Estonia, the smallest of the three Baltic States, lying sandwiched between Russia and the Baltic Sea, has been, throughout her history, a fertile, if often uncomfortable, meeting ground between East and West. Conquered successively by the Danes and Swedes in the Middle Ages and then subjugated by Imperialist Russia in the early C18th, Estonia, for many centuries, fell prey to the expansionist designs of her neighbours.
Tsarist Imperial Rule ended with the October Revolution in 1917, and in 1918, Estonia, seizing a window of opportunity, declared herself a Republic. However, Independence proved fleeting. In 1940 a Nazi–Soviet alliance heralded further Soviet annexation that endured, but for a brief period of Nazi occupation, until 1991. Estonians having won their sovereignty at last, proceeded to embrace rapid social reform and economic growth. A process marked in 2004 by admittance to the EU. Such being her history, Estonia’s towns now comprise of a dynamic blend of Western Medieval, Eastern Imperialist, and Soviet Russian style and design.
In addition, Estonia is a country of idyllic vistas and rural landscapes. Graced by miles of sandy coastline, festooned with swathes of forest, blessed with acres of fertile peat bogs and refreshed by ribbons of rivers gushing into glittering lakes, Estonia is a haven for those seeking solace and serene surroundings to regenerate and escape the frenetic pace of modern life.
The official language is Estonian. It is related to Finnish and Hungarian and has been influenced by German. Basic English is generally spoken and understood in the capital city, Tallinn, and in the other larger towns and main tourist areas.
The currency is Estonian Kroons. (EKK) A kroon consists of 100 senti.
The exchange rate is approximately EKK15.647 to 1 Euro.
Estonia has a maritime climate that is, as a result of the Gulf Stream, relatively temperate. Summers are usually warm, and spring and autumn tend to be mild. However, winters can be very cold with minus temperatures and last from around November to March. Rain falls all year round with the largest rainfall being in August. Weather can be unpredictable and vary on a weekly basis. There are also variations in climate between inland and coastal areas.
Tallinn, located on the northern coast and the capital of Estonia, contains many of Estonia’s foremost architectural attractions and, being a magnificent mix of medieval and modern, offers much to allure the first-time tourist.
Perhaps the best preserved of its kind in Europe, the Old Town of Tallinn has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Enclosed within historic city walls, charming cobblestones streets wind serenely around medieval market squares, bypassing peaceful courtyards where the clink and clatter of artisans at work, drifts lazily out onto the streets. Of particular note is the Medieval Town Hall with its C14th steeple that governs the skyline. Adjacent is the Town Hall Square, the historical site of public executions.
Nearby is Toompea Castle, situated upon a limestone hilltop in the centre of the Old Town. Once a medieval fortress, it has been rebuilt, modified and extended several times over the course of its history and now provides a home for the Parliament of the Republic of Estonia. The tower behind, Pikk Herman, is the oldest construction in the city.
Behind the Castle is the magnificent Orthodox Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. Built at the turn of the previous century, it is the largest cupola cathedral in Tallinn. Its impressive ornate architectural style, replete with onion domes and a mosaic facade and interior, is a reflection of Russian Revivalism influential in late Imperialist Russia. For many, it is an unwanted symbol of Russian hegemony and it has narrowly escaped designs for its destruction.
If tiring of the Old Town, take a trip to the Kradiorg Palace and Gardens, a couple of kilometres east of the city centre. Northern baroque in design and constructed as a summer residence for Catherine I, wife of Tsar Peter the Great, it now serves as a home to the offices of the President of the Republic. The Great Hall is spectacular and the gardens and parks, a mix of formal and naturalistic landscaping, can be wandered at leisure. The Art Museum of Estonia is also located here.
Also worth visiting is St Olaf’s Church in the Lower Town. Probably built in the C13th, it lays claim to having once being the tallest building in Europe. The spire stands at 124m and the energetic or intrepid with a head for heights may want to attempt to ascend its steep stairwell both for the sense of achievement, and the wonderful view on offer. The tower is open seasonally, so it is advisable to check beforehand.
