Estonia Roadtrip II – lakes and forests

This week has been one of the best of my trip. Estonian countryside is gorgeous, particularly the lakes area.

Day One

Picking up the car was easy; I decided to get a taxi using the Estonian start-up rival to Uber, Taxify and it was spot on.

I saw some mad driving as I was leaving Tallinn, just insane undertaking and lane-switching but nobody was hurt. One lane was closed for just long enough for everyone to swerve around a lorry that had T-boned a tiny Peugeot but it looks like that is par for the course on this road.

I drove straight to Rakvere to get lunch and made sure I stopped off at the castle. As I rounded the corner to find the castle parking I spotted way up on the hill an ENORMOUS statue which is the other famous thing around here. It’s a bronze Aurochs, a fairly recently extinct hooved mammal like a giant cow with even giant-er horns! It’s claimed to be the largest animal statue in the Baltics and it was marvellous. I walked a funny cross-country route to scramble up the bank to see it rather than using the boring path, so I got to see the sun beaming down from between the giant horns.

The castle looks great too, it’s a ruin from the roadside but there is lots of interesting stuff to see and do inside (for me, the Chamber of Death and Hell stood out!). Tickets are €9 for adults and I was hungry and didn’t want to spend a couple of hours here so I gave it a miss but it is definitely on my to-do list if I’m in the area again and it’s very close to Tallinn.

I nipped round the corner to a nice-looking burger joint and ordered a lamb burger with roasted peppers, goats cheese and red onion with some sauce. Wow, it was inspired and I hope I can find another one soon!

Back on the road and the car started to make me laugh as I hadn’t been certain but it seemed to be steering for me to make sure I didn’t go over the white line for the lane. Thing is though, it seems to be detecting other lines in the road too so it kept freaking out and telling me to take the wheel. I thought I WAS driving! I never asked it to do anything! Anyway, it made for more interesting driving.

I navigated to a village called Mustvee, on the shore of Lake Peipsi. I’m not sure what I expected but it wasn’t very interesting. But I did find the Mourning Girl statue which is a memorial to the Red Army WWII soldiers buried in a mass grave there.

I drove South along the lake to a village called Kallaste. I optimistically followed signs to a cafe but it must have been closed as I didn’t find it. I went for a walk along the lake and found a really quaint Orthodox Russian graveyard perched at the lakes edge on a small cliff.

Next I visited Alatskivi Loss, a pretty castle in the nearby settlement of Alatskivi. It was apparently modelled to be a miniature Balmoral which is quite cool. It’s a nicely made up museum now and for €9 you can explore all the refurbished rooms. I enjoyed a sneak peek around some the ground floor by having a wander around the restaurant. It’s actually reasonably priced and if I had been hungry I would have eaten there. The museum is open until 7 which is quite nice too.

I went for another wander and then drove to a cute little restaurant that I had passed on my way to the castle. It turns out that it is brand new, only open a week. It’s called Mõisa Tall, which means “old stable” in Estonian and it’s got a great grassed courtyard out the back that they will be turning into something amazing. The staff were lovely and the menu was tiny but I expect that will develop. I just had an appetizer, warm BBQ pork salad, for €5 and a 0.5l glass of Lonkerot for €3, so you can see the prices are very reasonable.

I asked about a place to camp and one of the chefs recommended that I head back toward Kallaste and camp by the beach. Which is exactly what I have done.

It’s lovely to be relaxing in a tent, right out in the open, knowing that nobody is going to tell me I can’t camp here – the 10m nearest the water is public land (I believe; this is what I’ve been told a number of times). There’s people going for a dusky dip in the lake, which is so big that I keep forgetting it isn’t the sea. I reckon I might go in in the morning, right now I just want to chill in my awesome tent with my perfect view.

Day Two

I decided not to set an alarm and I just woke up naturally and saw the sun rising over the lake then I went back to sleep and dozed on and off until about 10am when I packed up and then went for a paddle in the lake.

Brunch was in order so I decided to head towards Tartu.

