Motorhome News from Estonia
Sunday 20th May 2012
I was just four years old at the outbreak of WWII. My memories of those years are somewhat vague after all that time; the fearful whine of sirens, school lessons in dark underground shelters, the drone of German aircraft overhead, the bombed out house with the lampshade on top as I walked to school, watching the VI 'buzz-bomb' gliding past the front door, our Anderson shelter, shrapnel through the front-room window, evacuation to Birmingham when the V2's started to fall around London and the VE Day street party by the local concrete-shelter. But World War II didn't end there for some.
The Red Army returned to Estonia in September 1944 forcing Germany's Nazi troops to surrender, leaving the country under the dark cloud of Soviet domination once again. In the ten years that followed, 20,000 Estonians were arrested by the Russian authorities, sent to prison camps or deported to Siberia. Independence did not finally come until the collapse of the USSR in 1991 and Estonians have since seen rapid change to a democratic society with a bright future within NATO and the EU. We
were to meet many friendly, reserved, but smiling Estonians in our two weeks of travel around this now pleasantly peaceful country.
There are often quite subtle changes evident as we cross new borders. Estonia's shallow landscape touches on the bucolic; broad meadows draped in primrose yellow cowslips, the delicate green lace of birch and willow on the horizon, a veil of trees surrounding every field, fresh green grass and finely tilled rich soil showing subtle signs of summer crops. Spring has followed us from the south; daffodils and tulips are still in flower, the yellow tips of willow are just beginning to show and Tortoishell and Camberwell Beauty butterflies flit before us on our fenland walks. Our bird list grows by the day, but there are still a few missing, the black woodpecker for starters; a close-up view of this spectacular, crow-sized bird has always eluded me.
Our birding passion led us first into the lovely Soomaa National Park where we found the Visitor Centre open. Those in Lithuania and Latvia were all closed. Loaded with useful information from a charming young lady, all in English, we set off for two moderate but satisfying
hikes. They're doing a good job for tourism here in Estonia, with well-marked and well-maintained trails. Our first was the incredible three mile boardwalk of the Riisa Bog trail, listening to the sounds of an untouched landscape of stunted pine and birch, a sapphire sky mirrored on dark peaty water ruffled by the breeze, mosses, grasses, lichens and heather, swallows sweeping above our heads and the lilting song of wood larks dropping from the sky. Fantastic!
Estonia has a long Baltic coastline, the south-western fringe providing the most likely warmth one might associate with summer seaside holidays for discerning town-dwellers. Parnu, it is said, is Estonia's premier seaside resort. The motorhoming Finns know all about such things and Parnu is a convenient stopover on the way south to check out the sun, sand and cheap booze. There were five Finnish motorhomes parked up in the campsite when we arrived. They were the only other motorhomes we were to see for the next week. This being May, the holiday season is still way-off and sadly we were rather too early to experience much of the ambience of the town. The few people about would not pay for the
candles on the tables in the chic bars and restaurants in the town centre or the petrol for the mowers in the tree-lined parks and gardens leading to the beach. But we're here for the culture, the birds and the wild-life - not the night-life.
A message received on our last blog, from Poland, introduced us to Hans-Erik, a friend of Epp, our Estonian friend back home. It always pays to have friends. Friends and friends of friends keep popping up on our journeys and one day we are going to find a way of repaying them all. Hans-Erik generously volunteered to show us around the north of Estonia. Hans, as he is now known to us, met us by the ferry out to the islands of Muhu and Saaremaa on Estonia's west coast and took us on a brief introductory tour. Prior to our meeting we checked out the ferry timetables to discover that 'motorhome' translates to 'cottage in the car.' That I like.
