Heading north for the summer already seemed a strange decision for someone who likes nothing more than sweating heavily while drinking colourful cocktails on an exotic beach (writes Julia Ossena). Estonia wasn’t my choice in the first place, but after losing a ludicrous bet involving the Eurovision song contest I ended up roaming the streets of charming Tallinn for a few days.
And I have to admit I was instantly seduced. The medieval feel of the cobbled streets, the dolls' house look-a-like buildings, the vast main square lined up with inviting cafes and restaurants serving hearty food and a never-ending amount of cheap beer…
However Tallinn is not my very fondest memory of this Baltic wonder of a country - that accolade goes to Saaremaa Island. All I wanted was a glimpse of something else, a drop of countryside, an easy getaway from the touristy crowd pouring into the Estonian capital. My finger gliding lazily across the map, it hit the separate rock of Saaremaa almost by mistake, instantly sealing the turn that my holidays were about to take.
The next day I hopped on a four hour bus ride to the west coast, staring through the window at the beautiful deep forests and unidentified quirky villages we passed. Reaching the harbour town of Virtsu felt like waking up from a deep sleep. We boarded a ferry for a 30-minute crossing, the ship sailing heavily on the deep blue of the Baltic Sea, its bright little flags flapping in the warm summer wind over my head.
The simple pleasures of nature
Saaremaa is the largest island in Estonia, covering a total of 2,673 km². The lovely town of Kuressaare is the main stop for most visitors to the island. Its centre boasts a lovely castle surrounded by a moat, a handful of lively bars and restaurants, and a provincial charming atmosphere, with mostly Estonian tourists as your neighbours: a world away from the herd of British-lads-on-stag-nights you regularly come across in Tallinn.
Away from its centre, Kuressaare is a sleepy community, its green suburbs peppered with colourful wooden houses reminiscent of typical Scandinavian architecture. Old fashioned cars sleep in quiet courtyards, neatly tidied gardens burst with blooming flowers, and wooden fences barely hide away families enjoying the summer sun in a moment in time that seems frozen in the 1960s.
Renting a car was the best move I did there, allowing myself the freedom to discover at my own pace through the extensive countryside of this beautifully quaint island. I drove endlessly through pine forests, along glorious poppy fields, to remote emerald meteorite craters and sparkling lakes where a sparse crowd was enjoying the simple pleasures of the outdoors like napping under a tree, camping on the beach, building a campfire or canoeing on the pristine water.
Although Estonia turns into a freezing and snowy land during the winter months, the vegetation there amazed me as I walked through sceneries that wouldn’t have looked misplaced on the French Riviera, the smell of pine certainly emphasising the lovely summery feel I hadn’t expected for such a northern part of Europe.
A long-awaited independence
As I reached the stunning range of the Panga cliffs on the north-western coast of Saaremaa I couldn’t help thinking of the sometimes-violent history of this region: as the wealthiest county of ancient Estonia, it quickly became for many an object of envy, and the islanders had to endure regular skirmishes with Vikings as well as notorious Estonian pirates, before being passed from hand to hand along the centuries by Denmark, Sweden, Russia, and then Germany during World War One.
Despite gaining its independence after Russia’s October Revolution in 1917, it was occupied again by Nazi Germany from 1941 until 1944, when Russia violently expelled the invader in a battle whose scars can still be seen scattered on the island: from forgotten Soviet WWII cemeteries sleeping at the end of bucolic countryside lanes to the remains of destroyed bunkers at the very southern tip of the island, by Sõrve Lighthouse. After the war, Saaremaa became a restricted zone closed to foreigners and most mainland Estonians. It stayed so until the 1989 collapse of the Eastern Bloc and the country’s independence two years later.
Saaremaa’s bumpy history and its newly found balance shine through its general atmosphere. As you lose yourself around this quaint and laid-back corner of the Baltics there is truly a feeling of newly found land, a fresh feeling of unexplored countryside, as if the place was a few decades behind our mad modern pace of life. Estonians are true nature lovers and enjoy their short but intense summer to its full.
Discovering Saaremaa is an unforgettable experience if you’re ready to give up your watch and experience the ever long days of this north European marvel. Those who relish endless nights of clubbing, full English breakfast and afternoons of shopping should definitely give it a miss. Saaremaa offers its secrets and colours to those ready to get baffled by the sky, the sea, and the stars, to feel far from everything yet part of the whole beauty of nature.
About the author
Julia Ossena is a French freelance travel journalist living in London. She has traveled extensively around Asia and Europe, and describes herself of being most proud of her year-long camping trip around the "old continent".