Friday, 23 October 2015

Back to My Roots 2003 - My First Trip to Estonia

I realised some time ago that despite writing this blog for years, I have never written about my first ever trip to Estonia which I did with my family in 2003. It was an absolutely wonderful trip. We spent two weeks travelling around Estonia and created so many lasting memories. We have been back many times since.

One of the first photos I took of Tallinn.

It was never a question of whether my family would return to Estonia but rather one of when. For years we had spoken and dreamed about it, longing to see the homeland we had only known from photographs and stories. Everyone in my family has had a yearning to visit Estonia for as long as I can remember but we were never sure exactly when that momentous day would come. One day in early 2003 I was sitting in a cafe with my father when the topic came up in conversation and before I knew it we were planning a trip to Estonia. We were finally doing it! When I returned home I rang two of my sisters to ask if they wanted to join us and without hesitation they both said "yes!".

Being the natural born organiser that I am, I made all the travel arrangements. Visiting Estonia was part of a much bigger trip. We planned to be away for six weeks in total with the first two weeks spent in Estonia before moving on to France, England, Switzerland and the United States. With an interest in history, my father had always wanted to visit Pearl Harbour and so we did.

When the day finally arrived for us to depart we were all flooded with mixed emotions. It was a mixture of nervous energy, excitement and jubilation, almost surreal that we were finally making our way to Tallinn. Friends and family came to bid us farewell at the airport and we then proceeded to the departure gate with butterflies in our bellies.

The city wall is a key feature of Tallinn's Old Town.

It was a long flight to Tallinn, well over 30 hours. The first leg of the journey was fine, we occupied ourselves by playing cards, watching videos and snacking on treats. After we arrived in Kuala Lumpur the tiredness began to set in and all we wanted to do was have a good sleep. We managed to get a few hours of shut eye here and there but it wasn’t nearly enough to feel rested. From Kuala Lumpur we then flew to Vienna and had to wait several hours in Stockholm for our connecting flight to Tallinn. By that time we were all so extremely tired but had no choice other than to endure it.

New found energy surged through us when we finally reached Tallinn. When the pilot announced our descent into the capital we were all buzzing with excitement and crammed to see out of the window. Although we didn’t know exactly what we were looking at, it was still a beautiful sight. I don’t remember alighting the aircraft or collecting my luggage but I do remember standing there and hearing Estonian spoken all around me for the first time in my life. The beautiful melodic sound of the Estonian language was familiar to me even though I could only understand a handful of words. As I stood there waiting at passport control, the thought that struck me and made me smile from ear to ear was “I’m finally here, finally among my own people.” It was such a wonderful feeling!

I found us the perfect accommodation in Tallinn - the Old House Apartments.  It met our needs perfectly. When we checked in we were greeted warmly by a lovely lady, Luule Metsik who lived in Tartu but worked in Tallinn during the week. She was very helpful and provided us with our first maps. Everyone loved the apartment, it was in a great location, only a few metres walk from the Viru gate in the heart of the Old Town. The apartment was very modern with a large living area, fully equipped kitchen and a big iron gate outside for security. My father was impressed with the amenities, not to mention the floor heating.

The first three days of our Estonian tour was spent in Tallinn.  We did all the usual touristy things such as explore the Old Town extensively by foot, weaving in and out of cute little passageways along the cobbled streets. We were enchanted by the beauty of Tallinn which surpassed all our expectations. We loved St. Catherine’s Passage containing the old relics, the master craftsmen’s workshops and the Estonian history timeline engraved in stone. All these things fascinated us greatly and every time we saw a plaque attached to a building we always stopped to read it, eager to learn that little bit more. Even in Uus Street where we stayed there was a sign on a wall of a house stating that the Russian writer Dostoyevsky once stayed there whilst visiting his brother in the 1800s. 

We couldn’t believe how cheap everything was in Estonia. The exchange rate was most favourable; one Australian dollar gave us roughly nine Estonian kroons. There were numerous times when we went out for dinner and it cost us less than $10 each and that was including drinks! I think the cheapest meal we had in Estonia was in an Italian restaurant in Pärnu. The bill came to 60 kroons each, roughly equating to $6 or $7/each - simply amazing!