I just saw the most fantastic thing as I was driving through the countryside to get to Tartu. A farmer was harvesting in a field and, instead of seagulls following him as would be usual in England, a flock of storks had descended on the field. I am utterly besotted with the storks here. And also, there was an eagle floating above the field scouting for something or other. And as I drove off, there was an eagle on the ground in the next field, close to the road, and he his attention was absolutely taken by a butterfly fluttering around his cute little head. Shortly after, a deer ran across the road ahead of me. What a morning for wildlife!!

Tartu was a bit of a shock to the system really. I think the traffic diversions were due to a combo of huge sporting event and roadworks but I struggled to get to the cafe I was aiming for for brunch. So I navigated to the other place I had been really keen to see – the AHHAA Science Centre and went up to their Newton Cafe.

I ordered a daily special, beef stroganoff with rice and salad, for €3.50 and a coffee. Great value and the food was nice.

Then I headed downstairs to get my entry ticket. The guy sweetly gave me a student priced ticket as he felt sorry that there wasn’t a Planetarium show in English for me to go to this afternoon. Prices are usually €13 entry plus €6 planetarium. Student is €10.

It was so worth it!!! The review said there’s something for everyone and I’m a total nerd but I really think most people would find something they enjoyed!!
Downstairs in the main hall there are loads of cool experiments designed to show every day phenomena like soundwaves, reflection, light and the Coriolis effect. There was a display of cutaway household appliances so you can see how they work and a board with lots of different electronic components. One of the best displays is a temporary exhibition that is on from May to November.

It’s an excellent robotic installation with monsters of the deep, some existing creatures but most extinct, including plenty of incredible dinosaurs. All the exhibits move around while you stand there and some are quite terrifying. One had a head like a velociraptor and it was peeking out from behind a huge long-necked beast.

There was an area upstairs that houses the collection of the anatomical college of Tartu. Lots of foetuses in jars. Some were quite shocking. There were some with strange deformities; human cyclopes, animals with two heads.

Also upstairs, just outside the cafe there was an incubator with newly hatched chicks, and eggs in the process of hatching. The new chicks still had their “egg tooth” attached, something that most people don’t get to see. There were also two ant nests in glass.

I decided not to stay in Tartu for the rest of the day, I’ll go back when the city centre is less chaotic mid-week. Instead I followed my map and drove further south to an ethnically distinct area of the country. The Russian Old Believers arrived at the end of the 17th century as refugees escaping reforms in the Orthodox Church and their beliefs and practices have remained unchanged since.

I saw a couple of cool old windmills on the journey and then arrived in Värska for the night. It was nice to find a place to camp, right by the lake, pop to the shop for a picnic dinner and some nice drinks and then settle down to relax by 6pm.

RMK is Estonia’s forestry commission and there are free campsites (with facilities!) all around the country. I downloaded an app earlier this week and found a couple of campsites I want to check out, but I stumbled across this one tonight and it’s fantastic. Right by a lake.

There are different kinds of RMK overnight offerings; camping, forest huts and forest houses. The houses are a bit more secure and you can rent those and you get a key and an indoor fireplace. The forest huts are for anyone to use for free – just turn up with your sleeping bag and there are bunks ready for you to use. The campsites usually even have dry toilets complete with toilet paper. I’m stunned by this level of plushness and wish it was universal. My app even tells me which huts have the access road cleared of snow throughout the winter. Firewood is provided… Obviously. Wow Estonia.

I’ve only seen mosquitoes the size of the ones in this bathroom once before – see my post on Hiking in Patagonia.
So that was my day. Another great one

Day Three

I woke up at 4:30am to see how the sunrise looked over the lake. Sadly overcast but the water was superbly still so it was worth a try. A few hours later I enjoyed a breakfast of pastries and a banana in my tent and then packed up ready to hit the frontier.

I drove to Podmotsa, a hamlet on a peninsula jutting out into Lake Pskov. It is a curiosity due to it being surrounded on three sides, across the water, by Russia. The village has a sister on the opposite bank, Kulje, and the pretty church over the water used to be the main parish church, with parishioners able to boat or raft across the water to pray. In the 70s, when it was all part of the Russian Federation there was even a bridge built. Not any more.