Saaremaa is some 55 miles across, jutting out into the Baltic across from Sweden. The island rises a little above sea level here and there, its shallow meadows, forests
and topsoil clinging on to a rocky limestone base. Like many islands it attracts discerning holidaymakers seeking peace and tranquillity, remote beaches and ends of dusty tracks leading nowhere in particular. We love islands. This one will be remembered for its moss-draped dry-stone walls, scattered communities of wood-lap cottages, woodlands and meadows awash with blue hepatica, white wood anemones, yellow cowslips, rivers of bright marsh marigolds in the roadside ditches and delightful thirteenth century churches. I signed the visitor's book in the church at Karja when we arrived late in the afternoon. Two Australians had been there that morning, the only other visitors that day. Their entry read; 9.05. Bruce and Sheila, Australia. I signed; 16.30 David and Janice, England. It was the 9th of May. My second faux-pas of the day.
The first faux-pas started at the patisserie counter in the local supermarket earlier in the day. It was only really discovered at morning coffee time when we stopped to share our 'jam' doughnut, salivating at the very thought of sugar and raspberry jam. But the jam turned out to be meat of some kind! We kept it for lunch. It was fine, smothered in ketchup.
We're slow learners sometimes. Only last week in Latvia we bought a couple of rolls for breakfast - only to later discover they were baked pre-filled with onion. Not good with marmalade.
Kuressaare, Saaremaa's major town, was celebrating its 449th Birthday. 'Eh?' as they might say in Canada. We celebrated with a walk around the imposing Bishop's Castle and a visit to the Saaremaa peninsula to see the migrating eider, scoter, goosanders, white-tailed eagles, Caspian terns - and many thousands of long-tailed duck, a speciality of a dear friend and Bill Oddie look-alike in Washington State, USA. No intention of making you at all envious, Ralphe.
Woodpeckers don't live out at sea as any self-respecting nature lover will tell you, but a little birdie told us we might find one or two in the Viidumae National Reserve.
"Where might we chance to find Black woodpeckers?" I asked at the Park Centre.
"I see one from right here at my desk most days," the young man replied, swivelling his chair around and tilting his head towards the window.
Janice was sitting waiting for me with a cup of good Yorkshire tea at
a picnic table when I returned to the motorhome, when one flew overhead! Sometimes we get that lucky. Within an hour we also found a lesser spotted woodpecker, but our 5am walk the next morning, so full of expectation, bore little to excite us more than fresh wild boar droppings on the footpath, elk (moose) poo like piles of hay-coloured marbles, and the shiny black droppings of roe deer. We did clock a red squirrel right outside the motorhome. By three in the afternoon were dropping off to sleep. These 5am walks are getting to be a habit.
Seen from the dusty gravel roads away from the highway, Saaremaa's farms, large and small, host a few sheep and cows on grassy meadows, cottages the colour of Dijon mustard (my apologies to Coleman's mustard - your turn comes when we eventually spy a citrine wagtail, the next bird on our wish-list) stand lost in a sea of green fields, there are patches of juniper on the marsh at this latitude, and tiny islands float offshore on a benign sea, the shallow limestone shore reflected in the surrounding landscape. Can life get any better?
morning ferry arrived back on the mainland within half-an-hour and we were soon back on empty roads. It's not that there are no cars in Estonia. It's just that they don't go where we go. The cars are all in the towns and cities but even there, outside of rush-hour, the roads are indeed quiet. There are many top-end cars, expensive boats in the harbours, swish up-market shops in the cities, old properties are being renovated and new houses built, evidence that some Estonians are doing rather well since the country was released from the shackles of the USSR.
The shallow Matsula Bay attracts millions of birds on passage in both spring and autumn. Large flocks of barnacle geese were feeding on the meadows, yellow wagtails, a none too common sight at home, scurried around on the marshes and a thrush nightingale serenaded us from the willows there, making our visit worthwhile. We camped overnight at Haapsalu, giving us the opportunity to check out the Bishop's Castle ruin and the amazingly ornate Railway Station with a 216m long platform, built especially for a visit by Tsar Nicholas II and his entourage in 1904.
