*** ESTONIA  2011  -  Weeks 13~16 ***

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CAMPING IN ESTONIA 2011 - NE Estonian oil-shale mining towns, Narva and Russian border,  Lake Peipsi,  Setumaa, Tartu,  Soomaa National Park,  Pärnu  and the homeward journey:

Route 1 eastwards was straight and well-surfaced thanks to EU infrastructure investment and we made good progress from Lahemaa, turning off to the regional town of Rakvere to re-stock with provisions at a Rimi hypermarket. Spared the over-industrialisation which blighted the rest of the region during the Soviet era, Rakvere is now a pleasant town which still retains its traditional wooden buildings. It is dominated by the grey ruins of its huge 13th century castle, built originally by the Danes and later enlarged by the Livonian Order Germanic Knights. Standing on the prominent grassy ridge by the castle, the statue of a golden-horned auroch bull poses a comically menacing welcome to visitors (see left), a memorial to the town's 700th anniversary since such wild cattle once grazed the Baltic forests.

Click on map for details of Eastern and Southern Estonia

Turning off the main road beyond Rakvere, a narrow lane ran close to the Baltic coastline which here coincides with a continuation of the NE Estonian Glint 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. Last year's spring melts however had destroyed the steps and we could only gaze over the precipice at the exposed limestone face of the Glint and what was left of the viewing platform. We camped that night on the breezy cliff-tops at the well-appointed Saka hotel-camping; here intact steps descended the less severe and tree-covered cliffs down to the shore below where grey Baltic waves washed the deserted narrow strip of sand.

Rejoining Route 1 the following morning, the eastwards horizon was 'graced' with the smoking chimneys of Kohtla-Järve's oil refineries, and the conical slag-heaps left behind by the NE Estonian oil shale industry. 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 75% of its total energy supply from shale oil fired plants, making it the only country in the world where oil shale is the primary source of energy with the oil shale industry employing 7,500 people. 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 the Ida-Viru County of NE Estonia, along with shale-oil extraction plants and refineries. Knowing nothing about oil shale and anxious to find out more given the industry's economic importance for Estonia, we turned off into Kohtla-Järve where in the supermarket Russian was the only language we heard. The city's Stalinist period decaying architecture seemed an anachronistic throw-back to the days of the post-war Soviet expansion of oil shale mining. As we approached Kohtla-Järve, the smell of petroleum gases wafted over, and the presence oil extraction plants and refineries was patently evident against a backdrop of spoil heaps left behind by the mining industry scarring the landscape (Photo 1 - Shale oil extraction plant and spoil heaps at Kohtla-Järve).

We drove through Kohtla-Järve, passing a wasteland of former open-cast mining and crossing the main Tallinn~St Petersburg railway line, to the neighbouring town of Kohtla-Nõmme where the now closed Kohtla mine is open to visitors as the Oil Shale Mining Museum. We have visited many mining museums during our travels, but oil shale was a first and we hoped to discover more about this industry. The oil shale mine at Kohtla-Nõmme, one of several workings in the area, opened in 1937; its depth varied from 10 to 30m but the underground workings spread covering several kms in area. 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 an oil shale mining museum. Kitted out with hard-hats and lamps, we were led down into the main roadway of the mine by the retired miner guide, and over the next 2 hours shown the developing methods of extraction from early hand-drilling to later machine cutting. The rock walls showed clearly the interspersed strata of brown oil-bearing shale and the useless white limestone which would be separated as waste (Photo 2 - Rock face at the Kohtla-Nõmme Oil Shale Mining Museum). Back on the surface we wandered over to where the rock conveyer emerged from the underground workings and where the spoil heaps of waste limestone still marred the landscape. The guide's Estonian commentary was largely unintelligible to us, but English texts helped us to piece together more of an understanding about the mining of oil shale and the extraction of shale-oil, which still forms a significant part of Estonia's industrial economy.

Continuing eastwards, we turned off to the next industrial town, Sillamäe. The town was totally destroyed in WW2 by the advancing Red Army, and in the late 1940s the Soviets designed 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 with its top-secret uranium processing plant operated by the Soviet military became a totally restricted zone accessible only with special passes, 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 unfinished uranium; plans had been developed for the enrichment of nuclear reactor ready U235 but before this could happen, Estonia became independent in 1991 and the plant was closed immediately. 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. Vast quantities of EU money has been poured into a clean-up operation sealing the waste under concrete to ensure its stability.

Against this historical background, we turned off rather uncertainly to approach Sillamäe. Towering over the port the now lifeless chimneys of the former nuclear processing plant still stood but access to the site beyond the railway sidings was barricaded off. Instead we turned into the town passing the rows of Stalinist-era apartment blocks. We walked around the centre by the town hall with its totally incongruous mock Lutheran church spire, and the 1949 Cultural Centre (see right), the very apotheosis of flamboyant Stalinist architecture with colonnades and pediments resembling a Greek temple whose interior was decorated with reliefs of Marx and Lenin. In gardens nearby, a triumphalist 1987 Soviet monument celebrated the 70th anniversary of the 1917 October Revolution in the form of a bare torso-ed miner juggling an atom, an apt symbol for a town devoted to production of uranium (see above left). Monumental steps decorated with urns of flowers cascaded down to the main avenue of grand Neo-classical apartment blocks decorated with floral reliefs and hammer and sickle and communist star motifs (Photo 3 - Stalinist era architecture at Sillamäe). The avenue led down to the Baltic shore where to the west we could see the former uranium processing plant and the now grassed-over headland where oil shale had once been mined. But beyond this, out of sight, were the storage ponds contaminated by radioactive waste (Photo 4 - Former uranium processing plant and oil-shale mines at Sillamäe). With fascination we wandered among the rows of buildings in this living museum of Soviet-era architecture, eventually finding the town's museum which gave bizarre insight into life in the town during its Cold War secrecy.

