Sunday, September 2, 2012

July 2012 - Part 2 Estonia

July 2012
Part 2 - Estonia

After a wonderful week in Finland we took a ferry from Helsinki across the Baltic Sea to Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. Before we got on the ferry I noticed these postcards for sale at the Helsinki train station - interesting to see how the Finns perceive Americans and themselves.

Notice the big shiny smile - Americans are noted for having great teeth and smiling a lot.

The description is quite accurate, but why is the guy holding a bottle and a knife and looking so despondent? The Finns we met were reserved but happy

                                                         On the ferry from Finland to Estonia


And into the medieval world of Tallinn, the capital city of Estonia. The medieval quarter of Tallinn is incredibly well-preserved, thanks to the Soviet occupation from 1940-1991. The Russians built ugly modern buildings on outskirts and left the old city intact. 

The old Town Hall in the main square

                                                                 Cool water spout

Now that Estonia is open to Western tourists, they are really capitalising on the medieval setting and the old city is filled with comely young people in native dress plying traditional crafts and comestibles.

 Great doorways - this one is a real wooden cart filled with market produce

Estonia is a very small, peaceful country surrounded by large and powerful neighbors. It was under Soviet rule for 50 years in the 20th century, but before that it was ruled at various times by the Germany, Denmark, Sweden and Poland. Estonians are delighted to finally have independence, and the feeling of joy in being able to express Estonian culture once again is very strong. So while Tallinn obviously plays to the Western tourist market, there is a genuine feeling of pride at showing off their beautiful city and Estonia's cultural traditions and crafts.


Onion domes of the Russian Orthodox church. The population of Tallinn is approximately 40% Russian.

                                                                       Why can't all traffic bollards be this beautiful?

Lahemaa National Park

After one day and night in Tallinn we took a bus to Lahemaa National Park, on the shore of the Baltic Sea.

We stayed in this cute cabin in a family's back yard.

Beautiful walk along a river nearby

Mostly birch and evergreen trees in the forest           

Much warmer and sunnier than Ireland even though it's further north.

We walked a few miles to the sea where it was warm enough to swim. 
The Baltic Sea is so far inland in eastern Estonia that it is barely salty.

      Then a stop at the thatched tavern.....

.....for a traditional Estonian snack of fried potato skins, pickles with honey, and local beer.

Lahemaa National Park is sited on what used to be a highly restricted area with Soviet military installations and observation towers. If you look at the map at the top of this blog you can see how little of the Baltic coastline is actually Russian. When they created the Soviet Union they took over the three small countries of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia in order to control much more of the Baltic coast.

They used these observation towers on the coast to keep an eye on Western neighbors
 across the Baltic Sea - Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Germany and Poland.

The traditional architecture in this area is very well-preserved due to the occupation - no one was allowed to move there or build anything new.

New thatch on a traditional seaside cabin

Viljandi Folk Music Festival
After a day and night in Lahema we took the bus back to Tallinn then 2 hours south to the town of Viljandi, home of the National Academy of Estonian Culture and host to many festivals. Remember that Estonian culture was completely repressed during the Soviet era so in the last 20 years there has been a fantastic blossoming of traditional music, dance, crafts and clothing.

Some of the festival posters for previous years. This festival celebrates all things Estonian but also features folk music from other countries, including Finland, Russia, Sweden, Africa, 
Ireland, Corsica and even a bluegrass/old-time band from Portland, Oregon.

About 20,000 people attend Viljandi and the festival is spread out around the town,
 including this stage at the ruins of an old convent. 

Convent stage with a full crowd for the African band

This stage is within the ruins of a castle wall.

Every year the festival has a theme, and this year it was Man's Song. The banner at the top of the castle stage is a line of men singing and it's made from men's old shirts that they asked people to send in.

Simple folk dances that everyone can join in on.
The music is by a solitary Estonian bagpiper.

Fun in the dance tent!
      Estonian fiddle duet. They use a lot of drones and the tunes are very repetitive
- a bit like old-timey fiddle playing.

Looking from the festival grounds to Lake Viljandi below

   The festival campground down by the lake - quiet, secure, and convenient for swimming.

Ro:toro plays a kind of jazzy interpretation of Estonian tunes,
with two bagpipes, saxephone, bass, and percussion on an upright bicycle wheel.

Some people at the festival wore traditional Estonian clothing made of linen 
and decorated with colorful woven trim.

And some not-so-traditional dress

This was one of my favorite groups at the festival - Toorama from Mordova, a country in the Russian Federation. They have a very medieval sound with fiddles, shawms (reed woodwinds with a distinctive sound), large drums and my favorite new instrument that I want to learn, the giant stick with bells tied to the top.

There was a handcrafts area where for a nominal fee you could use the materials to make traditional Estonian crafts.  I made a bracelet with strips of leather.

Funny graffiti - Lenin, Mickey and Jesus

Tallinn again
After the festival we took the bus back to Tallinn where we spent two more nights before flying back to Ireland. We stayed in a beautiful hostel right in the old city center - perfect until 1 am when the disco started directly below our room. That's when we learned that the bars apparently never close in Tallinn - business was still booming at 5 am when we took a taxi to the airport.

Views of the old city with the modern city beyond

                                                                           Detail of weather vane

The city wall and watchtower. The covered walkway between some of the towers is still functional so we went up one of the towers and walked along a section of covered walkway on top of the wall to the next tower.

                  Walking the beat

View from the city wall

   This section of wall has rolled-up awnings attached to it........

......which can be pulled out when the sweater market is happening. 

                                                                                Anachronistic graffiti 

View from the Town Hall tower
Looking out to the Baltic Sea and ferries.


We spent a good part of our last day at the Museum of the Occupations where we learned about life under Soviet rule. To put it in perspective, if I had been born in Estonia then I would have lived the first 30 years of my life under Soviet rule and only experienced freedom for the last 20. As a child I would have spoken only Russian at school, and would have had to participate in patriotic rallies and parades honoring 'the motherland' Soviet Union.

Estonian songs, music and culture were forbidden.Their native songs and music are so important that in the late 1980's the Estonians started their Singing Revolution. Over 300,000 Estonians, one-third of the total population, gathered in Tallinn to sing their traditional songs en-masse. (Fortunately Soviet power was weakening then and there were no repercussions.)

And in 1989, 2 million people joined hands in a chain 360 miles long across Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia  to mark the 50th anniversary of the pact between Germany and Russia which led to the Soviet occupation of the Baltic states. Just two years later the Soviet Union collapsed and their dream of independence was finally realised.