One of the best-loved stories in Estonia is about a mute child born to a village woodcutter. The child grew up without speaking at all and hardly noticed by anyone. One day his father took his grown son into the forest and began to saw down the first tree. As the tree began to topple over, the boy shouted out, ‘Watch out! It’s falling!’ His father was astonished and asked, ‘Why did you never speak before?’ His son replied, ‘I never needed to until now.’ Many similar stories reflect the quiet and reserved character of the Estonians.
Estonia lies on the northeast coast of the Baltic Sea, south of the Gulf of Finland and north of Latvia. The Estonians are possibly the oldest inhabitants of Europe, having lived here for between 10,000 and 15,000 years, yet not until the period between the first and second world wars did they enjoy their first brief taste of independence. For many centuries the country was dominated by German landowners, later coming under the rule of Sweden, and in 1710 passing into Russian hands.
A short spell as an independent nation came to an end after World War II when Estonia became part of the Soviet Union. The country regained its independence in 1991, and today has a population of 1.5 million, although there were times in the past when war and pestilence decimated the inhabitants to less than 100,000. I was in the capital Tallinn for the Old Town Days Festival, and after days of rain the weather had fortunately cleared up for this colorful celebration, which was even more exuberant than usual in honor of the tenth anniversary of independence. This year the Russians and Ukrainians were participating for the first time. All-day long there were events at various spots inside the city walls, including ax throwing contests, competitions to see who could drink the most beer, and displays of the extraordinary Estonian swing which revolves through a full 360-degree circle. Folk dancing displays continued all day at the foot of the Kiek in die Kok Tower, and under the pretense of watching these, I took the opportunity to rest.
Tallinn is a very beautiful city which reminds me of Prague, although with far fewer tourists which makes the atmosphere more authentic. You can read the entire history of Estonia in the buildings of the old walled city, which was originally founded on this limestone elevation by the Vikings who captured Estonia in 1219. Tallinn went on to become an important trading center for the region, only losing this position when the Russians founded St. Petersburg in 1703. Little change occurred in Estonia for the next two centuries until the Soviet Union ushered in a period of intensive industrialization, building gigantic factories and high-rise housing estates for their workers on the outskirts of the city.
The town of Haapsalu on the west coast is a picturesque place of wooden houses painted in different colours, clean streets and a single traffic light, which the inhabitants deliberately ignore!
This defiance of authority struck a sympathetic chord and made me feel quite at home. I swam at the so-called African Beach and was astonished to find the water warm since the previous winter I had walked on the sea at the same spot when it was iced over.
On the motorboat carrying us to the nearby island of Vormsi, an Estonian girl explained that in winter people hitch lifts from cars driving to the island across the ice. While the journey by boat can take several hours, by car it takes just a few minutes. The island of Vormsi remained under the influence of Swedish culture for longer than anywhere else in Estonia, and the road signs are still in Swedish. Estonia has so many islands that it might be described as the Greece of the Baltic, and the best way to get around them is by bicycle, which is what I did. The liveliest of the islands I visited was Kihnu, which is more densely populated than Vormsi.
My next stop was the inland city of Viljandi in the south of the country. Known as the City of Artists this is one of my favorite places in Estonia. It was here that I encountered a curious example of creative genius while strolling in a park early one morning. I passed a group of people, who seemed to have been there all night, listening to music. But they had neither a cassette player nor radio, only an iron. When I got closer I realized that the music was coming out of the iron!
There are some interesting connections between Estonia and Turkey. Last year the Estonian papers reported the news that Turkey had nominated the popular Estonian president Lennart Meri, who led the country into independence, for the Nobel Peace Prize. A Turkish firm is one of the most prominent in the Estonian timber industry, and many people are to be seen riding bicycles manufactured in Turkey. I even saw two small boys dressed in the uniform of the Turkish Beşiktaş football team, including the star and crescent motif.
In the post-World War II era, Estonia became the most economically developed and well-educated republic in the Soviet Union, with a literacy rate of 98 percent. Young Estonians are keen to travel and get to know different cultures, and (so long as you do not ask if their mother tongue is Finnish or Russian) extend a warm and friendly welcome to foreigners who come to see their own country.