Finding fairy tales in Estonia
Estonia is a land of odd sagas and dizzying fables — some sultry, some more tragic. The most northern of the less explored Baltics, and one of the least populous countries in Europe, is the continent’s most serially underrated, but brought to my attention by a forest-born beautiful Estonian nymph I had met in Paris – who’d single handedly stop all traffic around the Arc de Triomphe.
Besides for all this enchantment, Estonia is also now revolutionizing Europe’s whole new tech movement. France who? The past and the future making sweet love, I’d say.
And still mythology and sharing of folk history here is what people do; instead of watching bad television or fixating on their smartphones. I mean who wouldn’t want to listen to an elder sharing the story of “The Child Who Came From An Egg” or the classic “The Young Man Who Would Have His Eyes Opened”.
In fact, Estonian mythology dates back to pre-Christian times and is largely dotted in traveler’s accounts or told by your great grandmother, or of course in some runic song. Picture this: a Viking singing about giants and animistic beliefs. The world of “Lord of the Rings” feels so tame and dull after you spend some time with Estonian blood. Luckily the old world prevails and it brings about a great touch of supernatural worth seeking out — for the sake of your wellbeing, and your curious curiosity.
Determined to see the country, and how its inhabitants differ from the rest of the world, I decided to drive from north to south, east to west and everywhere else I could possibly squeeze a car through. The roads lapped me right up.
With a post-recession glow, Estonia has managed to pull itself up by its proverbial bootstraps, and renew the country’s appeal through infrastructure updates, a new entrepreneurial visa program and keeping it all under wraps for the die hards willing to venture beyond stuffy Paris and already-seen Budapest. And really just being perhaps the final frontier of unexplored Europe has its happy advantages. Moldova doesn’t really count. Trust me.
The country is easily crisscrossed and as it is mostly flat (in the good sense); the allure lies not in the overt scenery from the freeways, but is revealed at every little town donning multiple church steeples, cobbled streets and those soft surrounding meadows. It’s understandable if you want to jump out of the car and just go lie in the fields with the farm animals around you; napping or escaping if you will. It’s that kind of place. Your weirdness and firm attachment to nature will make you fit right in.
Tallinn’s old town is where I commenced my explorations first, to understand Estonia today in some kind of context. After a plush night of deep sleep at the Telegraaf Hotel, a former wartime post office, I contemplated Estonia’s resistance during World War I and their second independence, after the wreckage of the Soviet Union. And today, Russia is waiting on their doorstep. What would Nabokov say about this little tryst? It makes sense that the country that invented Skype sees communication and the internet as the ultimate delivery of their independence. In fact, they are often commended for being one of the most “wired” countries in Europe. Take that, Russia.
But enough of all this deep contemplation, the open road called. Cue the opening scene from Cruel Intentions.
Driving along the northern coastlines of Estonia, with Finland in the distance just across the sea, the bottomless forests consumed me. Locals call these forests “traveling forests” as they believe that when people are cruel in some place, the forests will leave the area. The smell of briny ocean air mixed with deep scents from pine trees is so unique, and filtered into the car and even my head. It should have been bottled by some chic French perfumer (if they haven’t done that already) because in a world of stereotypical smells, this one felt worth spraying behind my knees and ears.
I very seldom saw people along the roads walking by, as if they had better lives to live. And only in the many petite towns, where stopping for a rhubarb pie or swig of kefir (called “piim”), some smiling, shy residents appeared. The car found a comfortable pace as I headed, with no agenda, through villages that could easily carpool its entire population. The radio loved traditional music for some reason, and so tribal fantasia overtook the airwaves. I was entranced. Voodoo magic.
Estonians, beautiful and big eyed, are homely people. As I got out in these small villages, call them hamlets, deep within the forest, like Vihula, I saw how people lived here – comfortably with fresh produce picked from the forests, and family around for connecting all the time. Most homes have a sauna, a neighbor nearby told me, as we chatted about Estonia and all its many secrets. I love secrets, so I eagerly leaned in to hear everything. I’ve decided to hold some of these to keep you at the edge of your seat. For now.
