** ESTONIA 2018 - WEEKS 16~18 **
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A Hanseatic Tour of the Baltic Sea 2018 - Sillamäe, Narva and Russian border, Kohtla-Järve and oil-shale industry, Rakvere, Lahemaa National Park, Tapa, Islands of Saaremaa and Hiiumaa, Haapsalu, Matsalu National Park, and Estonian Capital City Tallinn:
Soviet town of Sillamäe: on a bright morning with a fresh breeze blowing from the Baltic cliff tops, we turned eastwards from Toila along rural lanes to re-join Route 1, the main road signposted for St Petersburg (click on Map 1 right for details of route). Some 12kms east, we turned off into the industrial town of Sillamäe.
During 1920~30s Sillamäe and the surrounding countryside became a major centre of oil-shale mining with shale-oil processing plant and harbour. The town was totally destroyed in WW2 by the advancing Red Army, and in the late 1940s the Soviets used German POWs to construct a model new town of Stalinist-era architecture with blocks of neo-classical apartments, wide tree-lined boulevards and a grand ornamental staircase leading down from the centre to the Baltic shoreline. But this was no ordinary show-piece new town. As the early Cold War arms race began, the USSR needed uranium to fuel its developing nuclear industry to catch up with the US development of the A-bomb which Stalin knew all about from his well-placed spies in the Manhattan Project. Soviet scientists eager to please discovered that oil-shale contains minute quantities of extractable uranium; oil-shale had been mined at Sillamäe pre-war and in 1946 the notorious uranium processing plant and nuclear chemicals factory was built close to the oil-shale mine just west of Sillamäe using 1000s of POWs and political prisoners. The town's purpose was to provide housing for the Soviet military, scientific and technical staff who operated the top-secret uranium processing plant. Sillamäe became a totally restricted zone, accessible only with special passes, a forbidden enclave of Soviet Russia: the town was omitted from all maps, unnamed and addressed using eerily secret code names such as Factory No 7, Moscow 400 or Mailbox 22. An all-Russian workforce for the plant occupied the rebuilt town of Sillamäe, enjoying a privileged standard of living compared with other Soviet citizens. Because of the huge amounts of oil-shale needed to produce tiny quantities of uranium, supplies of uranium ore were imported from elsewhere in the USSR and vast amounts of money were poured into developing the Sillamäe plant which was rumoured to have produced the uranium for the first Soviet atomic bomb tested in 1949. The plant continued operating right through until the late 1980s, processing 1000s of tons of unfinished uranium for Soviet nuclear weapons; plans had been developed for the enrichment of nuclear reactor-ready U-235, but before this could happen USSR imploded and Estonia became independent in 1991, and the plant was immediately closed. Unfortunately earlier casual disposal of nuclear waste left an environmentally destructive legacy with radioactive material leaking from waste ponds into the surrounding soil and Baltic Sea. Since 2005, vast quantities of EU money have been poured into a clean-up operation, sealing the waste under concrete to ensure its stability. After uranium processing ceased, industrial activity at Sillamäe went into serious decline resulting in high local unemployment. The plant was privatised in 1997 as AS Silmet producing rare earth compounds for the electronics industry, and was taken over in 2011 by the American metals producer Molycorp who still operates the modernised plant. An attempt to operate a car ferry service across the Gulf of Finland to Kotka in Southern Finland failed in 2007, but Sillamäe's freight port continues to expand as one of the busiest in the Baltic States. Sillamäe's 14,000 population are still 80% ethnic Russian. See Sillamäe's Past, Present and Future for a Estonian World's on-line magazine article on Sillamäe.
Our visit to Sillamäe: against this historical background, we turned off to find Sillamäe's cargo port with its vast lorry parking areas, and former nuclear processing plant whose now lifeless chimneys still tower over the inaccessible modern metallurgy plant, and the now defunct ferry port. Passing the rows of Stalinist-era apartment blocks, we drove along to the town centre and parked by the town hall with its totally incongruous mock-Lutheran church spire, and the 1949 Cultural Centre, the very apotheosis of flamboyant Stalinist architecture whose interior was decorated with reliefs of Marx and Lenin (see left). In gardens nearby, a triumphalist 1987 Soviet monument celebrated the 70th anniversary of the 1917 October Revolution in the form of a muscular torso-ed bronze statue juggling an atom (named sardonically by us as Atomic Joe) (Photo 1 - Soviet atomic statue) (see above left), an apt symbol for a town devoted to production of uranium. A monumental staircase decorated with urns of flowers cascaded down to the main avenue of grand Neo-classical apartment blocks whose pastel coloured façades feature floral reliefs with hammer and sickle and communist star motifs (Photo 2 - Sillamäe's grand staircase) (see above right). In today's bright sunlight, the stately stone steps leading down to the seafront gave every appearance of Odessa in the Crimea (see above left); the only difference is that Putin's military still illegally occupies Ukrainian Crimea, whereas Soviet occupation of Estonia collapsed in 1991. We walked down the startlingly white grand staircase from where a promenade leads down to the Baltic coast (Photo 3 - Stalinist architecture). The parkland was dry and barren in this summer's heat-wave, despite the desperate efforts of a council workman to water the flower beds (see above right). To the west along the Baltic shore line, the chimneys of the former uranium extraction plant could be seen along with the now grassed-over headland where oil-shale had once been mined (Photo 4 - Former uranium processing plant). But beyond this, out of sight, were the storage ponds contaminated by radioactive waste. With fascination we wandered back up to the centre through the rows of classical Stalinist apartments (see right) in this living museum of Soviet-era architecture. Past the Cultural Centre, we headed out to re-join Route 1 beyond later apartment blocks of the Khrushchev and Brezhnev eras to continue our journey eastwards towards Narva.
The border-city of Narva: driving into the centre of Narva, it felt like, and indeed was, the end of the road. The high security fences and multiple barriers of the border-post which totally dominates the town centre seemed like something out of a le Carré Cold War novel. Traffic queued around into the neighbouring street to pass through the border-control on the Estonian side, only then to face similar delays at the Russian control point on the far side of the so-called Friendship Bridge over the Narva River which marks the border. We found parking at the central square of Peetri Plats immediately alongside the formidably fortified Estonian border-crossing control, its security barriers and traffic-lights controlling the lines of vehicles queuing to enter the border-crossing complex (Photo 5 - Estonian border-crossing at Narva) (see left). Since our last visit in 2011, the pedestrian visa check point was now also enlarged into a sizeable building alongside the vehicle entry, looking more like the entrance to a shopping mall (see right).
Narva, today Estonia's and the EU's easternmost city, was founded originally by Danes in 1229 as a fortified trading post on the Narva River and later sold to the Livonian Order. For centuries it marked the frontier between the Teutonic controlled Western Baltic and the increasingly powerful Russian Empire. The construction of Narva castle on the western bank of the border-river was matched by the Ivangorod Fortress on the opposite bank, built in 1492 by Ivan III, and the 2 strongholds continue to glower at one another across the narrow gap of water to this day. Narva was embroiled in border disputes between Swedes and Russians during the 16th/17th centuries until finally captured by Peter the Great in 1704, becoming part of the Tsarist Empire. In the 19th century, Narva flourished as a port and leading industrial industry city, and centre of textile production; the Krenholm Manufacturing Mill employed 10,000 workers, and the Tallinn~St Petersburg railway gave stimulus to business. During WW2 the occupying Germans had evacuated the civilian population, but Narva was totally destroyed by the Red Army's recapture of the city after lengthy battles and bombardment in 1944. Post-war the Soviets rebuilt Narva with shoddy prefabricated concrete panelaky apartments, but refused to allow the native Estonian population to return, repopulating the city instead with Russian industrial workers from all parts of the USSR. During the 1950~60s, as part of NE Estonia's industrialised zone, Narva became one of Europe's most polluted cities. The 60,000 population remains 95% ethic-Russian and the city, closer geographically and culturally to St Petersburg than to Tallinn, has suffered severe economic decline since the collapse of communism, with high unemployment levels and all the associated social problems. While the rest of Estonia faces a brighter economic future as a Western-oriented EU member, its 3rd largest city Narva appears trapped in limbo, like a Russian city on the wrong side of the border.
The TIC in the central square was helpful in providing details of a campsite we had passed 5kms west of the city and information about Narva. Armed with this, we set off to explore, starting at the Estonian border-crossing alongside the square as we watched cars entering the security gates one by one into the control zone, and St Petersburg coaches given priority over the cars (see above left). We made next for Narva Castle, and paid the expensive €7 entry (and that was the seniors' reduction!) to climb Hermann Tower. Ignoring the displays of armour, muskets and cannon balls, we climbed the series of stairs leading to the open balcony which gave a unique, spine-chilling overview down onto the sealed, totally enclosed border zone no-man's-land corridor of high security fencing passing all the way across the Friendship Bridge over the Narva River between the Estonian and Russian border-controls at opposite ends of the bridge. There was a bird's-eye view down onto the border-bridge immediately below of pedestrians walking across the bridge within the sealed security fencing, and the traffic queuing on the far side to pass through the Russian border-crossing on the approach to the Russian town of Ivangorod (Photo 6 - Border bridge crossing) (see above right). The Hermann Tower's upper observation platform gave views through slit-windows across the narrow river to the even more formidable Ivangorod Fortress on the opposite Russian side of the river (Photo 7 - Ivangorod Fortress) (see left). Looking upstream along the river, the Narva dam and hydroelectric power station were visible in the increasing gloom (see right).
By the time we had descended from the 51m high tower, the darkening clouds brought a downpour and we had to wait to continue our walking tour around to a viewpoint alongside the castle mound looking across the river-border towards Ivangorod Fortress (see below left). Just outside the castle walls, a Soviet memorial commemorated Red Army soldiers killed in the ferocious and prolonged 1944 fighting to re-take Narva from the Germans (see below right). Walking through this area of dismal apartment blocks towards the railway station, Narva had a down-at-heel feel, grim and grey as East Berlin must have been in the GDR days. On our 2011 visit, the timetable at Narva railway station listed daily train services to Tallinn and St Petersburg, but access to the platform was via a formidable passport control. Today the station beyond the portico was still a no-go area: gone was the customs post, in were the builders. Out in the forecourt, a forlorn monument commemorated those deported to Siberia during the 1941~49 Stalinist years (see below left), beginning their sad journey into exile in cattle trucks from Narva station. When the sky cleared after another downpour, we continued past the shunting yards, through back streets, and hidden away behind further grey panelaky apartment blocks, we found the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of the Resurrection. Its red-brick, barrel-shaped bulk topped by onion domes, locked and now looking down at heel, loomed amid car breakers' yards and ugly lock-up garages, against the background sound of shunting from the nearby freight yard sidings (Photo 8 - Orthodox Cathedral) (see below right). With the sky still overcast, the area seemed grimmer than ever. Babushkas indifferently swept the entrances to apartment blocks, and 2 little boys played in the street outside with their toy cars. Returning through the back streets towards the river, behind a car park we found the Swedish Lion Monument, a 1936 replica of the original, commemorating the 1701 victory of Swedish King Charles XII over the Russian besiegers of Narva. This triumph was short-lived however, since 3 years later Peter the Great swept the Swedes from Northern Europe, beginning 200 years of Tsarist Russian occupation. The present view from the terrace looking down towards the border-river is now obscured by mature trees; but our 2011 photo from this spot (in similar gloomy weather as today) gave a grim panorama of the two fortresses, Narva Castle (Estonia) and Ivangorod Fortress (Russia), facing one another across the river which forms the border between 2 opposing cultures, the EU and the Putin's Russia (Photo 9 - Two opposing castles).
