Category Archives: Estonia

Thoughts on leaving ¨Eastern Europe¨

Passing through the rural areas of the old Warsaw Pact countries we saw many derelict collective buildings and were constantly reminded of the depopulation of the countryside since 1989. It was a strong reminder of the inefficiency of the collective system. Fewer people produce more food today, and the living standard of the population is very much higher.

Derelict collective farm buildings

In the cities, we went to exhibits on the Soviet occupation. The most striking museum exhibit for me, just showed: a toilet, a public phone booth, and a food store …. all from the Soviet era. Striking for me because I had seen exactly the same things in Russia itself (but not in a museum). The command economy, political repression, and the collective structures made for a miserable life for those who lived under Stalin and subsequent Soviet leaders.

As is often the case in our travels, I am reminded how lucky I was to be born in ¨The West¨. This time, however, I came to realise that I owe a huge debt to those who supplied England with food during the early years of WWII, especially the merchant seamen who risked their lives in the North Atlantic. Without them, and the food and armaments they delivered,  I suspect Stalin would have ended up controlling all of Europe. My life would have been very different.


Saaremaa & Hiiumaa

I was going to call this post “The Väinammeri Sea” just to make you-scratch your heads – but we are more land than water oriented. Väinammeri is the name of the “Sea of Straights” that these Western Estonian islands embrace. It’s shallow, less saline than the rest of the Baltic – which in turn is less saline than the Atlantic – and stays frozen  longer. It’s home to some endemic marine species, as well as being important stopover for migratory birds that use the Eastern Atlantic Flyway.

2013/06/13: Train plus 91 km to Liiva on Muhu Island
On Thursday morning, we bid Suzanne and T farewell and took a train SW to Parnu. We rode to the ferry and crossed to Muhu, the little “doormat” island that is attached to Saaremaa by a causeway built in the 1800s, and camped at an organized site.

2013/06/14:  53 km to Triigi
The wind was howling from the south, so we only rode a shortish way to the next ferry to Hiiumaa, rather than go south to Kuressare with its castle. Actually, we decided we’d seen enough castles for a while, and wouldn’t mind giving a tourist centre a miss. Our actual route took us by a fourteenth century church and five traditional windmills.

Unlike the mainland, the islands have rock available for stone walls.

Unlike Dutch windmills the entire structure is turned to face the wind.

We arrived at Triigi, the tiny place the ferry goes from, about noon in pouring rain. The fellow at the tiny café regaled us with tales of Finns who had cottages on the islands, and of all the interesting things we should have done in eastern Estonia near the Russian border. He was from Tartu.

The ferry only goes twice a day, and next one was at 8:00 p.m. which would have us arrive late in bad weather in a town with a jazz festival in full swing. Instead, we stayed in a simple dorm room attached to the administration building, complete with kitchen and sauna, and waited till the next morning’s 9:30 a.m. ferry. We read, dozed, used the sauna, and cooked a supper of pannier dregs.

2013/06/15:  90 km to a Room with a View
A horse trailer with two fine mounts got onto the evening ferry, and the next morning so did a truckload of a horses plus another trailer. All were fine beasts with braided manes all ready for a show. I talked to one of the accompanying girls — all with long blonde braided hair — and there was to be a show jumping competition in Kardla at the north tip of Hiiumaa.

We rode north to the ferry back to the mainland, stopping at a church ruin. Miles of flat sandy ground with areas of juniper scrub  and open pine forest. We met two German touring couples of our vintage. On the mainland we found a “health trail” which was actually the old rail bed. The train from Tallinn no longer runs all the way to Haapsaalu.

We followed rail bed for about 40 km,  but it was mostly a raised bed several metres above wet forest and bog, with few camping possibilities. We got to a trail-side picnic table, and there was also a 10 m high observation tower, so Chris suggested we set up the tent at the TOP of the tower! There would be fewer bugs. The tent just fit on the platform, and we set up the siltarp across the railings as a mini-fly. I was put off by the height, at first; the idea of sleeping so near the edge worried me, but it was actually just fine. A room with a view. An eagle’s nest.