A short distance east, a minor road led to monuments which recalled the brutal battles of August 1944 on the hills around Sinimäe. Having defended Narva for 6 months against the advancing Red Army, the Germans fell back to a defensive line at Sinimäe putting up strong resistance despite being vastly outnumbered by Soviet forces. With enormous losses on both sides, the Red Army eventually overcame the resistance and continued their westward advance. Half of the defending troops were Estonian conscripts who, recalling the horrors of the 1940~41 communist occupation, had hoped to restore Estonian independence against Soviet re-occupation. Soviet memorials marking mass graves from 1994 casualties unusually were augmented by individual graves of Russian soldiers (see left). Just beyond this, the crest of the hill still criss-crossed with 1944 trenches was topped with an over-prominent German memorial which unsurprisingly was regularly vandalised by local Russians (Photo 5 - German war memorial from August 1944 battles at Sinimäe).

Narva is Estonia's and the EU's easternmost city, founded originally by Danes in 1229 as a fortified trading post on the Narva River and later handed 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 river was matched in 1492 by the building of Ivangorad Fortress on the opposite bank, 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 Russia during the 16th/17th centuries until finally captured by Peter the Great in 1704, becoming then part of the Tsarist Empire. In the 19th century, Narva flourished as a port and centre of textile industry. It was totally destroyed during the Red Army's 1944 recapture of the city, and during the 1950~60s as part of NE Estonia's industrialised zone it became one of Europe's most polluted cities. The population remains 95% 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. Driving into Narva to what remains of the city centre by the so-called Friendship Bridge at the River Narva border-crossing, it felt like, and indeed was, the end of the road. The sealed border-post with its high security fences and multiple barriers seemed like something out of a le Carré Cold War novel. Traffic queued to pass through the control point on the Estonian side, only then to face similar delays across the bridge at the Russian control point (Photo 6 - Estonian~Russian border-crossing control point at Narva). The long queue of pedestrians waiting for visa checks to cross the bridge (see left) was even more chilling.

The TIC in the central square was impressively helpful in providing information about Narva and armed with this, we set off to explore. Walking through an area of dismal apartment blocks, Narva had a down-at-heel feel, grim and grey as East Berlin must have been in the GDR days. The timetable at the railway station listed daily train services to Tallinn and St Petersburg, but access to the platform was via a formidable passport control. Out in the forecourt, a forlorn monument commemorated those deported during the Stalinist years, beginning their sad journey into exile in cattle trucks from the station. Hidden behind further grey apartment blocks, we found the Russian Orthodox cathedral, its red-brick barrel-shaped bulk topped by onion domes. With the sky now ominously overcast, the area seemed grimmer than ever. Heading back towards the river, the Swedish Lion Monument commemorating the 1701 Swedish victory over the Russian besiegers of Narva gave a grim panorama of the 2 fortresses facing one another across the river and the Friendship Bridge forming the border between 2 opposing cultures, the EU and the Russian Federation (Photo 7 - Narva Castle (Estonia) facing Ivangorod Fortress (Russia)).

Back at the main square, we paid to climb Narva Castle's Hermann Tower, not for the displays of armour and muskets but for the majestic view from the observation platform looking directly across the narrow river to the Ivangorod Fortress on the opposite Russian side (see right), and more particularly the bird's-eye view down onto the Friendship border-bridge immediately below, where trucks and cars queued to pass through the Russian control-point. What however was even more eye-catching was the totally enclosed no-man's-land corridor of high security fencing passing all the way from the Estonian side across the bridge to the Russian border control-point (Photo 8 - Lorries queuing at Russian border-crossing on the Friendship Bridge at Narva). Back down into the town, we worked our way around the sealed corridor of the border-crossing, past where heavy trucks queued on the Estonian side, into what is now the desolately forlorn area of Narva's Old Town. Behind yet more apartment blocks, the riverside is guarded by the massive circuit of bastions constructed by the Swedes in the 17th century. Above the embankment, along the Estonian-sounding but grimly Russian-looking Koidula Street, we found a terrace directly overlooking the border-crossing bridge, but totally sealed off by security fencing. From here we had a perfect view along the length of the bridge where a few pedestrians carrying their shopping trudged across between the border-control points, looking for all the world like Cold War refugees. It was a truly chilling image (Photo 9 - Crossing the sealed bridge linking Estonian~Russian borders), the most poignant sight of the trip.

