Estonia – love at first sight

I’ve loved so many places that I’ve travelled to so far but Estonia stunned me. Right place at the right time I think, as it has been a blast since I arrived.

Sunday 8 July

My flight landed later than scheduled but it was easy enough to catch the bus to Freedom Square at the edge of Old Town and then walk to Euphoria Hostel from there. I didn’t have a Tallinn Travel Card but you can pay €2 in cash too, or just not pay (which a few locals have suggested to me).

It seemed like a friendly hostel from the start and within a few minutes I was chatting to Sasha, an Australian guy staying in the same dorm and he offered to show me around Old Town for the afternoon. I had a really quick nap and then walked around Old Town for the rest of the day as the weather was absolutely perfect for wandering.

We went to most of the major sites in the Old Town and I’m going to do the free walking tour one day to learn more about them. I booked a space on the tour of the Bastion Tunnels for tomorrow, but it was a totally informal thing and they didn’t even take down my name!

Towards the end of the day we came across the medieval market in the main square. Full of beautiful/tasty wares.

Then I walked back to the hostel via a flower market.

I cooked parsnips and veg for dinner and bought some cider from the 24 hour shop nearby. Somersby cider small bottles are only €0.75! You pay a deposit (Pand) for the bottles and you can return them in different locations around the city to encourage recycling.

The days here are so incredible, they just seem to go on forever, which is lucky because it seems like there’s so much to do!

Monday 9 July

I got up for breakfast and met a woman called Liina who lives at the hostel. She is Estonian but grew up in Canada and came back to live in Tallinn and liked the communal lifestyle of the hostel so she rents a room. I had a great chat with her about the city until she had to leave for work and I got ready to visit the Tunnels.

Sasha came along and on the way he showed me the oldest pharmacy in Estonia. It still operates but there’s some really cool old vials and coloured bottles of stuff they used to tell to treat ailments.

Then in the next room there is a crazy display of the sorts of things they used to have when it was an old apothecary. Hilarious. Free to go in and you absolutely have to see it if you’re in Tallinn.

Seeing Scorched Hedgehog in a jar ready to prescribe for some random illness tickled me.

The tunnel tour was at 11:30am and 12 in English (plus a couple of other slots during the day) and cost €16 as a combination ticket with the city walls. It starts off with a 10 minute animation which goes through the history of the city and defenses. It’s really good but it went a little too quickly for me to remember much. Apparently the free walking tour will go over much of it. It seems that Estonia really hasn’t been independent for much of its history.

The tunnels were interesting to walk through and they haven’t been open to the public for very long, they were air raid shelters then abandoned and used by punk rockers and by homeless people into the 2000s. The tour ends in the Carved Stone Museum where some nice intricate carvings are housed in controlled temperature and humidity underground.

Sasha and I went for lunch at the garlic restaurant, Balthazar, in the old town and the food was incredible!! I had a pumpkin soup with duck and cream and it was a work of art. It cost €8 and none of the dishes struck me as being unreasonably expensive given how impressed I was with the quality.

After lunch we hopped into the car that Sasha had hired for his 10-day Baltic roadtrip and headed 45 minutes out of Tallinn to the south west to a place called Rummu. This is the site of an old quarry, and prison. It’s now a lake with a half-sunken ruined prison.

It’s a strange place and I would recommend going if you can. However, the site is surrounded by walls and there are a couple of areas where they have been pulled down but the owners are trying to keep people out using razor wire. So you’re not technically allowed to go there. But you still can. And you’ll bump into at least a couple more groups of people scaling the walls too. It’s a strange one for sure.

Anyway, Sasha and I ditched the car by the side of the road and stepped over a chain to get into a carpark outside the main gate. Then we walked along to the right to a place where some rocks had been piled up and the top of the wall had been pulled apart. I made it over alright and landed safely on the strange flimsy metal box that had been placed on the other side.

We walked to the lake and passed two derelict graffitied buildings at the water’s edge.

Then we headed to the water to see the strange submerged buildings. The sky was stunning and the water was crystal clear, what a bizarre place!

We rounded a corner to check out more of the area by the water and found some people working on a wooden deck. One of them wasted no time telling us we were trespassing, which sucked because there were a bunch of people there, numerous deck chairs and at least one kayak! So yeah, we got escorted off the premises by a Russian dude. We managed to get into the inner ring of barbed wire fence that surrounded the old prison though so we could get up to the guard platform.

On our drive back to Tallinn we stopped at a Viking Village that we had been told about. It was so cute!!! There were bunnies running all over the place and the Viking buildings were cool too. We saw a guy catch a fish from the pond and then walk to the kitchen with it and about 20 minutes later it was served on a wooden platter in tin foil with lemon. Doesn’t get any fresher!

