With two weeks free between stints at our Swiss housesit, we headed north to the Baltic Sea to visit Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, and Riga, the capital of Latvia. Tallinn is the farthest north (almost 60 degrees latitude) and the farthest east in Europe we’ve ever been. It’s also the first place we’ve visited that used to be part of the Soviet Union. (Estonia became independent in 1991.)
First, some geography. Estonia is the northernmost of the three small nations that were known as the Baltic Republics in the USSR (the other two are Latvia and Lithuania). Estonia is bordered on the north and west by the Baltic Sea, on the east by Russia, and on the south by Latvia. Just across the sea to the north is Finland.
We spent a week in Tallinn, wandering all over the city and visiting lots of museums. We also took a day-long excursion to Lahemaa National Park on Estonia’s northern coast (with the very good Travelers Tours) and then a four-hour bus ride through the countryside to Latvia. So our impressions of Estonia are based on what we learned from those experiences, which inevitably skipped large parts of the country.
- Estonia is very flat. Its highest point is just over 1,000 feet, and that’s far inland, a long way from where we were. The flatness was especially noticeable since we were coming from central Switzerland, where we look out our windows at a mountain almost 6,000 feet high, with much taller peaks in the distance.
- Estonia feels sparsely populated. The nation has 1.3 million people in an area the size of the Netherlands (which has a population of 17 million). One-third of Estonians live in Tallinn, so the rest of the country is even more thinly settled. You can drive a long way and see only fields or pine forests, with houses few and far between.
- I was surprised by how blond and pale Estonians tend to be. To my eye, they resemble Scandinavians more than Eastern Europeans.
- Estonians have a reputation—well deserved, in our experience—for being shy and reserved. (But then, so do the Swiss, so it wasn’t much change for us.) No one smiles or even looks at you when you pass on the sidewalk. Service in restaurants and shops is usually competent but not particularly friendly. The guide on our national park tour said that, like many Estonians, he’s uncomfortable with small talk but is happy to converse when he has information to impart. The reputation for being standoffish applies to all three Baltic nations, but apparently even the Latvians think their Estonian neighbors are especially quiet and buttoned up. A Latvian joke: “How do you know an Estonian is an extrovert? Because he looks at your shoes when talking to you instead of his own!”
- The area that is now Estonia has been kicked around like a football for at least 800 years. At various times it was controlled by Denmark, Germany’s Teutonic Knights, Sweden, Poland, or Russia. It managed to become an independent nation, for the first time in its history, in 1918. After just two decades, it was occupied by the Soviets early in World War II, “liberated” by Nazi Germany, and then coerced back into the Soviet Union after the war. The period from 1940 to 1991 (when the country regained its independence) isn’t remembered fondly by most Estonians who lived through it.
- Today, Estonia is looking west with all its might. It’s a member of the European Union and NATO and hopes beyond hope that those alliances will protect it against Russian expansion of the sort seen in 2014 when Russia annexed the Crimean region of Ukraine. One Estonian we talked to described bordering Russia as like living next to a volcano: You can’t worry about it 24 hours a day, but you never forget it’s there.
- The southern border with Latvia is a crazy zigzag. For most of history, Estonia and Latvia were under the same rulers, with no geographical distinction between them. The one thing that did distinguish them was their very different languages. When both countries became independent after World War I, surveyors drew up a border by going house to house trying to determine who spoke which language. As a result, the border goes right through the middle of some towns.
- Language is still an important cultural force in Estonia. Ethnic Russians or Russian speakers, many of whom moved to Estonia in Soviet days, live in very separate social, political, and religious spheres from ethnic Estonians and Estonian speakers. (The situation seems similar to that of Hispanic communities in some parts of the United States.) Estonians no longer automatically learn Russian at school; it’s an elective course, and many students opt to learn English, German, or even Chinese instead. As a result, it’s fairly easy to travel in urban Estonia as an English speaker.
- Estonians say they feel a lot of cultural connection to Finland, their northern neighbor across the sea (a two-hour ferry ride away). The Estonian and Finnish languages are similar—and are unlike all other European languages except Hungarian. Finns and Estonians are said to share a common temperament, and they have fought in each other’s wars against Russia over the years. Estonians see Finland as a role model for their country’s political, social, and technological development.
- Agriculture in Estonia tends to be large-scale and intensive. Family farming was destroyed in favor of collective farming during the Soviet period, which afterward made it easy for agrobusinesses to buy up land. That’s a big change from Switzerland, where small family farms are everywhere, carefully nourished by the state.
- An open-air museum outside Tallinn preserves traditional 19th-century farm buildings from around the country. Most are long, low, unpainted wooden structures with peaked, thatched roofs and no chimneys, just holes in the eaves to let out smoke from cooking fires. By the standards of other parts of Europe, the farm buildings were remarkably dark and unadorned inside. They were arranged in compounds of multiple buildings that included a house, barns, a sauna, fenced “clean yards” and “dirty yards” (for livestock), and storage buildings where clothing and household goods were kept in large wooden, dome-topped chests and where unmarried girls slept in the summer (the better to flirt with unmarried boys during the long summer evenings).