hidden europe 5

Estonian impressions

by Nicky Gardner


hidden europe evokes the spirit of two Estonias - the urban chic of Tallinn and remote rurality in Polvamaa county.

There are many Estonias. There is the one in Tallinn so beloved of weekend visitors in search of mock mediaevalism, imported amber jewellery and a turreted Old Town that every year conforms ever more to the tastes and needs of affluent tourists from Scandinavia, Britain and Germany. Then, beyond the capital, there is another Estonia, a country of reticent beauty in its happy mix of forests and lakes, a place of empty highways, wooden farmsteads with neat picket fences and apple orchards. This rural Estonia is a world where Lutheran restraint sits cheek by jowl with Orthodox opulence. These contrasting worlds are not unconnected. For even those who gather berries and mushrooms in the forest have their mobile phones, remote villages have improbably cheap internet cafés, and buses run with timed precision along rural byways.

The capital, Tallinn, has its varied demeanours, from the commercial chic of its modern Viru shopping centre through its legacy of grey suburbs and functional markets to the trendy Old Town where foreign visitors carve out their own preserves - protected enclaves with prices to match. Away from Tallinn, Estonia has its surprises: arriving by train at Paldiski's perfect wooden railway station, just an hour west along the coast from the capital, there is little hint of the concrete dereliction that envelops this now abandoned Soviet naval base. Oil shale workings in the northeast around Sillamäe and peat extraction at Lavassaare in the west have created their own industrial landscapes, spots where migrant birds and modern machines contest for primacy in places largely devoid of farms and villages.

Overall, this is a country that expresses itself at a very human scale - in the detail of its moss clad forests, and clapboard fishing villages, its rough erratic remnants of glaciers past, in the arc of a perfect waterfall at Jägala, where a little river tumbles just a few metres over a curved white limestone cliff, and in the studied calm of its townships - places like handsome Räpina with its château and mill, which may for all the world have been transposed from rural Vermont. Or frontier-feel Pölva in the southeast, where the evening promenade along the lakeshore is Estonia at its best. And everywhere, when the weather is right, that unmistakable northern quality of soft dilute light that evokes a seductive appeal. It is a landscape for music, but it is also a landscape for silence - one half expects to stumble across the magnificently bearded septuagenarian composer Arvo Pärt presiding over a precisely timed moment of silence in a forest clearing.

hidden europe has been checking out these different Estonias, tracking a day of capital life and, by way of contrast, exploring the communities on the country's periphery, in southeast Estonia, a region of taiga, meadows and fen where the border between Russia and Estonia cuts through communities.