Tent at top of 10m tower, by old rail road bed.

View of rail bed from our front door.

2013/06/16:  41 km plus train to Tallinn
Next morning we saw a fox on the rail bed. We rode to Riispere where the “health trail” ends and the train still runs, arriving 10 min before one of the infrequent trains left for Tallinn, and so we hopped on.

Bikes on trains Estonian style

The conductress spoke Russian and I managed to tell her we were 60, so we got very inexpensive “pansyoneer” tickets. The train only goes to 10 km outside the city centre at Paaskula, so we rode the last part into Tallinn rather than switch to a bus with other passengers. This final ride gave us a different view of Tallinn than we got from our stay in the old town: Appealing suburbs, coffee shops, and the ski jumpers’ training facility.

We went straight to the harbour to try and get on a boat that evening, but there were only very expensive tickets left.  Also, there were loads of drunken Finns, many towing shopping trolleys full of cheap booze homeward, and some also trailed by Estonian women with whom I suspect they had commercial relationships.

We found our way to a low key hotel, stayed there, and booked our crossing for the next morning. We’d  also booked a hostel in Helsinki, and written ahead (as suggested by Louise’s Finnish O coach) to a bike shop for an appointment to replace drive train parts –chains and more to see us to Nordkapp and southward again.

I’ve just realized that Finland will be the 35th country our Surlys will have seen. All aboard! And off we jolly well go.



2013/06/08-12: City Tourists
We rolled into the city on a Sunday afternoon, and checked into the well-appointed two bedroom apartment that T’s cousins had helped him choose. It was right in the old town. There was a claw foot tub right in our bedroom, and it even had a small sauna that we used several times!

Chris and I spent our first day learning to use the trams and buses, and navigating to a shopping centre in the new city where we bought me a replacement camera and checked out a large bike shop.

The old town is extensive, and it’s beautiful just to walk and take in views of fortifications and of church spires down narrow cobbled streets. We did a few of the numerous museums, including Kiek en de Kok tower and a tour of the bastion tunnels which are being restored.

City buildings from the 1600s abound

There are a host of shops selling amber, linens, and high fashion clothing and accessories of Estonian design. The avant garde blends with medieval here, and visual treats greet the eye at every turn. Apparently the president and his wife were recently on a state visit to Canada, where his wife strutted in an extravagant wardrobe –purportedly to showcase Estonian designers. She left Laureen Harper, the Canadian Prime Minister’s wife, looking very modest in contrast. Viive had complained that this consumerist display was inappropriate when 45,000 children continue to go to school hungry, mainly in rural areas. A valid complaint, we think.

Tallinn is a stopover point for cruise ships. From mid-morning to late afternoon their passengers come ashore and the streets of the old town fill, often with groups wearing stickers or labels to designate which ship they’ve come from. Suzanne went for peaceful walks early each morning. Things are quiet again in the evenings, as they all go back to their ships by late afternoon for their included dinners.

On our final day, Suzanne and I went souvenir shopping together. Suzanne bought a few amber items, and we both indulged in table linens. Flax was historically grown in Estonia and some cultivation continued until 2001; the country still processes fibre imported from Lithuania and Latvia where it is still grown. In the area near Karski, the historic Mulgi landowners became wealthy by growing flax and processing the fibre into linen.


We have put our pictures of Tallinn here.

Estonia up Closer

It feels as if we’ve slowed down to look at things more closely in Estonia. This  was partly planned because we re travelling with T, our Eesti interpreter, whose local contacts, language skills and background  knowledge have added depth to our experiences. It’s also been interesting to see his Eesti persona emerge, and note the differences between this alter-ego and his Canadian persona that we’ve known for over 30 years.