In Podmotsa I found a strange yellow rectangular frame structure that reminded me of the National Geographic logo. Funnily enough the info board with yellow rectangles placed around various villages in this region and now I’m curious as a fox to find out if they each have this crazy sculpture.

From a pier looking out over the water I could see two extremely tall towers rising above the trees, facing off to each other across the divide. I found a trail on the map that would probably take me to where the old bridge used to be and when I got there it turned out to be a track that I could drive down. It took me right to the base of the tower, and to the Estonia-Russia border.

Estonia is astounding at every turn. As I was driving back down the peninsula I spotted an orienteering flag in the woods so I stopped to have a look just as some cyclists came racing through the forest with their maps and their digital tags to check off the marker. It was cool to see and I was intrigued. I saw more and more cyclists on their way through the woods and then on the road too. I googled “orienteering Värska” and it looks like there’s a World Mountain Bike Orienteering (MBTO) event on today!!!

I drove back down past the Värska information office and I saw MBTO signs so I drove to event start/finish and it was just so cool. Hundreds of people are taking part in the event today. I’m so lucky to have seen it. What a cool thing. I didn’t actually know about MTBO so that was new to me and right in this tiny town in deepest, darkest Estonia.

From there I drove to the Setu Farm Museum, which was fairly interesting but perhaps better if you are/have a native Estonian speaker with you as it doesn’t fully jump to life on its own. That said, it is nice to support a UNESCO intangible heritage project. For €5 you can walk around all the barns of an old farm and see the tools they used for all the different activities. It’s in a nice countryside setting just outside Värska, so it’s easy to get to if you’ve got a car.
I did quite like this display of old buckets though.

Of most interest to me was probably the little details on how the place had been put together; the way they stacked wood between trees, the way things were fixed to, or hung from the ceiling.

I’m not sure why I haven’t made a bigger deal of this aspect of my trip because I feel I should warn people. The horseflies here are insane.

They are everywhere.

They are persistent.

They are mean.

I am covered in more bites than I’ve ever had in my life and they hurt like hell.
There are billions of other bugs too and most of them also want to bite or sting. From this come two recommendations:
Firstly, lots of strong bug spray, to cover yourself with but also to gun down the flies directly. Secondly and perhaps less obvious, if you hire a car, get one with air-conditioning because it is practically impossible to have your windows down in some areas. The horseflies, hornets, wasps, bees and other flies will have a field day.

I wasn’t sure whether I should go into the Piusa Sand Caves Museum (once bitten, twice shy after the Ireland experience…) but I stumped up €5 and it was alright. There’s a 13 minute video about the cool species that live in and around the cave. There are 5 bat species that hibernate there including Brandt’s bat (very rare) and Pond bats (fairly big). Daubenton’s bats looked quite cool as there were videos of them completely covered in condensation while they hibernated. There are manmade ponds in the strip-mining section of the quarry that were dug for the great crested newt population, which the local ecologists now believe is thriving. There are also smooth newts and pool frogs among other amphibians. I didn’t enjoy the actual cave visit very much but I think that was mainly because of the very thick accent that the guide had, bless her. The caves were dug by hand to extract different sands including super fine quality sand ready for glass production. Digging stopped in the 70s and the caves were left and then restored and cared for more closely when they realised how important it had become as a bat hibernation site.

Afterwards I went for a walk along the RMK trail which gives you some good views of the strip mines and then takes you through the forest, 1.4 km in total and you get to see some World War II trenches running alongside the railway, which is interesting to see. They are overgrown but you can make them out on your left as you walk parallel to the railway.

I then drove on to another Seto village called Obinitsa to get a late lunch. I saw another NatGeo frame across the road from where I parked.

There was a quaint little place called Seto Süük ni Juuk that had a chalkboard menu in Estonian and the woman didn’t really get what I was trying to do when I realised I didn’t understand any of the menu (I know the words for cheese, chicken and things like that but they didn’t appear!). We sort of got by with a little bit of Russian but I basically pointed to a dish as it came out to be served and after a really blank look she worked out that I wanted to order it. Well whatever. I need to learn some Estonian.

The dish came out and it was delicious pork belly with mashed potatoes, vegetables and dill soured cream! It was great! I also had a glass of Morss which is a berry juice mixed with water and that was refreshing. I paid €10 and was content.