The Open Air Museum is a must to visit.

My father was a bit shy speaking Estonian at first. Perhaps he was afraid of making a mistake or detected that the language had somehow evolved. After all, the Estonian my father speaks is that which his parents spoke during the 1930s when they lived in Tallinn. No doubt the language would have changed over time. It was during our second day in Tallinn that I heard my father first converse in Estonian. While we were walking down the street we were once again approached by a beggar. The man appeared to be in his late fifties, wearing a flat cap and I think he mistook us for dumb tourists. He came up to us and spoke in English, asking for money, claiming he hadn’t slept in five days. My father being the common sense man that he is who detests nonsense, said to him in perfect Estonian. “Well, if you haven’t slept for five days what are you doing out here in the street begging? You should go and get yourself some rest.” The man looked absolutely flabbergasted that my father spoke back to him in Estonian. The astonishment was visible on his face.  He obviously didn’t see that coming. After the man tottered off we all had a giggle. My father was much more at ease speaking Estonian after that.

After our initial three nights in Tallinn that was when our adventure really began. We hired a large eight seater Ford van and hit the road. Getting out of Tallinn proved to be a bit tricky, we weren’t familiar with the road rules and there were tram lines everywhere but we managed. Kolga Manor was the first place we stopped at and although it was in a dilapidated state, it had its charm. We had a really nice soup and ate pancakes there and were surprised at how much one of the waitresses resembled my sister Roma. It was uncanny.  

Kolga Manor.

We experienced a wonderful sense of freedom travelling around Estonia with a basic itinerary, leisurely stopping at places that sparked our curiosity. We stopped at Rakvere and the 15th century castle in Toolse.  We all thought Käsmu was a lovely place with its charming houses and spacious gardens that were set back from the street. Estonians definitely like their privacy and it shows with how they build their homes.  

Rakvere Castle ruins

Narva was a little bit different from what we expected but we appreciated it for what it was. It was once considered to be one of the most beautiful towns in Northern Europe built in the baroque style, but that was all destroyed during the war. The Pühtitsa Convent in Kuremäe was an absolutely lovely place. I’m so glad we took the advice of the travel guidebook and went there. The convent was established in 1891, originally built as an Orthodox monastery then later became a convent. Pühtitsa Convent is now the only functioning nunnery in Estonia with approximately 150 nuns in residence. There are six churches on the grounds dedicated to Orthodox Christian Saints and all the buildings are immaculately maintained. I was very impressed with the convent’s stunning architecture and beautifully manicured gardens. It almost made me wish I could live there myself! 

Pühtitsa Convent

This is how Estonians stack firewood!

Visiting Tartu was of course one of the highlights of our trip as that was where my grandmother was born. We stopped at Jõgeva on the way and flicked through the local telephone book and were pleased to discover a few Lestals listed there. It’s highly probable they are distant relatives.   It did feel a bit surreal being in Tartu for the first time. We’ve always heard stories about Tartu from my grandmother but to actually be there in the flesh was quite amazing. Even though my grandmother had passed away many years ago, we felt quite connected to her in Tartu. It was her birthplace, where she grew up, and so very far away from Australia. She had led a completely different life in Tartu back then.

In Tartu we stayed at the serviced apartments owned by the Wilde Pub which are adjacent to the main building. When we arrived we met with the manager who was a cheerful man with a moustache and glasses.  He tried speaking to my father in English but got stuck several times. After a while my father got a bit impatient and ended up finishing his sentence for him in Estonian. The manager then let out a huge grin and exclaimed “A-ha! You can speak Estonian!” He was very pleased. After that he chatted away with my father in Estonian and was very impressed that he had come all the way from Australia with his three daughters to visit the homeland. He thought it was simply wonderful. So did we!  He then showed us to our apartments that were lovely and modern.  We rented two apartments next door to each other and were some of the first people to use them after the recent renovation.

