Friday, 15 March 2013

Estonia - A Cold Place with a Warm Heart

This is an article I wrote for a magazine recently.

Tucked away in Northern Europe is a country that has really come to life during the past twenty years. Since restoring its independence in 1991 Estonia has emerged as one of the world’s most dynamic and modern free market economies. Estonia’s innovative and efficient government has become a shining example to the world of how a government ought to function.  Its pragmatic approach has enabled important legislative changes to take place without all the unnecessary red tape and bureaucracy. The results speak for themselves. Estonia’s economy has markedly outperformed those in all of the other ex-Soviet countries and in 2011 Estonia achieved more economic growth (8%) than any other country in the European Union, coming ahead of economic giants Germany, France and the UK.

     Gone are the days when Estonia was a little known isolated country which people had barely heard of and struggled to locate on a map. Today Estonia is a rising star, a country known for its vision, tech savvy citizens and abundance of natural beauty.  Estonia has one of the highest per capita use of mobile phones in the world which explains why there are no longer any public phone booths in Estonia. They don’t need them. Most people do their banking, voting and even pay for their parking online as Wi-Fi is available in every corner of the country.

     Estonia’s countryside has an enchanting gentleness about it which you fall in love with slowly and imperceptibly.  Two thirds of Estonia is covered in forest, it has over 1500 islands and also boasts a 3,794km long coastline.  In summer it’s quite possible to have an entire beach to yourself.  Winter brings the opportunity to travel across Estonia’s ice roads, an interesting, quick and cheap way to get across to the islands. There are six official ice roads in Estonia connecting the mainland to the islands of Hiiumaa, Vormsi, Muhu and Kihnu across the Baltic Sea. There is also an ice road linking the islands of Saaremaa and Hiiumaa.  The longest ice road in Europe links Hiiumaa to the mainland and is some 26.5km long. 

     The tourist stream to Estonia has steadily increased in recent years and people are curious to discover what is so great about this country, the birth place of Skype. When I first visited Estonia in 2003 tourist buses didn’t exist but when I returned in 2006 they had become ubiquitous. Word had obviously spread that Estonia is definitely a place worth visiting.

     Most visitors never get to see the true beauty that is Estonia; they fly in or come over by ferry and spend a few days taking in the sights of Tallinn, rarely venturing out of the capital. Of course visiting Tallinn’s Old Town is a must; the 13th century gothic architecture is UNESCO heritage listed and quite spectacular. If you take the short walk up to Toompea Hill you’ll also discover the stunning Alexander Nevsky Cathedral which is believed to be the final resting place of Estonian folk hero Kalev.

     The best way to discover Tallinn is by foot. Walking along the cobbled streets, weaving in and out of passageways you’ll find a treasure trove of historic sites.  St. Catherine’s Passage in particular is very interesting. Here you will find what’s left of St. Catherine’s Church and the ancient tombstones which used to line the inside of the sanctuary. Also located here is an Estonian timeline carved onto a long row of stones on the pavement. It’s a great history lesson for anyone wanting to know more about Estonia’s past. It mentions when the Reformation reached Estonia, the country’s early Christianisation and gives the date of the first known book written in the Estonian language. That was in 1525 by the way – a bible.

     It’s also likely you’ll encounter a few interesting characters while in Tallinn. Apart from the flame throwers and people dressed up in medieval costume in the Old Town, I once came across a rather cheeky young Russian beggar who wouldn’t let up until I gave him some money. As I walked along Uus Street looking for the house once occupied by Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky in 1849, the young Russian approached me. He appeared a little drunk which might explain why he was so persistent. He followed me down the street, not sure where I was from and rattled off a list of different currencies in the hope to snag one. He made me laugh each time he asked for ‘please, one Euro’, ‘one Pound’, ‘one Kroon’, ‘one dollar’ etc.  I laughed even more when he launched into the Asian currencies, being the white European that I am. He was very entertaining and didn’t look poor to me at all, more likely he had just run out of beer money. I told him he should probably go home and sober up. I’m not sure if he took my advice.

     The only way to truly experience the immense beauty of Estonia is to hire a vehicle and travel around the country for several weeks at a time. I did this during my first visit to the country and it was well worth it. The thrill of hitting the road and venturing into one of Europe’s last wildernesses brings you many unexpected surprises. Estonia is full of impressive old manor houses once owned by the ruling German elite, forests full of edible wild mushrooms and berries and castle ruins lining the coast.  Although rare, you might just be lucky enough to spot the European brown bear in its natural habitat. 

     Estonia consists of fifteen counties, each unique in their own way but there is one community that sets itself apart from all the others.  This region is Setomaa, a portion of Estonia’s southernmost county Võrumaa.  The Seto people actually comprise a culture within a culture. They have their own language which is very similar to Estonian but different enough to be considered a separate language.  There are approximately 12,500 Setos who live in closed cluster villages and have very little contact with foreigners.

     Setomaa is not one of those places you visit by accident; it’s one of the least accessible parts of Estonia with only one or two roads which lead there. Since most Seto people don’t come into contact with foreigners often, you must be mindful not to be disrespectful and launch straight into English when wanting to communicate with someone. Whilst many Estonians in Tallinn can speak English, there’s little use for it in Setomaa. At best people might be able to communicate with you in Russian, perhaps German as those are the only other languages they have been exposed to.  When I last visited Setomaa my communication skills were put to the test when I ate at a little café near a petrol station.  I quickly realised there was no common language between me and the cashier so I had to rely on what little Estonian and Russian I knew as well use a lot of sign and body language to place my order.  Setos like other Estonians are very polite and helpful people and always appreciate your effort to engage with them in their language.

     The festival season is a major highlight on every Seto’s calendar. Singing in particular is a big part of their culture and is used to keep their traditions and identity alive in the younger generations. The Setos have a very unique style of singing known as “Leelo” where a soloist sings a verse which is then repeated polyphonically by the entire choir.  The most revered of all the singers are the Seto “song mothers” who have learned many thousands of verses.  They are the most important keepers of the Setos’ traditions.  In 1986 a statue was unveiled, honouring the memories of some of the earlier song mothers and many singing gatherings take place around the statue. 

     The Estonian national costume varies between regions but in Setomaa it is particularly distinct.  The women wear very large and decorative headdresses and large silver breast plates around their necks.  Traditionally festive costumes were often handed down from generation to generation and depending upon whether you are married, single, or widowed would determine how you wear certain garments. A girl for example, would never wear an apron or cover her head in summer or partly even in winter, she would use only a ribbon or garland to decorate her hair. A married woman on the other hand, had to cover her hair and wear an apron. It was believed that an apronless woman of the farm would damage the fertility of the fields. A pregnant girl also had to wear an apron.

     National pride is strong in Estonia. After centuries of foreign occupation and repression it was the Estonians’ relentless desire to preserve their language and culture that saw them through their dark past. Estonians are resilient people and If you call an Estonian stubborn it will always be taken a as compliment.  Although it’s engrained in the Estonian psyche to be wary of strangers and they may initially appear reserved, once they get to know you, you’ll discover they are an immensely warm, helpful and sincere people.

     Estonia is a cold place with a warm heart and once you experience it for yourself you’ll probably want to go back. There is no better time to visit Estonia than now. 2013 marks the 95th birthday of the Estonian nation and celebrations will take place throughout the year. There is no doubt that this year you will see Estonia at its best.