JOHN’S JOURNEYS: The Baltic buffer-states.I
John Burke starts in northerly Estonia
Estonians in traditional dress © JOHN BURKE
In the north-east corner of Europe are three small lands that have striking ethnic, linguistic and religious differences, while even their capitals have varying ideas about trams and trolley-buses. Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius are all World Heritage sites, a designation that has helped their countries revive their ancient cultures, following a human chain stretching 419 miles in 1988 to regain independence.
The trio’s traditional manifestations of patriotic folklore range from rustic exhibitions to singing festivals. This is because their eight million inhabitants share the same history and geography, being sandwiched amid forests between the Baltic Sea and Russia which ruled them for most of last century and long before that.
The smallest and northernmost of the Baltic states is Estonia that is still double the size of Wales or New Jersey. Its language is so close to that of Finland across the eponymous Gulf that, during the Cold War, the majority of its 1¼ million inhabitants could at least enjoy television from a free country. Even today, however, one Estonian in four is of Russian extraction.
The longest of 1,500 lakes forms most of the eastern border with Russia, while the largest four of several islands, all good for bird-watching, are off the west coast of what is a low-lying land that attracts cyclists. The hilly south-east, with its many castles, barely reaches 1,014 feet.
Looking towards the harbour © JOHN BURKE
The capital, Tallinn, used to ship tar, tallow and timber to England when it was called Revel by German colonists who brought it into the Hanseatic League, the common market of its time. The port is a good place to start, being easily reached from Helsinki within two hours by Silja Line. The first landmark in the bay is an angel atop a cairn that commemorates a shipwreck in 1893, but the skyline is dominated by the 314-metre television tower that has an observation platform.
St Olaf’s has the highest spire, but the one belonging to the oldest townhall around the shores of the Baltic offers the best view of the cobbled marketplace. Guildhouses and museums line the winding lanes of old Tallinn where many of the guides, waiters and street-vendors wear clothes of the Middle Ages.
Tallinn’s town hall, dating from 1372 © JOHN BURKE
Walls with 26 towers surround the centre of what is one of Europe’s finest mediaeval towns that was later crowned by a Russian Orthodox cathedral. This almost overshadows the white Lutheran one mentioned above, and there are several other fine churches, although most Estonians are agnostic.
Other sights include the military cemetery to which the bronze statue of a Red Army soldier was relocated in 2007 after nationalists protested against its longtime central location. Estonia, along with Latvia and Lithuania, was invaded in 1940 by the Red Army, and although pushed out by Nazi forces, it re-occupied the Baltic states from 1944 until 1991.
Close to town is the Estonian Open Air Museum, the re-creation of a fishing/rural village from the eighteenth century where the attractions range from handicrafts to horseriding. Visitors can also sample local dishes that include various types of bread and ubiquitous potatoes. Other staples are sour cream, Russian soups, all kinds of sausage, smoked and salted fish.
The lively centre of Tartu © JOHN BURKE
It takes only another two hours southeastwards by bus to reach Tartu, the oldest town in the Baltics, whose uneven-sided main square is surrounded by classical buildings. At the top end is the pink and red townhall of 1789, surmounted by a clock tower complete with bells that ring out daily. Christmas Peace is proclaimed from the steps, yet in sight of a hammer and sickle still on the façade of 5 Town Hall Square.
Within walking distance of the central fountain in the form of two students kissing beneath an umbrella are St John’s, a church in red brick, and an artists’ centre as well as Le Coq’s brewery which offers tours. There is no shortage of ale, stout and lager in Estonia whose other leading brewers are Saku and Viru Olu.
Among several other museums in Tartu is the municipal one reached by a temporary footbridge over the lazy River Emajogi. In 1784, this was spanned by the first stone bridge in the Baltics, thanks to Catherine the Great of Russia, and although destroyed in the Second World War, there are plans to rebuild it with another 3,000 blocks of granite.
Tartu also boasts the first university in northern Europe, having been founded in 1632 by Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden whose statue stands outside the white palladian edifice. A curiosity is the ancient lock-up for unruly students, but there is a more sinister prison – as in the other Baltic states – that only the brave will visit.
Memorial outside the KGB building © JOHN BURKE
Tartu has preserved the underground cells in former offices of the Soviet secret police as a reminder of the Communist era. Among military measures intended to avert a repeat of history, NATO has installed a cyber-defence centre in Estonia.
My next article will see me in Latvia, after which I will visit the slightly larger land of Lithuania which is the southernmost of these buffer-states. The entire journey is best done by bus because the old Russian rail system has yet to be converted to pan-European gauge and speed, besides which there are no direct trains between the three capitals.