The Russian border at Narva marked this trip's outermost point and we gladly turned back westwards along Route 1 to begin the long journey home, but with still much of eastern and southern Estonia to see. We turned off for several nights' stay at the campsite by the former Toila Sanatorium, now re-branded as a spa-hotel. The campsite, pleasantly sited among pine trees on the Baltic cliff-tops, was reasonably priced with some of the best facilities encountered the whole trip and free wi-fi. Heading south past Jõhvi on a minor road through forests, we began the next phase of the trip with a visit to the Pühtitsa Russian Orthodox Convent. The name Pühtitsa means in Estonian 'blessed place', from the legendary divine apparition witnessed by a local shepherd in the 16th century; an icon was discovered nearby which now stands in the Dormition of Mary Cathedral at the Nunnery founded in 1891 where 150 Russian Orthodox nuns live and work. Feeling rather self-conscious, we entered the convent grounds as the nuns went about their work tending the gardens or cleaning the onion-domed Cathedral of the Dormition (Photo 10 - Pühtitsa Russian Orthodox Convent). The Cathedral was filled with icons including the revered image of the Dormition (Photo 11 - Cathedral of the Dormition at Pühtitsa). A number of other churches stand within the hilltop convent grounds, including the Refectory Church of St Simeon the Receiver of God and St Anna the Prophetess; with protective patron-saints like that the nuns must enjoy particularly special meals in such a canteen. In the souvenir shop, an elderly nun sold icons and empty plastic bottles for visitors to fill with holy water from the convent's magic spring which allegedly never freezes, if only you could find it.

A lonely forest road ran SW from Pühtitsa to reach the northern shore of Lake Peipsi at Alajõe with its tiny wooden Orthodox church. Along the lake shore with its scattering of holiday homes among the forested dunes, we approached the larger village of Mustvee where roadside stalls sold smoked Lake Peipsi fish. Pulling in to a lakeside car park for our first clear view of Europe's 5th largest lake, the brisk easterly wind driving waves onto the sandy shore made it seem more like the sea than an inland body of water (see right). This western shoreline of Lake Peipsi was settled in the early 18th century by members of the Russian Orthodox sect of Old Believers who came here from Western Russia as refugees to escape religious persecution. They rented land along the lake shore to found their villages, build their churches and practice their traditional style of the Orthodox faith; here they settled to fish and to grow onions much as their descendents do today in these isolated villages. The origins of the Old Believers (Staroviertsii in Russian) go back to the liturgical reforms introduced into the 17th century Russian Church by Nikon, Patriarch of Moscow. Faced with a schismatic diversity of liturgical rituals, Nikon set about systematising Russian Orthodoxy. The disputed variance of practices seems today almost trivial - the use of 3 fingers rather than 2 in making the sign of the cross, how low to bow and the style of ecclesiastical dress. Nikon however enforced his reforms and dissenting priests were removed from office. But many of the congregations persisted in the old ways and became branded as Old Believers by the church hierarchy who wished them marginalised. Peter the Great backed enforcement of the reforms, and during his reign as Tsar, groups of Old Believers packed their bags and migrated west to settle on the remote shore of Lake Peipsi in the hope of escaping persecution and being left practice their religion as they wished. Rejecting the ecclesiastical hierarchy of conventional Orthodoxy, they chose their clergy from among the local community rather than the priesthood, and services were conducted in Old Church Slavonic, the medieval language of Cyril and Methodius. Strict adherence to traditional belief prevented their assimilation with post-WW2 Russian immigrants and although numbers declined during the communist period, the religion enjoyed a revival after 1991 Estonian independence and there are still some 15,000 practising Old Believers. Following a minor lakeside lane south from Mustvee, we reached the typical one-street Lake Peipsi village of Raja, and here found the first of the Old Believers' churches (Photo 12 - Old Believers' Orthodox church at Raja on Lake Peipsi).

We camped that night by the shore side of Lake Peipsi at the delightful Willipu Külalistemaja (guest-house) Camping just south of the Kallaste, a settlement dating from the first Old Believers' migration in 1720. The following morning, we woke to the roaring sound of wind-driven surf lit by a magnificent dawn flaring across the lake (Photo 13 - Dawn over Lake Peipsi by our camp at Willipu Külalistemaja). Today we were to explore the series of single-street Old Believers' villages which extend linearly along the Lake Peipsi shore-line, Kolkja, Kasepää and Varnja, each with its Old Believers' church and graveyard. All the wooden cottages have a boat-mooring for lake fishing and a large vegetable garden where onions traditionally are grown. The first village of Kolkja is home to the Old Believers' Fish and Onion Restaurant which serves traditional lunches of Lake Peipsi pike-perch and mint-tea from the samovar. In the former village school, the Old Believers' Museum presents details of the history and practices of this traditional branch of Orthodoxy. Both are well worth visiting - see their web sites for details:
Old Believers' Fish and Onion Restaurant   and   Old Believers' Museum

Just opposite the museum, a creek ran down to the lake with the easterly wind driving waves onto the sandy lake shore between the reed-beds (Photo 14 - Wind-swept waves across Lake Peipsi at Kolkja). We had chosen a good time of year to visit the Old Believers' villages since this year's crop of onions had just been lifted and the onions were drying in racks and sheds along the village street (Photo 15 - Drying this year's onion crop at Old Believers' village of Kolkja), with strings of onions hanging for sale outside every cottage; despite the elderly gent we bought from only speaking Russian (see right), he still readily took our Euros. At the next village of Kasepää, the Old Believers' church was locked but we walked around the graveyard examining the Orthodox crosses, the lower slanting cross-bar said to represent the path from earth to heaven (Photo 16 - Old Believers' Orthodox church and graveyard at Kasepää).