The bird hide at Cape Poosaspea
Complete with stove and leather sofa!
rain and dense sea-mist cleared by lunchtime giving us good views out to sea at the wild and windy Poosaspea Cape to the north. Strange, isn't it - we have a passion for the end of the road – explorer that's it. There's a bird-hide at the end of this road like no other, with black leather sofas, kindling and neatly stacked firewood ready for the stove! The birders up here might have to be tough to stare out to sea in the ravages of winter, but they sure like their comfort. Yellow wagtails darted between the rocks on the shore and out at sea a magnificent black-throated diver and thousands of long-tailed ducks - where do they all come from and where are they going? We'll never fully understand migration.
Set amidst the tranquil forest at Klooga stands a simple granite monument; a memorial to Jews shot there in the woods by Nazi soldiers during the war. Janice came by my side as we stood a while in quiet contemplation, saddened by images of the thoughtless suffering, man upon man, and those left behind.
Later that week we were to visit yet another
site to the east of Tallinn, ‘The Kalevi-Liiva Memorial’, where 6,000 Jews from Czechoslovakia, Poland and Germany were killed, as well as many Estonia Roma people. 'This was not war,' Hans said, his eyes lowered to the ground, shaking his head. I guess he meant it was murder. "There were also many important people from Estonia killed nearby, by the Russians, in later years," he added. Hans is old enough to remember Estonia during those traumatic times and he too, has memories of VI and V2 bombing. He was at school a few miles from this spot when he was eleven.
Hans and Alvina entertained us at their modest apartment while Hans drew maps and talked of places we should visit while in Estonia. Alvina served Earl Grey tea in fine china cups, salmon quiche and strawberry pavlova - all very English in our honour and certainly fit for an English queen - and a king! It was Mother's Day on Sunday and the room was bedecked with vases of red tulips. Hans is a generous man. He is a little older than me and would admit to being a tiny bit overweight. He walks with small
Lively Town Hall Square
steps, his feet perceptively pointing out as if to move with the swell of the sea like a Shetlander on shore. Alvina wipes his perspiring brow as he searches for the right word in English. It's hard for Hans. He speaks four languages fluently, none of them English and he so wants to talk with us. "I have not spoken English before," he told us. "But I can read it." We cope, with the occasional quizzical look across the table. Hans removes his glasses, pointing with the end to find words in his schoolboy Estonian-to-English dictionary. His state-of-the-art electronic, eight language translator, seems of little help. They say Estonian is rather like Finnish; you say it as you see it and you can be understood. This, incidentally is the country where Skype was invented and IT is a predominant industry here.
Hans took us by car into Tallinn Old Town after leaving our motorhome at a campsite on the quay where the sailing events took place in the 1980 Moscow Olympics. Together we gazed over the city from the look-out at Toompea Hill and climbed the steps up to Alexander Nevsky Orthodox Cathedral and the contrasting Lutheran
Cathedral of St Mary the Virgin. But for me, the real beauty of Tallinn becomes clear from the dizzy heights of the TV tower to the east of the city. In one direction the Baltic Sea and in the other the city's vast parks and forests like a green veil encompassing its people.
The Old Town has been resurrected from the ashes after the last war, its beautifully restored medieval gabled buildings in shades of pastel, its multitude of squares, quaint souvenir shops, street cafes and fine restaurants, courtyards and narrow cobbled alleys, church spires and medieval towers; all designed with the rattling of money in the tourist's pocket in mind. The consumables are all in the New Town Malls in the midst of glistening office towers beyond the fortress walls - for Tallinn is a delightful mixture of old and new, vibrant and young.
Worth mentioning is the brand-new Sea Plane Harbour Museum, housed in an impressive building a short walk from the centre of town. The highlight is a British Vickers Armstrong submarine, built 1938 in Barrow in Furness for Estonia and their Secret Pact partners, Finland. I had never been aboard
a submarine before and it was far less claustrophobic than I had previously imagined - though I skipped out before the hooter went and the 'Dive, Dive, Dive' call came!
