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Did You Know … ?
- Ninety-eight percent of Estonia is wired for free access to Wi-Fi.
- Estonia counts more Hummers per person than any other country in the world.
- Over the centuries, an estimated 40,000-plus boats have sunk in Estonian waters.
- Skype, the software that allows for voice calls via the Internet, was invented in Estonia.
- In 2007, Estonia became the first nation to use the Internet for voting in parliamentary elections.
Something old, something new
Estonia is the northernmost of three former Soviet republics on the eastern shore of the Baltic Sea. Since the first decades of the 13th century, it has experienced only two short periods of independence — the first between 1920 and 1940, and the second after breaking free of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Conquering Danes led the way, but were followed by Germans, Swedes and Russians. The Germans stayed the longest, and the evidence for today’s visitors is the somewhat German look of Estonia’s towns. Several towns were members of the Hanseatic League; as a result, the country also boasts a sizeable collection of medieval castles, churches and monasteries of interest to tourists. Two prime sites are the capital Tallinn, which claims Europe’s most intact medieval city center, and Narva, a border town, where two medieval fortresses face each other on opposite sides of the Russian border.
Estonia does not live in the past though. Today, it is a member of the European Union and NATO. Estonians led the way with Skype, e-elections and mobile parking; they regard e-banking, comprehensive wireless connectivity and other technologies as basic.
Just the same, Estonia is rich in folkloric stories and songs. The people value old traditions and honor them with festivals visitors may enjoy. Culturally, Estonia is more influenced by Scandinavia than by Russia despite half a century in the Soviet Union. But its Finno-Ugric language is not related to that of any neighbor except Finland.
Cities are small — Tallinn, the largest, is only 400,000 — and the country offers lots of forests, deserted beaches, numerous islands and the Baltic Sea for those who love the outdoors. For Estonians, the winter sport of choice is cross-country skiing. Just since independence, its athletes have won several Olympic medals in the sport.
During the Soviet era, many Russians relocated to Estonia, particularly Narva, for work. As a result, the country, about 90% ethnically Estonian in 1940, calculates 28% of the population is ethnic Russian and Russian speaking. The situation produces internal tensions; neighboring Russia’s demands for better accommodation of the Russian-speaking population, and even worries about a possible Russian land grab.
Things to do for Venturers
- Sample an Estonian sauna. Be aware the steam is very hot and nudity is normal.
- Go rock or ice climbing on the cliffs along the country’s north coast. Or, rock climbing events arranged by local clubs can involve descending on the sides of buildings or “invading” abandoned military grounds.
- Order dinner with marinated grilled bear as the meat course. Or, try sausages made with deer, horse, moose or wild boar meat.
- Compete in the Tartu Ski Marathon for cross-country skiers. It attracts professional and amateur skiers from around the world.
- Sail amidst Estonia’s numerous islands, or put your hand to the oars for a canoe trip around the same islands or in one of the country’s five national parks.
- Learn how to build a haabjas, a Finno-Ugric canoe carved from a single tree trunk, in Soomaa National Park.
Things to do for Centrics
- Hear choirs of as many as 20,000 sing at the National Song and Dance festivals, held every five years in Tallinn. Thousands participate in folk dance programs, too.
- Spend part of your visit on a bicycle. Larger cities have cycling lanes, but other choices are Lahemaa National Park and Korvemaa National Park for wildlife viewing as well.
- Cross-country skiing is very popular here. Try it even if you aren’t close to being competitive. At some resorts, you can ski at night on lighted trails.
- Choose the Estonian Native Horse, a member of the Northern forest-horse group, as your mode of transport for some sightseeing or a unique riding experience.
- Take a ferry to Saaremaa Island for options as wide ranging as spas for relaxation or summer camps for windsurfers or kite surfers. See Scandinavian-style wooden churches on Saaremaa, and in summer attend one of a series of festivals.
- See the communities of the Russian Orthodox Old Believers as you walk the shoreline of Peipsi Lake. Learn more of Old Believers’ traditions at AmbulARTtoorium, a cultural center in a former pharmacy in Kasepaa village.
Things to do for Authentics
- Sample Estonian beer and the nonalcoholic kali, which is an Estonian-style cola.
- Make medieval architecture a theme as you tour Estonia’s cities and towns, all the better under the tutelage of an informed guide. In summer, attend Hanseatic Days festivities for reenactments of medieval traditions in any of the former Hanseatic League cities: Parnu, Tallinn, Tartu or Viljandi.
- Spend quality time at the KUMU Modern Art Museum in Tallinn.
- Visit the Ski Museum in Otepaa to gain insights into the history of Estonian skiing. You’ll understand the emphasis on the nordic version of the sport; the highest point in the country, Big Egg Hill, is only 1,043 feet above sea level.
- Charter a yacht and crew, and see the coastline in style. The marina at Pirita was built for use during the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics.
- Eat some Estonian favorites: hakklihakaste, a sauce made of minced meat; cabbage stew; meat in jelly, or baked potatoes with pork.
For more information, consult the Estonian Tourist Board at www.visitestonia.com