Estonia. A country with a long and complicated history of being dominated by other nations including periods of independence (one of which finally stuck in 1991) and mouth-watering food that is a mix of Nordic, Russian, and German cuisine, so expect a lot of meat, black bread, and fish in addition to anything that can be foraged and then later preserved by grandmothers in a multitude of tins and jars. The population is only 1.3 million and the official language is Estonian, although there is a variety of regional dialects. As an example, I am from Saaremaa and quite often some of the words I use make no sense to people from other areas of the country!
On a map Estonia is rather easy to find, just look out for the Baltic Sea. The surrounding islands are known for their locally smoked fish; you’re probably unlikely to find some during the winter but oh, the summers… The island of Saaremaa in particular is also known for its juniper bushes – make sure not to leave without having bought at least one item for your kitchen that has been hand-carved from this particularly fragrant bush. In terms of getting there, unfortunately, there are no direct flights from Gibraltar to Tallinn. However, it is just 2 flights away either via England, Germany or through Scandinavian countries. The airport itself is very close to the city centre, you can either take the bus, walk to a tram stop or get a taxi.
The country in general proudly boasts a landscape that is still very wild. This shows especially when travelling from town to town as it is not uncommon to go past thick uninhabited forests that are rich with berries and mushrooms in addition to its various furry inhabitants. Don’t however try to ask a local where their special foraging places are, you may as well be asking for their firstborn. On the flip side, driving around during dusk or dawn is like driving around in a safari park – I have even had a gigantic moose step out on the road so stay vigilant when travelling! Female deer, for some reason, don’t like to run across the road alone. They are always accompanied by either baby deer, adult deer, or a big scary looking moose. It’s like ladies leaving the table – never go alone.
A key conversation point with locals is in regards to singing and especially an event called Laulupidu. This is part of the Baltic song festival and in 2003 was included in the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List, so it is definitely a must-see (during the right season) whether you’re in in Lithuania, Latvia, or Estonia. The music event takes place during the summer where only selectively chosen choirs and orchestras get to perform shoulder to shoulder under a big arch called Lauluväljak to masses both on site and via radio and TV broadcasts. In Kihelkonna the locals have formed their own choir and even created an event called Talvelaulupidu, meaning ‘winter singing party’, and quite often they sing either in traditional garb or in outfits that have been inspired by native clothing.
At the beginning of the 20th century there were 1245 main manors in Estonia so definitely try to find the time to go and see at least one. In Tallinn, a sight to see is the Kadrioru loss aka The Kadriorg Palace which is a Petrine Baroque palace built for Catherine I of Russia by Peter the Great. The palace currently houses the Kadriorg Art Museum, a branch of the Art Museum of Estonia, displaying foreign art from the 16th to the 20th century. If you can’t get enough of the art, type KuMu into your Google Maps and let the instructions take you on an art journey lasting for hours and hours. Community transport in Tallinn is free if you are a resident in the capital. If not, head to any R-Kiosk and get yourself a green travel card that will set you back just €2. There is even one in the airport; drop the card off there once you’re done to receive a refund. You can load money on the card, buy a day ticket, a week’s ticket etc. Basically it is similar to the Oyster card system in London. A tip from a local: aim for the door validator immediately as you board to swipe your card against, and grab a hold of something as soon as you can as the train will just go, weather you are ready or not.
Another place to check out is the location of the most famous ghost story in Estonia. It is the one of Valge Daam which translates to the White Lady and I can promise you that every Estonian has at least heard of her. It has been reported that a female figure appears on the Baptistery’s circular window built into the southern wall of Haapsalu Dome Church during the full moon nights in August and she has been nicknamed by the locals as the White Lady. For centuries this woman has revealed herself on the chapel’s window and the legend goes like this: In the Middle Ages, during the reign of Oesel-Wiek Bishop, every canon was supposed to lead a chaste and virtuous life according to the rules of the monastery. Access of women to the Episcopal Castle was forbidden by threat of death. However it happened so that one canon and an Estonian girl fell madly in love with each other. As the young people could not stay apart, the canon dressed the girl up as a boy and brought her to the castle to sing in the choir. For long it remained a secret, but one day the deception was discovered and the verdict of the Bishop was harsh: the canon was thrown to the castle’s dungeon to starve to death, while the girl was immured alive in the wall of the Baptistery, then under the construction. Lamenting of the poor woman was heard for several days until she finally silenced. Yet her soul could not find the peace and, as a result, she appears on the Baptistery’s window to grieve for her beloved man already for centuries, and also to prove the immortality of love (valgedaam.ee).
Estonia’s cultural stories are enough to warm the hearts of locals and visitors alike, even in cold February (though perhaps not the girl-buried-alive-into-a-wall part). Let’s instead talk about the weather and how the sun decides to rise super late and sets around 3-4pm. Sounds off-putting? Well, it shouldn’t. This northern occurrence creates a beautiful ambience with the occasional aurora borealis, especially in the old town of Tallinn where the cobbled streets are lit with warm-toned lights, houses are banned from deviating too far from their original build with renovations (great for Instagrams, thank you Government), and the inspiration for wine bars, cafes, restaurants and pubs has been gathered from all over the world so you know you are getting high quality food. For example, in Vapiano they cook your food fresh right in front of you with super speed, and whilst you wait for your pasta or salad to be pieced together from pre-measured portions, you can stay entertained by watching the pizza team hand-stretch dough and toss the bases as high in the air as they possibly can. An extra cherry on top is that on every table there are pots of herbs and it’s not frowned upon to pinch some fresh basil leaves or whatever your heart desires to give your dish that little something-something, Gordon Ramsay style. Just make sure they aren’t actual decorations – I have made that mistake before.
