When you were sitting in geography class at school, the chances are high that Estonia was still lumped in with the USSR and you could never have placed it on a map (writes Amanda Kendle). But things change fast sometimes, and if you're travelling through Europe now, you'll find borders in place to enter this small Baltic nation.
Linguistically very different to its neighbours Russia and Latvia, it's particularly unusual for an eastern European country due to its Finnish and Scandinavian influence; above all, you might just find that Estonia is an unexpectedly friendly nation, and you will end up wanting to stay longer than you planned.
Arriving in Narva
While most travellers head to the Estonian capital of Tallinn, my own Estonian experience began in the far north-east of the country as I crossed the border by bus from Saint Petersburg, Russia. The contrast was immediate. Russia is a fascinating land but it's fair to say that Russian border guards can often be a touch on the surly side. Estonians were the opposite, especially to Western tourists who (unlike the Russians travelling with me, I'm afraid) were not suspected of smuggling contraband cigarettes and other goods over the border.
I felt extraordinarily welcome when I arrived in Narva, a beginning that gave me a rose-coloured view of every day I spent in Estonia. I'd scoped out a hostel in advance and during the walk from the bus station to the hostel, I met a woman who insisted I should come and stay at her house for free, so her son could practice his English; I felt obliged to follow through with my hostel booking, though, and politely turned her down.
At the hostel, there'd been some kind of mixup and the receptionist personally accompanied me to another place to stay that she confidentially told me was even better. And when I'd left my backpack there and strolled into the town centre for a look around, an employee of the tourist information office spotted me from afar, opened the door and beckoned me in, then proceeded to give me a sweet welcoming speech and supply me with every last bit of information I would ever need on Narva. The Estonian friendliness was something I experienced across the country, but it certainly all started in Narva.
A turbulent history
The town of Narva lies directly on the Estonian/Russian border, and with a population of close to 70,000, it is the third-largest city in Estonia. With periods spent under both Russian and Swedish rule, and then having been the focus of hard-fought battles during World War Two, before being absorbed into the Soviet Union, Narva has had a tough history, and still today it's home to a large proportion of Russian speakers as well as native Estonians. But this turbulent history has left some great sightseeing spots, especially the mediaeval Narva Castle on the Narva River, directly on the border. There are also waterfalls, old churches, and even a spa resort close by.
Famed these days for being the most eastern point of the European Union, visiting Narva is one way to help you understand how Estonia really does still have influences both from Europe and from Russia. As you approach Narva Castle – also known as Hermann Castle – you'll see that you can get a view directly into Russia from there, with the Ivangorod fortress facing Narva Castle as if in battle, although all is peaceful these days. If I could go back to Narva soon, I'd check out the castle by night – they now run candle-lit tours there at least once a month, which I think would be a memorable experience.
Timing your trip
My own visit to Narva was in mid-summer, a summer when heat waves were making headlines in other European countries, but when Estonia remained pleasantly cool. Yet the tourist authorities seem big on promoting Narva as an autumn destination, naming it "Estonia's autumn capital", so if you're keen on coloured leaves, do take their advice. And take some of my advice too – get to Narva soon, before their push to increase tourist numbers takes away some of its muddled Estonian/Russian charm.
About the author
Amanda Kendle is an Australian travel writer who has lived in Japan, Slovakia and Germany. She dreams of continuing to travel the world and to publish a novel before she turns forty. You can follow her travel writing life at Not A Ballerina (www.notaballerina.blogspot.com).