Sunday 24th August 2008, Lahemaa National Park, Estonia
Atlases out everybody and open them at the page for the Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. This is where you will be spending your next few evenings as you travel with us through these recent additions to the European Union from their earlier existence as part of the Soviet Union. By now you should easily be able to find the Estonian capital Tallinn if you have been paying attention during the history lesson we gave you in our last blog. So, pointy finger on Tallinn please and start to trace the coast eastwards towards the border with Russia. You will see us waving up at you about half-way along from an extremely wet and muddy field a few metres in from the sea surrounded by pine forests and bogs in the Lahemaa National Park – or soggy boglands as we would call it.
Against all the odds, instead of an earth closet, a cold tap and a pile of free firewood, as we had been led to expect, the campsite offers a few additional luxuries – a flush toilet, a hot shower, a place to wash dishes, electric hook-ups and, joy of joys, wifi internet access that works! So despite the dismal rain falling steadily outside, we are able to take a day of much needed rest and have what has become known as an “admin day”.
Yesterday our faith in the social and domestic life of Tallinn was restored. They do eat, drink and buy themselves such essentials as shampoo and new clothes after all! Heading out of the city we stopped for diesel at one of the only garages we’ve found. It was less than £1 a litre. Nearby we discovered a magnificent supermarket that provided the quality of Waitrose with prices that made Lidl look expensive! We were dazzled by so much choice and ended up buying far too much to comfortably accommodate in Modestine’s fridge. Even so, our bill was around £25 and we have food to last us for ages - so we are more than happy to spend this rainy day here eating our way through the surplus.
Outside Tallinn the countryside of Estonia is very rural. The main route along the north towards the border town of Narva is not particularly attractive, simply flat, pine covered land stretching to the horizon with rarely any sign of habitation. We will not be going as far as Narva though. Beyond lies Russia and we have no visa or insurance for Modestine. The town was flattened during the Second World War and has been redeveloped as an ugly industrial place according to our guidebook. As, judging by some of the places visited, the author seems given to understatement, we’ve decided to give Narva a miss.
Estonia’s landscape is rather similar to that of Finland without the granite. This is found only as gigantic erratic boulders lying out to sea and along the shoreline, carried south by glaciers and left where they lay after the thaw. They are far too large to be moved and buildings, fences and boundaries are simply erected around them. Otherwise though the country is one of huge forests of pine trees, and deciduous woodland with birches, mountain ash, alder and rowan trees. These are set amidst and around lakes and bogs. Twenty-five percent of the country is covered by peaty wet bogs that are similar to the one we described in Finland but wetter and oozier. They have existed for more than 5,000 years but in bog terms they are still just young sprogs of bogs. They support a great biodiversity of flora and fauna as you would expect and the surrounding woodlands are said to be home to beavers, wolves and even bears.
Despite creeping around though, we've seen little more than frogs and wagtails. The narrow wooden walkways stretch for miles out across the bogs which splosh over the edges making the planks wet and slippery. They didn't look in very good repair either – possibly thanks to the beavers - so we gave bog hopping a miss and headed up to the peaceful, unspoilt little village of Käsmu with its sandy, reed covered beaches, erratic boulders, hinterland of dark, dank pine forests and pretty wooden houses in grassy orchards scattered along the roadside. Just inland is its wooden church standing in its flower strewn cemetery while a rambling, dilapidated 19th century villa stands on the seashore, freely open as a little museum containing fishing and farming equipment of a bygone age. Not so long ago this area was part of Russia's defence system against the wicked West and the remains of military bunkers and a watch tower can still be seen on the otherwise tranquil beach.
The sun had been shining all day yesterday so once we'd settled on this campsite we ate supper outside before blogging well into the night, confident that today we would get up late, get our laundry done and go off for a bike ride in the woods while it dried. Such would be the triumph of optimism over experience. We woke to the familiar sound of rain hammering on the roof and it was not until this afternoon that it improved enough for us to tog ourselves up in hiking boots, cagoules and brollies for a dripping wander through the squelching forest that surrounds us, frogs leaping from the path, somehow managing to just avoid being trodden on.
The woodlands are so wet they are practically boglands and our feet sank silently into the forest leaf mould. There were huge, fleshy, brightly coloured fungi glowing red and yellow through the green gloom of the bilberries and cranberries that provide groundcover. The forest borders the sea, a shallow inlet of the Baltic that was popular with holiday makers during Soviet times. Now though, most of the small hotels and guest houses in the nearby village of Vösu stand empty and desolate, the open air theatre is overgrown and abandoned, as is the beachside café, car park and skateboard piste. Who is going to choose an asbestos ridden Communist approved seaside location in Estonia for their holidays when nowadays they can enjoy the nightlife of Tenerife or the sunshine of Torremolinos?