There was a strange couple sitting further down the long table from me and they had and even stranger dog. Who decided to walk along the bench and hop up onto my lap. His name is nuup or something and apparently it means button. He couldn’t have been much more funny-looking. We had fun posing together.

I am in the heartland of Seto culture and walked from the restaurant to Obinitsa Järv (lake) so I could see the statue of the Seto Song Mother (Seto Lauluimä) overlooking the lake. For the Seto culture, singing and song was and remains an important part of everyday life and Song Mothers (Lauluimä) were the ones to lead the choir. Song Mothers had songs for absolutely everything occasion and would typically have 10,000 – 30,000 verses in their repertoire. This rich tradition is even more interesting as the singing is polyphonic, with the lead singer singing one note and the rest of the choir singing half a note lower. This unique Seto singing is listed as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage.

I was driving to Võru, a fairly big town on the banks of Tamula Järv (lake) when I spotted yet another NatGeo yellow frame next to the road and ditched the car for a photo.

I had been following GPS on MAPS.ME but that decided to pack it in so I just guessed where to go and I found a nice lakeside cafe in Võru called Spring. I asked the waitresses for a mocha and they looked at me like I had sprouted a second head but I explained and they promised to give it a go and it was good!

Afterwards, I felt suitably refreshed to stroll all the way along the “third best beach in Estonia”. Talk about claims to fame. It’s actually very nice and was really busy with people enjoying the early evening sunshine.

I had decided to walk to an enigmatic “artwork” labelled on the map which turned out to be a bit boring, but… it was next to another frame!! This one rotates too. Love it.

I was on a roll so I decided to walk to a sculpture called The Merry Pig Family which was marked on the map next to the frame.
I had to wait about 10 minutes to get my turn as there were kids climbing all over it but it looks so cool! Random too. I bought a picnic dinner at the shop next to the sculptures and then wandered back through the town.

Võru is a really pleasant town and I recommend a visit if you’re nearby.

I wanted to stay at another RMK campsite by a lake tonight so I left Võru and drove almost an hour to lake Ähijärv. I passed some roadworks and then just when I thought the coast was clear and the road was in good condition a stone flicked up (no idea where from) and now there’s a huge stone chip and crack in the windscreen. Then the road turned into a bumpy dirt track so I’m lucky the whole window didn’t crack into pieces.

I tried to phone the 24-hour Technical Assistance but the guy wasn’t in “assistance” mode and just told me he didn’t think I could get it fixed tomorrow (in Valga like I proposed) but didn’t offer me any other wisdom and he hung up on me. Nice. That’s tomorrow’s issue now; I’ve got a lake to admire.

Day Four

My night in Karula national park was great, I slept well surrounded by the various snuffling, hooting and howling noises! A hare made me laugh as I drove away this morning, just running down the road for miles instead of getting off the path. And I was only driving at 14kph. Driving through Karula National Park past the pretty lakes was beautiful and it was nice to get back onto tarmac so I could worry less about the windscreen breaking.

I found another NatGeo frame in Lüllemäe village next to what looks like a broken down old ski lift and an information board with hiking routes and a QR barcode orienteering trail.

A farmer was harvesting grass right next to the road so I got to see another flock of storks as I drove through Lüllemäe.

I was driving for another border town. This time Valga which is a town shared with Latvia (Valka in Latvian). Everything is very quiet on Sunday so I gave decided to chill as well. I’ve booked a hostel to stay in for the night and I am enjoying a coffee at Rannakohvik Neptune down by the water.

I’ve had a look on Google, MAPS.ME and my Estonia app and it seems like there’s not much to do here in Valga. Which is cool.

I’m just going to enjoy my coffee, find the border sign to take a photo and then check in to my hostel! I think I might go to the cinema later to watch Skyscraper in 3D. I can’t believe how swollen, hot and red my latest horsefly bite on my knee is, I’m definitely feeling like I need to relax and let my body get over the shock.

I also found some time to pop in to the enormous duty free alcohol shop on the border…

Day Five
I drove to a few more NatGeo frames today, aiming to reach Otepää to spend most of the day.