With black clouds threatening yet another downpour, we hurried back up the castle hill into town past cars queuing at the border-control, reaching shelter at Peetri Plats just in time . When the rain passed, we worked our way around past the Swedish bastions and freight lorry border-control gate down the Estonian-sounding but grimly Russian-looking Koidula Street. Behind more apartment blocks, the riverside is guarded by the massive circuit of bastions constructed by the Swedes in the 17th century. Above the embankment, we found a terrace directly overlooking the border-crossing bridge, with the Ivangorod Fortress towering above forming a backdrop (Photo 10 - Border-bridge sealed by security fencing) (see below left). This gave perfect views along the length of the bridge, totally sealed off by security fencing, where a few pedestrians carrying their shopping bags trudged across between the border-control points, looking for all the world like Cold War refugees. It seemed however that since we were last here in 2011, the fencing enclosing the bridge had been further reinforced restricting the view. But there was still a regular traffic of Russian pedestrians crossing to shop for food in Estonian Narva's well-stocked EU/Western supermarkets (see below right) (Photo 11 - Pedestrians crossing border-bridge). Putin may project an image of all-powerful control, but evidently he still cannot feed the Russian people who trudge across this inhospitable bridge to do their weekly food shopping; you might call this voting with their feet! This truly chilling image was the most poignant sight of the trip.
We returned to Narva's central square and drove around to the Rimi hypermarket for our own provisions shopping. Today's visit to the EU/Estonian border with Russia at Narva marked the easternmost point of this year's circumnavigation of the Baltic; even at the Vaalimaa border with Russia on the far side of the Baltic in SE Finland, we should be less far east than at Narva. In leaving Narva's Peetri Plats and turning westwards along Route 1 we symbolically began our long homeward journey.
Vana Olgina Mõis-Camping near Narva: 5kms west of Narva, we reached the turning into Vana Olgina Mõis-Camping, which we had passed earlier. Here we were greeted in enthusiastic but only semi-intelligible Russian/English by the owner who showed us round, and with equal enthusiasm demanded €21, expensive for a basic site The large rustic camping area was well-shaded by mature trees, and sufficiently far from the busy main road to avoid traffic noise. Facilities were limited and basic, with one outdoor wash-up sink and basic shower by the house, and one earth privvie 300m away in the far corner of the field; the wi-fi just about reached the camping area. An early evening sun shone brightly through the trees as we pitched but the westerly wind blew briskly (see left) (Photo 12 - Vana Olgina Mõis-Camping); the later evening grew noticeably dusky and comfortably cooler.
August 1994 Battle of Sinimäe Blue Hills: the following morning as we set off westwards, we could see in 10kms ahead the wooded hilly ground of Sinimäe Blue Hills rising distinctly above the flat NE Estonian coastal tablelands. It was here on these 3 hills, running east~west and 70~80m high, that in July~August 1944, the Germans chose to dig in as a defensive line, designated the Tannenberg Line, to cover their retreat from Narva, having defended the town for 6 months against sustained Red Army attacks. They fell back to Sinimäe and there put up determined resistance against the advancing Soviets, despite being vastly outnumbered with the Soviets having massive air superiority: 22,000 German forces, including substantial numbers of Estonian, Danish, Flemish, Norwegian and Dutch volunteers, held off 137,00 Soviet troops supported by overwhelming tank numbers and heavy artillery, who were constantly being reinforced. Estonians supported the Germans, fearing another Soviet occupation of their country worse than 1940~41, and hoping to re-achieve independence. Casualties were high on both sides with 2,500 dead and 7,500 injured on the German/Estonian side, and 34,000 dead and 135,000 injured on the Russian side. Despite these enormous losses, the Red Army eventually overcame the resistance and continued their westward advance.
A minor lane turned off Route 1 leading around the hills to a parking area. A high metal cross monument crowned the high point of the hills as a memorial to the German and Estonian dead (see above right) (Photo 13 - Sinimäe Hills 1944 war memorial), and remains of trenches still criss-crossed the hillside (see left). Just beyond here by an extensive area of civil graveyards, a Soviet monument marked the mass graves of Russian war dead from the 1944 Sinimäe Hills battle (see right), unusually augmented by graves of individual Russian soldiers some with headstones bearing photographs (see below left).
Valeste NE Estonian Klint coastal waterfall: at Toila we turned off from Route 1 around a narrow cliff-top lane close to the Baltic coastline, which here coincides with a continuation of the NE Estonian section of the Baltic Klint limestone escarpment to form 100 feet high sheer cliffs. At the cliff-top farming settlement of Valeste, a small steam tumbles over the cliff edge and metal spiral steps once made an airy descent giving intimate views of the resultant waterfall which in winter is a frozen mass of ice stalactites. When we tried to find the Valeste cliff-top waterfalls in 2011, the previous year's spring melts had destroyed the steps and we could only gaze over the precipice at the exposed limestone face of the Klint and what was left of the viewing platform. We tried again this year, but the entire cliff-top was now closed off by building works; it seemed we were destined never to see the Valeste waterfalls!
Kohtla-Järve oil-shale Mining Museum: back to Route 1, we crossed the main road into the outskirts of the industrial town of Kohtla-Järve, centre of the Estonian oil-shale industry. As we approached the town, the smell of petroleum gases wafted over from the smoking chimneys of Kohtla-Järve's shale-oil refineries, and the presence of shale-oil extraction plants was patently evident against a backdrop of spoil heaps left behind by the oil-shale mining industry scarring the landscape. Oil-shale is a sedimentary rock deposit containing significant amounts of organic hydrocarbons which can be extracted by heat treatment as shale-oil, a substitute for conventional crude oil, albeit at greater cost of extraction and with potentially greater environmental damage. Estonia has major deposits of oil-shale concentrated in the country's NE region. This has been mined since the early 20th century and still forms the country's foremost natural resource which can be burned directly as a low-grade fuel in power generation or the shale-oil extracted for refining. During the Soviet era, mining of oil-shale in NE Estonia expanded rapidly to support the growth of heavy industry, with cities such Kohtla-Järve and Narva increasing in size with the massive immigration of industrial workers from the USSR. As a result, the population of the region's cities is still predominantly Russian-speaking. Estonia still produces over 85% of its total energy supply from shale-oil fired generating plants, making it the only country in the world where oil-shale is the primary source of energy; the oil-shale industry employs 7,500 people and oil-shale as a strategic energy resource constitutes 4% of Estonia's GDP. The shale residue left after oil extraction is used to produce cement at the massive cement factory which dominates the predominantly Russian-speaking town of Kunda. There are still a number of sizeable oil-shale mines, both open-cast and deep mines, in Ida-Virumaa County of NE Estonia, along with shale-oil extraction plants and refineries.
Knowing nothing about oil-shale and keen to find out more given the industry's economic importance for Estonia, we turned off towards the neighbouring town of Kohtla-Nõmme, and crossing the main Tallinn~St Petersburg railway line, we reached the road's end at the Estonian Oil-shale Mining Museum. This is based at what had from 1937~2000 been a working oil-shale mine. We were last here in 2011 in the early years of the museum's opening. Since then however EU grants had enabled a glitzy exhibition centre to be built, incorporated into the former ore sorting and concentration plant; and prices had risen accordingly with admission now being a whopping €17 with no seniors' reductions. We have visited many mining museums during our travels, but oil-shale was a first and we hoped to discover more about this industry. Despite some reservations about how much we should learn, we had phoned earlier to reserve places on the mine tour.
The oil-shale mine at Kohtla-Nõmme was one of several workings in the area; its depth varied from 10 to 30m, but the underground workings spread over an area several square kms. The oil-bearing shale strata were interspersed with limestone; after blasting out a new section, the rock was conveyed to the surface, the oil-shale sorted for transportation by rail to nearby oil-extraction plants, and the limestone dumped to form the waste heaps which still surround the former pit. During the communist period, miners were considered privileged workers and paid up to 600 roubles a month compared with a teacher's salary of 60 roubles. The mine continued operating until 2001, and although most of the former underground workings are now flooded, part was open as the oil-shale mining museum. With temperatures in the underground workings at 8°C, we were kitted out with jackets and hard-hats, and led down into the main roadway of the mine by the retired miner guide to travel out to the underground galleries in a Soviet era electric mine train. Since the guide's commentary was only in Estonian and therefore largely unintelligible to us, we were also issued with audio-guides, and over the next hour shown the developing methods of extraction from early hand-drilling to later mechanised drilling and cutting. The rock walls of the workings showed clearly the interspersed strata of brown oil-bearing shale and the useless white limestone (Photo 14 - Underground workings) (see above right) which could be separated out and discarded as waste or used in cement manufacture.
Back on the surface, we had in 2011 been able to wander freely over to where the rock conveyer emerged from the underground workings and where the spoil heaps of waste limestone still marred the landscape. Today however fencing denied any access to other than the immediate area around the new glitzy exhibition centre. Our reservations about how worthwhile the visit to the Mining Museum would be were vindicated. It's true we had learned a lot, but whether the unduly expensive price justified this was debatable: the audio-guides were an encumbrance and the recorded commentary difficult to coordinate with numbered stops on the underground tour; while visiting the underground workings was certainly an interesting experience, they were inevitably sanitised and gave little real impression of true working conditions; the presentation lacked real substance, the understanding gained was superficial, and there was no opportunity whatever for non-Estonian speakers to ask questions; we gained greater understanding from subsequent research than from the visit which, given the price, was in our view poor value. You must reach your own judgement but we were not impressed with the Oil-shale Mining Museum.
Back around into Kohtla-Järve, we investigated the shale-oil extraction plants and refineries (see right), set against the backdrop of spoil heaps from earlier mining. With the air around the plants reeking of petroleum, we worked our way around to the plants for photos (Photo 15 - Shale-oil extraction plant and refineries) (see left); a shift was just ending and workers waited for buses outside the plant. As we drove into the centre of town, the Stalinist period decaying architecture seemed an anachronistic throw-back to the days of the post-war Soviet expansion of oil-shale mining; roads were rutted and uneven, whether from mining subsidence or simply lack of maintenance was unclear. At the main Maxima supermarket, we paused for our shopping, and again Russian was the predominant language heard, accompanied by typically Russian absence of manners! Fuel prices at the filling stations in Kohtla-Järve were a few cents cheaper than elsewhere in Estonia, but there was no indication that this was due to locally produced shale-oil.
Saka Cliff Hotel-Camping: just along Route 1, we turned off to Saka Cliff Hotel-Camping on the Baltic coast cliff-tops, managing to pitch in the shade of a tree. Over at the hotel reception, we were courteously received, even managing to secure a camping card discount on the already good value price of €15/night, paying just €13.50, one of the best prices of the trip! We knew from our 2011 stay that this was a good standard 'does-what-it-says-on-the-tin' site, with modern, clean facilities but no kitchen/wash-up. The following morning, our 48th wedding anniversary, was very hot again, and before leaving we climbed the Soviet search light tower on the campsite cliff-top, part of the former USSR coastal border defences, for views over the woodland-covered 50m high Klint cliffs. As at Toila further east along NE Estonia's coastline, steps led down the cliffs. The Baltic beach was scattered with large numbers of erratic boulders carried by retreating glaciers 12,000 years ago and deposited here (see right), and traced geologically from Vyborg on the north shore of what became the Gulf of Finland. The Klint cliff showed 6m high limestone outcrops, and at the foot of the cliffs traces of 565 million year old Cambrian blue clay deposits.
The town of Rakvere: continuing our westerly journey on Route 1, traffic was quite busy with impatient tail-gating and overtaking. But we made good progress reaching the outskirts of Rakvere, to pull into a shopping mall for a provisions stock-up at a Rimi hypermarket. The town of Rakvere, capital of Lääne-Viru County with a predominantly Estonian population of 16,000, gained its municipal status in 1302 as a trading centre developing around its castle. Rakvere castle had originally been fortified on the strategically important Vallimägi hill in the early 13th century by the Danes, who sold the settlement to the Germanic Livonian Order in 1346. The Castle was destroyed during the 17th century wars between Poles, Swedes and Muscovites, and Rakvere finally became part of the Russian Empire after the early 18th century Great Northern War. During the first period of Estonian independence after WW1, Rakvere prospered and acquired many prominent buildings including its market building and famous theatre. Spared the over-industrialisation which blighted the rest of the region during the Soviet era, Rakvere is now an attractive town which still retains its traditional wooden buildings. Rakvere is also known for its huge bronze Tarvas sculpture of an Aurochs, unveiled in 2002 to mark the town's 700th anniversary (see above right); the Aurochs monument stands on the escarpment edge of Vallimägi hill next to the restored remains of Rakvere castle (Photo 16 - Rakvere Castle) (see above left).