I ordered Estonian traditional dumplings and some Kvas (root beer) to try. Both were interesting. I liked the dumplings a lot and the soured cream went with them perfectly. The Kvas I was a little less sure of. It does taste kinda sweet, and very dark-beery, and also quite like dirt; it’ll take a little getting used to.

I saw lots of moose signs along the road today so I am really really hopeful that I’ll get to see one soon. A good start to my planned Estonian roadtrippin’.

I walked over to check out Sasha’s hostel, the Red Emperor, which has Happy Happy Half Hour at 7:30pm, where beers are €1!!!

So I bought a couple and played Piccolo with a pretty big group. Sasha brought out some nice tequila and some Black Balzam which is apparently a speciality of Latvia, so I was drinking those as well until around 10pm, when five of us headed to a viewpoint to watch the sun set over the old town.

We met an American called Susan up at the viewpoint and then all of us hit the bars of Tallinn. Later on a few of us went back to the karaoke night at the Red Emperor. I walked back to Euphoria in the daylight.

Tuesday 10 July

Susan and I met at Baltic Bus station (Baltijaam) at 11:45 and caught the 155e bus at 1200 to a village in the Lahemaa National Park. The journey cost €3 and by about 1pm we were buying a picnic lunch and walking to check out a beach on the Baltic Sea.

There was the coolest information office ever in this town. A tiny hut full of secondhand Russian books and some postcards and Christmas decorations.

The dude spoke Estonian and Russian but he managed to give us pretty decent directions to the beach so that was cool.

Someone had made the coolest sandcastle ever!

We walked back to the bus stop ready to be collected at 3:30pm by our eco-hostel owner, Jim.

Not far from Loksa, hidden away in the woods, is a beautiful hostel called Projekt Kodu and this was our home for the night. Jim upgraded us to a family tent so we stayed in a gorgeous bell-tent called Blueberry, which was surrounded by wild blueberry bushes full of loads of ripe berries!!

We went for a walk to a lake and got lost in the woods for about 45 minutes, which was just as fun, and we got to meet one of Jim’s neighbours, Yuri, with his three funny little dogs, one of which scratched my leg (little jerk). Then we found our way back to the hostel and took the correct direction to the lake for a swim. We didn’t find a very good spot to swim in either!! The bottom of the lake is clay and we had to walk through shallow water and squishy clay to get in. So we sunbathed instead.

Then we walked back to the camp for a veggie dinner. We were fairly late so I was panicking that I might end up going hungry. I can already look back and laugh at it. There was plenty of delicious vegetable bake. Three different recipes and they were all delicious. Beetroot played a strong role in them all and it was great!

After dinner the sauna and hottubs were ready!!! It was difficult to go to bed at all when there was such glorious relaxation to be had under the stars in the hottub. The mosquitoes were a bit of a pain but repellent on your arms is enough.

The sun barely seemed to set as it didn’t get dark until really late. And it was actually a pleasant change when the temperature dropped as the sun disappeared. Up until now it has been roasting at all times of the day and night.

Wednesday 11 July

This morning I did my first yoga class since the day I broke my finger! It was a hatha session so not overly dynamic for my sore finger and probably quite helpful, physically and mentally, to get back into yoga.

Apparently the consensus was to kick off at 8:30am which was great. It was already hot and steamy in the forest by then.

After yoga, we had breakfast and then hitched a lift with Jim to the road junction towards the big lake. We moseyed down the trail and sat by the lake. Some exploring led us to a funny creative installation (i.e. a pallet with a chair on top placed in the shallow water) which we climbed on and then we remembered that Jim told us there is a beach nearby.

Susan and I found the gorgeous beach and went for a swim, making friends with a huge dog out in the water. Seriously, Estonians are obsessed with dogs but they are all microscopic compared to this one! The water is shallow for miles, it’s fascinating, and not too cold either, considering it is the Baltic Sea!

Jim dropped us at the bus stop in Loksa and we caught the 16:05 bus back to Tallinn.

The bus ride back was bonkers. The Russian driver was a lunatic and an asshole. A Russian-speaking woman boarded but her contactless ticket didn’t work. She had a receipt to show she had recently topped it up with €20 but the man was having NONE of it! He was shouting at her and he refused to drive for minutes. Then he called his boss so she could talk to him and the guy seemed reasonable but the driver went ballistic at him too! He was blurting things out in an ongoing fit of rage all the way back to the bus station in Tallinn. Especially when the woman got off the bus. I just want to put this in perspective – her journey would have cost €2 and she could prove that it was her card that was faulty. As I got off the bus I stopped next to the driver and said that he had driven terribly and that he should not have been so rude to a passenger. He swore at me in Russian but some of the other passengers nodded at me.