We now had a long drive down to Setumaa, the land of the Setu people in the far SE corner of Estonia. The Setu were a branch of the original Finno-Ugric Estonian tribes which in medieval times fell under the jurisdiction of the Russian principality of Pskov unlike the rest of Estonia which was subjugated by Germanic Barons. As a result, the Setu were eventually Christianised as Orthodox and not Lutheran. But despite their isolation, the Setu were never fully assimilated into Russian culture, retaining their own distinctive culture and language, a dialect closer in form to Old Estonian than the modern Estonian tongue. But it is the 20th century history of the Setu, culturally and politically which is the most interesting and tragic. All of the 12 Setu nulks (tribal units) were contained within independent Estonia between 1920~40, but in 1944 the Soviets arbitrarily redrew the border so that 4 of the Setu tribal units now live in Russian territory with their former main town of Pechory lying 3kms across the impenetrable border cut off inside Russia. Today the distinctive Setu language and culture is in slow decline, with 4,000 Setu remaining in SE Estonia and another 3,000 isolated in Russia; this is half the population of the early 20th century. Despite efforts to promote the language and traditions through organised gatherings, the younger generation is rapidly being assimilated into the main body of Estonian society. The impenetrable Russian border has split their community since 1991, further hastening the Setu decline. The most distinctive feature of Setu culture is the women's traditional polyphonic folk-singing style (leelo) with partly improvised epic narratives accompanied by a discordant chanted chorus of women singers. Their traditional folk costumes are also distinctive with dark red as the dominant colour, the women wearing heavy metal jewellery, most noticeably the large metal breastplate worn by unmarried women.

Heading south beyond Räpina, we passed into Setumaa to reach the large village of Värska tucked away in this far isolated SE corner of modern-day Estonia on the shores of Lake Pihka, the southern extension of Lake Peipsi. Värska gave the appearance of being as anachronistic as it was remote, being simply a scattering of communist era low apartment blocks among the pine trees. Just beyond the village, the Setu Farm Museum, housed in original reed-thatched wooden buildings, recreates a typical Setu farmstead of the early 20th century and the neighbouring Setu Tsaimaja farm restaurant serves delicious smoked pork dishes. But our reason for venturing into this farthest outpost of Setumaa was to experience the curious geographical anomaly resulting from the 1944 Soviet border realignment just beyond Värska. The lane down to the southernmost village of Saatse has to pass through a 115 hectare salient of Russian territory projecting into Estonia. We were unsure of the road's status, and given Russian border sensitivities, we checked at the Värska TIC, with little hope of any English being spoken. To our amazement, we were greeted by a cheery Hello from the young girl, who answered all our questions in fluent English: yes we could drive through without visas so long as we did not stop, and there were no border control formalities. With nervous hesitation, we ventured along the lane which soon became gravel-surface on entering the forest. Just beyond the Estonian hamlet of Lutepää, 'No pedestrians' signs, green and orange frontier-posts and barbed-wire fencing marked the Russian border and the start of the 1.5km passage through Russian territory. Road access from Värska to the Estonian enclave around Saatse village is referred to as the Saatse Boot from the salient's shape. It was with much relief when we passed similar signs indicating we had safely reached Estonian territory again at the far end:  Click here for map of the Saatse Boot
(Photo 17 - Driving through the 'Saatse Boot' salient). There had been little to see, no border patrols, no armed guards, nothing but forest, and the dirt road led on through further hamlets down to Saatse totally isolated in this furthest corner of Estonia; even the morning bus which passed us must make the passage of the Saatse Boot. In 2005, a new border treaty was agreed at diplomatic level under which the anomaly of the Boot would be rectified and the land transferred from Russia to Estonia in exchange for a land-swap elsewhere, but this has still to be ratified. In the meantime therefore, this anomalous protrusion of Russia remains to be driven through without visas, but whatever happens, be sure not to stop and investigate: on our return journey, hidden observers took close interest in our passage!

The lakeside Hirvemäe Puhkekeskus (Holiday Centre), almost deserted at this time of year, offered hospitable camping for our stay at Värska, giving us opportunity to explore the surrounding Setu villages. Podmosta is a tiny hamlet set at the end of a dusty dirt road on the tip of a small peninsula by the water's edge of Lake Pihka. In the distant and inaccessible village across on the Russian side of the inlet forming the border, we could see the gilded domes of the Orthodox church sparkling in the afternoon sun. Border guard watch-towers on the far bank somehow symbolised the Russian paranoia about borders.

Route 63 heads south from Värska to Matsuri where lorries queued at the busy border-crossing 3kms from the now Russian town of Petseri (Печоры), formerly the main Setu market town of Pechory until the Soviets divided Setumaa by redrawing the border in 1944. The town is famous for its Orthodox monastery, but we had no means (or indeed wish!) to cross the border. Instead we turned off along a side lane which ran parallel with the border on the Estonian side, alongside a major new railway line and marshalling yard with its customs post surrounding by security fencing, clearly a major EU~Russia freight route. The lane crossed the railway and soon degenerated to dirt track; being so close to the border, we moved ahead nervously, but the lane emerged as our map showed close to the Setu village of Obinitsa. Nearby a sign pointed to the Piusa Sand Caves. The sandstone deposits of the Piusa valley were mined for quartz sand to support the glass-making industry. Underground mines were excavated by hand from 1922, creating huge 30 feet high caverns with arched ceilings supported by columns of sandstone. Mining operations ceased in 1966 when an open-cast quarry was opened nearby with sand extracted mechanically. The abandoned sand caverns with their constant temperature and humidity became the perfect hibernating site for bats, and over-winter are now occupied by some 3,000 bats of 5 different species. Until 2008, there was open access to the caverns for visitors to scramble inside. Under pretext of safety, the caves have now been 'touristified' with over-priced visitor-centre. We were fortunate to find an English-speaking guide who not only showed us the cathedral-like galleries (Photo 18 - Piusa Sand Caverns hand-excavated for glass-making) but talked freely about Estonia's increasing price-inflation since adoption of the Euro, and visa-access to Russia with the lucrative illicit cross-border trade in cheap cigarettes and petrol. We were able to wander freely across to the huge open-cast area of sand excavation and walk the nature trail through the heath-land forest where the ground was covered with wild mushrooms and bright red cowberries.