We drove into the town and parked at the foot of Vallimägi hill, where steps led up the escarpment to the castle remains. Prominently atop the grassy escarpment stood the huge Aurochs sculpture. These wild ancestors of modern cattle and oxen which once roamed the Baltic plains became extinct in Europe 500 years ago; they were hunted in Palaeolithic times and are shown in cave paintings at Lascaux in Southern France. Rakvere castle's restored remains stood proudly still guarding the hill-top mound. We dropped down into the town to walk along Pikk Street past the attractive town houses and now rather forlorn wooden buildings (Photo 17 - Pikk Street, Rakvere) (see left and right), to the prominent 15th century Holy Trinity Church with its sturdy refuge tower (see left). Badly damaged in the 16~18th century wars, this now peaceful church contains some impressive artwork, particularly the colourfully painted 17th century carved wooden figures of apostles on the pulpit.
The non-responsive Lahemaa National Park Visitor Centre: continuing west along Route 1, we turned off at Viitna to find the Lahemaa National Park Information Centre at Palmse Manor. At the 2 previous Estonian national park centres, Soomaa and Karula, we had received a consistently helpful and responsive service. It came as something of a surprise therefore to be faced with the very opposite here: the taciturn woman was totally non-responsive, only after some pressure and almost reluctantly producing the national park booklet from the back room. She sold us an updated map and route plans for the various walks, but it was all very much the proverbial 'blood out of a stone'. Then when we were part way through the exhibition on the national park's geology, fauna and flora, she declared it was 5-00pm and she was closing! This was not a good experience: help and advice were utterly non-forthcoming, and we were left wondering why this woman thought she was receiving a salary.
Lepispea Camping at Vösu: through the Lahemaa forests, we dropped down the here gently sloping line of the Baltic Klint to Vösu village and just beyond reached Lepispea Camping (called Eesti-Caravan Camping when we stayed here last in 2011). Here we were greeted with the very antithesis of the Palmse non-responsive non-welcome: tired and hot from a long day, the lady with smiling welcome produced a site plan marked with orientation and key features, first class Lahemaa maps and information sheets which had been unavailable at the so-called National Park Information Centre, and readily offered a camping card discount with a price of €19/night. The campsite motto was Treat you dear customers as you would like to be treated yourself, and they truly lived up to this! Facilities were good, with a well-equipped kitchen/wash-up including microwave and washing machine. The early evening sun was still very hot, and unwisely we opted for a pitch with evening shade, knowing that in the full un-shaded heat of tomorrow morning's sun, we should regret the decision. And of course, how often do we need reminding, when arriving at a campsite in hot sun, resist the temptation for evening shade; tomorrow morning's sun will be far hotter (see above right). And indeed it was ferociously hot!
Päripsea Peninsula of Lahemaa National Park: Lahemaa's (meaning Land of Bays) most distinctive feature are the 4 evenly spaced peninsulas projecting into the Baltic, creating the 3 bays which give Lahemaa its name. The post-glacial coastal plain is divided from the inland limestone higher plateau by the escarpment of the North Estonian Klint which runs west~east through the National Park, here so smoothed by vegetation and forest as to appear generally a gentle slope rather than a cliff as further east. A more conspicuous feature is the profusion of erratic boulders deposited across the Lahemaa landscape by retreating glaciers 12,000 years ago, having been carried down from Scandinavia in earlier aeons as the ice had advanced southwards. After WW2, this coastline area was declared a high security border-zone by the Soviets, needing special permits to enter, which ironically helped to conserve the natural landscape. The Soviet authorities however remained suspicious of environmentalists at Lahemaa, which made it all the more surprising that they sanctioned the creation of Lahemaa National Park in 1971, the first in the USSR. Permits were still required to enter the park because of the high military presence, and foreign nationals were only admitted after 1986; nowadays, being so close to Tallinn, it is one of the country's most popular visitor destinations.
This morning we headed around the head of Eru Laht (Bay), the middle one of Lahemaa's 3 bays, to explore the Pärispea peninsula. Driving up the east coast around the reed-lined shoreline of the shallow bay through Kasispea village, erratic boulders stood among the cottages. What however was more noticeable compared with our 2011 visit were the Eramaa (Private property) signs universally seen, security firms' plaques, and seemingly every cottage having a guard dog springing up at the fence; clearly a sign of the times. At the next village of Turbuneeme, we walked around a side lane to a classic length of reed-fringed Lahemaa shoreline of Eru Bay where a large erratic boulder, named on the map as Painuva Kivi (Stone) stood in the shallow water just off the shore (see above left) (Photo 18 - Erratic boulder in Eru Lahti Bay). Viinistu village at the NE tip of the peninsula also had its share of erratic boulders scattered among the cottages and in the waters of the bay (see above right). Viinistu had once been the base of a large fishing fleet until the fishing industry went into decline; a sign of the times, the former fish processing factory by the marina now housed an art gallery. Across the width of the peninsula, a narrow lane at Pärispea led down to the site of former Soviet coastal defences with a now derelict searchlight tower similar to the one at Saka cliff, to prevent smuggling of alcohol to Finland or refugees from Soviet repression. A single-track lane led around to Purekkari Point, the northernmost tip of the Estonian mainland. The area had been a heavily fortified border zone in the Soviet period and the headland had been site of a large radar installation with remains of derelict barrack blocks and concrete military installations now scattered among the woods.
Loksa village and the Majakivi Erratic boulder: back through the village, we continued down the eastern shore of Hara Laht, the afternoon sun sparkling on the waters of the Bay whose deep waters had once been location of a Soviet submarine base. Times had changed and this once heavily fortified area during the Soviet occupation now clearly was des res holiday homes territory. The nearby town of Loksa with its Orthodox church and ship-yards, was still like so many Estonian industrial towns a predominantly Russian-speaking place as we found out in the Konsum mini-market. Around the head of Hara Bay, we turned up into the pine forested Juminda peninsula to reach the parking area for the Majakivi Nature Trail leading out to the 7m high, 32m circumference Majakivi, the largest of Lahemaa's erratic boulders. The outward path passed initially through sandy heath spruce forest, the forest floor carpeted with Bilberry, Lingonberry and Ling. But of more interest to us were the May Lilies (Maianthemum bifolium), many of which bore clusters of tiny, glossy mottled berries (see above right) (Photo 19 - May Lilly berries), very attractive but highly toxic to humans; this was the first time we had seen the plant's berries, only having noted the tiny white flowers in springtime. The path looped around to cross a now dried up area of bog with Cranberries ripening in the dry sphagnum (see above left). Beyond here we reached the huge Majakivi erratic boulder (see above right) (Photo 20 - Majakivi Erratic Boulder), its name literally meaning House-sized Stone.
Lahemaa Kohvikann Camping: back through Loksa and Vihasoo, we took the lane up to Palmse to find tonight's campsite at Lahemaa Kohvikann (Coffee Pot) (Photo 21 - Lahemaa Kohvikann) (see above left), a small restaurant and campsite kept by Dieter and Julia Hölscher, he from near Hannover and she from St Petersburg; they settled in Estonia in 2008, and offer a hospitable welcome and delicious home cooked meals at the Kohvikann. Since we stayed here last in 2011, they had extended the camping area behind the restaurant and installed a new facilities hut with 2 homely integrated bathrooms, but still only an outside cold water wash-up sink. Julia and Dieter welcomed us again, and since the camping area had no trees for shade, we had to pitch with George's fridge facing into the very hot late afternoon sun to give us shade to sit out and relax with beers after a satisfying but exhausting day in Lahemaa (see right). The sun gradually declined losing its fearsome heat, but inside the camper it stayed hot despite the fans.
Käsmu village and Käsmu Peninsula Stone-plantation: our second day in Lahemaa National Park was spent exploring 2 of the National Park's other peninsulas, Käsmu and Vergi. Back down the gently sloping Klint, with bright morning sun lighting the pine woods, we bypassed Võsu village and, around the head of Käsmu Laht, we turned along the eastern shore of the bay to reach Käsmu. The village's prosperity dates from its brief period of sea-faring fame in the late 19th century when Käsmu Bay, less prone to icing than other anchorages along the Baltic coast, became a busy winter mooring for sailing ships and a major ship-building centre. A maritime training college began here in 1884 and many of its graduates eventually retired here, earning Käsmu the nickname of 'Captains' village'. The development of deep-draught steam ships brought the village's importance to an end, but it remains a pleasant holiday home village attracting summer visitors. We had been warned that Käsmu would be particularly busy today with preparations for the coming weekend's Käsmu Folk Festival. All along the linear village street, stall-holders were busily setting up, but we managed to ease a way through and found a shady parking place in the forest edge at the far end. The concentration of erratic boulders began even along the village street where every little cottage had a boulder in its front garden. A footpath led northwards from the village through pine woods out to the reed-lined tip of Käsmu peninsula where a chain of larger erratics, Vana-Jüri kivid, stretched away northwards to the off-shore island of Kuradisaare (see above left) (Photo 22 - Erratic boulders in Käsmu Bay). We strolled along the boulder-strewn, reed-fringed gritty shoreline, with the still Baltic sea this morning blue under a clear sunny sky, and holiday-makers making the most of the shallow waters.
Turning back to the pine and spruce forested peninsula head, we followed the way-marked circular path through the Käsmu Kivi-külv (Stone-plantation) (Photo 23 - Käsmu Stone-plantation) (see above right). The forest floor was covered with a profusion of smaller-sized erratics, now all moss-covered and scattered among the pines (see left and right). We passed one mottled crystalline granite boulder whose obvious igneous appearance betrayed its alien erratic origins in Scandinavia, deposited here on the limestone bedrock by retreating glaciers. The path led through the Bilberry in this delightful woodland to the enormous erratic boulder of Matsikivi (see below left). The ongoing path led back in 1.2kms to Käsmu village church, and we walked past all the festival preparations down to the old harbour, now a shadow of its sailing ship days. We now had to extricate the camper from the crowds milling along the village street, slowing working our way through to leave the crowds to their weekend of celebrations.
After a pause at Võsu village shop, we continued around the eastern shore of Käsmu Bay towards Vergi, the easternmost of Lahemaa's 3 peninsulas. The road gained height over the densely pine-forested head of the peninsula to reach Vergi village whose old harbour projects into a small bay. On around to Altja with its traditional communal wooden swing (kiik in Estonian), the lane climbed up to Oandu and the 1km Beaver Trail. We walked the circuit which rose and dipped along the course of a now almost dry stream with little trace of beavers save for apparently gnawed trees (a less rewarding walk), and returned to Lahemaa Kohvikann Camping in readiness for a day in camp there tomorrow.
Across central Estonia to Tapa: the morning we left Lahemaa was cooler, more overcast and with some rain. Today we had a long drive south-westwards across the width of Central Estonia to Pärnu and up to Virtsu for the ferry over to the Western Island of Saaremaa; a real shift in geography for the next phase of the trip. We were away early to return to Route 1 and 4kms west, we turned south onto Route 24 heading towards Tapa (click here for detailed map of route). The cloud began to break and sky clear so that by the time we reached the outskirts of Tapa, a bright sun was shining. Tapa developed as a railway town in the late 19th century around the junction of the main railway lines from Tallinn, south to Tartu and Valga and east to Narva and St Petersburg, with a grand railway station and locomotive repair depot. This led also to the town's further development as a military centre, beginning at the time of the 1918 War of Independence with an armoured train regiment based at Tapa. With the first Soviet occupation in 1939, the Russians began building a military airfield just south of Tapa, which was continued during the 1940~44 German occupation. When the Soviets took over again in 1944, the air base was extended, and during the 1950s squadrons of MiG fighters were stationed at Tapa Soviet military airfield. The town expanded rapidly with both the railways and the military base. When the Soviet armed forces and their families were withdrawn in 1993 after Estonia re-achieved independence, Tapa's population dropped from 10,000 to 6,000, and the town was left with a ransacked, derelict and poorly constructed military district. The airfield was heavily polluted by aviation fuel which had leaked from Soviet military aircraft into the top soil and ground water, creating the proverbial expression Tapa põlev vesi; meaning you could put a match to Tapa's water, it was so contaminated! The Estonian armed forces took over the military base with NATO planes now based there.