We arrived at Euphoria Hostel without a booking as I’d been told it would be fine. It wasn’t. So I booked United Hostel down the road and Susan and I walked there, had quick showers and then went straight back out to catch the World Cup semifinal match between England and Croatia!

We went to Route 13 which serves food and the ciders were €4.50 for 0.5l. The burgers were actually delicious which went some way to compensate for how awkward it was to sit at the bar and watch the match facing into a walkway.

After the first half we had much better spot because we moved to Freedom Square with most of the people in the city.

Thursday 12 July

We were up and out early, catching an Uber to the airport to collect a hire car as Susan and I had decided to go on a three-day road trip to the Estonian islands. It was a lot cheaper to hire a manual car so we did that and I had to do all the driving (Americans huh?!). That said, I was really pleased with our lovely car!!! A funky snot/acid green Skoda Fabia 1.2 TSI and it even had Aircon!

I drove us pretty much straight to the tiny ferry port at Virtsu, stopping once to check out a cool ruined church in the middle of nowhere, and again to pick up some strange brunch and coffee at the roadside.

The twenty minute ferry cost €14.40 for two passengers and the car and we docked at Muhu Island and forked off the main road to find out what Padiste Manor was as we could see it on the map.

It was such a funny experience. We parked up on some grass with some other cars then walked to a little welcome hut on the drive. We were told we had to pay €3 to get in but we couldn’t go into the manor, only walk around the grounds. They were pretty and all that but none of the other buildings were open and there were signs up denoting hotel guests only areas so we worked out that basically we weren’t allowed anywhere!

So we decided to continue our exploration anyway and went to a hotel guest only hottub and just look at this thing!!!

We had been told by the girl at the hut that we weren’t allowed to use the spa but I waltzed into reception like I belonged there. Within 5 minutes Susan and I were both over in the spa dressed in robe and slippers ready for a nettle and juniper leg and foot massage. Not cheap but it was heaven. It was around €40 each for about half an hour, but at a 5-star resort maybe that isn’t so bad.

The islands are famous for their windmills so I pulled over a few times for either stork-watching or windmill-photographing on our way to the bridge that would take us over to Saaremaa Island. Saaremaa is the biggest of the islands and is quite fascinating. It’s got the highest density of meteorite craters in the world and Susan and I stopped at the biggest site with one main huge (diameter of 110m and a depth of 22m!) crater that has 8 further craters in the surrounding area. The info board shows a map and you can imagine the trajectory the huge 48-tonne meteorite took to enable the other 8 craters to be formed.

We crossed a bridge onto Saaremaa Island and drove to the main town, Kuressaare, an ancient settlement dating back to 1154, with a lovely fort dominating the skyline at the waterfront. The place is free to wander around and you can walk onto the bastion walls for some lovely views. The place was gearing up for a three-day opera festival the following weekend so we got to meet some of the carpenters doing a sterling job. I chilled on the beach for a while watching some people play volleyball in the sunshine.

Just outside the fort we could hear some traditional singing and we walked across a bridge and stumbled across a folk singing and dancing festival with some great performances.

We went for dinner at Ku-Kuu, a gorgeous fancy restaurant just across the most from the castle. The food was really nice and beautifully presented, locally sourced too. I had, rather unusually, a cheeseboard to start, followed by venison meatballs with a red wine gravy, sea buckthorn and red cabbage. We each had a glass of sparkling pink wine for €7, so it was expensive but not too bad. And look at the view!

I got to spend the evening watching terns diving into the moat to catch fish and the sun turning the castle rooves bright orange.

We stayed overnight at a cute little homestay called Villa Mariett, just back from the waterfront. The twin room was €45, the owner is lovely and there is a seaview terrace upstairs. We checked in but couldn’t stick around – we had a sunset date with a lighthouse to keep!

We had almost an hour’s drive to reach the lighthouse and it was so worth it! The countryside was picturesque and scattered with haybales.

The sky was on fire after the sunset and we were treated to more than 40 minutes of dramatic clouds and colours.

There is quite a lot to explore at the bottom of the peninsula, the lighthouse has a museum and there is also a military museum with remnants from a World War II battle at the site. There is a huge sandbar and you can walk over 500 metres out into the sea until the sandbar peters out to nothing. There always seem to be swans off the coast and this time was no different.

