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Hot Spot: Welcome to the Estonian Age

Touristclick Estonia Travel News

Hot Spot: Welcome to the Estonian Age

by The Times

Singing festivals, goat hunting and competitive wife-carrying are just some of the pastimes enjoyed by this fun-loving population , writes Shelley Emling

Estonia, the smallest of the Baltic states, is known for many things — its medieval buildings, fascinating history, and penchant for self-preservation during Soviet occupation.

But as I learned from an Estonian Air magazine article during my flight from London, Estonia is also notable for being unbeatable in competitive wife-carrying.

This July, Estonia reigned supreme yet again, winning its 11th title at the Wife-Carrying World Championships in Finland, in which dozens of men hoisted wives over their shoulders and ran a 276m obstacle course.

As I would discover over my four days in Tallinn, the capital city of 400000 people, it’s simply another whimsical pastime enjoyed by a fun-loving population seeking to make the most of the scant northern summer.

During my stay, I made a gallant effort to learn all I could about the walled Old Town, the best-preserved medieval town in northern Europe, where many buildings and alleyways date back to the Middle Ages.

I climbed 118 steps to the top of the gothic Town Hall, which dates back to 1404, and — especially with its green dragon-head drainpipes — is the jewel in the crown of Old Town.

From there I had a bird’s-eye view of Town Hall Square, a place with contemporary cafés but also the oldest active pharmacy in Europe, still operating on the same spot it occupied in 1422.

I even took a two-hour bike tour outside the Old Town that led me to Kadriorg Park, home of the highly regarded Estonian Art Museum as well as the residence of the Estonian president.

But whenever I encountered an Estonian, he or she didn’t want to talk about architecture or history or even shopping. All they wanted to talk about was Laulupidu, or the Estonian Song Festival.

Estonia has one of the largest collections of folk songs in the world, and every five years as many as 30000 people in a country of 1.3 million gather in an enormous amphitheatre in Tallinn to sing their hearts out. The next festival is in the summer of 2009.

Everywhere I went I was urged to return for the event, which Estonians say has united the nation in the face of foreign occupiers for more than a century.

After centuries of being fought over by foreign powers, the country declared independence in 1918, only to have the Soviet Union invade in 1939.

Freed from Soviet rule after communism collapsed, Estonia became an independent country again in 1991.

Since then Estonia has worked hard to develop its tourism industry, successfully transforming itself into a “boutique destination”, mostly for Europeans. Thousands of luxury hotel rooms have appeared in recent years.

Visitors can still expect lots of cobblestone streets, museums, and churches, of which the Alexander Nevsky Russian Orthodox Cathedral is one of the prettiest.

But they can also expect a plethora of fashionable restaurants where there’s nary a jellied eel in sight.

One of the best, the Stenhus inside the Schlossle Hotel, serves dishes such as black cod with coconut and horseradish sauce in an intimate atmosphere of 13th-century vaulted ceilings.

Throughout the Old Town there are also lots of shops peddling amber jewellery, linens, marzipan and juniper wood boxes and kitchen utensils.

But the real attraction is the Estonian people themselves.

One woman introduced me to the lovely taste of rosolje, a pink salad made with beets, herring, apples, carrots, mayonnaise and a smidgen of Dijon mustard.

When asked her plans for the weekend, she told me she was going goat hunting in the same matter-of-fact way I might have said I was planning to go grocery shopping .

Who knew that many tourists travel to Estonia just for the thrill of tracking down elk, deer, goat, wild boar and even beaver?

Another woman — this one a waitress — enticed a friend and me into a place called the Clazz Club just off the main square for an evening of salsa lessons.

Here, on a medium-sized dance floor heaving with romantic sensuality, women wearing clingy tops with one or no straps moved in step with equally exuberant partners as a female teacher offered encouragement in a mixture of Estonian and English.

Rarely have I seen a group of people having such a good time.

Another joy of this country is that it’s not overrun with tourists — or with residents, for that matter.

On a one-hour tour of Tallinn aboard a hop-on, hop-off double-decker bus, I was told that Holland is smaller than Estonia in size, but has 11 times the number of people.

As a result, unlike other European capitals, Tallinn was amazingly quiet even on a weekend morning in June.

All in all, Tallinn is a city that has regained its mojo following years of Soviet repression.

And it has the goat hunting and salsa dancing and singing festivals to prove it. — Cox News Service


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