pasha (mixture from curd, butter, eggs and spices) and chicory coffee, or sip tea from a saucer with a sugar cube in one’s cheek.

The next destination is the largest city in southern Estonia, Tartu. In this equally distinguished and Bohemian town, youthful student energy combines with several sights. The best-known is the Tartu Observatory opened in 1810 (once a significant site for astronomy on the world level), while Angel Bridge and Devil Bridge are good places for romantic walks. Tartu is also home to northern Europe’s oldest working university. The Universitas Tartuensis was founded in 1632 by Swedish King Gustav II Adolf. It has been the alma mater of all but one of Estonia’s prime ministers thus far. “Everyone can find something they like in Estonia’s two biggest cities: the fresh sea breeze in Tallinn, the picturesque Emajõgi river in Tartu; the pace and efficiency of Tallinn, Tartu’s calmer cadences and philosophical discussions in cafes.

Living in harmony with nature includes refreshing the body and spirit with a sauna and cold rainwater. 15

A smoke sauna in an Orthodox kingdom Heading even farther south, the landscape becomes hillier, as we are approaching the highest point in Estonia (and the Baltics), 318-metre-high Suur Munamägi. Especially in winter, the view from the top is breathtaking, taking in forests cloaked in snow, but the golden fields of grain and tiny lakes in summer are equally impressive. Also nice is the way the local inhabitants – the Võro and the Seto people – hold on to their language and culture. The most beautiful mittens in the world are knitted on Southern Estonian farms, and people are most fond of washing in unique smoke saunas (visiting which is an experience also for tourists who have become acclimated to the widespread Estonian custom of beating oneself in a room heated to boiling temperature). The biggest monarchists in the land live in South Estonia, as this is where the Seto Kingdom is proclaimed each year (albeit for just one glorious summer day). If you want to stop time, take a smoke sauna in southern Estonia. It is heated for half a day and then the sauna itself lasts hours. There is no special emphasis on conventional scrubbing or soap, as the body and mind are washed clean by the repeated steam and whisk action.

The one of a kind bon vivant elder generation on the island of Kihnu.

The most beautiful flood in the world Heading west, we reach picturesque Viljandi, which (judging by the popular song “Viljandi Boatman” in which the title character is left pining for the rest of his life for a maiden with blue eyes) must be home to the most romantic people in all of Estonia. This is the best place to try mulgi kapsad (braised cabbage with barley and pork), a dangerously addictive dish, and then prepare yourself for Soomaa, where the meadows and marshy forests become a 175-squarekilometer lake when the ice breaks up and the snow melts in spring. The flood, which opens Soomaa up to exploration by boat, repeats with such regularity that it has begun to be known as the fifth season. Numerous tour operators offer possibilities for navigating a forest by canoe or kayak – and enjoying nature in the early spring sunshine.

Mums on motorcycles Let’s continue on our route toward Pärnu, crowned Estonia’s summer capital, whose broad sandy beach is considered the best in the country, and then, after a short ferry ride, reach Kihnu Island, home to the toughest women in all of Estonia. Estonia’s most spectacular flood: the Tuhala “witch’s well” bubbles and boils.


Each woman on Kihnu weaves a personal stripe pattern into her skirt and just about every one of them is proficient at the art of driving a motorcycle with a sidecar

Thousands of geese make a stopover in Estonia as they flee winter southward.

– the latter being a good place to deposit a catch of fish from the sea or perhaps a spouse who has overindulged. A short distance to the north-west is Estonia’s biggest island, Saaremaa, which in summertime is an idyllic, juniper-covered and sheep-populated paradise, where locals have mastered the art of preparing smoked flounder. The island is also renowned for wooden windmills, representing the longest-lasting of what is believed to have once been 1,200 such grain grinders. Saaremaa has just as many smoked flounder recipes as villages but it is generally believed that the tastiest fish is made with alder and apple wood and a handful of nettles.