We stopped at Tapa railway station, but the once grand station building was now a shadow of its former glory (see above right). Its two lines still provided services, one heading eastwards from the old platform to Narva, the other just a modern canopy turning southwards to Valga: this morning a modern railcar waited to depart for Tartu. To the rear of the modern Tapa station platforms, a Soviet Л-Class 2-10-0 heavy freight locomotive was preserved in the sidings (see right and above left) (Photo 24 - Soviet Л-Class locomotive). More than 4,200 of these engines were built in Ukraine post-WW2 and ran throughout the USSR; we had seen another of these ex-Soviet steam locomotives preserved at Gulbene in Eastern Latvia.
Across Estonia to Paide, Türi and Pärnu to Virtsu ferry port for crossing to Saaremaa: we continued from Tapa passing the modern military airfield, and our journey took us SW-wards across the width of the country through flat agricultural landscape past Paide and Türi. Türi is on the line south from Tallinn to Viljandi, and we paused here for our lunch sandwiches by another of the preserved Soviet monster freight locomotives displayed by the roadside (see left). Continuing our journey on Route 5 (click here for detailed map of route), we bypassed Vändra with the road running close to the northern side of Soomaa National Park where we had first entered Estonia 4 weeks ago. Eventually reaching the outskirts of Pärnu, we merged onto Route 4 and bypassed the town to join Route 60 NW-wards towards Lihula. A minor road cutting off the corner brought us out onto Route 10 to the ferry port of Virtsu for the crossing to Saaremaa, the largest of Estonia's western islands. Traffic passing in the opposite direction was almost continuous; we hoped this was all weekend holiday-makers returning from Saaremaa. We reached Virtsu at 3-00pm, just in time for the 3-15 ferry; tickets at the booth were €14.40 which seemed very reasonable for the 15 minute crossing of the 8kms sound between the mainland and the intermediate island of Muhu. We boarded the ferry, with ink-black clouds producing a dramatic sky-scape (see right). Driving ashore at Orissaare on Muhu, the queuing traffic waiting to re-cross from Saaremaa stretched back way inland; we hoped this would leave the islands more tourist-free and peaceful. Muhu is a small island dotted with farming communities such as Liiva with its 13th century sturdily Gothic white-washed church and wooden windmill. As we crossed the 3kms causeway linking Muhu to the main island of Saaremaa, dramatically black clouds still filled the sky (see below left).
Piibelehe Camping at Kuressaare: it was a long 80 kms drive across the length of Saaremaa to reach the main town of Kuressaare. In the outskirts, we pulled into a Rimi hypermarket for a 3 day provisions stock-up, before driving around to Piibelehe-Kodumajutus (Guest-house) Camping (meaning Lily of the Valley) in the town's southern outskirts. We had happy memories of our stay here in 2011, and today the owner was as friendly and welcoming as ever. We pitched in the lovely garden camping area in the shelter of large bushes against the forecast overnight wind and rain; the charge was €19/night but the facilities were good with 2 integrated bathrooms, wash-up sink and site-wide reliable wi-fi. We cooked supper, exhausted after today's 342kms drive. The following morning a bright sun lit Piibelehe Camping's delightful garden setting (see right) (Photo 25- Piibelehe Camping at Kuressaare). With temperatures rather more comfortable than of late, we were ready to set out on the next phase of the trip to explore the western island of Saaremaa.
Kuressaare's inadequate Tourist Information Centre: into the centre of Kuressaare, Saaremaa's main town to find the Tourist Information Centre. For a place so dependent on tourism, Kuressaare's TIC was woefully lacking in substantive material: they had no current Hiiumaa ferry timetables (the copy displayed expired yesterday!), and no up to date listings of Saaremaa campsites or guest-houses offering camping other than a 2016 leaflet which the woman reluctantly produced from under the counter. We managed to find a useful booklet on the natural features of Saaremaa of Saate Geopark, but it seemed that with the tourist season now almost over, stocks of brochures were run down and the staff couldn't be bothered to help. Regrettably this was one of the most lacking TIC's of the trip.
Kuressaare's Old Bridge: we set off on our first day's tour of Saaremaa (click here for detailed map of route) to locate one of the features identified from the Geopark booklet, Kuressaare's Old Bridge which we found in the town's northern outskirts. Built in 1813, and now replaced by a modern bridge, the limestone 12 arched elegant 105m in length structure spans the rather meagre dribble of Põuste River, and is now preserved as a monument (see left) (Photo 26- Kuressaare Old Bridge).
Kaali meteorite impact crater: the next stop on our island tour was the farming hamlet of Kaali, where some 5,500 years ago, a huge meteorite struck the earth. The impact left a crater 130m in diameter and 22m deep, throwing up a massive surrounding wall of debris; the impact energy is estimated to equate with the blast of the Hiroshima atomic bomb and incinerated forests within a 6km radius. The original meteor broke up on entering the earth's atmosphere and several fragments fell in the vicinity of Kaali causing 8 smaller craters. But the largest fragment left one of the most accessible meteorite craters in Europe, and now provides a source of tourist income for the small village. From Kuressaare, we set a course for Kaali meteorite impact crater, and as we drove eastwards along Route 10, the cloudscape, ever-changing in today's brisk breeze, momentarily resembled a nuclear explosion mushroom cloud formation; what next! Reaching Kaali village, we walked up and around the crater rim of the surrounding tree-covered rubble embankment, admiring both the scale of the crater and of the debris wall. Peering down into the water-filled crater pit, which even on an a bright sunny morning is an eerily gloomy place, we speculated on the impact explosion which had caused it, crushing the dolomite limestone bed-rock beneath (see above right) (Photo 27- Kaali meteorite impact crater).
St Katherine's Church at Karja: next stop towards the northern side of the island was the 14th century fortress-like Church of St Katherine at the farming hamlet of Karja (see above left). Designed not only as a place of worship but also as a refuge in time of danger, today the church was open, and we were able to examine the detail of pre-Christian carvings on the solid-looking column capitals with curling oak leaves (see right), the remains of wall-paintings in the chancel one panel showing pre-Christian symbols, and the sturdy Gothic arched roof structure so reminiscent of similar aged refuge churches on Åland and Öland. Over the south side portal, a Medieval engraved graphic crucifixion scene showed Christ between the two malefactors (Photo 28 - Karja crucifixion carving); the good thief's soul exits from his mouth heaven-bound into the arms of an angel, while a devil waits to whisk the bad thief's soul to hell.
Angla windmills: Saaremaa's fertile soil has always supported flourishing farming of barley, wheat and rye, and many surviving windmills dot the landscape. At Angla a few kms to the north, a group of 5 windmills are clustered on a slightly raised exposed point aligned along the roadside. The native Saaremaa mill is of the post type, where the entire cabin structure supporting the sails is turned on a huge wooden pivot set on a stone base to catch the wind (Photo 29 - Angla post-mills). Clearly at Angla there had been enough work from the surrounding farmlands to support 5 millers. The restored windmills are now open to the public to clamber up into the mill and examine the wooden gearing that turned the mill-wheels.
Saaremaa's northern coast at Panga Pank: after a brief diversion out to Triigi harbour to confirm ferry timings for the crossing to Hiiumaa, we turned back to Leisi and here found an Orthodox church (see right). This and another wooden Orthodox church isolated in open countryside just beyond the village of Metsküla (see left) along the northern coast are reminders that in Tsarist times many of the islanders had adopted the Orthodox religion in exchange for free grants of land from the Russian authorities. Around sweeping bays and through pine forested terrain glowing golden in the late afternoon sunshine, we turned off at Panga (click here for detailed map of route). When we were here in 2011, two of the former post-windmills had been decorated in the form of the island's folk heroes, the amiable but short-tempered giant Suur Töll and his ever patient wife Piret. All that remained of these today were the windmill wooden bases. The lane ended at the north coast by the sheer limestone cliffs of Panga Pank, only 30m high but significant by Estonian standards; the afternoon sun sparkled across the sea to the west against a dramatic cloud-scape (see right) (Photo 30 - Westerly sun at Panga Pank).
Muha-Ranna Guest-house/Camping on Saaremaa's western coast: despite it now approaching 6-00pm, we continued through Mustjala and the lonely pine forests of NW Saaremaa, and around Tagalaht Bay, out to the lonely fishing station at Veere. Route 78 crossed the peninsula's width to swing south, passing the turning out across the isolated Haarilaid peninsula. This stony, scrub-covered landscape, once a plateau-land of scattered farms, was depopulated as a militarised security zone by the Soviets. A narrow dirt road leads across this barren neck of land towards Kõruse, now a virtual ghost-village with forlornly sad air; the broken shells of former cottages and just a couple of impoverished-looking farmsteads still occupied are all that remains. Wearily we pressed on beyond Kihelkonna down the western coast to reach tonight's campsite at Muha-Ranna Guest-house/Camping at Riksu village where we had stayed in 2011. 500m along a gravel lane, we were welcomed affably by the owner; 'Just make yourself at home' was his greeting. We settled into the small, flat camping area behind the guest-house (see left), enclosed by high juniper hedges and with the sound of surf from the nearby shore; a new facilities hut with clean, modern WC/shower and hot water wash-up sink and even a washing machine, all for €15/night. A path led in 250m to Saaremaa's western coast, and that evening a flaring sunset lit the clouds above the western coast (see right) (Photo 31 - Setting sun over western coast).
Viidumäe Nature Reserve near Vilsandi National Park: after a clear night with star-filled sky, we woke to a hazy sun at this lovely peaceful camping spot. Before we could begin our day in Vilsandi National Park, we had to drive into Kuressaare for a fill up of diesel. Route 78 took us out north-westerly past Kärla back to Kihelkonna to visit the 13th century Church of St Michael (see left) (click here for detailed map of route). The church's narrow aisle had balconies along each side, and the carved wooden altarpiece showed a painting of the Last Supper with texts in Latin and German. Kihelkonna Church has one of Estonia's oldest organs dating from 1805, but today this is in a poor state of repair, barely playable and awaiting funding for major restoration. Just beyond the village, Loona Manor houses Vilsandi National Park Visitor Centre; Vilsandi covers 150 offshore, mainly uninhabited islands as well as the narrow coastal strip of Western Saaremaa. The Visitor Centre provided a leaflet-map for the Viidumäe Nature Reserve, which although not within Vilsandi National Park, did offer some excellent walking. Minor lanes took us around to Audaku, a former leprosy hospital from 1904~1946 and now the Viidumäe Visitor Centre with a useful display of local fauna and flora, and starting point for the 2kms circular nature walk.
Viidumäe Nature Reserve covers an area on the highest and oldest part of Saaremaa, the proto-island which rose from the surrounding sea around 10,500 years ago with the post-glacial land uplift. The Reserve also includes the western coastal escarpment cliffs of this proto-island, with spring fens at the foot of the escarpment where springs drain into the low-lying marshy land. The route began through pine-forested heath land. Mid-August is not a particularly good time for seeing wild flora: flowers are past and berries have scarcely formed, but we did see Lily of the Valley with ripening berries, Stone Bramble with reddening berries, Solomon's Seal with unripe fruits and Herb Paris with its one central black fruit. Our path looped around the upper higher ground atop the former coastal escarpment, but we followed wooden steps which dropped steeply down the face of the 'scarp to cross the marshy fenland strip formed by springs draining from the foot of the steep slope. Here typical marshland plants grew including unusually tall Grass of Parnassus (see right). Across the fen on board-walk the path passed through a band of now forested former coastal dunes to end at a larger area of marshland, very gloomy in the now overcast light. Back up the escarpment steps, the route continued along the forested top of the original coastal cliff to circle back to the parking area. This was not a startling walk, but it had produced some interesting flora, and certainly some worthwhile topography with the now forested former coastal cliff escarpment and spring fens along its foot.