The lane from Piusa led past derelict communist era collective-farm buildings up into Obinitsa village, a major Setu cultural centre. Here the Setu Museum House set in a traditional timber building aims to illustrate Setu family life in the 1920~40s. On a hillside by the village stood a statue of the Setu Song-Mother, an honorific title for the lead-singer of the Setu leelo traditional choir, and by serendipitous good chance, our visit to Obinitsa coincided with a gathering of Setu women in their traditional costume and metallic jewellery (see left) chanting their peculiar polyphony; they stood in a circle swaying to the rhythm of their eerie music, the lead-singer reciting a line of verse and the chorus responding with their discordant polyphonic chanting, the leelo (Photo 19 - Traditional Setu women's polyphony singing group at Obinitsa).

We drove west to the provincial town of Võru, where in fluent English Margarita in the TIC excelled all others in providing information about the town and region. The Kubija Hotel in the outskirts of Võru provided hospitable camping, with ultra-helpful staff and excellent facilities including laundry and free use of the sauna, and with this as a base we explored the hilly lakeland of southern Võrumaa. For the first time in 3 months in the Baltic States, the road gained height as we headed for Haanja to reach the foot of Suur Munamägi (Great Egg Hill). At just 318m above sea level, the thickly wooded rounded-top hill scarcely stood out from the surrounding countryside, but being the highest point in the whole Baltic region, it was a popular day out for Estonians and also Latvians, the border being so close. The hilltop is dominated by an art deco observation tower rising above the surrounding dense pines. From the tower's viewing platform, we could look out across the forested landscape of SE Estonia towards the Russian border (Photo 20 - Pine woods of SE Estonia from 318m high Suur Munamägi). The nearby village of Rõuge has the reputation as one of Estonia's most picturesque villages. Its wooden houses are scattered across the slopes of hills which line the steep-sided Ööbikuorg (Nightingale) Valley. This wooded valley is lined by a series of lakes, the largest of which Suurjärv (meaning Big Lake) is the country's deepest at 38m, and we spent a sunny early September afternoon, walking this beautiful countryside (see left) (Photo 21 - Nightingale Valley at Rõuge in Võrumaa).

Our route north towards Tartu took us via Otepää, a winter skiing resort but also a town with long associations with the history of Estonia's blue-black-white tricolour national flag. The origins of the flag date back to the time of the 19th century Estonian National Awakening when the concept of independent nationhood was beginning to emerge. Every nation needs a flag and in 1884 the Union of Students at Tartu University met to consider the issue, agreeing that the colours should embody the character of Estonian landscape, culture and traditions: blue symbolised faithfulness and hope for Estonia's future, black the dark past which would be left behind, and white the snows of winter, light of summer and attainment of enlightenment. Having selected the colours, the students' wives and girlfriends stitched together pieces of silk to make the first flag. Every flag needs to be blessed, but none of the Tartu clergy would take the risk of involvement in such a seditious enterprise, fearing reprisals from the ruling Russian authorities. One of the students knew a compliant priest at Otepää, far from the probing eyes of Tsarist agents, and the Students' Society processed from Tartu to the remote town where the obliging priest made his rectory available for the flag to be ceremonially blessed. From this small event by romantically minded students, the tricolour-flag assumed increasingly symbolic significance and by the end of the 19th century it was displayed at ceremonial occasions. Its first political appearance came in 1917 when 1000s of Estonians waving the tricolour demonstrated in St Petersburg demanding national independence, and following the 1918~20 War of Independence, the flag was formally adopted as the national emblem of independent Estonia and raised on Pikk Hermann Tower at Toompea Castle in Tallinn (see left). During the Soviet occupation, the flag was banned and its possession was an offence punishable by deportation to Siberia. It was however secreted away as a symbol of hope of one day regaining independence, and the original 1884 flag buried in a sealed box. As the USSR teetered on the brink of collapse in 1989, the blue-black-white flags were brought out and since February 1989, it daily flies on Pikk Hermann Tower.

The rectory at Otepää where the original flag blessing ceremony was held now houses the Estonian Flag Museum (Eesti Lipu Muuseum). Display panels in the museum proudly tell the story of the flag's creation, its adoption as Estonia's national emblem, its banning during 45 years of Soviet occupation and its resurrection in 1991 with re-establishment of Estonian independence. In one corner of the room stood a replica of the original banner (Photo 22 - Estonian Flag Museum at Otepää) and in the other an impression of the wooden box secretly buried in a brick wall during the Soviet occupation. Across at the parish church, bronze relief panels each side of the doorway depict the flag's original blessing and a symbolic family enjoying life in a free Estonia. The original panels had been destroyed by the communists but were restored after independence. The TIC at Otepää had also been helpful in arranging for the Flag Museum to be opened for our visit, and the unassuming displays had again filled us with admiration at the Estonian people's proud resilience in the face of Soviet repression.