A Divine lake

The avian superhighway Now head to Matsalu National Park, a particularly fine outing in spring and autumn, as the park has been called the biggest filling station for water birds on their way between the Arctic and Europe. In a 24-hour period, close to 200 species have been counted in western Estonia and on dusky summer nights, unusual bird calls can be heard in the reed beds. “Estonia is a really tempting morsel for birders worldwide. On the most spectacular days of the migration in mid-May, there can be millions of birds in the sky at one time. You’ll find bird watching towers everywhere in Estonia. Heli Illipe-Sootak, biology teacher and author of children’s books

Saaremaa is also home to one of the most unique sights in Estonia – the Kaali meteorite crater. A meteorite weighing an estimated 20-80 tonnes landed here some 4,000-7,600 years ago, leaving a crater that is now the site of a lake that was considered sacred in olden days. Visitors today are entranced by its bewitching green colour. The similar names may just be a coincidence, but a number of scholars have pointed to an uncanny analogy between the god Tarapitha, worshiped on Saaremaa, and the Tarapith worship centre in West Bengal, which in the local dialect is said to mean “eyeball to a holy place.” According to Indian legend, the eyeball was lost by goddess Sati on a heavenly journey. Sati is in turn related to the Hindu god of destruction Kali, which of course resembles the name of the Kaali crater.

The mysterious limpid pool of Kaali is a meteorite crater lake. 17

Tahkuna lighthouse, designed by the offices of Gustave Eiffel, still showing mariners the way home.

Lighthouses with impressive history Hiiumaa, Estonia’s second-largest island and formed after a meteorite strike, is home to one of the world’s oldest operating lighthouses – Kõpu lighthouse, believed to have been completed in 1531. Ristna and Tahkuna lighthouses on Hiiumaa were designed by Gustave Eiffel himself. Ristna cape is known for Estonia’s biggest waves, which draw surfers. Hiiumaa’s other lighthouses deserve a look, too. The construction of Ristna lighthouse was commissioned from the Eiffel plant in France in 1873. The metal frame of the highest lighthouse on Hiiumaa, Tahkuna, was purchased from the Paris World’s Fair a year later. It is like a monument to the Hiiumaa independent streak and today more than 30,000 tourists have visited the tower, with the braver ones having climbed to the top.

But let’s head back to picturesque Kõpu peninsula – which, like all of Hiiumaa, is known for its stunted coastal pines, caressing feel of the meadows underfoot, and “singing” sand dunes. This beautiful place is one of the last known habitats of the critically endangered European mink.

Haunting lady of the resort Once again, we cross a narrow strait and find ourselves in Haapsalu, one of Estonia’s most charming resort towns. Although Estonia is full of legends, the castle ruins here are haunted by the country’s most famous ghost, the White Lady, who was entombed alive in the castle walls due to a tragic turn of events. She appears on full moon nights in August to mourn her lost love – a love that never dies.

The big story of a small island And we find ourselves back in northern Estonia, almost all the way back in Tallinn’s hubbub and big-city pace. But let’s stop for a second at a tiny and limestone island on Estonia’s northwest coast, called Osmussaar in Estonian and Odensholm in Swedish.


On a sunny summer day, one can spend time amidst the limestone boulders and sheep and not realize that this island was considered in Scandinavian legend to have been the burial site of Odin, the main god in the Viking pantheon; a grizzled old man with one eye to whom two ravens delivered the day’s news (Skype not having been invented yet by the Estonians). When the end of the world is nigh, Viking legends suggest that Estonia – Osmussaar, more precisely – could yet again play an important role. There are many odd boulders of meteorite origin on Osmussaar and the sea near the island has a meteorite crater that was formed 540 million years ago. With its 20 km diameter and 5 km depth, it is one of the best-surviving craters in the world’s seas and an exciting place for diving enthusiasts.

