One of Europe’s most intriguing and offbeat destinations, the small Baltic country of Estonia, with a population of just 1.3 million, is also one of its most idiosyncratic. For starters, Estonians claim every citizen can sing. As proof, they’ll cite the Estonian Song Festival, which has occurred every five years since 1869. The recent 2009 competition attracted 26,000 choral singers who performed to an enthusiastic audience of 80,000 people who probably hummed along. Question that fact and you risk a serenade – and it might not be choral music. The towns of Viljandi and Haapsalu host folk music and blues festivals, Pärnu is home to annual jazz and blues events, while Rakvere has a punk song festival.
First settled around 8500 BC at the end of the last ice age, Estonia has a rich, complex history and fascinating culture partly credited to centuries of invasions by Danes, Germans, Swedes, and Russians. The imprints of all cultures can be felt in the architecture, art, music, customs, food, and language.
Russian is spoken by a quarter of the former Soviet Republic’s population and you’ll also hear German, Swedish and Finnish on the streets. Evidence of the decades long Soviet occupation is evident in the Brutalist architecture of the capital Tallinn’s modern city and monuments, such as the World War II memorial the Bronze Solider, which provoked riots when moved from the city centre five years ago, along with the rustic cold-climate cuisine. Think: meat and potatoes, dumplings, herrings and black rye bread. Interestingly, when Estonia gained its 1991 independence from the Soviets without bloodshed or violence, they called it the Singing Revolution because Estonians used only their voices to propel change.
These days, Estonians see themselves as being culturally closer to Scandinavians, with traditions and tastes more akin to the Nordics than Eastern Europeans. A love of nature and the great outdoors is one thing they share with their northern neighbours. Ancient Estonians worshipped nature and a neo-paganism based on the reverence of nature that follows centuries-old folklore, such as summer solstice bonfire lighting, has been experiencing a revival.
It’s not surprising given that Estonia is blessed with more than 1,500 beautiful islands; hundreds of deserted beaches, many backed by sculpted sand dunes; an abundance of wildlife, including wild bears, squirrels, lynx, wolves, and millions of migratory birds; and forests comprising some 50% of the country, much designated as National Park. As you’d expect, hiking is popular, with walking trails criss-crossing Estonia’s parks and forests, as is horse-riding and bird-watching, while on the lakes, coast and islands, Estonians like to swim, sail, kayak, and canoe.
We visit two of Estonia’s historic cities as part of our Russia and Baltic programmes. Whether you’re exploring the maze of cobbled streets and colourful buildings in the medieval capital city of Tallinn, or discovering the oldest city and cultural capital Tartu, you will marvel at a country with many different influences but one that still manages to retain its own national pride and identity.
You’ll witness the old merging effortlessly with the new treading where merchants once traded and then discovering the recently acclaimed “city of youth”. There is even opportunity to cross to Saaremaa Island and experience a place completely isolated from the Soviet occupation. Old windmills, churches and juniper groves provide an engaging landscape. Estonia has a rich heritage and this will become evident as you travel around the region.