Despite this, the village does have a certain charm though it has reverted back to the local people. There are some very pleasant wooden houses in the centre of the village and scattered in the forest to either side. It made an agreeable walk up the main street then out to the sandy beach and back through the dense woodland.
On a Sunday afternoon the only person we met was an elderly Estonian lady with a basket collecting mushrooms and berries. She eyed us curiously and, deciding we were harmless, asked us hesitantly if we understood German. She then told us about the mushrooms that could be safely collected and explained that she had a little wooden house in the forest. As she spoke her German gradually improved and she even managed a few words of English though kept getting muddled, lapsing into Russian and Estonian. She explained that she was eighty-eight years old and had learnt German and some basic English at school, most of which she had completely forgotten.
She was at University in Tartu in the south of the country in 1940 when war broke out and Estonia was annexed to Russia. Her studies were interrupted, she learned Russian, along with everybody else, and never had the chance to use her English again. After the war she eventually qualified as a pharmacist. She wanted to know where we were staying and suddenly announced that we had to see inside an Estonian cottage. Abandoning her mushroom gathering she lead us back through the forest to a tiny wooden hut that she explained she had acquired forty years ago, during Soviet times, as a derelict sauna, to use as a holiday hideaway near the sea. She had then set about making it habitable. It stood in a clearing in the woods where she had an old outdoor kitchen with a cast-iron oven and hot plate heated by wood which was stacked to dry in a wonky wooden shed with open slats she had built herself. She had also constructed an outdoor shower and built herself a garden table and two chairs. All this was years ago, when she was stronger and fitter. It had been a personal challenge to have her own little furnished home despite the non-property owning system in which she lived. She was obviously artistic because the shower walls were covered in a mosaic of beach pebbles and there were several others decorating the walls of the cottage.
Despite the rain, inside it was warm and dry with a permanent wood fire at one end where there was a stone chimney. The rest of the building was entirely wood. She explained she'd even fitted in the windows herself, laid the floorboards and made every item of furniture. She showed us how her chair could turn into a bed – she'd found the idea from a magazine she'd seen many years ago. Inside her home was not very much bigger than Modestine. All the furniture was made from old packing cases she'd been able to salvage from the pharmacy where she had worked. She was so pleased to show us inside the cupboards and explain how the seats of the benches lifted to give her extra storage. On the walls were little mosaics of forest animals she had made and the chairs were covered with hand-made crocheted cushions and blankets that had faded over the years. From a bucket she baled out some water and set it to heat while we continued our halting conversation about her youth. Soon we were sharing mugs of very strong coffee together. When we told her we would be going to Tartu she spoke fondly of her days at University there and asked us to say hello to her Alma Mater. She was obviously a well educated lady yet still capable of undertaking hard, practical work to achieve her own personal goal.
It all seemed very strange to us. All we'd done was go our for a walk in the rain yet we'd ended up getting such an amazing insight into the personal life of a typical Estonian who had been born into a free, independent country and lived to see its bitter struggle not only through the war, but through the subsequent years of Soviet control, right through to the restoration of independence and entry into the European Community. If she is typical of the Estonians they are an incredibly resilient nation prepared to do whatever it takes to achieve their freedom. She was pleased that her family could now travel all over the world but regretted that for her this freedom had come too late.
She really seemed to enjoy having us to talk to despite it being such a struggle unearthing her German after so many years. She hugged us when we left and gave us her address so we can send her copies of the photos we took. We warned her it may be some time before we could get them printed and sent to her. She just smiled and said not to worry; she'd just go on living until they arrived! She will be exhausted tonight after all that thinking in an unfamiliar language.
We were so deeply sunk in thought as we walked home through the forest that we even forgot to look out for bears and beavers and never noticed that the rain had begun again in earnest until we reached Modestine and had to climb inside with our wet boots and jackets.
Monday 25th August 2008, Lahemaa National Park, Estonia
We are still here on the same campsite though we did make a serious bid to move on this morning before the rain returned again in real earnest. We never got further than a few kilometres however, entirely because we kept finding interesting sights or places to explore locally all day.