In pouring rain, we began the drive across country to Estonia's second city Tartu where we camped in the garden at Herne guest-house, a welcoming and homely place among the wooden houses of the charactersome suburb of Supilinn; the name means 'Soup Town' from its vegetable-named streets, Oa (Bean St), Kartuli (Potato St), Herne (Pea St), and being just 15 minutes walk from the city centre, Mr Jäär's home-camping made an ideal stay for visiting the university-city of Tartu. The history of Tartu is very much the history of its University, and close to the University a statue of King Gustav Adolphus of Sweden stands in a small garden (see right); a degree from Tartu University, which was founded by him in 1632, was a prerequisite to a government post under Swedish rule of Estonia. With the Russian conquest in 1704, the University remained closed until its re-foundation by the Baltic-German aristocracy in 1802 which resulted in a wholesale reconstruction of halls, libraries and lecture theatres, and gave the city the distinguished Neoclassical appearance still seen today. During the 19th century, German remained the main language of academia, but increasingly Tartu became a centre of learning for native Estonian culture and folklore. The Estonian Learned Society founded in 1837 was the first organisation to treat Estonian as a serious subject of study. With the Estonian National Awakening, Johann Voldemar Jannsen published the first Estonian newspaper, the Eesti Postimees in Tartu in 1863 and organised the first All-Estonian Song Festival here in 1864. Tartu University students had originated the Estonian flag as we had learnt at Otepää. But the Tsarist régime responded with increasingly pressured Russification, making Russian the sole language of teaching at the University in 1889. Despite this, the University managed to remain a progressive and liberal institution and women were admitted in 1905. After the treaty granting Estonia independence from Bolshevik Russian rule was signed in Tartu in 1920, the University established itself as the national Estonian centre of learning with teaching conducted in the native language. During the Soviet era, academic freedom was severely restricted with communist ideology dictating what was acceptable by way of teaching and research, and the presence of a major Soviet air base made Tartu a closed area, cutting the University off from international contacts. University students were active in the independence movement of the late 1980s and since re-independence, the University has re-established its international position attracting increasing numbers of overseas students and visiting academics.

Against this history of Tartu's Ülikool (University), we stood outside the University's main building with its impressive neoclassical façade dating from the 1802 re-foundation (Photo 23 - Main Building of Tartu University), and visited the assembly hall which is used for degree ceremonies (see right). Just around the corner, a statue commemorated Jan Tönisson (1869~?1941), editor of the Eesti Postimees newspaper and leading Estonian statesman who was arrested and deported by the Soviet occupiers in 1940; his fate and date of death are unknown. Unlike Tallinn which was simply overwhelmed by tourists, Tartu was delightfully tourist-free; with students making up 20% of Tartu's population, it was so refreshing seeing the surprisingly well-dressed undergraduates seriously going about their student business as we walked around to Town Hall Square to admire the Baroque Town Hall and its curtilage of neo-classical buildings (Photo 24 - Town Hall Square (Raekoja plats) at Tartu). After the exceptional TICs we had experienced in the south, we expected a similar standard in Tartu; not so - a sadly lacking response from a dim-witted dolly-bird in the TIC brought disgrace on the University-city. At the far end of the Square, the River Emajõgi meanders sluggishly through the city on its way towards Lake Peipsi; it was once spanned by the elegant Stone Bridge, a gift to Tartu from Catherine the Great in 1784, but after 157 years of service to the city, it was destroyed by retreating Russians and Germans in WW2. The modern arched substitute bridge is a functional but aesthetically unworthy successor. We headed up to Toomemägi Hill, passing the University Observatory built for a 19th century professor of astronomy and the former Medical school building and Anatomical Theatre. The wooded parkland of Toomemägi Hill above the city was chosen as the site for key University buildings at the 1802 re-establishment. The red brick Gothic cathedral topping the hill had been reduced to dereliction by 16th century wars and J W Kraus who designed the new University buildings chose to leave the skeletal ruins as a monument with the chancel converted into a 4 storey library. Today this houses the Tartu University History Museum whose displays tell the University's story from its founding by the Swedish king, its 19th century resurrection, its growth from 1919 as the Estonian national University, its tribulations under communist repression and its renewed post-independence freedom facing the financial realities of transition to market economy. The museum is certainly worth a visit, alongside the stark ruins of the Gothic cathedral and the memorials dotted around the wooded hilltop.

Our second day in Tartu took us through the 'town' side of the city which contrasted starkly with the 'gown' area around the University. Among an area of modern shops up Riia St, we stood facing the Grey House, an anonymous-looking 1930s building taken over in 1940 as the HQ of the KGB. The upper storeys were used for interrogations and the basement converted into dungeon-cells where Estonian victims of communist repression were held before execution or deportation to the gulag. The building's owner, a Tartu businessman was himself arrested in 1941 and died in a Siberian labour camp. His successors after regaining ownership of the Grey House post-1991 offered the City rent-free use of the basement to preserve the original cells as a Museum. This now tells the story of the 1000s of Estonian citizens detained without trial, deported or executed by the communists under the notorious Soviet Penal Code Article 58 which gave the KGB carte blanche to arrest anyone considered 'enemies of the state'. Families of victims lost all rights, property was confiscated, and the repression continued right through to the late 1980s against dissidents who tried to draw international attention to abuse of human rights. The KGB Cells Museum gave further understanding of the communist terror régime: its compelling displays, horrendous in their own right, are made even more gruelling by the claustrophobic environment in which victims were detained (Photo 25 - The Grey House KGB Cells Museum at Tartu); visit their website: KGB Cells Museum