Famous statue: Kissing Students.

We all loved Tartu; we thought it was an absolutely charming place. The city had quite a collegial feel to it much like Oxford and Cambridge in England.  As it is a university town, there were lots of trendy bars and eateries, thus creating a very relaxed and pleasant atmosphere. We did what we always do when we visit a new place for the first time, travel by foot and explore the area. We had taken quite a few photographs by this stage and were eager to see how they turned out. We found a photo lab in one of the side streets and placed all our film canisters on the counter for processing. We had quite a few of them too! I think by the end of the trip I had shot between 12-15 rolls of film.

There are many must-see places in Tartu. The Estonian National Museum of course is one. We were completely transfixed by some of the exhibits we found there. The museum had an outstanding collection of Estonian artefacts, particularly relating to national costume, handicrafts and farming. We spent hours wandering through the museum and could have easily stayed there longer. Next time I definitely will.

One of our favourite places in Tartu was undoubtedly the Gunpowder Cellar. We enjoyed it so much that we went there several times. It was exactly our type of place – large and inviting with a buzzing atmosphere and live music. It was everything you needed for a fun night out. The Gunpowder Cellar was a former fort built into the side of a hill during the 18th century, later used to store gunpowder and then beer.  Today it’s a popular two-tiered restaurant decked out with a wooden interior and soft lighting. It also features in the Guinness Book of Records for having the highest pub ceiling in the world, measuring 11 metres.     

Wilde Pub dedicated to writers Oscar Wilde & Eduard Vilde.

Researching our family history was always on the agenda in Tartu. We wanted to learn more about my grandmother’s early life in Estonia, particularly details about her father. Unfortunately we could not find any trace of him but we did discover a family secret. We visited one office, I’m not sure exactly which one, but we did meet a very helpful archivist. As we sat in her office, she went to retrieve the parish book containing my grandmother’s birth entry that was stored underground in the vault. She returned with a large heavy book and we saw with our own eyes the handwritten entry recording my grandmother’s birth in 1914. It was an emotional moment for us. The book also mentioned another child, Karl Ferdinand who was apparently my grandmother’s brother. He was born in 1895 and died 9 weeks later.  This was a startling revelation for us as my grandmother never mentioned a brother! Not once! 

We spoke with many people in different museums asking their advice regarding family history matters. I remember being inside one building, in some kind of music room and the two ladies there aged in their sixties loved how my father spoke Estonian. One woman said “I remember when people used to speak like that!” It brought back memories for her. They remarked that my father sounded almost “Shakespearian” due to the formal old fashioned words he used.  They thought it was wonderful! I’m glad my father was able to brighten their day but unfortunately we didn’t find any other useful family history leads.

During our stay in Tartu we made a number of day trips to nearby regions. Setumaa was a place of great curiosity for us, it’s basically a culture within a culture, renowned for its unique language and customs. It was very quiet when we arrived there and we didn’t actually meet anyone however, some local village children waved to us as we drove by. That was nice. We visited Obinitsa, the cultural centre of the Setu people and took photographs with the “Song Mother” statue which stood on the bank overlooking the lake. We very much enjoyed the tranquillity of the area, it was almost as if time stood still.

Charming old building. The leaning art museum.

Otepää was somewhat different from the other regions of Estonia we had seen until then. It felt more traditional with its cute wooden houses and apparent absence of concrete Soviet style buildings. Most of Estonia is flat but its south-eastern region has gentle rolling hills somewhat reminiscent of the English countryside.  Otepää is renowned for many things, mainly for being the birthplace of the Estonian national flag, home to Europe’s oldest firearm which dates from the 1300s and it’s the winter capital of Estonia. I took a lovely portrait of my family in Otepää in front of the Pühajärv Lake. It has pride of place on my wall today.