If you are looking for normal prices combined with beautiful surroundings and pub grub, head to Villemi Pubi (Villem’s Pub) and try the cheese schnitzel. It is literally a chunk of cheese that has been rolled around in breadcrumbs and egg. Lift it so that it sits on the chips and THEN cut into it. You’re welcome. However, if your taste buds crave for fine dining or just a great glass of wine recommended by highly trained sommeliers, visit Restaurant Lusikas or Restaurant Dominic – the latter has a variety of dining rooms in a building which was first mentioned in the written word in 1374. As the regulations for modifications in the old town are quite strict, prepare yourself to be impressed with how they have merged the new with the old. The restaurant boasts a wine room set to a specific temperature in an addition to a cigar room downstairs. The wine list itself is updated weekly by the in-house sommeliers Imre Uussaar and Aron Rahu in addition to the seasonally adjusted menu. If that hasn’t sold it to you then I don’t know what will.
But why would you venture there in February? Well, for Estonians, the 14th of February started off as ‘Friendship Day’ where appreciation is shown to the people in your life (not necessarily in a romantic way). You can exchange cute notes or cards with your friends or spend the day going somewhere nice for a meal or for an activity. This seed is normally planted in kindergartens and schools, with kids making cards for other kids, taking part in raffles and so on. Some schools also have a red theme during this occasion. Students wear a red heart with a number; people write notes addresses to numbers rather than names and pop it into a box, encouraging children to be kind to one another.
Valentine’s Day as a celebration of couples and their eternal flame tends to come second. This is even reflected in the way the native adverts are worded during that time; for example, some shops have tag lines such as “friendly prices”. Don’t get me wrong, the cafes and restaurants are covered in a trail of pink and red, and shops look like a wayward pixie exploded in glitter, but romance or lack thereof isn’t shoved down one’s throat like in other countries during this time of the year. If you happen to have a sweet tooth, keep an eye out for the local chocolate brand “Kalev” or its Finnish friend “Karlfazer”. Kalev is a big enough brand that they have their own chocolate shops where they sell anything your heart may desire. To Estonians this is like Charlie entering Wonka’s chocolate factory, but more in a Main Street shop sort of way. A treat one must try there is marzipan, which you can have in basically any flavour shape or form that your mind can imagine may it be rum and raisin, in the shape of a cat, race car, carrot… you get where I’m going with this.
Another important day in February is also Vastlapäev, which this year falls on Sunday the 11th of February. The traditional foods are pea soup with smoked meat, hot black tea, and for dessert white buns that have had the top cut off (and set aside), filled generously with whipped cream, topped with the cap and dusted with icing sugar. It is mandatory to go sledging with your friends or family; the old belief is that the longer the ride, the longer the crops will grow for the year. Best to do it on snow, personally I wouldn’t recommend attempting it on black ground (this is what Estonians say when there should be snow but isn’t), but A for effort nevertheless. A lot of Estonians don’t really fast before Easter, but as you can see from the richness of the food we do appreciate a good party! In the capital Tallinn, why not try ice skating? The ice rink on Harju Street Is surrounded by the scenic buildings of the old town and is open from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Just bear in mind that it might be a tad crowded as it is in the city centre and easily accessible by everyone.
But how will you survive the weather? The key to a happy holiday is LAYERS, and plenty of them. This may be common knowledge so I do apologise in advance if I am pointing out the obvious here; however I, as a native Estonian, have made that mistake one too many times myself. The last thing you want to worry about on your holiday is taming a runny nose or nursing a sore throat. Definitely do not put on a big thick coat on its own. Dig out that scarf, warm gloves (opt for the touch-screen friendly ones, you will thank yourself later) and a nice woolly hat and layer up under that winder jacket. The roads will probably icy or just covered with salt so be mindful of that when packing footwear for the trip.
If the capital doesn’t appeal to you, why not venture into the countryside and take a ferry ride to Saaremaa? Estonia has 3G or 4G almost everywhere so you are always connected and English is spoken as a second language so booking bus tickets from Tallinn to Kuressaare can easily done via mobile and then printed out at the bus station (tpilet.ee/en). Just select from where to where and let the website work its magic. The new range of buses have Wi-Fi, more comfortable seats and a range of films and music to kill time with for the duration of the journey (4 hours in total, this is counting the 30 min ferry ride).
The island (and especially its ‘capital’ Kuressaare) has been known for centuries for its spa treatments and the healing powers of mud. Back in the day it was mandatory treatment for patients with a number of ailments, nowadays it is a luxury pampering session that is appreciated equally by both the natives and foreigners alike. There is a variety of spas in the small town of Kuressaare (also the biggest town on the island). In Grand Rose spa there is a wide range of saunas with a variety of temperatures, use of salt, steam, specific types of wood and lights. There are also pools varying in temperature and special buttons that activate underwater massage streams, showers or you can just enjoy a freshly made cocktail on a heated stone bench. The breakfast buffet offers traditional European breakfasts mixed with native dishes and the dining room is set in what looks to be a wine cellar so expect candlelight in the morning! And saving the best for the last: Kuressaare Episcopal Castle is a true gem. The earliest written record mentioning the castle is from the 1380s and throughout time it has had a variety of uses, may it be a hub for proclaiming Christianity, torturing prisoners, hosting concerts… the list goes on.
BY KATI TAMMELEHT