Having enjoyed the beers produced by the A le Coq Brewery during our time in Estonia, we had to pay Estonia’s oldest brewery a visit while in Tartu. Founded in the early 19th century by the French-Huguenot le Coq family whose name it retains, the brewery survived nationalisation under the communists and is now owned by Olvi, a Finnish Brewing conglomerate. The original red brick buildings now house the thoroughly modern and automated brewing plant which we were shown around by an elderly employee, starting in the brew house with its stainless steel fermenting vessels (Photo 26 - A le Coq Brewery at Tartu). We clambered up metal walk-ways amid maturing vats and wandered around the noisy bottling plant, finishing at the brewing museum housed in a former malt-house for the glitzy promotional video and rather ungenerous sampling of A le Coq products. Just along from the brewery, set into the hillside overlooking Soup-town, we found the formally laid-out Tartu Song Festival Grounds with seating for 1000s (see right), built in 1994 to symbolise Tartu's place in the Estonian choral tradition (Photo 27 - Song Festival Grounds at Tartu).

Turning westwards from Tartu, the road took a straight course over the boggy terrain following the River Emajõgi which meandered sluggishly across the valley. In an hour we reached the huge body of water of Lake Võrtsjarv at the point where the Emajõgi exited the lake. We camped that night over on the lake's western shore at Valma, one of a number of fishing villages dotted around Lake Võrtsjärv. Vanasauna Puhkenaja provided a delightful camping area among birch trees at the lake side, looking straight out across the still waters of the lake, a truly magnificent spot to camp for the night (Photo 28 - Idyllic camp spot on shore of Lake Vörtsjärv). The following morning, as the sun dawned over the lake, early fishing boats chugged out from the like-side reeds (Photo 29 - Dawn fishing boat leaving Valma).

Continuing west we paused at the pleasant provincial town of Viljandi. The huge castle, constructed in the 13th century by the Livonian Order was one of the most important strongholds in medieval southern Estonia, and shows the town's former importance as a staging post on the east~west trade route. Swedish siege guns destroyed the castle in 1620 leaving just a few fragments of walls, but the scale of these remains show the castle keep's impressive size. The wooded parklands surrounding the castle overlooking Viljandi lake make a pleasant walk especially with the trees now showing golden autumn colours. Just behind the castle, the steep-sided deep moat is crossed by the town's iconic suspension bridge donated in the 1930 by a philanthropic local aristocrat (Photo 30 - Viljandi suspension bridge crossing the castle moat). In a small square amid Viljandi old town's wooden houses stands a statue of Karl Robert Jakobson (1842~82), a radical nationalist who founded the Estonian language newspaper Sakala in Viljandi in 1878; the paper's virulent anti-German stance represented a break with the more conservative nationalists led by J V Jannsen. Sakala continues to be published in Viljandi, still bearing the same ornate masthead as in Jakobson's time (see left).

West of Viljandi, a dirt road branches off at Köpu to cross the wetlands of the Soomaa National Park which was set up in 1994 to protect the large area of grass meadows, bogs-lands and riverine forest and its resident wildlife. The low-lying wetlands are susceptible to regular flooding during springtime thaw with large amounts of melt waters running down from the neighbouring uplands; the sluggish rivers of Soomaa cannot contain the water which spills out across the flood plain grasslands, bogs and forests making the dirt road impassable especially around Riisa where the 3 rivers, the Lemmijõgi, Halliste and Raudna meet. This springtime tendency to flooding in Soommaa is called the Fifth Season. In such boggy wetland environment, the traditional means of transport is the Laabja dugout canoe, hollowed out of a single aspen trunk and propelled standing with a large paddle. Our first stop was the Soomaa National Park Visitor Centre at Tõramaa in the centre of the boglands, which provided us with details of the various bogland board-walks, and hospitably offered us the chance to camp nearby without charge. On our evening of arrival, we were rewarded with a flaring sunset hopefully a prelude to a fine day for our bogland board-walking (Photo 31 - Spectacular sunset over our camp in Soomaa National Park). After a cold night, the mist lingered with an autumnal sun trying to break through as we set off on the Beaver Trail woodland board-walk. Plaques on the trees marked the water levels of recent years' spring floods which had covered the area where we were now camped. The woodland floor was again dotted with a variety of wild mushrooms; how we wished for the knowledge of what was edible (Photo 32 - Wild mushrooms in Soomaa woodlands). On the banks of the Tõramaa stream, board-walk platforms overlooked a series of branch-built beaver dams, and trees showed obvious signs of gnawing.

The following day we set off on the Riisa Bogland Trail, 6kms of narrow board-walk around the Soomaa raised boglands (Photo 33 - Board-walk across Riisa Bogland Trail in Soomaa National Park). The Riisa board-walk began immediately on leaving the road (see right) leading across the bog sparsely forested with stunted pines and the occasional birch tree. All kinds of interesting vegetation grew in the squelchy sphagnum alongside the narrow board-walk including cranberries on wispy, trailing stalks. After a couple of kms, the board-walk entered denser pine-woods as we approached the Navesti River; the route turned back inland across more open sphagnum bogland dotted with pools and here alongside the board-walk we found specimens of insectivorous Sundew plants, tiny red dots among the sphagnum (Photo 34 - Insectivorous Sundew (Drosera rotundifolia) in Soomaa bogland). With little room to manoeuvre on the narrow board-walk, close-up photography meant lying full length. Just beyond a larger group of bog-pools, we reached an observation tower which gave a broad panorama out across the endless bog-scape with the board-walk advancing in a straight line across the raised bog through the stunted pines. That evening as the sun dipped back at our camp by the Visitor Centre, we celebrated Sheila's birthday with another campfire, enjoying our beers and the smell of wood smoke and crackling of flames (Photo 35 - Birthday campfire at Soomaa National Park Visitor Centre).