Sõrve Peninsula at Saaremaa's SW tip: an unsurfaced lane led SW-wards for 9kms to reach Route 77 at Tehumardi and the Sõrve Peninsula at Saaremaa's SW tip (click here for detailed map of route). This area had been the scene of vicious fighting in late 1944 as the German occupiers tried to evacuate their troops from here across the Baltic in the face of the advancing Red Army. Just at the neck of the peninsula at Tehumardi, a typically Soviet tall, graceless concrete obelisk commemorates Russian and Estonian war-dead with a war cemetery of Red Army troops killed in night-time battles in October 1944. The sparsely populated Sõrve peninsula, projecting south-westerly from the main body of Saaremaa, had a depressed air made worse by the gloomy weather, and a sorry history from the Soviet period. Before WW2 some 6,000 people lived here engaged in farming, fishing and boat-building. During the communist period, the Soviets had fortified this entire coastline with artillery and missile sites, patrolling with border guards what in their paranoia they saw as the USSR's western frontier. Deportations during WW2, the battles of 1944, Soviet post-war security zone, and exodus of the Estonian population to Sweden, reduced the Sõrve peninsula's to 1,500.
With sky now gloomy and rain beginning, we set off down the eastern coast of Sõrve, through Salme with its one shop and little more, and on to Anseküla with its rebuilt lighthouse and remains of its church destroyed in 1944. The road reached Mõntu with nothing more than filling station and ruined manor house. There was no evidence of the ferry terminal for the service across to Latvia begun in 2005 although road signs still showed this. Remains of barbed-wire entanglements showed the place's key role in Soviet coastal defences. We turned off onto a single-rack lane leading to Maante, a now totally deserted former Soviet rocket station; derelict barrack blocks, concrete bunkers and ground polluted by leaking fuel were all that remained (see right). The road continued past empty marshland and scrub-covered heath to the isolated Sõrve lighthouse at the peninsula's southern tip (see left). The area is now virtually deserted and still covered by the gaunt remains of Soviet military installations and empty former border guard barracks, ghostly reminders of this horrific period of Estonia's occupation. The weather was now gloomily grey with pouring rain as we stood by the lighthouse peering out across the still waters of the Irbe Straits which separate the Gulf of Rīga from the open Baltic; nothing could be seen in the misty grey gloom, but somewhere 30kms across the straits was Cape Kolka on the distant Latvian coast where we had stood 2 months previously in sunny weather looking across towards the coast of Saaremaa. In such wretched conditions and pouring rain, we continued around the western shore-line, past low cliffs at Ohessaare and the village of Jämaja. Along stretches of gravel road further north, we rejoined the main Route 77 near Salme to return to Kuressaare and a final camp at Piibelehe Camping.
Ferry crossing to Hiiumaa: it rained all night, but after an overcast and dull day in camp, the following morning dawned bright and sunny for our crossing by ferry to the neighbouring island of Hiiumaa. Across the island to Saaremaa's north coast tiny port of Triigi, we joined other vehicles already queuing for the 1-30pm crossing (see above right). At 1-00pm the ferry docked and began loading; although small, the ferry easily absorbed the dozen or so vehicles waiting to cross. The Väinameri Sound separating Saaremaa and Hiiumaa was as still as a mill pond and we stood at the stern rail watching as the Saaremaa north coast-line faded into the distance (Photo 32- Leaving Saaremaa). We sat on the outer deck looking out over the sea in bright sunshine for the hour's crossing and approach to the mooring at Sõru the southern coastline of Hiiumaa, Estonia's second largest island (see left) (Photo 33 - Approaching Sõru on Hiiumaa) (click here for detailed map of route). Once ashore, we drove 5kms inland to Emmaste to find the 1867 church whose bell restoration in 1994 brought fame to the village. In 1943 the German occupiers seized all metals to melt down for armaments production. The Emmaste church bell however, weighing over 200kgms, was dismantled by villagers and buried, remaining safe underground for 50 years during the German and Soviet occupations. In early 1990, after restoration of Estonian independence, 2 of the surviving bell team set about finding the church bell with a metal detector. It was restored, re-hung and rang again on Christmas Eve 1994, and in his Christmas address to the nation, President Meri said 'Let the restored bell of Emmaste ring out as a symbol of a country whose freedom has also been restored'. We found the Emmaste church tucked away in pine woodland at the edge of the village (see above right).
Hiiumaa's extreme westerly tip: Hiiuumaa's thin, sandy soil has never supported the same scale of agriculture as Saaremaa and the sparsely populated island is largely covered with pine forests, peat bogs and scrub-heathland. The island is 75km east~west and 50km north~south, and we headed north on Route 84 along Hiiumaa's western coast through attractive pine forests where large areas had been cut or cleared for timber. 30kms north, we turned off along the pine-covered narrow peninsula leading out to the island's NW coast. Set on a hillock at Kõpu overlooking the north coast is one of the world's longest continuously operating lighthouses, built originally as an unlit beacon tower in 1531 by the Hanseatic League to alert passing traders of this coastline's treacherous sandbanks. The tower was later enhanced by a wood fire, gas lamp and in the 20th century by electric light. Kõpu lighthouse is a bulky monster of a 37m high square limestone tower, now reinforced by massive concrete buttresses, giving it a distinctive if ungainly appearance. Driving on, the tarmac lane continued to the westernmost tip by the lighthouse at Ristna. We walked out on sandy paths through the pine forests to the rocky shoreline and to the northwest a neck of sand and shingle-bar tapered out into the sea with opposing tides converging around its tip. Today the sky was perfectly clear and hazy with none of the dramatic cloudscape that had made our 2011 visit so memorable. But a bright sun sparkling on the water along the rocky shoreline of the sand-spit created endless photographic opportunity as we enjoyed the solitude of this wonderfully isolated tip of land at Hiiumaa's extreme westerly point looking out across the Baltic (see right) (Photo 34 - Hiiumaa's extreme westerly point).
End of world camp spot and sunset at Kalana harbour: we turned back down to Kalana sadam (harbour) at the SW corner of the peninsula, where we knew of a guest-house/camping right by the water's edge. Kalana Puhkeküla (Holiday-village) with its huts among the pine woods was still there, and the owner suggested a turfed area where we could camp looking out westwards to the Baltic shoreline; it was expensive at €20 but the facilities were good, and you simply could not have asked for a more perfect spot to camp overlooking the Baltic shore. We sat eating supper with the distant soporific background sound of Baltic surf washing onto the nearby beach. Despite the absence of cloudscape to add interest, the evening sky was clear and after supper we walked out along the shingle to photograph the hazy sun declining towards the western horizon trailing its golden tail across the still Baltic sea and rocky shore (see left) (Photo 35 - Declining sun over Baltic). The following morning, we woke to clear blue sky and magnificent sun lighting this lovely camp spot, with the sound of roaring Baltic surf for company (see right) (Photo 36 - Kalana Puhkeküla-Camping). Before leaving, we walked back along the shore-side track to photograph the bearberry plants in morning light (Photo 37 - Bearberry growing at Kalana) (see below left).
Estonia disaster memorial at Tahkuna peninsula: as we drove back along the Kõpu peninsula, the beautiful pine forests glowed in the morning sunlight. At the junction with Route 84, we turned around the north coast, taking the lane which wound up through the pine woodland of Tahkuna peninsula towards the northern point of the island (click here for detailed map of route). This densely wooded coastal area had been heavily fortified by occupying Germans and Soviets, and bitterly fought over in both 1941 and 1944. The lane passed evident remains of wartime and Soviet era military bunkers and concrete gun emplacements among the trees, and a Russian tank looming ominously from among the pines at the Tahkuna Military Museum. The tip of the peninsula was marked by the elegantly slender Tahkuna lighthouse (see right), but of greater interest was the curious memorial perched on the shoreline by the water's edge to the 852 passengers drowned when the ferry Estonia sank on a stormy night in September 1994 30 miles off northern Hiiumaa. The memorial takes the form of a 12m high rusting metal frame enclosing a pivotal cross which swings in the wind. A bell sculpted with children's faces is suspended from the cross, and only rings when the wind blows at the same speed and direction as on the night of the fatal disaster. Mystery still surrounds the sinking: in 1994 the joint Swedish~Estonian venture Estland started a ferry service connecting Tallinn and Stockholm, using an already 14 year old ro-ro Baltic ferry, renamed Estonia as a symbol of pride for the newly independent Estonians. An international board of enquiry concluded that stormy seas tore off the ferry's bow-gate allowing sea water to flood the car deck. The ferry sank within an hour killing 852 passengers and crew in one of Europe's worst maritime disasters. Despite the enquiry, all kinds of conspiracy theories still surround the sinking, and to date no one has been found liable for the disaster and no compensation paid. On a fine morning with the flat calm sea reflecting a clear blue sky, we walked out across the dunes to where the angular, rusting memorial stood at this isolated and almost eerie spot, looking out across the Baltic (see left) (Photo 38 - Estonia memorial). Unlike that fateful September night 24 years ago, today this coastline was peaceful with a gentle surf lapping the shoreline by the memorial (Photo 39 - North Hiiumaa shoreline) (see right).
Estonia's Hill of Crosses at Riistmägi: a short distance along the main Route 80 towards Hiiumaa's main town of Kärdla, a brown sign pointed to Ristimägi, location of the Estonian Hill of Crosses. North Hiiumaa had from the early days of the Swedish Empire been settled by Swedish peasant farmers. Once however the Tsarist Russians had taken over Estonia after the Great Northern War in the early 18th century, these unfortunate people's days were numbered. Barbarism seems an innate Russian quality and mass deportation was not an invention of the communists; their Tsarist predecessors had equally practised this instrument of terror. In 1781 Catherine the Great had ordered the aristocratic landowners of Hiiumaa to deport their Swedish tenants en masse to the Ukraine. The landlords duly obliged and at this spot amid the forests and dunes at Risti, the last 1000 Swedish-descended people gathered for their final act of worship before beginning their journey into exile. The survivors settled at a village in the Ukraine and it was only in 1929 that the Soviet authorities allowed their descendents to return to Sweden where they re-settled in Gotland. To mark this spot at Ristimägi, a tradition has grown up for first-time visitors to plant a cross of remembrance here, but for the spirit of good fortune to succeed, the cross must be made entirely of natural materials growing here. Here among the pine woods we found the collection of crude wooden crosses, not on the scale of Catholic Lithuania, but still a moving sight (see left). On our first visit here in 2011, we had duly bound together a cross of pine branches to plant among the others; today we simply stood quietly among the crosses and empathetically shared thoughts with the world's oppressed (see left).
Orkaju Nature Trail on Kassari peninsula in Southern Hiiumaa: having shopped at the Rimi in Kärdla, we turned south onto Route 81 to cross the island's width down to Käina on the south coast (click here for detailed map of route); we then onto a lane leading around the semi-island of Kassari which encloses the trapped shallow lagoon of Käina Laht (Bay) separating Kassari from the main body of Hiiumaa's southern coast. A short way round, we reached the bird-watching tower near to Orjaku village. The tower gave a magnificent overview of Käina Laht wetlands, noted for its birdlife, where swans swam and Great White Egrets and Grey Herons waded in the read-lined shallows. Nearby we parked for the Orkaju Nature Trail which loops for 2kms partly on board-walks around the reed beds edging Käina Laht. Part-way round, the path passed Tõllukivi, a sizeablle erratic boulder casually deposited here during the glacial retreat (see above right). A side-loop of the Öpperada (Nature Trail) circled around a grove of tall Juniper bushes laden with ripening berries (see left) to another observation tower overlooking an inlet of Käina Laht with more Egrets and Herons. The path returned across farmland where brown Hiiumaa sheep grazed. We continued around the coast to Kassari village and turned down a lane leading to the shingle-spit of Sääretirp which extends some 3kms out into Väinameri Sound. We parked at lane's end and set off to walk the narrowing spit, following the path along its crest overlooking the sea on both sides (see right). The shingle spit was covered with coarse juniper scrub and low vegetation, but there was no time this afternoon to continue right out to the tapering offshore tip of the hooked shingle-bar.