Believe it or not, that is the question Although Estonians have a rock-solid faith in many things – such as a flat tax and the advantages of a right-wing economic model or that pouring molten lead into cold water on New Year’s Eve can predict the New Year – Estonians have a harder time with organized religion. Yes, Estonians are thought to be the world’s least religious people.

The limestone cliffs of northern Estonia are like an open geological history textbook. According to a 2011 Population Census, only 19 percent of Estonians are affiliated with a particular religion, of non-Estonians the number is 50%. Admittedly, religious matters didn’t go over very well back in the 12th century when Christianity first arrived. The medieval chronicles penned by Henry of Livonia describes how the men of Saaremaa abducted a priest and his entourage, and beat them by the river, all the while uttering ”Sing! Sing! Pappi“. Muhu St Catherine’s Church charms with its splendid proportions. 19

Religious freedom and tolerance Eight centuries after the Estonian language first made it into the written record amidst such horrid circumstances, tolerance with regard to different faiths has increased significantly. Few are likely to look askance if one’s interlocutor turns out to be a Baptist or Baha’i, Jehovah’s Witness or Estonian folk religion adherent, Buddhist or Muslim. Whatever the case, for Estonians a person’s relationship with God is a personal matter and no one else’s business. Still, Estonia is culturally foremost a Christian (Lutheran) country. Along with the modern weather forecasting, Estonia still has a place for weather sages who sometimes predict a cold winter or warm summer

using ancient wisdom, from examining the pancreas of a pig to watching the movements of ants. Whatever the accuracy rate of such predictions, it does appear to be a kind of national pastime.

The world’s tallest church Approaching Tallinn from sea, the first thing one notices is the tens of towering steeples, and there are even historians who say that from 1549-1625, the 159-metre-tall St. Olaf’s Church was the highest building in the world – and most Estonians go to church at least once a year, around Christmas. The church plays an important role in weddings, and the churchyards ringed by mossy stone walls – seen in almost every village of a decent size – are a clear sign that Estonians have wanted to be buried in hallowed ground.

The tower of St. Olaf’s Church was once the highest building in the world.


Primeval forests: great for hiking, enjoying nature and mushroom gathering.

From näkk to kratt But despite their Christian core values, Estonians haven’t quite forgotten their heathen past, where all sorts of monsters and spirits strode the earth and even inhabited homes. Mermaids (näkid) were thought to live in lakes, these being siren-like guardians of the waters who would take the form of a scantily clad woman to lure the gullible into the water, never to return. Contemporary writer Andrus Kivirähk has written most vividly about the spirits dwelling in the Estonian people’s dim subconscious. His books ("Rehepapp" and the "Man Who Spoke Snakish") cannot omit creatures like the kratt, a servile entity that would be fashioned out of an old wheel (or sometimes from a black cat, spinning board or other odds and ends) and which would fetch treasures for its owner (butter, milk and grain). Successfully launching a kratt meant giving the devil three drops of blood (and thereby selling one’s soul) but many farmers, being pragmatic, considered this the better bargain. “Who’s afraid of losing won’t win,” says another Estonian proverb.

Wild forests just a stone’s throw away Today’s Estonians are known for their enterprising, practical and forthright mindset. If someone is talking nonsense, the conversation might be cut short abruptly with a "Mine metsa!", which in direct translation means “go to the forest”. This mild insult is from the mists of time, at a time when deep woods encircled every farm and anyone spouting foolish talk would do better to take some time out amidst the trees. Yet if we consider the stress-relieving effect of trees and the rejuvenative power of nature, one should really take every opportunity to go to the forest: it is another smart and aesthetically pleasing thing to do that can’t be missed in Estonia! Fortunately the forest is never far away no matter where you are in Estonia. Even if you start driving from Tallinn down the divided highway to the university city of Tartu, you could stop the car and, walking just a hundred paces into the woods in any direction, quickly forget about civilization. The wind and the birdsozng sound just as they did a thousand years ago.