After the peace of our Soomaa camp, we crossed the Pärnu River leaving the National Park and headed into the Pärnu itself, the city we had passed through a long 5 weeks earlier on first entering Estonia on our way up to Saaremaa. A gloomily overcast late September day is probably the best time to visit Pärnu, when all the inevitable tourist crowds who flock here in summer have gone home; why they come to this unremarkable seaside resort however remains one of life's mysteries. We thought to test the Pärnu TIC with a challenging question: could they propose an alternative to the grubby, unwelcoming and over-priced local campsite, Konse Camping? Their sympathetically helpful response proposing a nearby camping guest-house suggested this was not the first time the question had been posed. We made a rather perfunctory tour of the town's attractions, and wandered down to the beach which was appealingly deserted on a blustery autumn day and pounded by a roaring Baltic surf. Rather like Mr and Mrs Ramsbottom seeking for further amusement, we tried the town's Modern Art Museum, once the local communist party HQ, out of no other interest than to see the reported headless statue of Lenin; the lady understood what we were looking for but said it had been removed 6 years earlier and seemed unsurprised when we lost interest and left. The day took a significant turn for the better however with lunch at Kohvik Georg (yes really - George's Café) in the main street and, we then discovered Pärnu's association with Estonia's national writer Lydia Koidula (1843~86) and her journalist father J V Jannsen. Across the river in a more industrial suburb of the city, an insignificant single storey wooden building, once the primary school run by Jannsen from 1850~63, now houses the Koidula Museum.

Jannsen had been schoolmaster at nearby Vändra, where his daughter Lydia Emile Florentine Jannsen was born in 1843. Following a move to Pärnu, in addition to teaching he edited weekly editions of the first Estonian-language newspaper Pärnu Postimess which he founded in 1857 with the aim of encouraging literacy among the Estonian peasantry. The family moved to Tartu in 1863 where Jannsen became a leading figure in the Estonian National Awakening founding the Eesti Postimees national newspaper. But with his limited, self-taught literary abilities, he was outshone by his more talented daughter as a writer. Lydia contributed regularly to his newspaper as well as writing both poetry and prose, but all her work had to remain anonymous given 19th century prejudice against women taking up literary careers. Through her father, she was in contact with others in the nationalist movement, one of whom Karl Robert Jakobson (founder of the Viljandi newspaper Sakala referred to above) gave her the pseudonym Lydia Koidula (meaning Lydia of the Dawn) so that her poetry could be published under this name. She and her father founded the Estonian Dramatic Society for which Koidula wrote dramas, and organised the first Estonian Song Festival in Tartu in 1869. Her patriotic poem Mu Isamaa has become the leading song at Song Festivals and accompanies this web edition. Her father wrote the similarly worded nationalistic poem which now forms the lyrics of the Estonian national anthem. Koidula married a Latvian doctor in the Imperial Russian army and moved with him to St Petersburg; her marriage effectively ended her literary career but her writings have had a lasting influence on Estonian national life. She died tragically of cancer in 1886 at the young age of 43, and was outlived by her father who died in 1890.

We were welcomed at the Koidula Museum by a delightful elderly lady who offered us honey-sweetened tea  since "the day was cold", and insisted we sign her visitors' book; this showed that regrettably the museum had few visitors, being tucked away 15 minutes walk from the centre. The museum reproduced both the school room where Jannsen taught and the back-office where he edited his newspaper assisted by his talented daughter (Photo 36 - Lydia Koidula Museum in Pärnu). One of the displays of manuscripts showed the 2 versions of Mu Isamaa by father and daughter. The final room was laid out as the bedroom where Koidula died of cancer with her morphine syringe on the table and the last photo taken of her and her husband. Although small and straightforward, the Koidula Museum was a worthy tribute to one of Estonia's national figures. Given her status among Estonians, it was such pity that her memorial museum was not better supported by visitors; for us it was a fitting highlight to an otherwise low key visit to Pärnu.

Our time in Estonia was now drawing to an end, and tomorrow we should begin the long journey home, driving back through Latvia and Lithuania. During the 14 weeks spent in the Baltic Republics, we have gained an unprecedented understanding of the 3 countries' recent history and particularly the barbaric oppression inflicted by 50 years of Soviet occupation, the aftermath of which is still to be seen in daily life. We have been so impressed by the resilience with which they have each been able to cling to both language and culture during centuries of foreign occupation, and the vigour with which they have achieved so much in the brief 20 years since regaining their independence in 1991. All of this learning we have tried to reflect in our web reports as an incentive to others to follow in our footsteps. By the time we reach home, we shall have travelled over 8,000 miles, and stayed at many excellent and memorably hospitable campsites which would put to shame the not infrequent unacceptable standards and excessive cost of so many campsites in Western Europe.

   Sheila and Paul

   Published: 15 November 2011   

Final edition reviewing Baltic campsites to be published in 2 weeks

 

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Music this week:  Estonia's national song to words by Lydia Koidula,
banned by the Soviets but sung at National Song Festivals,
Mu isamaa on minu arm   (Land of my fathers, land that I love)

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