A memorable camp at Orjaka Marina on southern Kassari coast: it was now time to find somewhere to camp for our final night on Hiiumaa. We tried a wild camp at the parking by Orjaka bird-watching tower, but there was no cover and in full sight of nearby farms. Instead we investigated the marina whose sign offered camping. The pub-café was busy with customers but, when we did get the girl's attention, she showed us the tarmaced camping area with power supply by the marina harbour-side, and gave us the key-code for the WC/showers. Orjaka Marina/Camping was a serendipitous find, a perfect location and all at a charge of €15/night, looking westwards over the marina's moored yachts (Photo 40 - Orjaka Marina-Camping) (see left). The pub soon emptied and we settled in for a peaceful evening by the marina side with a refreshing breeze blowing in off the sea. And later that evening, the sun declined across the western sky partly obscured by hazy cloud (see right) (Photo 41 - Declining sun over Orjaka Marina).
Ferry crossing back to mainland Estonia at Rohuküla: the following morning, we drove back around the Kassari peninsula and along the main Route 83 to reach the ferry port at Heltermaa on the island's east coast for the return ferry to Rohuküla on the Estonian mainland (see below left) (click here for detailed map of route). At the ticket booths the one-way crossing cost €13.40, again a reasonable price. Returning on a Saturday, there were few vehicles queuing, but when the outward ferry drew in, far more vehicles drove off for the weekend holiday on Hiiumaa. George settled on the car deck , and we sat aloft on the outer deck in bright sunshine for the 1 hour 15 minute crossing with the sea again glassy calm.
Baltic resort of Haapsalu: we drove ashore at Rohuküla for the 8kms drive into Haapsalu. Given its strategic position, Haapsalu has had a turbulent history right from its foundation in 1279 by the Teutonic Knights who fortified the stone castle with its episcopal cathedral as seat of the Bishopric. The Danes controlled the region during the 16th century Livonian Wars, followed by the Swedes in the 17th century. Haapsalu became part of the Russian Tsarist Empire when Peter the Great took over in the early 18th century Great Northern War and demolished the fortress. In the late 19th century Haapsalu became a fashionable spa resort with its sheltered beaches, and with the railway connecting to St Petersburg in 1907, the Russian aristocracy flocked to Haapsalu's sanatoria for cures at the mud baths. During the Soviet era, the presence of the nearby military air base made Haapsalu a restricted access town, but since 1991 Estonian independence, the town has successfully regained its popularity as a tourist centre for holiday-makers.
Haapsalu's belle époque railway station and Railway Museum: as you approach Haapsalu, the first thing you see on rounding the bends at the entrance to the town is the impressive railway station. We pulled in and walked over to examine the 3 magnificently monstrous post-war ex-Soviet steam locomotives and rolling stock displayed in the sidings alongside the road. The engines, one of which was reported to have pulled a Red Army troop train to Czechoslovakia in 1968 to help crush the Prague Spring, held pride of place. But compared with similar steam locomotives seen elsewhere in the Baltics, these were in a sad, sorry and sorely neglected state, rapidly rusting away (Photo 42 - Ex-Soviet steam locomotive) (see above right). The Tsarist era belle époque railway station built 1903~05 has a 200m long covered platform (see left) so that the Tsar's family were protected from the rain on their regular visits to Haapsalu's mud spas. The station is now closed since the closure of the line and now houses Estonia's National Railway Museum with the steam locomotive exhibits open for all to see.
Our visit to Haapsalu: believing the town would be quiet on a Saturday afternoon, we drove up into the centre to find the Tourist Information Centre for details of Matsalu National Park and campsites. But the main street, Karja, was closed off and crowded with people attending some sort of festival event. Parking was impossibly full, and we were forced to circle around through back streets, eventually finding street parking space some 600m from the centre. We hurried back through the main street which was filled with stalls and the crowds attending whatever festival was taking place. Consistent with our experience that low key towns tend to have first class Tourist Information Centres, Haapsalu's TIC staff were superbly helpful, responding enthusiastically to our requests: they produced the Matsalu National Park booklet-map, highlighted the Visitor Centre at Penijõe, and suggested campsites; they gave us the Haapsalu Rimi supermarket's location, assured us that supermarkets generally in Estonia would be open on Monday's Restoration of Independence national holiday, and also proudly told us that the street festival taking place today in the town was the Haapsalu Food Festival. Armed with this wealth of information, we drove around to the Rimi to shop for our weekend provisions, and after this unexpectedly eventful visit to Haapsalu, headed SE on Route 31 for the 50kms drive to Matsalu National Park (click here for detailed map of route).
Voosemetsa Turismitalu-Camping: around the inner part of Matsalu Bay, we reached the junction with Route 10; the main road was busy with traffic from Tallinn heading towards Saaremaa for the holiday weekend. At Lihula where Route 60 from Pärnu came in, we turned off to the Matsalu NP Visitor Centre at Penijõe. Conversing in German with the lady there, we secured details of nature walks and bird-watching towers, bought a 1:100k map for the National Park wetlands and coastal meadows around Matsalu Bay, and watched their 20 minute film about bird and animal life across the year at Matsalu. The only campsite on the southern side of Matsalu Bay was at Voose towards Virtsu from where we had crossed to Saaremaa last week. We now headed SW on Route 10 and in 12 kms reached the turning to a gravel lane to Voosemetsa Turismitalu-Camping. The place was deserted, but in spite of no one responding to our presence, the small camping area in pine woodland was open though facilities were very basic. It almost seemed that the place was semi-closed and being done up, but we settled in. Two weeks ago at the height of the heat-wave, we should have relished the heavy shade of the pine woods; today, with the evening sun declining behind tall trees and darkness falling, it just seemed oppressively gloomy. But at least we had somewhere to camp, albeit basic.
Salevere Nature Trail in Matsalu National Park: the following morning was even more gloomily overcast with some light rain, and still no one appeared. Facilities at Voosemetsa were indeed basic but functional, but the place had served for a night's camp. We continued along the gravel lane for 6kms out to the hamlet of Salevere to find the nature trail, shown on the Matsalu map, which circles around the upper rim of an ancient coastal escarpment. Just beyond Salevere village, we found a parking area and NP information panel marking a more obvious start of the path. We followed this across sparse alvar grassland, the limestone bedrock clearly showing through the thin soil layer which managed to support a wealth of flora: Solomon's Seal with its pendent beads of berries (see above left), Wood Cow Wheat, and Lily of the Valley. A short distance further, the path entered deciduous woodland and reached the brim of the wooded limestone escarpment edge which dropped startlingly sheer for some 6m. Here before our eyes was a living textbook of classic geomorphology: this was the line of an ancient coastal cliff, the higher land of which was now Salumägi hill once forming an island before post-glacial land rise caused the sea to withdraw to create the lower coastal meadow floodplain of today edging Matsalu Bay. The foot of the escarpment below was covered with dense klint forest, and the higher land of Salumägi hill, once an island in a shallow sea, now 'inland' from the escarpment had been the site of a Neolithic fortified settlement, revealed by archaeological excavations with finds of pottery shards and animal bones.
The path followed the escarpment upper brim around, the outcropping limestone bedrock forming a distinct cornice edge above the sheer drop. Further round, a wooden step-way descended the escarpment, giving impressive close-up views of the exposed moss-covered limestone face some 8m high (Photo 43 - Escarpment limestone face) (see above left and right). At the foot of the 'scarp, a board-walk continued along through klint forest to reach a spring which emerged from higher up the limestone face. Wooden steps re-ascended the 'scarp alongside the spring leading back up to the path along the upper brim. We returned through the forest following a path through the excavated Neolithic settlement over Salumägi hill.
Keemu harbour on south shore of Matsalu Bay: back along the gravel road, we returned north along Route 10 to Tuudi from where a lane led in 12kms across floodplain farmland and coastal meadows to the village of Matsalu with its now derelict manor house (click here for detailed map of route). We finally reached the tiny harbour of Keemu, with its bird-watching tower overlooking the reed-beds lining the shore of Matsalu Bay. Local villagers gathered at the Keemu bus-shelter and turning circle for a Sunday afternoon social gathering. By now a brisk westerly wind was blowing from across the bay whipping up the water and bringing in ominous black clouds. We climbed the tower's ladders to the observation cabin, but in this wind there was no bird life to be seen (see left). Back at ground level, we walked out past the little harbour down to the reed-lined shore, but again nothing to be seen over to the islets in the centre of Matsalu Bay (see right).
Kloostri and Rannajõe bird-watching towers and Kasari flood meadows: we turned off Route 10 again to Penijõe NP Centre to consider other options. The 6kms long Penijõe hiking trail with its meadows, woodland and observation tower looked uninteresting, and we decided to drive out along the gravel lane to Kloostri bird-watching tower overlooking the Kasari flood meadows where it was reported elk could be seen. The lane passed the ruins of Kloostri Manor to end at a parking area, leading in 400m to the 16m observation tower (see left). But in the now gusting wind, the ladders of the spindly-looking tower were just too exposed to climb with little chance of seeing any bird life as a reward. Across the course of the Kasari River, artificially straightened to form a drainage channel to prevent spring flooding and allow hay-growing, the flood meadows were now a controlled access area covering a broad expanse around the head of Matsalu Bay.
We returned along another lane, passing farms where the cattle seemed unable to consume the bales of stored hay as fast as the flood meadows could produce it. At the main Route 10, we passed through Kirbla where further sections of the former coastal escarpment outcropped, and turned back onto Route 31 heading back towards Haapsalu. Some 12kms along, a side lane led to Rannajõe bird-watching platform which overlooked the northern side of the flood meadows which cover the head of Matsalu Bay. This area with its plentiful supply of prey among the meadows is a noted pre-migration flocking ground for Cranes in early September (see right). Although still quite early for cranes to be gathering prior to their autumnal migration, today we saw a small flock soaring around in the distance, the wind disrupting their V-formation.
Puise Nina Külalistemaja (Guesthouse)-Camping overlooking Matsalu Bay: we knew of one other campsite right round on the NW tip of Matsalu Bay at Puise Nina, and had phoned earlier to confirm that camping was still available at the guesthouse there (click here for detailed map of route). Further along Route 31, we turned off onto a minor lane across the flatlands of the Matsalu estuary, and in 17kms approached the NW tip of the northern arm enclosing Matsalu Bay, to reach Puise Nina Külalistemaja (Guesthouse)-Camping at lane's end. We were greeted by the owner whose limited English came across as rather an officious manner. What must originally have been a farmstead was now converted to a large and pretentious guesthouse (signs indicated EU support monies), with camping as an afterthought on the broad lawns behind the guesthouse bordering onto the Matsalu Bay shoreline. It was a glorious setting looking south across the breadth of the bay to where we had been earlier on the southern enclosing arm of the bay; there was all the potential for clear view of the sunset looking westwards out into the open Baltic towards distant Hiiumaa. The owner opened up a side door, giving us access to WC/shower but no wash-up. In her officious manner, she laid down the law of where we could, or rather could not, camp, and at reception we filled out her plethora of paperwork and paid up the €19 demanded. We pitched nose into the brisk SW wind blowing in from the open sea at this exposed spot, so that we could look out from the sliding door out across the bay, with sheep grazing against the late afternoon cloudscape (see left and right) (Photo 44 - Westward sky over Matsalu Bay).
A wet drive to Tallinn: a change of wind direction overnight brought a marked change of weather: a brisk southerly wind now blew rain from across Matsalu Bay, and the forecast was for a very wet day for today's drive to Tallinn (click here for detailed map of route). Back across the flat estuary farmlands to Route 31, we took a minor lane across country to join Route 9 heading towards the capital. On such a sullenly grey, wet morning, the countryside looked drearily uninviting. Traffic on Route 9 was surprisingly busy with weekend holiday-makers returning to Tallinn from the islands, but we made good progress in spite of the miserably wet driving conditions. We had plotted a route to bypass the city for ease of navigation, which although longer, took us around Route 11 so avoiding the complexity of finding a way through the city centre. Joining Route 4 motorway, we turned off onto the quieter Route 11, some distance out from Tallinn, around to the eastern side. Things went well at first, but further round approaching the junction with Route 1, major roadworks meant an unclear way through the partially completed carriageway reconstruction. Eventually joining Route 1, the main highway eastwards to Narva, we turned west towards the city. We needed to shop for 3 day's provisions, and by good chance managed to pull into a Maxima supermarket. And by now the rain had started again.
