Each year, over 3 million tourists visit Estonia-more than twice its whole population. Most of them prefer short trips, usually a few days, often combined with visits to the neighboring Lithuania and Latvia.
Over the last year, Estonia has felt the full brunt of the international financial crisis. After being touted as a model of success for over a decade because of its stable economy, flat tax rate, high earnings, low unemployment and rapid modernization, it suddenly had to deal with a 16 percent drop in GDP. For the tourist this is of minor importance, even though the prices are high, on a par with those of Western Europe, yet so are the service levels, hotel standards and the level of transport facilities. While the streets of Tallinn are free of traffic jams, they are full of high-end cars that would not look out of place in the better neighborhoods of a major European metropolis.
The crisis has also spared the country’s rapid IT development, one of its major successes that led to the creation of the Skype internet telephony application. Hotels, shopping centers and numerous public spaces are peppered with Skype phone booths, where users can freely access the service. Even the luggage retrieval area at the airport has a public access terminal to the internet. Estonian identity cards, in a credit card format and equipped with a microchip storing the bearer’s digitized data, can be used not only for identification but also a wide range of services such as public transport tickets, digitally signing documents, online banking or electronic voting. At one point, Estonia was classed second, just after Finland, in a European league table of computerization.
Delving into history
Visiting Estonia is above all an opportunity to delve into the fascinating, and little known, history of the region. For centuries, the area occupied by present-day Estonia was a crossroads for Danish, German, Swedish and Russian influences. The Hanseatic town of Reval, today’s Tallinn, was a veritable melting pot of cultures, nationalities, customs and lifestyles, a history still much in evidence in the Old Town of the Estonian capital.
One only needs to look inside the Lutheran Cathedral of St. Mary the Virgin (more commonly known in the city as the Dome Church), full of intricately decorated tombs, to realize the complexity of the region’s history and that of the fates of its inhabitants, who once referred to themselves as Baltic Germans.
The most imposing monument belongs to Ferdinand Graf von Tiesenhausen, adjutant to Czar Alexander the First. He was born in Reval in 1782 and died a hero’s death at the battle of Austerlitz in 1805. It is said Napoleon pronounced the famous words: “Quelle belle mort!” (“What a beautiful death”) over his prone body. Leo Tolstoy later used him as the blueprint for Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, one of the main characters in his epic War and Peace.
Next to him rests Baron Ferdinand Wrangel, one of Russia’s greatest sailors and Arctic explorers. Minister of the Navy in the middle of the 19th century, he was a fervent opponent of the sale of Alaska to the United States. A little further lies Adam Johann von Krusenstern, who led the first Russian circumnavigation of the Earth in 1803-1806 and published an atlas of the Pacific as well as ethnographic works on the inhabitants of its islands.
The last grave of note in the cathedral is that of Samuel Greig. Though a Scot, he rose to the rank of admiral in the Russian navy and distinguished himself for his valor at the battles of Chesma (1770) and Hogland (1778), as well as being one of the court favorites of Catherine II of Russia. Upon his death, the empress not only honored him with a stately funeral but also appointed her own court architect, Giacomo Quarenghi, responsible for some of St. Petersburg’s finest buildings, to design his grave.
The Old Town of Tallinn, though small, affords a great opportunity to get lost in its narrow, tightly packed labyrinthine streets set on two levels, the Upper and Lower Town. Historically, the first was inhabited by the aristocracy and clergy, while the latter was occupied by merchants and burghers. The relations between the two sets were at times so tense that gates were installed to separate them. Closed every night, the toll exacted for passage was a constant source of discord between the two communities.
For culture vultures
But Tallinn is much more than just history. The Estonian Art Museum in Tallinn, the Kumu, was last year named the best European museum by the European Museum Forum, which is hardly astonishing. The imposingly modern building contains some 5,000 square meters of extremely user-friendly gallery and conference space, making it an ideal meeting place for art and its lovers. It houses over 58,000 paintings, sculptures, installations and other pieces by Estonian artists from the 18th century onwards. It documents the trajectory of Estonian art, from the various influences it absorbed to its symbolic dialogues with other European art trends. And while Estonian names may be hard to find in art history books, a visit to the Kumu can prove an interesting and enlightening one to visiting art lovers.