We were three whole days in Tallinn and enjoyed every moment in glorious sunshine. Yagodago!
In an effort to repay some of the kindness shown to us, our parting from Hans and Alvina was marked with a farewell lunch served in the motorhome, close to the beach. They told us of their plans to travel south for a few days to stay at a 'sanatorium' or Spa as we know it, a popular pastime here in the Baltics. That involves sitting around and we're not very good at that. I have been heard to say, 'We don't have time to sit around, Janice. We're on holiday."
Hans does not like farewells. His right foot was hard on the accelerator as they left. We were all reluctant to say goodbye. Perhaps we'll meet again one day.
Those geology buffs amongst you would appreciate our campsite on the Kasmu Peninsula for its dramatic string of erratic boulders along the shore, stretching out
'Dive, dive, dive!'
Janice on board the British Submarine
to a distant island. The birders would die for the sight of hundreds of goldeneye, the dozens of handsome goosanders and even more long-tailed ducks bobbing up-and-down on the waves! A short drive along the road brought us to the small fishing village of Altja, a strand of thatched cottages along the reed-fringed rocky shoreline. "This is idyllic," Janice was heard to remark. This was to be our final glimpse of the birds of the Baltic coast before turning south - and back to Poland. At least, that was the plan - until lunchtime when we stopped off at Rakvere during a brief thunderstorm to ogle at a huge statue of a black bull more in keeping on a Spanish highway, and the remnants of the impressive castle, currently undergoing renovation with the help of funds from the EU.
Our onward route was the subject of discussion over lunch whilst we waited for the storm to pass. Narva, further east on the Russian border, had been dismissed as a destination, primarily as time was becoming the enemy with much to do before our return to Poland. And it's in the wrong direction as you've doubtless gathered.
'This is idyllic.'
"Do you fancy going to Narva?" Janice asked, looking down at the cheese sandwich in her hand. "We could make the time."
So it was that we eventually arrived at our pitch for the night - in Narva. The highway road-signs announced, Peterburi, 120km - 72 miles to St Petersburg.
The tourist brochure talks about Narva Castle in glowing terms, but it omits to mention the other one on the Russian side; the huge stone battlements of the Ivangorod Fortress just across the Narva River bridge. Narva, and the Narva River it appears, have been the butt of invaders from all quarters over the years. Russian forces eventually broke through German lines here in 1944 and the town was flattened, but they are slowly rebuilding the few remnants of the Old Town, the Town Hall amongst others, amidst the Legoland legacy of Soviet housing blocks and Russian road-signs. That's about as close as we'll get to Russia for the moment other than to drive the four-mile length of Narva-Joesuu's sandy beach beyond the river's mouth, a popular resort for weary flat-dwellers. It's on record that 96% of Narva's population is Russian and one cannot help but
wonder whether they see themselves as Estonian or Russian since Independence in '91. Twenty-one years on there is a new generation of Russians on Narva's streets, feeling their way into the West, but it's clear there is no love lost between Estonians and Russians and the next few years will have to be trodden on egg-shells. We'll happily leave St Petersburg for another time; it was discussed, but the 'tourist' ferry journey is too complicated and the alternative of train or bus requires a visa.
Time then to turn south and retrace our steps back through Latvia and Lithuania into Poland. En route we'll visit The Puhtitsa Convent and the city of Tartu before finally leaving Estonia.
There is a tranquil air amongst the pristine gardens and pretty churches in the grounds of the Puhtitsa Russian Orthodox Convent; a hundred nuns peacefully living under the multitude of copper-clad onion domes, hand-in-hand with massed silver crosses glinting in the sunlight under the trees in the tiny graveyard where those who have made it to another life are laid to rest. Yet another little bit of Russia on Estonian soil.