It was easy to fall in love with Estonia. Unlike other developed countries Estonia is quite sparsely populated which means nature is ever present. There is a certain wildness about the Estonian countryside, even when you’re on cultivated land, because the forests, marshes, bogs and coast are never far away.  Estonia is absolutely teeming with wildlife and it was a wonderful sight to see wild animals thriving in their natural habitat. We took particular delight in seeing the many storks perched high in their nests above the telegraph poles. We’ve never seen anything like that in Australia. It was beautiful. One thing we came to realise is that the rhythm of life in the Estonian countryside is very much in sync with nature. This had a very calming and tranquilising effect on us, filling us with inner contentment.

From Otepää our adventure continued. We travelled past Puhja and around Võrtsjärv then stopped at Viljandi before heading down south into Valga, sometimes driving across unsealed roads. We discovered that Valga is a border town, two thirds of which is in Estonia and the other third in Latvia. The Latvian spelling for Valga is “Valka”. It wasn’t part of our original plan to drive into Latvia but since we were in the vicinity, we thought why not? The night prior, we hired a family room in a hotel that was located near the border. The hotel was part of some kind of dirt bike park and I remember all the beds in the room were rather small. My sister Sarah wasn’t pleased that she was designated to sleep in the smallest bed but considering she was the youngest and with a height of only five foot two, it was only logical. We had a good chuckle about her bed and even years afterwards, always referring to it as ‘the Noddy bed’ (with reference to the cartoon character) because it was so tiny!

After crossing the top of northern Latvia, we finally reached the Baltic coast and turned right, passing through Salacgrīva and Ainaži before re-entering Estonia.  Our next stop was Pärnu. We naturally had to go and explore Estonia’s summer capital! We were very impressed with Pärnu for a number of reasons but mainly because we found the city quite charming and unique. One thing we noticed almost immediately upon arriving was that the vast majority of homes proudly display the Estonian flag. We have seen this elsewhere in Estonia of course, but not to the same extent. In Pärnu it appeared to be more prevalent, perhaps because we drove through more residential areas where houses were closer together.  Out of all the places we visited, Pärnu felt the most “Scandinavian” and we later learned that the town is a favourite destination of Swedish and Finnish holidaymakers.  We loved walking around the area and noticed that every house seemed to have an apple tree in the garden and at least one cat.  I guess householders have the choice between cats or mice and cats are definitely the better alternative.  We also visited the famous Pärnu Mud Baths and had a massage.

Kuressaare, Saaremaa

From Pärnu we proceeded to the islands, having to wait an hour and a half at the tiny port of Virtsu before taking the ferry to Muhu.  We were astonished to discover that the ticket cost the equivalent of $6, for five people and a minibus – even cheaper than the Manly Ferry in Sydney.  No ferry was necessary when crossing from Muhu to Saaremaa as there is a road linking the two islands. We stayed two days in Saaremaa’s largest town Kuuressaare where we visited a mediaeval castle and had lunch in a disused windmill which had been converted into a restaurant.  Before leaving we made sure to pack several bottles of the famous Saaremaa vodka.  


After our trip to the islands we made our way back to Tallinn to spend a few more days in the capital before our trip came to an end. 

During our final night in Tallinn we decided to make a real event of it and booked a table at the elegant and upmarket Gloria restaurant.  We had a really enjoyable night and sat in a plush booth which was partitioned with a red velvet curtain.  My father was very generous and paid for the entire meal for all five of us. He insisted we enjoy every course and not worry about the bill.  Drinks were constantly brought to us and my little sister Sarah probably indulged a bit too much as she ended up the worst for wear.  Once the champagne had gone to her head she became quite giggly and very funny which put all of us in a similar mood.  On our way back to the apartment, I remember us walking down the street all laughing happily after a very enjoyable night out. Once we were back in our apartment Sarah managed to slide off her bed and landed with a thud on the floor which had all of us in a hysterical fit of laughter.  It was a very enjoyable end to a magnificent trip.  

Visiting Estonia in 2003 is one of the highlights of my life and that of my family’s.  We returned again in 2005 minus my two sisters and saw some areas of the north coast which we hadn’t seen the first time.  I have visited Estonia many times since and feel more and more connected to the country each time I go.