It was way into summer when I considered doing a short solo travel trip in September. Just me and my backpack but without travelling too far away as I only had 2 weeks of vacation. I wanted to go to a region where I had not been before and while my eyes wandered over my map of Europe, they always came back to the three northern countries by the Baltic Sea: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
Searching for pictures and inspiration, I found that I knew even less about the Baltic States than I had initially assumed: I read about their long history of being ruled by foreign countries, empires and classes and about their completely different languages. I was intrigued and wanted to find out more. My way to do this was to book a ticket to Tallinn, Estonia’s capital city, travel across the country towards Latvia and finish my journey in Vilnius, Lithuania.
This is the first part of my travel series about the Baltics where I will tell you about my experiences, impressions and pictures of my first destination, Estonia.
My start in Tallinn was a bit rough: my couchsurfing host had cancelled my stay 2 days before arrival and the city welcomed me with dark, grey weather. I was optimistic to find a couch or hostel though and wandered through the old city centre, writing messages and asking other backpackers on the street where they were staying. The third or fourth hostel was a success, I quickly stowed away my belongings and went back outside.
Tallinn’s medieval oldtown is listed as UNESCO World Cultural Heritage and its narrow houses and cobbled alleys are beautiful to look at. There are several smaller shops and galleries, most of them targeted at tourists and many selling amber jewellery. I was wondering about the amber and about the matryoshka dolls since there is not much amber found in Estonia (and the dolls are from Russia, obviously). I was told that the amber is often not coming from Estonia and that the articles that are sold in these little shops were rather a mishmash of Russian, Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian tradional things. Also, the Russian influence is apparent in Tallinn with many people speaking both languages.
Altogether, my impression was that the oldtown was beautiful but somehow I did not feel its charme. Maybe it was the weather or because of my impression that there were only tourists in the streets. The city centre didn’t feel lived in.
I had made no plans as to how long I will stay where but I knew on my second day in Tallinn that I already wanted to move on. I didn’t question my feeling and hopped on the next bus to Tartu, leaving out Lahemaa National Park as I found it difficult to find a cheap stay that was close enough to the park. So, Tartu is was!
I liked Tartu immediately. After finding a hostel right in the city centre, I walked around, exploring the town. There is a very nice botanical garden in the north of the city that I visited after going along the river. Everything seemed to be at peace, tidy and, at the same time, not arranged. I left the Toome Hill Park and the south of the city for my second day: the Toome Hill Park is built around the Tartu Cathedral and home to several statues of persons that have contributed to the scientific or literary history of Tartu. Leaving the park, I came across the so-called Devil’s bridge (pictured above), a rare example of a concrete bridge from the early 20th century. Going a bit out of the city centre, I passed many of the traditional wooden houses, reminiscent of the ones you can find in Scandinavia.
Tartu is Estonia’s University City, there are quite many young people in the streets and there is a range of nice little cafés and bars. However, I never felt that it was crowded or loud in Tartu. The city feels young, very digital (there is free WiFi almost everywhere in Estonia) and full of science, culture and art.
I went to a mesmerizing alternative dance performance with a girl from the hostel but not before visiting the great Science Centre AHHAA. If you happen to visit Tartu, please go there, no matter if you have kids or not. They explain science in a simple way and you can test and check out many exhibits yourself.
After three days in Tartu, my stay in Estonia was coming to an end. As I had not been to any national park in Estonia, I wanted to leave for the Gauja National Park in Latvia, going through Valga at the border. I gave hitchkiking a go but soon had to realise that it was not working out. They say it is near impossible to hitchhike in Finland and maybe the Estonians really are close to the Finnish not only in terms of language but also when it comes to mentality – I think I would have waited many more hours holding up my thumb if I had not decided to better rely on regular transportation.
So, in the end, I left Estonia with mixed feelings: I liked Tartu a lot and recommend everyone with a little interest in culture and science to go there. The country is also covered with beautiful, dense and deep green forests that will blow you away if you are loving nature. I found it difficult to get through to the locals though. I still had a wonderful time with fellow travellers but I feel like I missed a huge aspect of what Estonia is about, how it is seen and lived through the eyes of an Estonian person.
Have you been to Estonia? What were your impressions, what did you like the most?