For a taste of Soviet architecture and aspiration, you could visit The Song Grounds in Kadiorg. Built according to Soviet modernist design principles in 1960, they were later, ironically, the site where 300.000 gathered to sing their protest against Soviet rule.
Equipped with a car you will have the freedom to travel beyond Tallin, to explore Estonia’s beautiful and scenic countryside, speckled as it is with thatched cottages, medieval manors and idyllic beaches.
Parnu, Estonia’s second largest town is a two-hour drive from Tallinn, and is famed for its wonderful beach, mud baths and well–kept parks. Haapsalu possesses a similarly celebrated beach and was once the holiday destination of choice for the Russian royal family. Equally, you could skip across water to enjoy the unspoilt surroundings of one of Estonia’s islands, the largest of which is Saaremaa. Saaremaa is, in addition, a home to one of the few fully preserved medieval castles in the Baltic region.
If the outdoors holds strong appeal, then you would enjoy a visit to one of Estonia’s National Park for relaxation and some wildlife observation. As much as 40% of Estonia is forested and these forests provide a rich and abundant habitat for bears, moose, boars, deer and wolves amongst others. Rich peat bogs in the North provide a fertile breeding ground for a range of flora and fauna, whilst cliffs and lakes add tranquility and drama to the landscape.
For the energetic, or for those with children to amuse, there are plenty of opportunities to satisfy an active appetite. Bike riding and horse riding are popular activities, ubiquitous throughout Estonia. Bathing, canoeing, peat bog walking, and even skiing are equally attractive alternatives. If hoping to rejuvenate and relax, you might consider a stay in one of a numerous number of converted manors that serve as health resorts or spas and which can be found sprinkled throughout the country.
Within Tallinn there is a plentiful array of sites at which to shop and an extensive range of goods on offer. Tallinn is a modern European city and, as such, possesses a number of department stores selling goods and products to suit and satisfy all tastes and needs.
If searching for local artifacts, head to the Old Town where a variety of boutiques, studios and craft markets, displaying artisan and handcrafted goods, are both made and sold amidst charming surroundings. St Catherine’s Passage is a particularly picturesque and popular location where you can purchase a variety of glass, amber, leather and cloth goods at reasonable prices.
For those seeking spirited and lively evening entertainment, the best place to start a search would be in the capital, Tallinn or, alternatively, in Estonia’s second largest city, Tartu, home to a university with a large and animated student population. Both places offer a wide range of cafès, bars and clubs to satiate both energetic and, equally, more mild and moderate tastes.
Live music and dancing are popular amongst Estonians who, having sung their way to independence, seem in no haste to stop now. They are keen clubbers and there are numerous venues, offering a wide range of music styles including, alternative, techno, rock, blues and funk and jazz.
Drive on the right hand side of the road.
To rent a car you must be over the age of 21 years. An extra surcharge may be added for those under the age of 25 years.
Estonia has an extensive network of roads, but few major highways. Additional care should be taken due to poor road illumination, uneven road surfaces, and bad sign posting in many places. Estonian drivers can be more aggressive than in other European countries.
Within city boundaries the speed limit is 30mph/50kph and on highways it is 54mph/90kph. On some major roads the maximum speed limit is 60mph/100kph.
Driving with lights on is mandatory 24 hours a day. Seatbelts must be worn by the driver and the front – seat passenger.
The maximum level of alcohol permitted in blood stream is 0.0mg and penalties can be severe.
Food and Drink
The rapid rate of modernisation, in combination with a recent rising influx of tourists, has led to an increasing demand for, and supply of, good restaurants, offering both international and traditional local cuisines.
Although good food can be found throughout Estonia many of the best restaurants are located within Tallinn. If seeking an adventurous slant upon traditional dishes, you might wish to visit Old Hansa in Tallinn. Here you will find boar, deer, elk, beets, forests mushrooms, and much more, served up within a medieval style setting. Also highly recommended but expensive are Nevskij and Stenus, both located within the capital.
Tallinn Tourist Information Centre. Niguliste 2/ Kullassepa 4, 10146 Tallinn Tel: +372 6457777Fax: +372 6457778Other such information centres exist in all the major towns. www.visitestonia.com