Tallinn Song Festival Arena: our route down to Pirita Harbour Campsite conveniently took us past the Tallinn Song Festival Arena the Lauluväljak, and we walked down into the Song Festival Grounds. This vast amphitheatre set on the natural slope of the hillside overlooking Tallinn Bay, today mistily grey with rain cloud, has been the venue for Estonia's national Song Festivals since the arena's opening in 1959. The whole arena can hold over 150,000 spectators and the stage area set under a huge arched canopy holds 15,000 massed singers. It was here that in 1988 300,000 Estonians gathered in a mass demonstration demanding independence from the USSR, openly singing patriotic songs in defiance of the Soviets at the start of what became known as the Singing Revolution. In pouring rain we walked down to the fringe of trees at the top of the arena's slope which even when deserted aroused feelings of emotion as the symbol of Estonian national pride. A large statue of Gustav Ernesaks (1908~93), the Estonian choir leader, composer and inspirational father figures of the Estonian Song Festival tradition, sits modestly on the grass gazing down with subtly peaceful contemplation towards the stage, seeming to capture this feeling of pride (see above left) (Photo 45 - Tallinn Song Festival Arena). One of Ernesaks' songs, a supremely beautiful setting of Lydia Koidula's nationalistic poem Mu isamaa on minu arm (Land of my fathers, land that I love), became an unofficial national anthem during the years of Soviet occupation, and features as background music to this edition.
Pirita Harbour Camping: there are 2 campsites within a bus ride of Tallinn Old Town, and this morning we had phoned both to check on prices: Tallinn City Camping was charging an outrageous €29/night to camp in an enclosed, grubby yard overshadowed by high buildings; further out, Pirita Harbour Camping (which we had used on our 2011 visit) charged €24 (showers extra at €2 each), and was set in the large parking area alongside the yacht marina with open views looking across the water towards the city and a grassy area for tents; although facilities were limited and ambient noise levels high, at least the setting was more pleasant. We chose Pirita Harbour Camping, and at the foot of the hill below the Song Festival Grounds, we turned onto Pirita tee for a couple of kms around the bay to the campsite. With rain still pouring, we booked in with the helpful lad at reception who provided city maps, details of buses, where (and where not!) to eat in Tallinn's Old Town, and highlighted key features to visit. At this time of day (it was still only 4-30pm), there was still a good choice of camping spots. All were on tarmac, but the far end seemed to offer more congenial company with the smaller campers clustered there than the mega-buses closer to the facilities. In pouring rain we settled in, pulling out the awning for shelter while stowing our kit. This was the heaviest and most sustained rain of the whole trip, continuing all evening with the wind from over the harbour increasing and rattling the moored yachts' rigging; it was a truly miserable evening but at least the rain eased later to get along to the loos without a soaking. Today had been such a day of contrasts, moving from the bucolic peace of Hiiumaa to the bustling environment of a city campsite, and tomorrow we should begin our exploration of Estonia's capital city Tallinn.
Our first day in Tallinn: after a blustery night, amazingly the sky cleared to give a bright, sunny morning for our first day in Tallinn (see above right). Facilities at Pirita Harbour Camping, it must be said, were dreadful: the WCs stank and there was just one basic sink for washing; showers at the sauna cost €2 each, and we had to fetch hot water for washing up at a nearby picnic table. From Pirita harbour, the bright morning sun picked out details of Tallinn's skyline of church spires with ferries to Scandinavia lining the city docks (Photo 46 - Tallinn skyline) (see above right). Along at the main road, there was a choice of #1A, 8, 34A or 38 buses (fares of €2 each) from the Rummu bus stop around the sweep of Tallinn Bay into the central area of the city (see above left).
Tallinn's origins go back to the beginning of the 13th century when empire-building Danish King Valdemar II fortified a Baltic trading settlement here as a base from which to subdue the pagan Estonian tribes, aided by the legendary Dannebrog flag descending from heaven to inspire his victory. German merchants settled around the Castle built on Toompea Hill at the developing trading centre of Tallinn, then known as Reval, which joined the Hanseatic League in 1285. The Danes sold their holdings in Estonia for 19,000 silver marks to the Livonian Order Germanic Knights who ruled Tallinn from Toompea Castle, with the German mercantile classes occupying the expanding lower town and adopting Lutheranism in the 16th century. With the Livonian Order's decline, Tallinn fell under the Swedish Empire and its mercantile power declined. In 1710 Peter the Great occupied the city which for the next 2 centuries became a fashionable bathing resort in the Russian Empire. The arrival of the railways in 1870 revived Tallinn's importance as a port and industrial centre, changing the city's ethnic profile as native Estonians increasingly flocked in from the countryside. During the 19th century, Tallinn's population had predominantly been German, but by the early 20th century, Estonians became a more significant presence making the city the focus of a developing nationalist movement. In 1920 after the Estonian War of Independence, Tallinn became capital of the new Republic of Estonia, until the 1st Soviet occupation in 1940. After 1945, Soviet rule brought repression and deportations and the imposition of Stalinist culture. Further industrialisation brought enforced immigration of 1000s of Russian workers from the USSR, so that by Estonian re-independence in 1991, the city's population had increased to 420,000 with Russians making up 40% and almost outnumbering Estonians. The walled medieval heart of the Old Town survived Soviet rule largely intact and left the city with a tourist potential ready to be exploited. Revived ferry links with Scandinavia brought waves of northern visitors, and EU membership in 2004 resulted in an influx of foreign investment.
And stepping off the bus at Hobujaama in the centre, here we stood surrounded by the modern city's high-rise buildings amid busy traffic and passing trams against the backdrop of Old Town skyline (Photo 47 - Tallinn tram) (see above left).
Tallinn Old Town: entering Tallinn's Old Town through the twin-towered Viru Gateway (Photo 48 - Viru Gateway) (see above right) set in a preserved section of the medieval city wall, we ambled up Viru with the elegant spire of Tallinn Town Hall rising above other more modern building (see above left and right) and restored Hanseatic period merchant houses (see left). Raekoja plats (Town Hall Square) was overwhelmed by moronic masses of tourists (see below left) (Photo 49 - Raekoja plats), slavishly trailing after the banners of their bored-looking tour-guides. Tallinn is now daily afflicted by invading hoards of tourists who flood in from the huge cruise ships which dock overnight at the city harbour. Such was the crush of pushing, shoving tourists that it was impossible to appreciate fully the medieval splendour of the Old Town, particularly around Raekoja plats. We fought our way through the square up Voorimehe to the corner of Pikk, Lai and Nunne, where Pikk Jalg led up to Toompea Hill; we turned downhill into Pikk tänav (Long St) (see right), the medieval city's main thoroughfare connecting the centre of military and ecclesiastical power on Toompea Hill with the port, crossing through the central mercantile district. Along this street, some of Tallinn's most important secular buildings from the Hanseatic period survive, including the city's trade guilds which united the German-speaking mercantile elite into a cabal which controlled Tallinn's commerce. A little further along at the corner of Pühavaimu and Vene, the Estonian History Museum housed in a grandiose restored merchant's house describes life in the medieval city. We sought sanctuary from the tourist hordes in the tiny Gothic Church of the Holy Ghost. Originally the town hall chapel, it became the main church of the medieval city's small Estonian population; in 1523 priests from the church compiled an Estonian language catechism, an important expression of identity at a time when most native Estonians had been reduced to serfdom by the German occupants. In the relative calm of the small church, we stood listening to the organ playing while admiring the magnificent artwork lining the dark wood panels of the galleries (Photo 50 - Church of the Holy Ghost) and the late 15th century carved and gilded triptych altarpiece portraying the descent of the Holy Ghost and decorated with intricately carved statuettes (see below left).
We continued along Pikk, admiring the beautifully restored art nouveau façades (Photo 51 - Pikk tänav's art nouveau buildings). Restaurants in Tallinn's Old Town exploit the captive tourist market to charge simply silly prices; it was refreshing therefore to lunch at the Hell Hunt pub at Pikk 39 (meaning Gentle Wolf), a straightforward pub which we had discovered in 2011. Despite its prime location in Pikk tänav, this unpretentious pub serves sensibly priced food and beer to a mainly local clientele, managing to remain largely uncontaminated by tourists; it is thoroughly recommended as one of the few places to lunch in central Tallinn where you won't be ripped off! Further along Pikk, another attractive art nouveau building has spine-chilling associations as the former HQ of the Tallinn KGB: the windows along its basement level were bricked up to prevent the sounds of interrogations being heard by passers-by. A plaque recalls the building's grisly history, said with black humour to have the finest views in Estonia: from here you could see all the way to Siberia! At the far end of the street, a trio of Hanseatic merchants' houses-cum-warehouses, still with their loading cranes on the gabled upper storeys, and known as the Three Sisters (see right), is now converted to a hotel. Just beyond, we reached the medieval city's Great Sea Gate (see below left) leading to the port, now occupied by monstrous cruise ships whose hordes daily contaminate the city. The arched gateway is flanked by 2 sturdy towers and beyond here, the Old Town's cobbled streets give way to the busy traffic of the modern city. In parkland just outside the Sea Gate's Fat Margaret cannon tower (which now houses the Maritime Museum), the Broken Line modernistic memorial to those lost in the 1994 Estonia sinking now provides an unintended play area for school children.
Back inside the city Gate, we walked around Tolli to St Olaf's Church whose massive Gothic structure is topped by Tallinn's tallest spire, said to have been built so tall and slender as a landmark to attract trade from passing ships. It was also reputedly used by the KGB for surveillance of the citizens of Tallinn below. It is worthwhile climbing the church tower, albeit an unnerving experience with those ascending and descending having to pass on the steep, narrow stone spiral staircase aided only by a rope handrail. In today's wind, the narrow viewing platform around the tower's 4 sides felt even more precariously nerve-wracking; but for those not suffering from vertigo, it gives unparalleled panoramic views over the Old Town skyline, down to the harbour where the cruise ships and ferries were moored (see below right), across to Toompea Hill with spire and domes of its Cathedrals (see right) (Photo 52 - Old Town from St Olav's Church), and along the length of preserved medieval city wall and towers (see below left). It also is worth seeking out a bizarrely carved tombstone set in a niche in the exterior east-end wall; this grave of a 15th century plague victim features the macabre depiction of a decaying corpse.
The narrow lane of Kooli follows the inner course of the longest surviving intact section of Tallinn's medieval city walls complete with its line of 7 towers and 3 gates, where you can walk along a wooden balcony and climb the towers. The late afternoon sun shining down the length of the lane, above the distant spire of St Margaret's Lutheran Cathedral on Toompea Hill, cast the inner face of the city walls into deep shadow (Photo 53 - Medieval city wall). Reaching the middle Tüki Gate, we walked through into the beautiful parkland gardens of Tornide väljak (Towers Square) for the magnificently sunlit outer view along this stretch of preserved medieval city walls with 3 of its towers and the slender spire of St Olav's Church rising above them (see below left) (Photo 54 - City walls and towers). Kooli lane led around to the arched Kloostri Gate past another access point for wall walkways to Nunne (see below right), the street which led around under the northern side of Toompea with its grand buildings towering overhead towards the railway station and modern city. In a side street just off Suur-Kloostri, we found the Russian Orthodox Church of the Transfiguration, once a medieval Cistercian convent until closed after the Reformation. The church was given by Peter the Great in the early 18th century to Tallin's Orthodox community. The church's internal layout, with large pillars dividing the centre of the nave, meant that when the church became Orthodox, its ornate Baroque iconostasis had to be designed in 2 halves with a central pulpit part-way up the central wall (Photo 55 - Orthodox Church of Resurrection).
By this time of the afternoon, most of the tourists had returned to their cruise ships leaving this most attractive part of the surviving medieval remains in peace. The lane led back to the corner of Pikk and down to Town Hall Square. The elegant 15th century town hall with its slender spire topped by the legendary Old Thomas weather vane was still in shade (see below left), but across the far corner of the square late afternoon sun lit the medieval building of the Town Pharmacy (Raeapteek), still a practicing chemist shop with a small pharmacy museum on one side. Down Apteegi into Vene, we ambled through the arched medieval alleyway of Katariina Käik under the walls of the former Dominican monastery church lined with huge medieval tombstones. This merged into Müürivahe leading under the shadow of a southern stretch of surviving city wall and back to Viru Gate where we had begun our tour this morning. Crossing the busy traffic of Pärnu Mnt, we took a brief look at the grandiose Estonian National Opera Theatre and the smaller art nouveau Drama Theatre, before heading back to the Viru Keskus shopping centre where we eventually found the underground bus station for the bus back out to Harbour Camping at Pirita.
