Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

There is more to Estonia than the tinselled turrets of Tallinn's old town. For the soul of Estonia, look to Saaremaa. The Baltic island is a microcosm of the country, a place that captures the spirit of Estonia.

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About eighty kilometres from Tallinn on the road to Tartu, as the highway skirts broken forests, lakes and meadows with picket fences, the normally bland Estonian roadside advertisements are replaced by large red hearts. Some of the bold signs mention the nearby town of Paide. On others, the slogan ‘The Heart of Estonia' is added in English.

Geographically Paide has a point, just as Birmingham isn't far off the mark when it claims to be ‘The Heart of England'. But does geography count for much when it comes to defining the spirit of a nation? Those in search of the essence of England might do better than Birmingham, just as travellers trying to track down the ‘real' Estonia need to look beyond Paide.

Hunting down Estonia's emotional heart isn't too difficult. Forget the tinselled turrets of Tallinn's old town - a spot for tourists, perhaps, but only one small aspect of contemporary Estonia. No, go to Saaremaa. Estonia's largest island is the country's cultural centre. Offshore it may be, but who said that one's soul cannot safely be stored on an island? However actively young Estonians pursue capitalism in the glass towers of modern Tallinn, it is to Saaremaa that they return to re-establish contact with their roots. Saaremaa offers space, time and colour, qualities now sorely lacking in Tallinn. It is a microcosm of Estonia: a little nugget of land that captures the country, its history and its aspirations.

Conquerors have left their mark on Saaremaa, but always less obtrusively than ever they did on the mainland. The castle at Kuressaare, now the island's capital, is the most obvious symbol of conquest. Here it was that the Teutonic Knights made their base in the fourteenth century, and the hewn dolomite walls enclosing a neat courtyard are today Saaremaa's most frequently photographed sight. Many were the invaders who landed on Saaremaa's shores in the centuries after the Teutonic Knights built their stronghold at Kuressaare. But few really managed to dominate Saaremaa - in the firm handed way that those same occupiers often made sure that mainland Estonia toed the line.

Saaremaa has always trusted wood and only turned to stone when security dictated this, as in the case of the castle at Kuressaare. The local juniper turns out to be impressively versatile. An entire table can be laid from cutlery and crockery made from this one wood. Even the beer mugs are shaped from it. The berries can (and do) go into the gin which carries the island's name. Saaremaa oak is used on the boats that give visitors so much pleasure during the summer. The more determined will take these boats to see the isolated communities on one of the small islands that are close to Saaremaa.

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Neil Taylor is author of 'The Bradt Guide to Estonia' and editor of and principal contributor to 'Baltic Capitals' (also published by Bradt). Neil splits his time between London and Tallinn.

This article was published in hidden europe 14.