Rakvere and Tartu

Tuesday 26th August 2008, Tartu, Estonia
Today it didn't rain. The sun may not have put in an appearance but at least we didn't get soaked, though it was so chilly we needed our jackets for the first time. We are, after all, on a level with the Orkneys so autumn comes earlier than down in Devon. Leaves are starting to fall and park gardeners are busy with their rakes.

This morning we drove south to the pleasant little town of Rakvere leaving Modestine parked on a street of old wooden houses, some dating from the late 18th century, many with peeling paint and rotting window frames. Several have had their decorative doors restored while others have suffered fires and are just charred beams and blackened timbers.

Beside the church we found a rat. Not just any rat. This one jumped and hopped. We have no idea what it is but it behaved more like a gerbil than a rat. Maybe an east European rodent?

Inside the church the man on duty spoke to us in German as he knew no English. After telling us about the church he told us his native language is Finnish but he also speaks Russian because his family came from Finland at the point where it joins Eastern Estonia and Russia.

Rakvere has a hill. This is quite remarkable as generally Estonia is very flat. Prominently displayed on the hill as you arrive in the town is a plinth supporting a huge statue of an aurochs with long golden horns. It symbolises the extinction of these early cattle that once roamed the plains here.

Golden aurochs, Rakvere, Estonia

Beyond stand the ruins of the old castle. Here we have had a brilliant morning – a pensioners' Grand Day Out. Having qualified for the discount we proceeded to have every bit as much fun as the young ones. Dressing up in a tabard before entering was obligatory and once inside the battered walls everyone on duty was also dressed up, even the workmen restoring the well in the courtyard. There were all sorts of mediaeval things to explore and try out, battlements and turrets to climb and dungeons and wine cellars to descend into. Everywhere inside the castle ruins was lit by candles. We attempted jousting, spearing a sack, minting coins and dressing up as knights with helmets, swords and shields. I don't think we learned much but it was very different from the normal stuffy castle ruins I usually get dragged around and Ian enjoyed it quite as much as me. At midday we were scrambling up the unsafe crumbling spiral staircase to the battlements when we were startled by them firing off a tiny canon. It made a huge racket and sent smoke billowing across the courtyard.

Castle ruins, Rakvere, Estonia

Castle couryard, Rakvere, Estonia

Normally we try to avoid too many photos of us on the blog so please indulge us for once. It's a happy memory for us of a really good fun morning.

Space for another one at the Round Table? Rakvere Castle

Ian mints us some money, Rakvere Castle

Jill keeps a look-out, Rakvere Castle

Lord and Lady of Rakvere Castle, Estonia

Your horse is ready m'lady, Rakvere Castle, Estonia

Mediaeval sport with a lance and a swinging tree trunk, Rakvere Castle, Estonia

Now for the real thing, Rakvere Castle, Estonia

En garde! Rakvere Castle, Estonia

Where are you? Rakvere Castle, Estonia

The Russian Orthodox church on the main street was more exotic from outside than within where the icons were mainly 19th century and nowhere near as appealing as the Greek ones we saw earlier in the year. There was a Russian lady with a headscarf on duty. She told us she only spoke Russian but left us to explore the church on our own. We gave her our only word of Russian – meaning goodbye – and she beamed as she repeated it.

Russian Orthodox Church, Rakvere, Estonia

All that jousting had made us really hungry so we found a friendly self-service restaurant in the town centre where, because we didn't understand the menu, they lifted the lids off all the dishes for us to peer inside. Ian had fish with rice and salad while I had schnitzel with potatoes and salad. It cost £2.50 each and was delicious.

After visiting the rather upmarket hotel and spa complex, where we decided against a massage and having our nails manicured, we made our way to one of the 19th century wooden houses which is now a museum. The building is shabby and has lost most of its paint, while inside, some rooms showed how a family would have lived around the turn of the 19th century, while others displayed furniture from the 1930s. The lady on duty spoke a little English and as we were the only visitors she accompanied us round, adding much to our understanding of the exhibits. She was particularly proud of the piano owned by Arvo Pärt, who came from Rakvere and went on to achieve international fame as a composer.

