Estonia – Rich in history and with an exciting new future

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Liz Gill visits one of the woirld’s smallest nations and finds a fascinating heritage and an independent, forward-looking spirit

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Sometimes it is the small details that are so telling. The red phone with no dial: it was for incoming calls only. The fake purse designed to test employees’ honesty: unauthorised opening would spray them with dye. The two newspaper front pages covering the deaths, only 16 months apart, of Leonid Brezhnev and Yuri Andropov with different photos but the same words: it was simpler to duplicate the eulogies which no-one believed anyway.

What is particularly fascinating – and chilling – about the contents of the KGB museum on the top floor of the Viru hotel in Tallinn is that this is relatively recent history. It was only in 1991 that Estonia shook off the shackles of Soviet rule and declared independence. They had enjoyed a brief period of independence before from 1918 to 1940 when they were occupied first by the Russians, then by the Nazis and then by the Russians again.

In fact this most northerly of the Baltic states has had centuries of domination by foreign powers: ten in 800 years including Danes, Swedes, Teutonic Knights. Today though it most decidedly and proudly free, a post USSR success story: innovative, cultured, prospering, eager to tell you about its history but keen to look to the future.

Its capital Tallinn escaped the worst of World War II bombing so its old mediaeval city – the upper part for nobility, the lower for the merchants – is wonderfully preserved. The Great Guild building which dates from 1410 now houses the Estonian History Museum, an accessible, thematically arranged introduction to one of the world’s smallest nations: 17,500 square miles, 1.5m people. One of its more shocking statistics is that it lost about a tenth of its people to Soviet deportations.

Displays include the fact that the Ice Age lasted longer here than in other countries so its language developed independently of other European tongues. (One of its distinguishing features is the double vowel: I was charmed to see an ad for a visiting production of Peter Paan). They also tell how the country prospered from salt and its strategically important coastline and how it was a relatively late convert to Christianity (and remains one of the least religious countries).

Other must-sees are the 16th century Town Hall Square; the 1422 pharmacy, probably the oldest in Europe and still dispensing the traditional ‘cures’ of marzipan and spiced claret; the elaborate onion-domed Alexander Nevsky Cathedral; the Parliament building with its classical facade; and Liberty Square with its mix of modernist and Soviet styles and its monument to freedom fighters.

It is in the square and also beside the granite slab marking one end of the 700 kilometre human chain of August 23, 1989 that momentous events are again brought alive to us. Our guide Laura is visibly moved as she remembers how as a young girl she joined the two million holding hands between Tallinn and Vilnius.

She also makes us laugh by telling us about people known as radishes – “red on the outside but different on the inside,” she says. “They did stuff because they had to not because they believed in it. They were biding their time. We Estonians don’t have big armies and can’t win by fighting. We waited instead for the right time to come. And in the meantime we sang. Big song festivals emphasising our culture and language were a way of showing our defiance. We used costumes, not weapons.”

Similarly the woman who shows us round the KGB museum recalls that even as a student she still had to go and work on the potato harvest for a month every summer. “It was smelly and there were rats but at least the food was good and there was plenty of it,” she says. “Also, even as a child you learned there were things you did and talked about in public and things you did and talked about in private. For example, there was officially no Christmas but we celebrated it at home.”

The Viru was built for foreign visitors, particularly Finns, who brought in not only hard currency but also information from which they could be parted by bugging or blackmail. As well as a variety of listening devices including ones in cufflinks, ashtrays and plates plus mikes and cameras hidden in bedrooms and bars, the KGB also used prostitutes to compromise clients. When they left in a hurry after the collapse of the Soviet Union they did not have time to remove all their equipment, abandoning it on the hotel’s 23rd floor where it remains, a symbol of the all pervasive scrutiny and control that once governed Estonian life.

The country is keen, however, not just to look back but to embrace the 21st century. So on another day we visit Tallinn’s striking Kumu art museum, an impressive example of modern architecture in its own right but also hosting a fabulous collection of Estonian and other art from the 18th century onwards.

