South East Estonia

Thursday 28th August 2008, Voru, Estonia
And we thought it had been raining before! We simply cannot believe that the sky can hold so much rain. We've been travelling south east most of the day and the roads have been flooded while it's been slashing against the windscreen until well after lunch time.

Yes, I know we are supposed to be heading south west for Riga in Latvia but there were some caves we wanted to see right near the Russian border. In fact we couldn't get near the caves today as apart from the main roads – which are quite empty and rural, edged by the omnipresent pine forests – the rest of the roads are simply dirt tracks. You can imagine their state in such weather.

Around lunch time we stopped at the small town of Räpina, marked as picturesque. So it may have been but in the rain it loses some of its charm. The main road through the village was being resurfaced for 6.5 kilometres in either direction, one of which was the route to our destination.

Seven kilometres of this – no thanks! Räpina , Estonia

Village church, Räpina , Estonia

Eventually the weather improved enough for us to dash across from Modestine to the town hall and ask to use their loo. We also asked in the tourist office about the road works and they told us "it's a very bad road. Here is a map. We will show you a better bad road." And so it was. We bounced along a waterlogged dirt road for twenty kilometres, passing through rural settlements of a couple of wooden houses and a barn. Generally they were so dilapidated, were it not for the barking dogs we would find it hard to believe they were occupied. We reached a village right up near the Russian border where we bought diesel only to find we didn't have enough krone to pay for it and they wouldn't accept our card. Instead they directed us to the cash machine down the road and trusted us to return with the difference!

Then Modestine took us to Russia! Please be impressed. We are really proud of ourselves having driven all the way from Exeter to Russia! It was only just into Russia. The track ran along the border through the woods, leading to an isolated Estonian village that had found itself cut off from the rest of the country. Guessing, wrongly, that even Russia wouldn't have a manned border post for one hamlet when there was no other way in or out, we drove along the track to the border post. As there was nobody visible on guard we drove on for a couple of kilometres through the woods just to say we'd done it. On our way out again Ian popped out to photograph the no-man's-land of raked earth on the Russian side of the track. As we were moving off again we realised Russian territory actually extended about ten metres across the other side of the track and there was a uniformed soldier watching us from a little wooden hut on a triangle of land that we had assumed was Estonian! It must have made his day! It cannot be every day an English camper van drives out of the woods from the direction of Russia!

Border between Russia and Estonia

Russian border post, Russia

Raked area through the woods along the Russian border, Russia

Nearby there is the tail end of one of Estonia's largest lakes, Lake Peipsi, the border with Russia running down the middle. We parked on its banks and went for a brief, chilly walk along its shore before deciding we'd better move on as the only camping place we knew about was fifty kilometres away, here at Voru.

Lake Peipsi looking towards Russia, Estonia

Camping Estonian style is very odd. We are hooked up to electricity in the car park of a very smart hotel. We are all alone - we've not seen a camping car for days. We have the use of the hotel facilities so tonight we are relaxing in leather sofas in the foyer with our computers where we have wifi. We have the use of loos and wash basins but nowhere to wash our plates and saucepans so we have to smuggle them into the loos when the charming lass on reception is looking the other way. Apparently we can also use the showers but haven't yet discovered where they are. This same young lady explained in delightful English that "when you want to shower you tell me and I show you how". Ian is quite looking forward to it!

Friday 29th August 2008, Voru, Estonia
Ian was up and off early this morning for his shower before I was even awake. He returned somewhat disappointed, the young lady had meant "where" not "how". However, we were given the Arabella suite to use for our showers, real luxury with an ensuite wooden sauna, though fluffy white towels were not included in our 13 euros camping fee. (Yes, they accept euros even if Britain doesn't.)

We can thoroughly recommend the Hotel Kubija if you are ever in need of overnight accommodation in this part of Europe. Though that's rather unlikely unless you want to walk in the surrounding forest with a couple of Nordic walking poles or brush up your Russian with a bored border guard nearby. Of course you may be here, as some guests obviously are, for the chocolate massage in the Wellness Clinic. You can opt for the plain chocolate one at 500 krone or go for the deluxe chocolate at 650. If you are feeling masochistic there is always the hot stones massage or, in extremis, the classic Russian massage. We imagine this is local diversification for the border guards who are called in to give you the once over and probably involves putting you in an icy room with a pickaxe to break the stones for the hot stone massage. Finally there is the red wine massage and weird and wonderful things that can be done with forest berries.