First I visited Sangaste Castle which the locals hope looks a bit like a mini Windsor Castle. I saw some great countryside which has now become hilly as well as forested and there are some cool viewing platforms around.

I reached Otepää and it seemed really nice straight away. I popped into a friendly Tourist Information office and then I visited the old hill fort, where the oldest firearm in the world was discovered! There were people right up at the top with harnesses and they clipped on to a zip line and zoomed right across the valley!

I went for a walk by the old Lutheran church and came across a stone labyrinth which I spent about 20 minutes walking around trying to follow the instructions to gain energy from the experience. Then I found the Energy Column in the woods. Strange matter-of-fact signs about something so ethereal for a generally atheist place like Estonia.

Then I scoped out a campsite along a non-existent trail so I’ve returned to Lake Pühajärv to go for a stroll and a swim until dinner.

There was another RMK campsite on the map I had so I hedged my bets that it would be fine to camp there and it was fine. There was another tent in the prime camping spot but that meant that I camped down by the lake in a peaceful area with a bench to lay on. It was a little bit chilly when I went to meditate by the lake and frustratingly I got bitten by a horsefly on the back of my arm through my top! So I’ve crawled into my bed a little bit fed up with bugs.

Day Six

I decided to book a hostel in Tartu when I woke up because availability was really low when I checked for my first trip through Tartu. I think I should have waited to be honest as I would have preferred to drive up closer to Tallinn for the night when it came down to it. But anyway.

Tartu was only a short drive from my campsite so I arrived early and had a coffee and the Hektor Design Hostel cafe as that had been a popular option on Hostelworld. It looks like all style no substance really but the cool areas are in the downstairs care open to the public so you can see for yourself.

I found some free parking near my hostel, Tartu Downtown Hostel, and because I couldn’t check in until 4pm(!) I left all my things in the car and walked to the old town.

After checking out the beautiful Town Hall I visited all the major sights that I had found on my Estonia app but the first two, Angel’s Bridge and Devil’s Bridge, I just found completely underwhelming.

I walked around the park to get to the University of Tartu History Museum, which is housed in a ruined old church. That was worth a visit. Spread over 5 floors there are a wide range of exhibitions. The chance to go in an old elevator is worth the trip alone. The temporary exhibition on the top floor is all about electricity and is quite fascinating with some cool old experimental equipment and some very simple experiments you can do.

Further downstairs, you can see a fancy white state room and a room full of sculptures of Greek muses, scientific glassware and a cool quote from Voltaire about the differences in opinion at the time on the fundamentals of how the world worked.

“In France, they think the world is full of matter; in London, it is considered to be empty. In Paris, the entire world is made up of swirls of thin matter, while there is nothing of the sort in London. In France, the pressure of the Moon is what creates tides; in London, they say the sea itself is drawn to the Moon. The Cartesians explain everything with pressure and we do not understand that very well; in London, the Newtonians say the cause of everything is magnetism and we do not understand that any better. In France, you imagine the Globe is elongated from the Poles, like a chicken’s egg; mean while, in London, you imagine the Globe to be compressed like a pumpkin.”

The other half of the attraction up on that hill is to climb the old partly ruined towers to get a great view across the city. The stairs are pretty sturdy and once you get up to the first floor you are able to walk through the tunnels and up the brick staircases to the North and South towers.

I checked in to my hostel and found myself in an absolutely horrible soulless room. The place is mainly a student dorm, and it might have quite a nice atmosphere in the quirky little three-bedroom houses that are set up with two beds each. But when you’re alone in one, with no common room to hang out in, the place is like being on the scene of an apocalypse.

The room was stuffy and the window/blind design was idiotic and allowed no air flow. Plus my room filled with the biggest and loudest mosquitoes I have ever seen; I thought the noise was coming from outside!! So, I recommend you stay somewhere else and book in advance as the hostels fill up in the summer.

I went for dinner on the town hall square, at Truffe, one of the top 50 restaurants in Estonia. The waitress was lovely and helped me choose something light from the menu; I had a cucumber salad and an aperol spritz.

Day Seven

I set off early to drop my hire car back in Tallinn today. The 6-day rental cost £158.

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