Oldest house in Rakvere dating from mid-nineteenth century, Estonia

Piano of Arvo Pärt, Rakvere, Estonia

19th century dining room, Rakvere, Estonia

You don't find campsites by chance in Estonia and we needed to get down to Tartu, 125 kilometres away to find the next one. The road, once we found it, was level and empty, if somewhat bumpy. It was an easy if bouncy ride across the Estonian countryside. We had left the bogs and most of the forests behind by the time we'd arrived in Rakvere and from then on it was mainly grassland and arable crops with a few isolated farms. Outside of the towns Estonia really is a deserted country.

Tonight we are staying in the grounds of a guest house a few kilometres outside of Estonia's second city, Tartu which is about the same size as Exeter with around 100,000 inhabitants, some of whom we will meet tomorrow. The city does not have an official campsite but we found this place mentioned on the internet. There is only electricity, a loo and cold water but it's clean, friendly and convenient.

Wednesday 27th August 2008, Tartu, Estonia
Today the weather made up for yesterday. It has rained continuously the entire day and it really is becoming unpleasant. We've not got a dry pair of shoes between us and it's difficult keeping clean and comfortable when, apart from yesterday, we've had rain every single day since our sunny day in Moominland, weeks ago now. Almost all the roads in east Europe towns have cobbles where the water collects to form huge puddles that spew out as cars pass over them. So from the knees downwards we are usually dripping wet. Tonight we have returned to the same camping place as there is nowhere else suitable around the city. There are no showers or even hot water here. We'd really appreciate a bathroom and a washing machine this evening.

Despite the weather however, we found Tartu a very lovely university city. It is to Estonia what Uppsala is to Sweden or Oxford to England. Indeed, the university here was founded by Gustav Adophus of Sweden in 1632. It is particularly important for its medical school and has produced some of the leading names in medical research. The University buildings are scattered around the city. The main University building is by far the most impressive and beautiful building in the town. Unfortunately this, and several other major early 19th century buildings around the town were constructed on wooden piles which are now rotting, leading to subsidence and serious cracks in the walls. Years of neglect during Soviet times means many buildings are still awaiting funding to be restored. Meanwhile they sag and decay further. Away from the beautifully restored showpieces of the town centre there are many dilapidated buildings that remind us forcefully of some of the decayed architectural gems we saw in East Germany back in the 1970s.

King Gustav Adolphus of Sweden, Tartu, Estonia

Main university building, Tartu, Estonia

The main square fronting onto the River Emajögi is quite beautiful with the Town Hall at one end, the sides lined by 19th century neoclassical buildings. There are also several Stalinist era buildings around the town looking foreboding and heavy juxtaposed to these beautiful earlier buildings.

Town Hall and main square, Tartu, Estonia

Hoping the weather would clear we headed for the botanical gardens. They would be splendid on a sunny day but we quickly discovered the huge hot houses where we sheltered with the banana plants, cactuses and tropical creepers while the rain hammered on the glass roof.

It was just as wet this afternoon when we gave up trying to stay dry and set off to explore everything the city could offer. It has always been fond of statues of its worthies and there are dozens around the town. Many were removed for political reasons during Soviet occupation but some have since been restored and placed back in their original positions. Some are of a more general nature, including one of an imaginary meeting between two great writers with similar names from broadly similar bohemian backgrounds Estonia's Eduard Vilde and England's Oscar Wilde.

I'm just Vilde about Oscar and Oscar's Wilde about me, Tartu, Estonia

Childhood obesity is a problem in Estonia too

Estonia's Statue of Liberty, Tartu

F.R. Kreuzwald, author of the national epic "Kalevipoeg" based on Estonian legends, Tartu, Estonia

In the park on Cathedral Hill stands the university Observatory, erected at the start of the 19th century. One of its directors was Friedrich Georg Wilhelm Struve who surveyed the geodetic arc, now named after him, from the Arctic to the Black Sea between 1816 and 1855. This led to more accurate knowledge of the shape and size of the Earth. A number of these linked survey points and are now on the Unesco World Heritage list, including the one here at Tartu.

