Thursday, June 09, 2016

Estonian Countryside

When there are about 5 hours between a sunset and a sunrise, the term 'nightlife' essentially loses its relevance. Thus happens with Estonian summers, though the light doesn't deter the revelling of pub-hoppers through the night in cities. The countryside, however, is a different story.

About 200 Kms southwest of Tallinn lies the island of Saaremaa, the biggest island of Estonia situated between the Baltic Sea and the Gulf of Riga. The journey from Tallinn to Kuressaare, the island's capital, is one of the most picturesque routes in this part of the world. Buses from Tallinn drive southwest to Virtsu, a small port town on mainland Estonia. The route passes through a number of small, pretty villages where the buses make stops. They then ride straight on to a ferry at the Virtsu port. The ferries, carrying people and vehicles, take about 30 minutes to cross the Suur Strait to reach Kuivastu on the Muhu island. The buses get off the ferry and ride on to Saaremaa on a bridge that connects Muhu and Saaremaa islands. The journey from Muhu to Saaremaa is densely forested and is even more enchanting than the mainland. The buses themselves, operated by the Lux Express Group, are an ultra-modern fleet replete with television screens for every seat, a collection of movies and songs, and an on-board WiFi throughout the route validating Estonia's claim to be one of the most wired countries in the world. Estonia, just to mention, serves as a model country for free internet access mostly throughout its land area.

Saaremaa island retains its old world charm of having villages with stone fences, houses with thatched roofs, and windmills from the days of yore. Products and artifacts made of juniper wood are common all across, and the island also hosts two nature reserves that protect its rich flora and fauna. Kuressaare itself is probably one of the sleepiest island towns that has little in terms of tourist attractions and activities. There are very few tourists at this time of the year, and probably the lack of any budget accommodation further deters solo travelers and backpackers. The only sight worth visiting is the Kuressaare Castle dating from the 13th century, one of the best preserved medieval fortifications in Estonia. It is now a museum that hosts a permanent exhibition on the history of Saaremaa: a history chequered with wars, and especially the much detested Soviet occupation. The museum dedicates a floor to the Cult of Communism, the destruction brought about by collectivism, and the propaganda tools used during the occupation.

Walking around Kuressaare is difficult as the wind makes it extremely chilly to stay outdoors for long, and awkwardly enough, most places seem to be closed for the good part of the day. Kuressaare might appear dead for those with expectations of a beach-side liveliness. A breakfast at my hotel surrounded by septuagenarians reaffirmed the profile of visitors the island attracts. There isn't much to do while being here other than enjoying the overdose of cheese in local dishes (the islanders love cheese), building a taste for the tangy black bread made of rye, sipping home-brewed beer available almost everywhere, and resting at peace.

Two things stayed with me at the end of today: the drive through the Muhu island, and this quote from the Saaremaa museum - "Capitalism is the exploitation of man by man, socialism is the other way round."


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