Sticky delights on offer at Hotel Kubija, Voru, Estonia

Later in the day back at the same hotel for a second night
We spent the morning enjoying hotel comforts including a mid-morning coffee in the smart, pinewood bar while the rain beat against the windows. After lunch – back in Modestine – the weather improved, but deciding it was too late to make it to any of the camp sites in Latvia we set off for a local afternoon seeking out the sand caves we missed yesterday. It turned out to have been an excellent plan taking us across the most rural and remote parts of Estonia through several sparsely populated, straggling villages of wooden houses and tumbling sheds and across vast empty landscapes of trackless countryside. These are the legacy of the collective farms imposed on the country during the Communist period. Much of the indigenous rural population of the Baltic countries were forcefully evicted and sent off to work in the Russian gulags while many Russians were "resettled" here to work alongside those local people still remaining. Independent farms were amalgamated under the control of the Soviets, the ideology being that everyone would work together for their mutual benefit. The policy was a failure for many reasons and the lives of the collective farmers frequently pitiable, often scraping by at near starvation level. Today we saw the landscape still showing the scars of collectivisation with huge empty and abandoned warehouses, barns and silos surrounded by rusting broken machinery. Often they were the only things visible on the otherwise empty landscape now given over mainly to grassland and what looked like rain-soaked crops heavily interspersed with weeds. At one point, showing high above the crops, were several flocks of cranes. We have never seen these huge birds in the wild before. Storks are common enough in the fields and their ungainly nests top many of the telegraph poles here, but cranes are altogether larger. There must have been well over a hundred feeding in the roadside field. As soon as we stopped for Ian to photograph them they took off en-mass, heading for the horizon.

Scars of collectivisation, near Obinitsa, Estonia

Cranes near Obinitsa, Estonia

This region of Setumaa is especially famous for its singing tradition. The lives of the people and of special events have been sung about for generations. By tradition the singing has always been done from memory by women. There is a special structure to the songs and some of the earlier singers could remember as many as 15,000 verses. Many of these have been collected and written down so they form a cultural heritage of the country. We saw and heard an example of this singing at the National Song Festival in Tallinn the evening we arrived but at that time were unaware of its significance. The "song mothers" are commemorated by a granite statue overlooking the lake at the little village of Obinitsa.

Memorial to the "song mothers", Obinitsa, Estonia

Lake and typical rural unmetalled road, Obinitsa, Estonia

We eventually found the Piusa sand caves just north of Obinitsa. They are the remains of mining and quarrying for sand between 1922 and 1970, for use in the glass industry. Nowadays glass is no longer produced in Estonia and is imported from Poland, but during its time the sand was used for windows, bottles and electric insulators. Most of the ten kilometres of caves are fenced off as areas are either in danger of collapse or are huge holes in the surrounding woods where they were blown up by the Soviets when they finished extracting sand there because they were collapsing. However, one area has been stabilised and visitors can be shown round by an Estonian guide. It has a cathedral-like beauty to its huge sand columns and arches. Why sand was extracted this way is unclear, it would have been easier simply to quarry it all out. After the caves were abandoned they were made into a nature reserve to protect one of the largest colonies of bats in eastern Europe.

Piusa sand caves, Estonia

Inside the Piusa sand caves, Estonia

Collapsed tunnels at the Piusa sand caves, Estonia

Sand quarry at Piusa, Estonia

We were the only visitors for the guided tour which looked set to be rather short due to a complete language barrier. A young man out taking his three young sons for a woodland walk offered to act as interpreter and they all came round with us. It immediately became a very friendly and happy experience. We learned much, the young man practiced his English and his sons found the courage to start talking to us. Once we'd had the tour and bid our official guide goodbye, the young man suggested taking us round the forest to explain features of the natural and industrial landscape. His sons were aged 12, 11 and 4. The youngest was a typical little pickle while the two older ones found the words to tell us about their school, their English studies, their holiday visit here with dad from the family home in Tartu and even asked us for several English words for the things around us - such as mushrooms, lichen and clay.

We all got on so well together and had such a happy afternoon that they wanted us to change our plans and return to Tartu with them where they said they would show us around! People can be so unbelievably kind and we were quite bowled over by the suggestion though had to decline or we would never get home again at the rate we are progressing. They showed us trenches in the woodland where the Russians were fighting the Germans during the Second World War. Once it was pointed out it was obvious how cut-about the overgrown woodland was. Our friend explained that his family lived locally and his father's younger brother was killed in these woods when he was eight years old because of live ammunition left lying around. After WW2 the labyrinth of caves was used by the Forest Brothers, a Baltic resistance movement operating against the Soviet occupying powers. The last Forest Brother, August Stubbe, committed suicide to avoid capture as late as 1978.

Russian wartime trenches at Piusa, Estonia

As we returned to our parked vehicles a couple of down-and-outs we'd seen earlier going through the rubbish bins approached us trying to sell us mushrooms they'd been gathering in the woods. We wouldn't have realised what they were saying without our new friends.

At the car park the kids were curious to see inside Modestine while their dad gave us a gift of a bag of huge home grown tomatoes from his uncle's garden. It's not the first time we've felt awful because we have nothing to offer in exchange. For future trips we will have to think what we can easily carry as acceptable gifts that we won't be tempted to eat. We said our reluctant farewells and waved then off. Such is the transient nature of friendships made while living in a home that is for ever moving on.

Our Estonian friends at Piusa