University Observatory, Tartu, Estonia

In the basement of one of the Stalinist era blocks of flats we discovered the former interrogation centre and cells of the KGB. Of course we have heard of the brutal techniques used on dissidents, objectors, patriots and ordinary innocent people, but it comes as a real shock to see just how and where they suffered in this outwardly beautiful city. Upstairs people are living in the flats and there is a mobile phone shop fronting onto the street. We walked right past the entrance, it is so inconspicuous. Through a heavy door, down a steep flight of steps we found ourselves in a narrow corridor with maroon painted walls and a stone floor. A picture of Stalin hung on the wall above the desk in the office. Through an iron grill the corridor led off with low, heavy iron doors leading into small cells, some with narrow bunk beds, all with buckets to act as toilets, and nothing else. Bare walls and no daylight. Prisoners would have been held there in darkness for indefinite periods while being interrogated and tortured. Several cells were used for solitary confinement. They were about the size of a phone kiosk with bare stone walls and no light. There was a ledge to sit on and the inevitable bucket. Prisoners would be held here sometimes for days at a time without food. Just half a litre of water a day, replaced by a thin soup every third day. The door to the cell was several inches thick with massive locks. The psychological effect on the victim is quite unimaginable.

Exterior of the "Grey House" used by the KGB, Tartu, Estonia

Basement corridor with KGB cells, Tartu, Estonia

Map of the USSR showing gulags, Tartu, Estonia

Two cells used for solitary confinement, Tartu, Estonia

Interrogation and restraining chair, Tartu, Estonia

Grainy photographs on the walls showed people who were victims of the Soviet secret service. Most were sent to work in forced labour camps in Siberia where they often died from starvation. There were mass deportations from Estonia. Women and children were not spared. Sometimes entire classes of schoolchildren would be herded up and sent off to work in the Gulags. Many never returned. It is too huge a topic to describe here and there is absolutely no way we can possibly empathise with the fate of the innocent people of these peaceful Baltic countries who had the misfortune to find themselves the immediate neighbours of a mighty state determined to spread its communist ideology across the world. They were quite powerless to resist the might of Russia and suffered accordingly.

People of Tartu during the build up to the 1940 "elections". Estonia

Tartu flattened after Soviet bombing in 1941, Estonia

It's ironic that we spent this morning in a building where plants and vegetables are fed, watered, given warmth, light and care. This afternoon we were in a different building where human beings suffered mental and physical trauma and were deprived of all of those things.

Moaning about the weather seemed almost obscene after seeing what went on in those cells. When we came out into the rainy streets, leaving the cells behind, we were conscious of how lucky we are to be living in a world today where we are free to do so. People of our own age around us in the streets here must all have been affected by the absorption of Estonia into the USSR. They would have lived through it all from the 1940s up until 1992.

We also visited the Faculty of Medicine at the university. This is in the oldest part of the university buildings, dating from 1802. It is in a poor state of repair and huge sums of money will be needed to restore it to its former state. We were given a guided tour by someone from the medical school very knowledgeable about its history, its famous alumni and the museum exhibits. These were all rather horrid to us being jars of human bits and pieces – pickled brains, a foot eaten by a rat, a skull with a bullet hole, an aborted 8 week foetus and much more. They did rather remind us of some of the jars of brawn to be seen on supermarket shelves in this part of the world, but a bit bigger. As we were the only visitors all day she was soon inclined to chat about other things. She warned us not to leave our umbrellas outside the door – "don't forget it is not long since this was Soviet Russia." She also told us that Estonians are watching current developments in Georgia with bated breath. They have no faith at all in Russian integrity. She said there are still many Russians in Estonia who cannot speak anything but Russian. Somehow they all get along okay. She has Russian neighbours where she lives and they are really nice, friendly people. However, we have the impression that they don't integrate socially.

Faculty of Medicine, University of Tartu, Estonia

Inside the 19th century anatomical theatre, Tartu, Estonia

So the day has been very full of thought-provoking incidents and despite the rain we have seen much of Tartu with its academic and civic buildings, its beautiful parks and statues. It has been a very difficult account to write about and quite impossible to condense so many impressions and emotions into something as trivial as a travel blog.