Back out to Rummu and the campsite, the wind off the sea was blowing more fiercely than ever, raising white waves out beyond the harbour and buffeting George. The camping area was less busy tonight, but we were taking the full force of the wind broadside on the sliding door. Later that evening however, the late golden sun declined across the waters of Pirita yacht harbour for a brilliant sunset, with the distant spires of Tallinn Old Town skyline silhouetted against the evening sky's salmon pink clouds (see right) (Photo 56 - Sunset over Tallinn skyline). By the time we turned in, it was a dark and blustery night. Our first day in Tallinn had showed that while the charming old medieval town had so miraculously survived WW2 bombing and Stalinist destruction, today it was in danger of being overwhelmed by 2 contemporary evils - mass tourism and rip-off price inflation fuelled by sheer greed. While Rīga and Vilnius lacked Tallinn's medieval charm, it had been a far more relaxed experience ambling around their old streets, less pressured by the moronic press of cruise ship mass tourism which now so befouls Tallinn.
Toompea Hill and the Riigikogu, the Estonian Parliament: the highlight of our 2nd day in Tallinn was to be a visit to the Estonian Parliament, the Riigikogu, arranged by email in advance. On another bright, sunny morning with the blustery wind still blowing, we set off early to catch the bus again into the city. From the Hobujaama bus stop, we hurried up Viru and past St Nicholas Church to climb the Lühike Jalg steps up onto Toompea Hill through one of the gate-towers giving access through the high fortification walls surrounding Toompea. The limestone outcrop of Toompea (from the German word Domberg meaning Cathedral Hill) now dominates the central area of Tallinn's Old Town, with its mightily reinforced 30m high fortification walls towering over the lower city. Reaching the approach to Toompea's central square of Lossi plats alongside the Alexander Nevsky Russian Orthodox Cathedral, the crush of tour-groups was simply overwhelming, far worse than even Raekoja plats in the lower Old Town yesterday. In danger of being poked in the eye by selfie-sticks, we fought our way through the swarming tourist hoards, and up the steps leading to Toompea Hill and Toompea Castle with its Baroque shocking-pink façade, now home to the Riigikogu, the Estonian Parliament (see right) (Photo 57 - Toompea Castle). The castle had been the seat of power of all the successive foreign occupants of Tallinn since the Danish King Valdemar II had originally made it his base to 'Christianise' the Estonians (note the benevolent sounding euphemisms used by all conquerors; in their turn, the Soviets had termed their 1944 destructive conquest liberation). The current castle with its residual medieval towers was given an 18th century makeover, and subsequently adapted as the seat of Parliament under the first Estonian Republic in 1922. The interior design which still characterises the Riigikogu incorporated many features of Expressionism, an architectural style evolved from art deco. At the Riigikogu reception desk, we confirmed our booking of places on the 12-00 noon English language tour.
With 30 minutes to spare before we could register at 11-45am, we tried to get into the Toompea Castle gardens for photos of 14th century Pikk Hermann Tower where the Estonian national flag has proudly flown every day since the re-establishment of the country's independence in 1991 (see above left) (Photo 58 - Pikk Hermann Tower). But this year access was blocked by renovation work, and the Riigikogu receptionist advised walking down the hill for the view of the tower from under the trees beyond Toompea's high walls. Back up Toompea, we jostled pour way through the endless hordes of tour-groups down to the viewing platform below the section of Toompea fortification walls alongside Toompea's former artillery bastions of Maiden Tower and Kiek in de Kök Tower (see left) (Photo 59 - Maiden Tower and Kiek in de Kök); the name is derived from a Low German expression meaning Peek in the Kitchen, since sentries here could look directly down into the houses of the lower town. Today the views over the lower Old Town from the viewing platform are dominated by the spire of St Nicholas Church immediately below. Back up to cross Lossi plats (Castle Square), we presented ourselves at the Riigikogu reception, emptying our pockets for the security rigmarole, and joined the group for our 12-00 noon visit to the Parliament. The guide led us up to a large hall in the south wing, and in front of a wall photograph showing Toompea Castle against the backdrop of the Old Town (see above right), gave his presentation on the Castle's significance in Estonia's political history, and the country's ambition to achieve total e-status in all everyday dealings. He then led us up to the public gallery overlooking the Riigikogu plenary chamber, and explained Estonia's electoral system, membership and working of the Parliament, and the history of the building with its Expressionist design (see left) (Photo 60 - Riigikogu Plenary Chamber). The unicameral Riigikogu has 101 members, each parliament elected for a 4 year term. Following elections, the members elect the President of the Riigikogu (the Speaker); they also elect the Republic's President. We asked about the seemingly intractable social and political issue of Estonia's disenfranchised Russian-speakers who still make up 35% of the population, 400,000 out of 1.34 million concentrated in the industrial cities, and showing little inclination towards integration. The guide's surprisingly frank answer clearly showed the issue was still a greater matter of concern in Estonia than we had been led to believe in Latvia. He described the more subtle exploitation by Russia of one-sided, distorted Russian TV and press media to ferment discontent among the sizeable non-integrated Russian population within Estonia, and spoke about the years of non-ratification by Russia of a conclusive border treaty, the potential military threat from Putin's Russia, and the value of NATO membership for Estonia's defence against the sort of military incursion that Georgia and Crimea had suffered. It was a bleakly concerning exposé. We had again enjoyed a privileged opportunity not only to visit the Estonian Parliament but also for frank and informed discussion about the still outstanding issue of the non-integrated residual Russian-speaking population.
Facing the Castle across Lossi plats immediately opposite the Parliament, the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of Alexander Nevsky stands (see above left) , built in 1900 as a reminder to the Estonians of their subservience to the Russian Tsarist régime, and now a gaudy and incongruous onion-domed intrusion on Toompea Hill (Photo 61 - Alexander Nevsky Cathedral). Still a practising Orthodox church for Tallinn's sizeable Russian-speaking population, the church is ironically also a major tourist attraction which somehow manages to retain its dignity despite the daily constant influx of disrespectful tourist intrusion. By the time we emerged from the Parliament, the hordes of tourists had noticeably thinned, and we were able to stand quietly before the richly ornate iconostasis and admire the lofty decorated vaults towering above (Photo 62 - Iconostasis at Alexander Nevsky) (see left).
Toompea's narrow cobbled street of Toom-Kooli led to Tallinn's Lutheran Cathedral of St Mary the Virgin whose interior walls were lined with epitaphia coats of arms of the Germanic ruling families who once governed Tallinn from Toompea Hill and controlled the city's wealth and commerce (see right) (Photo 63 - St Mary's Lutheran Cathedral). To the west of the cathedral, a pathway led to a lookout with views across the parkland below Toompea to the modern city and railway station. Around to the northern side of Toompea Hill, we followed the cobbled lane of Rahukohtu past a grandiose mansion which now houses the Estonian government's official offices; an In Memoriam wall plaque commemorates former Estonian leading politicians and members of government (including Konstantin Päts, the first president of independent Estonia) imprisoned, deported or executed by the post-war communist régime. The lane led out to Toompea's northern viewing terrace, which gave magnificent panoramic views across the Old Town rooftops spread out below with its distinctive array of spires and the medieval town walls and line of towers stretching around towards St Olaf's Church whose slender spire overtopped the rest of the city (see left) (Photo 64 - Old Town from Toompea). Toom Rüütli led around to Toompea's SE lookout platform from where further views over the Old Town rooftops highlighted the spires of Holy Ghost Church and the Town Hall (see right), and eastwards the eyes were drawn towards the port with St Olav's spire again dominating centre stage (Photo 65 - Eastward view from Toompea).
Balti Jaama Markets in the western modern city: back along Piiskopi, with the onion domes of Alexander Nevsky Cathedral overtopped surrounding buildings (see below left), we returned to Lossi plats to walk down the gently sloping ramp of Pikk Jalg where the Toompea's grand buildings, now housing a number of embassies, towered above (see below right). This led down to the sturdy gate tower built by the Livonian Order to contain the common folk of the lower town at times of unrest. It was now time to leave Toompea and the tourist-infested Old Town and walk over towards the work-a-day parts of the modern city. We headed around Nunne under Toompea's towering heights crowned with its grand buildings, and the northern viewing platform where we had stood earlier and from which the Patkulitrepp steps descended. Our plan was to walk over beyond the railway station, in search of the Balti Jaama Markets. Rather than follow Nunne, we struck out through parkland, but soon found ourselves following a path high above the elongated lake around on the western side of Toompea Hill; we had come too far, and had to re-trace our steps to Nunne. In fact it was only a short distance before we reached the underpass across the main road leading to the railway station, and just beyond this Balti Jaama Turg. This huge market with outside fruit and vegetable stalls was housed in a large, modern covered market-hall with meat, cheese and vegetable stalls, a clothing market upstairs, and attractive cafés for cheap lunches. We spent a happy time browsing the stalls, buying local cheeses (Photo 66 - Balti Jaama Market) (see below left).
Late afternoon in Tallinn's medieval Old Town: back through the underpass, we crossed over to the Tornide väljak gardens by the preserved stretch of medieval city walls and towers, and through to the end gate into Suur Kloostri. Along Lai towards St Olav's Church, we admired the beautifully restored Hanseatic merchants' houses with their Gothic gabled frontages and warehouses with cranes on the upper storeys (Photo 67 - Hanseatic merchants' houses). The Pagari alleyway brought us through into Pikk again where we had walked on our first day in Tallinn, for an end of afternoon beer back at the Hell Hunt pub. Back along Pikk past the attractively fronted mansion which now houses the Swedish embassy, and next door the Blackheads Guild House (see below right), we made our way for the final time down to Raekoja plats and down Viru over to the Viru Keskus bus station for the bus back out to Pirita Harbour Camping for our final night in Estonia. It had been another wearying day, contending with the overwhelming tourist hordes, but we had achieved our objective of visiting the Riigikogu, our third parliamentary visit of the trip.
Departing Tallinn by ferry from Estonia across Gulf of Finland to Helsinki for the homeward journey: thankful for it being our final morning at Pirita Harbour and no longer having to face the campsite's stinking loos, we hurried through our morning jobs to be away by 10-30am. Today was also our last in Estonia after 6 happy and fulfilling weeks in this country we so admired. But before driving down to Tallinn Harbour for the ferry across the Gulf of Finland to Helsinki for our long homeward journey, we shopped for last minute Estonian foodstuffs at the Rimi supermarket in Pirita. Heading around the bay and down to the Silja-Tallink Ferry Terminal D, we had an hour to wait to book in for our 13-30 sailing, and parked at the docks to record our mileage on departure from Estonia: we had driven 1,828 miles during our circuit of the country. At 12-15, signs over the book-in gates announced the Silja-Tallink Megastar ferry sailing, and we moved around to the check-in lane (see left) (Photo 68 - Waiting to board ferry). The ferry docked and arriving vehicles from Helsinki off-loaded for departing vehicles to board.
Our departure from Tallinn and crossing of the Gulf of Finland to Helsinki (our favourite European capital city) marks the beginning of our westward long journey home. This will take us, after a visit to Finland's capital, along the Baltic seaboard of southern Finland, from the Russian border at Vaalimaa to Ekenäs at the Finnish mainland's SW tip; island-hopping down through the Turku Archipelago to spend a week on Kökar and the Åland Islands; across by ferry to the Swedish east coast, and around Sweden's SW seaboard to the Baltic island of Öland; finally around the Skåne coastline through Ystad (home of Wallander) to Trelleborg for the ferry cross back over the Baltic to Rostock in North Germany, to complete our Baltic Circumnavigation back to our Hanseatic start-point at Lübeck. But this journey is the story to be told in the final episode of our 2018 Baltic Travels, which will follow shortly.
Next instalment covering return journey through Southern Finland, Åland Archipelago, and SW Sweden to be published quite soon