The second largest city in Estonia is Tartu, with close to 100,000 inhabitants. Formerly known as Dorpat, it is famous for one of the first universities in this part of Europe, founded by Gustav II Adolf of Sweden in 1632. But foreigners have been able to admire the city only since Estonia’s independence in 1991-before that the presence of a Soviet air force base rendered access impossible. It’s worth remembering when visiting that the Old Town, which was destroyed during World War II, has been restored during the last 18 years, as has a large part of the city’s outskirts, which feature interesting wooden architecture.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that life in modern Tartu revolves around its university. During the academic year, the city is overrun with crowds of students, many of them foreigners. Numerous faculties offer courses in Russian or English, and a Tartu diploma is sought after by employers, not only in Estonia and Russia, but in many other countries as well.
When in Tartu’s Old Town, it is worth reserving an hour for a visit to the Toy Museum, housing a unique collection of exhibits, both Estonian and from neighboring countries or even from Asia. Nineteenth-century dolls sit beside Barbies, and Paddington bears beside Wayang shadow puppets. But what strikes the visitor most are the sad expressions of Estonian and Scandinavian dolls. Some are so depressing that it makes one wonder how some parents can give them to their children.
Sea, spas and snacks
To take a break from the sightseeing, it is a good idea to visit one of Estonia’s numerous spas, visited by over 300,000 people each year, 80 percent of whom are foreigners. Their popularity stems from the discovery several centuries ago of the therapeutic benefits not only of the Baltic Sea’s salty waters but most of all of the peat and mud found by the coast, but also farther inland. Today, therapeutic and cosmetic massages with the use of mud and peat are offered in every Estonian spa. They are recommended for many ailments, from a simple cold to rheumatism.
After a few days spent in the major cities, a lot of tourists like to take a few days to admire the provincial countryside, in many cases completely untouched by man. The Estonian coasts and forests are a thrill for bird-watching aficionados, as well as being home to more than 65 species of mammals.
A further attraction are the 1,500 Baltic islands, most of which are uninhabited yet still worth visiting by boat for a few hours to take in their pristine, undisturbed state. A few of them house small pensions, where one can retire in utter quiet from civilization for a few days. Some islands however, especially during the full season, can get a bit crowded, so it is worth checking with a local travel agency before setting out on an island-hopping tour.
Brezhnev’s sweet tooth
Estonian culinary delights can be surprising. One of the most popular snacks, served on nearly every street corner, and often by vendors dressed in traditional costume, are almonds, roasted in a variety of ways. Estonia can also lay claim to be the home of marzipan, a sweet made of almond meal and sugar. It was originally made by pharmacists and prescribed as a medicine.
The first center of its production was the oldest still-functioning pharmacy in Europe, Tallinn’s Town Hall Pharmacy, which is mentioned in documents dating back to 1422. The production of marzipan was switched over to confectioners only in the 18th century. The most famous of them was Georg Stude, whose store exists to this day in the Old Town. The Russian czars were regular customers, with whole shiploads of marzipan figurines sailing off to St. Petersburg. Later, as Estonians never tire of telling tourists, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev was also a huge fan of the local marzipan. The order for his 70th and 75th birthday was so large, that the local state-run marzipan factory had to run 24 hours a day for a week to satisfy it.
Apart from sweets, Estonian restaurants serve a full range of traditional and international fare. The first is based above all on recipes from the Hanseatic period. Alongside a variety of meats flavored with local herbs, both fresh and saltwater fish feature prominently. Estonian beers are worth recommending as well, especially those of the multitude of micro breweries which cater to local needs, sometimes even a single restaurant. These potions, often flavored with herbs or honey, are a great accompaniment to the local cuisine. The same goes for stronger spirits, like the Tallinn liqueur which is 40 or 45 degrees proof.
For Polish tourists visiting Estonia, the one major drawback is the lack of a direct flight. LOT, the Polish national airline, canceled its Warsaw-Tallinn flight last year, during a restructuring operation in answer to the world economic crisis. Which is why most tourists choose to come by car, allowing them to visit Latvia and Lithuania on the way, or even take a ferry from Tallinn for a quick visit to Helsinki. Up to 30 ferries make the trip daily during the high season.
Those who prefer to fly can pass through Copenhagen, served by both SAS and Estonian Air. The flight is only an hour and a half long for each leg, and the time in between can even be used for a short visit to the city center, with shuttle buses leaving every 20 minutes.
This text was published thanks to The Warsaw Voice. The text can be used only with the permission of the authors.