Anyone can access state forest – and from sunup to sundown unposted private forests – and harvest berries, nuts and mushrooms there if they so choose. There’s a reason why every Estonian household has a big wicker basket – “everyman’s right” is popular! Woodland covers over half of Estonia’s area, making it one of the most forested countries in Europe after Finland, Sweden and Slovenia. Be sure to visit one of the diverse hiking trails – there is more than 2000 km.

Rare wild animals The oldest forests spread out over the Alutaguse region in the north-east, home to the protected flying squirrel, which in Europe is found only in Finland and Estonia. This tiny, grey-furred creature, which can go airborne for several dozen meters in its treetop. Once it has found itself a tree to nest in, it is reluctant to go farther than 50 metres from it. In that sense, it’s similar to the homebodies among Estonians. But there are other forest denizens hiding out in the various Estonian forests – fragrant and sunny pine stands, dark and mysterious spruce groves, flower-rich birch groves, shady and dignified oak forests.

Besides wolves, lynx, wild pigs, deer and moose, Estonia is believed to be home to about 700 brown bears, rare in Western Europe. They fatten up all summer long to be able to enjoy sweet dreams in winter. Photographic hunting is becoming increasingly popular. And forest life can be enjoyed in the city as well, without leaving one’s computer. Only in Estonia have so many forest webcams been set up to transmit scenes from the lives of wild animals, every season with its own. “Sometimes when it’s late, you can encounter a deer, hare or fox on the way home – you feel how nature is always close to you here.” Mart Rebane, manager

So, once again, tere tulemast - welcome! Welcome to Estonia, a place to relax, party, shop, study, do business or simply set off to explore the country’s unexpectedly colourful and legend-filled history. And to enjoy all four of our seasons – or five, if you count Soomaa’s spring floods!

Hunting large game with a camera requires patience, but can be worth it. A close encounter with untamed nature makes the best souvenir. 22

Kama – divercity par excellence! Rich in fibre, plant-based protein, minerals and vitamin B, kama has for centuries been the glue holding the Estonian cuisine together. The role of kama has changed, but it’s no less important today. Once one of the few nourishing foods in sufficient supply for the peasantry, it is now an ingredient that inspires modern gourmet restaurants. Kama consists of roasted rye, barley, wheat and peas that have been ground into a coarse meal. Thanks to its distinctively rich taste, it can be used in both savoury and sweet dishes or just enjoyed with fermented milk or yogurt. Kama makes a good souvenir from Estonia for three reasons – one package lasts a long time, it’s a satisfying bellyful and it can even be used to cleanse the skin!



1l kefir (or substitute buttermilk) 6 tbsp kama 100 g halvah ¼ tsp cinnamon 3-4 tbsp sugar a few handfuls of blueberries

2 tbsp kama 2 tbsp honey Half of a lemon

serves 4

Pour the chilled kefir into a bowl, blend in the kama, finely chopped halvah, cinnamon and sugar. Add the blueberries last (reserve a handful of the berries for garnish). Serve immediately or later (the halvah flavour will become more prominent over time).


for one special person

To prepare the skin-cleansing and nourishing mask, blend the juice of half a lemon with the kama and honey until smooth. You can also lick the spoon, but apply the rest of it to the face and leave it on for 1520 minutes. Rinse off the face with lukewarm water and then refresh the face and neck with cool water. Estonian women have used cool rainwater or even icy spring water for centuries for radiant and clear facial skin.

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Estonia in brief The Republic of Estonia is a member of the European Union, Schengen area, NATO and OECD. Estonia is in the East European time zone (GMT/BST + 02:00). Estonia’s country code is +372. To place an international call start by dialling 00.

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Enterprise Estonia, Estonian Tourist Board© 2013 Text by Krister Kivi. Recipe by Ragne Värk

Republic of Estonia 45,227 km² 1.3 million Euro Tallinn (400 000 inhabitants) Official language Estonian Form of government Parliamentary democracy Independence declared 24 February 1918, 20 August 1991 Official name Area Inhabitants Currency Capital

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An Introduction to Estonia