There is an Englishman here tonight with a bicycle and a really tiny tent. He doesn't seem to care in the least about the weather. He told us that he left England, like us, at the start of April. So far he has not only pedaled across Scandinavia but has also been across France, down to Italy and across to Croatia! He averages 100 miles a day. It's taken us the last six days to travel all of 67 miles! We've met several enthusiastic cyclists since we started travelling in 2005. They have all been British – and charmingly crazy! This cyclist told us he took 5 months off work as part of a mid-life crisis and has to be back by early September. He now plans to continue down through the Baltic States and take the ferry back to Stockholm where his wife is patiently waiting for him. When we asked him if he saw anything of the places he passed through he said he found it difficult to even remember which country he was in let alone what he'd seen.
This morning we intended driving south towards Tartu, stopping at a couple of interesting places on the way. However, driving along a quiet road through the forest, where the pale grey-green lichen covering the forest floor caused an eerie glow, we chanced on a track leading to a little church hidden from view, deep in the woods and surrounded by a pretty, well tended cemetery. Next we took a wrong turn and ended up on the tiny headland of Vergi jutting out into the Baltic, the sea almost washing the access road to either side. At the windswept tip it widened out and we discovered a tiny harbour with erratic boulders just off shore. The flat landscape, sandy shore and granite boulders were surprisingly reminiscent of the coast of Brittany.
We stopped in the former fishing village of Altja, lying just back from the sea. Here the buildings were of wood, thatched with reeds which grow all along the shoreline. Now there are only 27 people left in the village but until the 1950s there was a fishing community of several hundred. The Soviets then erected barbed wire fences along the beach, declaring it a military zone and overnight depriving the village of its livelihood. There are a few wooden sheds on the beach for storing nets and a couple of tiny boats bobbing in the bay, but nowadays the main income is derived from summer visitors who come to see such a rural idyll and to take lunch in the huge wooden pub at the centre of the village. Also in the village centre is a huge swing. It was once a focal point where young people would gather together of an evening, much as they do in bus shelters today.
Having walked down to the sea we followed the coast, crossed a tiny river and turned inland through the pine forest where the damp floor was covered with mushrooms and huge white puffballs. We still dare not risk collecting any. The last thing we could cope with is mushroom poisoning in Modestine. We did though, feast on blueberries and emerged an hour later back into the village centre with deep purple fingers.
The village pub is constructed entirely from wood, including all the fixtures and furnishings. Inside we found long wooden tables and benches and a warm, friendly atmosphere. The menu was incomprehensible but cheap. The barman recommended Mulgipuder, a typical Estonian dish of potatoes and porridge mixed with chopped fried pork served with a sauce of forest mushrooms and pickled gherkins and beetroot. It was much as you'd imagine - perfectly acceptable but rather bland. But regular home fare for rural Estonians is hardly likely to be extravagant is it?
Continuing our journey we passed through the village of Sagadi and discovered a pink 18th century mansion set in its own grounds with a museum of forestry in one of the barns. The Estonian countryside is littered with these beautiful manor houses. At the start of the 20th century there were apparently 1245 of them. They used to be owned by wealthy Baltic barons, mainly of German descent, who enjoyed lavish lifestyles in them until many were repossessed by the state under the 1919 land reforms. Since then they have been put to various uses, this one becoming the headquarters of the Estonian Forestry Commission and a hotel for visitors to the national park.
One of our aims was to see around the interior of the mansion at Palmse, a few kilometres further on. By now the rain had returned in earnest so we explored the house first in the vain hope it would have stopped by the time we started on the grounds. We were free to wander anywhere around the house and estate. The property has been well restored and had very much the feel of still being lived in. The furniture had not all belonged to the von Pahlen family but was in keeping with the property. It was quite acceptable to touch things. Someone was even playing the piano, quite beautifully, in the drawing room and in the main bedroom the wardrobe doors were left open, bursting with the dresses, shawls, shoes, great coats and military uniforms of the family. In the main bedroom, overlooking the lawns I sat at the dressing table, pretending the room was mine and imagining living surrounded by such outmoded luxury.
It was pouring when we came out but we stoically walked around the lake, pausing to drip in the orangery, the bath house, the belvedere and the old smithy. We even discovered a collection of old bicycles, motorbikes and Russian cars in the garage. The pride of the collection was a huge, black shiny limousine - a ZIL 111A known as the soviet "Rolls Royce." It had been used by Khrushchev on a state visit to Estonia. It broke down and was simply left behind as it would have cost too much to get repaired or get it back to Moscow.
By the time we left the mansion and explored the exhibition in the nearby headquarters of the Lahemaa National Park it was far too late to drive on through the rain searching for a campsite, so we have returned here for the night again.