The holder of secrets guided me to a nearby “bog,” called Viru Raba, which is a mire that accumulated peat and moss, and thus had created an ecosystem like nothing on this planet. Oh, how appropriate. Creatures of the yore, and of this forest, seem to watch from the trees as I explored this marsh-like water in the middle of absolutely nowhere forest. Allikaravitseja, the Estonian Healing Elf of the Springs, or Soovana, the Estonian Guardian Spirit of the Wetlands, might be on sun loungers nearby actually. Star Wars came to mind, a whole new world. Braver even.
Estonia is like that, just when you don’t expect it, a strange ecosystem, a mythical creature or abandoned manor house, or sometimes-operational lighthouse will wink at you. The custom here is to stop for coffee and fishing, with big signs on every road indicating where this is best done — it did take me awhile to figure out what these signs meant. Fish with coffee has never been first on my palette of fancy. I decided to venture further south to explore the Setomaa district, and en route, found locals happily sitting at a rest stop with that hot drink in hand, perhaps hoping for the catch of the day. Come on, slow me down some more please.
If you’re in need of a more substantial rest stop, Estonia has a culture of “korts” or beer halls that are located every couple of miles. Locals meet here from all of the country, on their way somewhere, to laugh and share local delicacies like smoked or pickled herring and a potato salad with, of course, deer sausages. A few of these respites and you can be drunk, overly fed and with a collection of new friends from all over the country. Try to do this anywhere please, I’d love to see the results.
Setomaa, inhabited by the Seto people, is an area in the southeastern part of the country. Here, “locavore” and “handmade” is original, not manufactured as in Shoreditch, Brooklyn and beyond. Besides their protected culture, they also have their own kingdom and appointed a new king a few years ago – who happily rules this odd little patch of the world with utmost charm. I tried to get his council, but he was busy milking goats with no time for a New Yorker.
Setos, listed by UNESCO as part of the world’s intangible cultural heritage, live without the rest of the world for the most part. They have carved out their own vision and live out the dreams of their ethnic and linguistic minority, as they should. And not in that “we hate the world, let’s wear white sheets over our heads and only allow white people way.” In a respectful, inclusive and beautiful way.
Their language, part of the Uralic languages, sounded less Russian, less Finnish and definitely less Estonian to me. These generous and fascinating women, dressed in red embroidered long dresses, are overly friendly, and enjoy a feast with just about anyone. So please bring your happiest self here, ready for anything. I was naturally invited to sit down at a long wooden table and indulge as much as possible in several pies (stuffed with pretty much anything the land produces) and enough potatoes to feed a small colony of lemurs. I think I may still be recovering from this meal.
In 2015 Setomaa was awarded the Finno-Ugric capital of culture and they celebrate exactly this essence with various strange and wonderful festivals. I unfortunately came too early for the fish festival, but locals were gearing up and showed me where their fishing will be taking place – Lake Pihkva, which halfway across, separates the country from scarier Russia.
Who knew that you needed 17 different rods to catch that cod?
Sitting cross-legged with some locals around a fire, I silently listened to their local language. I didn’t understand anything, except that something was being lovingly prepared. The most maternal of the group, a beautiful older woman who has lived her whole life in Setomaa, took my hand and started telling me a fable in her native language.
She looked me in my eyes and said, “You’re either with nature or against nature, life is that simple.” The translation came from someone sitting next to her and I sat quietly mesmerized by this country’s love for a simple life of pure sharing. The fable, as they do, taught me again to see the little magic in the simplest things and to heed wisdom when it comes to your nose. The adventure and the secrets continue. If only the world could see that religion won’t help them, only nature can and shall.
The Need To Know:
The Estonian National Tourist Office is full of helpful information. To book your own tour, contact specialists Abercrombie & Kent.
The superb Hotel Telegraaf in Tallinn is a perfect base for the entire country.
Scandinavian Airlines offers various routings from the U.S. to Tallinn. Enjoy an exclusive beer, Mikkeller, brewed specifically for the airline’s business passengers. You have to admire the thought behind that.