Earlier we have been at the Lennusadam Seaplane Harbour with its giant hangars built in 1916-17 to house the giant seaplanes which were part of St Petersburg’s defence system. The maritime themed museum also has the Lembit submarine, the massive Suur Toll icebreaker and examples of all kinds of vessels from ancient dugout canoes to the latest in ice yachts.

I’d never been in a sub before so that was a fascinating first and I also loved, as did my companions, all the interactive stuff: dressing up for photos in Estonian uniforms, the disconcertingly ingly real flight simulator, the remote control model boats and the anti-aircraft machine gun simulator made out of a real Browning M2..

Anyone short of time or simply disinclined to pore over a lot of information then and there could make use of another high-tech innovation. You simply held a special card over a reader next to a display screen, entered your email (you only needed to do it once) and the computer sent all the info to your address to be read at leisure.

In between the gallery and the museum we had ascended 400 ft in a tethered hot air balloon, a slightly nerve-wracking experience on a wet and windy day but worth it for the views over the city and beyond.

Beyond Tallinn is where we spent three days of our five day trip including visits to Soomaa, Kihnu Island and Parnu. The latter was once the summer capital of Imperial Russia. Later it became a smart resort for the wealthy from Riga and St Petersburg who came to show off their fashionable new clothes and expensive cars. Later still it was for favoured workers given vouchers by their trade unions.

Today it is still a charming resort with a beautiful long sandy beach and clear waters for bathing. Their shallowness means that even the Baltic can warm up to 23 degrees in summer. We stayed one night in a stylish little boutique hotel Frost and another in the recently opened Hedon, The hotel is a £10m restoration of the old mud baths building and appropriately now offers state-of-the-art spa and wellness treatments including a room where you can choose from Bali, Miami and Mauritius ‘sunlight’.

En route we had stopped off at Soomaa National Park a starkly beautiful wilderness of bogs, forest and flooded meadows, home to beavers, roe deer, wild boars, even lynxes and wolves. We spent a couple of hours wandering the nature trails and absorbing the silence and the emptiness.

We then absorbed something rather more corporeal: a traditional rustic meal of onion, garlic and nettle soup to which we added sour cream and chopped hard-boiled egg followed by little pork and herb pasties and a barley, potato and pork stew, almost of risotto consistency, and finished by a Swiss roll filled with rhubarb and dandelion jam. We topped it all off with a shot of a fruits of the forest schnapps.

Estonian food and drink was, in fact, a delightful surprise. I’d thought it might be dull and stodgy. Instead we had some wonderful meals, some a modern twist on a traditional favourite, others unabashedly Scandinavian influenced.

Kihnu provided one of the most interesting experiences of the whole trip. Reached by ferry – or across an ice road when the sea freezes in winter – the island has been designated an UNESCO Intangible Heritage site. The 600 residents speak a distinct dialect, wear traditional dress and still practice the handicrafts, sing the songs and dance the dances of their forebears.

Because the men have always been away at sea for long periods it has been the women who have cherished and preserved the old way of life. Even their clothes have a story. The striped skirts which they weave and then wear every day are meaningful as well as beautiful: a young girl’s would be bright, an older woman’s include a few dark stripes, a widow’s a lot of black. Our guide Mare delights in taking us into her home and spreading out her wonderful collection of skirts and aprons. Only married women can wear aprons and they are much prized, some being passed down the generations. Mare has over a hundred and is already accumulating fabrics for her three daughters.

The visit ended with a performance of folk music and song by three generations of women. I had half expected it to be slightly embarrassing and to have to nod and smile purely out of courtesy. In fact the songs were so haunting, the violins so sweet and the women’s delight in each other’s company so palpable that to my astonishment I found tears pricking my eyes. It was yet another example of Estonia’s ability to surprise.

To get the best out of your visit, it is worth buying The Bradt Guide to Estonia by Neil Taylor before you go.

Regent Holidays ( 020 7666 1244) offers an eight day Essential Estonia tour, priced from £585 per person. The price is based on two sharing and includes return flights from London Gatwick to Tallinn with Easyjet, accommodation throughout with breakfast, transfers and bus tickets for journeys between Tallinn, Navra, Tartu and Parnu, returning to Tallinn.