A few miles
on, past smoking fish racks in lakeshore 'Old Believer' villages, we were on the sandy shores of Lake Peipsi, some 100miles from top to bottom, divided down the middle by the border between Estonia and Russia. Gazing out through pines and dunes across the water to the horizon it is easy to imagine the lust for adventure that stirred Christopher Columbus as he sailed away in search of the other side!
Suddenly spring has sprung here in Estonia. Trees are now flushed with fresh green leaves, garden lawns are humming with mowers and green fingers are at work on the flower borders. This could well be May in England.
Tartu, where we were to stay for two nights is Estonia's second city; renowned for its University. It was early on Sunday morning when we arrived and the streets were just coming to life; a few tourists, students jogging in the parks and reading on shady benches. The University dominates Tatru, its stunning Main Building marking the city's importance in the education of its people. The town’s Neo-classical Town Hall stands at the top of a cobbled square with a gorgeous fountained statue; 'The Kissing
Students' at its heart. There are many fine buildings in and around Tartu, but the money to raise it to the level of Tallinn is not yet to hand and there is much work to be done to restore this lovely city to the level that would attract the tourist. For now, Tartu has a quiet ambience, livened no doubt by the presence of students, with a delightful 'small town' feel. The delight for us is the abundance of forest and water-meadows on the city's outskirts. Late into the evening, great and common snipe scurried excitedly across the clear blue skyline in great arcs before plunging to the ground in a flurry of wings, to vanish into the long grass before us as we sat in our camp chairs beside the motorhome out on the marsh. Another fantastic experience we'll never forget. And then, on our way out of town the following day, yet another magical moment.
A few days back we chanced to meet a couple of French birders who told us where we might find a rather special bird. They also told us they had heard a corncrake outside their hotel that morning. We checked
it out later in the day - it was green frogs, a common sound around here and easily confused with a bird. That's Frogs for you. With that in mind we were prepared to be disappointed. The water meadows they mentioned were already pencilled in on our map and with a little difficulty we found the spot along a boggy track. Armed with binoculars and telescope we set off, peering into the long grass and the tops of scattered birch bushes. Then that Coleman's Mustard moment.....the citrine wagtail, bold as brass, sitting atop a bush not thirty feet away! There were more to follow - and black terns, gargany, cranes, marsh harriers.......and yet another of those moments to follow!
Do you believe in coincidences? Of course you do. Sometimes it's written in the cards, isn't it? The hand of fate. Five miles down the road on a route determined by Janice, (overriding the SatNav as she does on occasion) we turned off the main highway. In the lay-by was a silver Renault Megane we recognised - and standing beside it two people we know rather well; Hans and Alvina, waiting for their friends and en route to
their spa for the week! It was meant to be.
Wows! are hard to come by in Estonia and in that respect it is perhaps akin to Denmark or Finland. Our guide-book gets all excited about Estonia's highest waterfall out at Valaste on the north coast where a trickle of water drops 26m over the cliff, but in reality it doesn't compare to our bath tap. The Happy Planet Index suggests Estonians are the most unhappy people in Europe - or is it the least happy? Either way, we're quite surprised at that. I'm quite sure if you were to poll the under 35's today, the picture would be very different. The best place to see a true painting of the people in any nation is on the bus, our chosen form of travel into - and out of, Tallinn. Our companions were all smart and modern, a credit to Estonia and as Western as any Western Nation we know. A young man offered me his seat on the bus, just when I was thinking it wouldn't happen here. Estonia has risen to the challenge of a unified Europe and adopted the Euro as their currency; a
true sign of a brave young Nation. The welfare system is up and running, though it has some way to go before the elderly reap any just reward for their part in Estonia's suffering years. These are the people who built this country, but presently pensions are said to be meagre and there are elderly ladies around town patiently waiting, cardboard cup in hand, for small donations.
It would be quite easy to fall asleep in Estonia. Perhaps 'pleasant' is the word. Or is it 'nice'?
David and Janice
The Grey haired nomads
NB: Lithuania and Latvia, through which we passed two weeks ago, will follow shortly - when we pass back through again into Poland.
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