2013/06/06: Viljandi and Local Sights

Entering Fortress

After a round of dutiful bike maintenance,Viive took as to Viljandi, with its fortress built by the Knights of the Sword. She also gave us a tour of the modern and well-equipped school where she teaches English to ages 7 to 15.  School had just finished for the year, and only teachers and administrators were about, but interesting discussion of education and social issues in Estonia ensued. The school was modern, bright, and well-equipped.

We also visited the farm belonging to Raul’s parents, where we were treated to freshly pressed juice made from their sea buckthorn berries. It took some discussion and later searching to identify these bright berries that grew on low prickly trees.  It is a dioecious species (male or female plants like kiwis) native to Asia, which is happy to grow in  the sandy soil found here.

In the evening, after dinner of a large barbecued Norwegian salmon, some of the photos Viive and Aivar  took on their trip to Canada reminded us of the strength of the ties between Estonians here and in the diaspora. T’s parents left after World War 2 as did many,  but the ties are still actively maintained some 70 years later.

2013/06/07: 107 km to Turi
Back on the road, we stopped to tour the “English style”  Olustvere Manor House, cooked supper in a bus shelter during a rainstorm, and camped in a municipal park at Turi. We had been directed here by locals lads, there was a designated camping area and there was no charge.

2013/06/08: 76 km to Kohila

Water at cafe comes with sea buckthorn berries and lemon

We had seen there was a Warmshowers host located in Kohila, just south of Tallinn, a location that would allow us to enter the city early the following day. Our host not only responded quickly to the request we’d made a day earlier, but rode to meet us, as did a friend of his. What a welcome!

Warmshowers is about making contact with local kindred spirits. Not only do we get local knowledge, but we also share travel tips. Madis (a polyglot who speaks 7 or 8 languages!) is planning his own ride from here to Portugal, starting later this summer. Chris and T accompanied him to gather birch and oak branches in the forest, and we had a welcome sauna.

2013/06/09: 46 km to Tallinn

CEO of Skype´s private residence, in village outside Tallinn

Five of us rode to Saku with Madis showing us local sights, and after a coffee stop four continued to Tallinn. Here The T had booked a two bedroom apartment in the old city.


Soomaa Rahvuspark

2013/06/05: Three Kayaks and a Canoe
Our hosts Viive, Aivar, Kati and Raul organized an outing with kayaks and canoes to the nearby national park that embraces Estonia’s largest area of bogs, meadows and forests. The outing involved a 10 km paddle downstream, with a side trip on foot into what is one of the largest bogs in Europe. It was fascinating –a memorable day.

It involved logistics that must have taken considerable effort; there were three kayaks, a canoe, a trailer and two vehicles involved, and one car was shuttled forward.

The park is critical habitat for migratory birds, but most of the northward migration is over, so there were not many avians. We were all captivated by the teal coloured insects that darted about, and landed on reeds with wings folded. I had brought my small camera, whereas Chris had wisely left the SLR at home. I took it as a challenge to get some shots of the  bright blue insects, and after getting what I thought were a few good ones, I tucked the camera into my sun hat at my feet. When yet another horse fly sank its teeth into my shoulder, I grabbed the hat to swat it –forgetting that the camera was inside. Splash! The camera was soon in the depths of the muddy river. Sigh. The day was so special, that I decided not to let this incident spoil it.

Part of what drives the ecology of this area is a “fifth season” of flooding, and we stopped to look at markings of recent water levels, to see where traditional Finno-Ugric canoes were carved from a single log, and to follow a board walk though wet forest into one of the bogs.

The only other group we met was a local naturalist guiding a pair of German tourists. They carried plastic snowshoes; these are what are used if you want to leave the board-walk to go bog-shoeing. A later meeting with the naturalist involved an interesting discussion of the various natural processes that drive the formation and development of bogs.

Deep into the bog, we reached a small clear lake. We dove into the cool water from a wooden platform, quickly learning that it was fed by cold springs, and that water temperature varied abruptly from place to place.