On the drive back I stopped at a freaky site that we had passed on the way. It was a collection of WWII Red Army gravestones all lined up. We heard a wolf or something howl in the forest and it set us running back to the car!

Back in Kuressaare we stopped at the statue of the local giant Toll the Great and his wife Piret who, according to Estonian legend, live on the island and are ready to help any fisherman in need on rough seas to make sure he and his catch get safely back to shore.

Friday 13 July

I started the day with a gorgeous cafetière coffee on the terrace. Then we hit cafe in town called Good Mood Food. Fantastic decision!

We had to wait around for a while because we called out a mechanic to fix the windscreen washer jet as it hadn’t been working and a fairly thick film of bug guts had built up on the glass. The Good Mood Food cafe was absolutely the right place to stay while we waited.

I had an omelette with crispy vegetables, a glass of gorgeous fresh orange juice and followed it with a cappuccino. I was happy to pay €15 for it, the food was excellent, the waitress, Minni, and the owner were fabulous and the courtyard setting was lovely.

This morning we drove north across the island to Panga Pank (Panga Cliff) and we got the most crazy view of the Baltic to date. There is an underwater shelf that extends as far as the eye can see so the water is unbelievably clear. The cliff was cool too, with woodland running all the way up to the edge.

We hiked along the cliff, in the forest, and relaxed in the sunshine on the cliff watching a couple of scuba divers out in the water and making up stories of sunken treasure.

We stopped off at the roadside to try an array of homemade mustards being sold by a woman from her house. They were excellent! Some great combinations made with local berries too. We asked for a recommendation on where to have lunch and the lady recommend somewhere called Ranna Villa, run by a Finnish couple about 10km away, right on a beautiful bay.

It was such a gorgeous place and the food was excellent. Meatballs made from the fresh beef produced on their land with lovely fresh veg. There was a group of guys that had hired Vespas for a stag party having lunch at the same time as us and we got to hear them driving off!

From there we went to a tiny village called Triigi to catch the ferry north to Hiiumaa, an island famous for its windmills.

We stopped to check out a traditional windmill and I’m not sure how they work but it seems that you could use the long wooden beam to reorient the whole mill like a weathervane to face into the wind.

Then along the way we found the absolute cutest little coffee shop/deli in the whole world. The girls working there were absolute stars as well, turning out a huge variety of food from cakes and salads to gourmet burgers in a tiny wooden hut.

Our main destination on Hiiumaa was a peninsula near Kassari which has excellent bird watching. I hadn’t realised that it was a 2km walk from the carpark (Sääre Tirp) to the end of the trail. You don’t have to walk all the way though to enjoy the fantastic scenery and birdlife all around. I made it as far as the water would let me go and it was slow going on loose pebbles; be sure to wear sturdy shoes. I took the advice of a Swiss gentleman in the caravan that I was parked next to, and I am glad I did. There are a few campsites nearby in lovely surroundings and I would love to go back there! There is also a restaurant near Kassari village called Lest ja Lammas (fish and lamb) which looks worth a try.

We caught a late ferry back to the mainland so we were making our way over to the port as the day wore on. We stopped at Pühalepa Church to have a look as apparently it has a huge stained glass window. Despite driving our cute little car off-road to go right around the church, we weren’t able to get a good look but nevermind.

The road back was really boring, mainly because about 12km of it was almost perfectly straight until we reached the church.

The sunset was mad, I have never seen one like it. The sun hung over the horizon for minutes and then even when it was almost gone I could see a sliver of the deep red sun for over a minute. Normally it just vanishes. Stunning.

Very late and very weary we drove into the town of Haapsalu to reach our beds for the night…

We are staying in a hilarious little place like a half converted metal shed in an old man’s garden. The man spoke Estonian and German but not a word of English and had a cute little obsession with showing us where all the light switches were.

Tonight we are having the biggest thunderstorm I have experienced in a long time. Lightening struck something really close – the whole building shook and my ears are ringing.

Saturday 14 July

So we were supposed to be leaving early today but neither of us slept so we made it to the Haapsalu Castle at 7:45. It was awesome!!!! Nothing to do with the castle itself (as we sadly weren’t allowed to visit) but there was an American Beauty car show going on for three days and we just happened to be there at the right time! The whole car park/main square was filled with a gorgeous array of muscle cars, American classics and some newer toys.

If I hadn’t had to drive Susan back to Tallinn I would still be there now.

And to be fair, I did have a date with Helsinki… I was intending to catch the 12 noon ferry but I ended up missing it because I couldn’t find the right damned terminal. Silver lining though! I got to spend some time looking around the Maritime Days festival at the harbour and that had a wicked atmosphere.

Next up: Helsinki!

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