Estonia and the Estonians have recently recovered from seven hundred years of conquest. Estonians are their own masters now, excelling in the use to which they put both town and country. Their eclectic tastes and diverse skills, just as evident in a piece of fabric, glass or juniper as in a skyscraper, can finally enjoy free expression. Their art galleries and concert halls offer variety which a country ten times its size would find hard to match.
With a history of constant warfare, the towns and countryside still show the stamp of the various occupations. Those that left the most obvious architectural legacy were the Baltic Germans, with their red-brick fortresses and their ubiquitous manor houses. These, their contents and what has been bequeathed from town residences, are a testimony to both wealth and to good taste.
As one would expect, the Swedish legacy is more modest, mainly some town houses in Tartu and Kuressaare. The Tsarist Russian one is more obvious, with the late nineteenth-century Orthodox Cathedral dominating the Tallinn skyline, although ironically the regime would collapse twenty years later. The Soviet legacy is largely restricted to the outskirts of Estonia’s larger towns so intrudes little on what visitors see.
Estonians themselves were experts with wood throughout their centuries of occupation, and much remains of this, particularly in the coastal spa town of Parnu which became rich in the 1920s and 1930s. On Saaremaa Island, wood has often been the major material for the local churches. Forests clothe much of the gently undulating landscape, interspersed with picturesque farmland. The countryside and seashore have always played as important a role in Estonia as any town. It is where local people enjoy space, time and colour, and when occupied, where they enjoyed relative freedom.
Tallinn. Fly at 10.20 from London Heathrow via Helsinki to Tallinn (Finnair) for the first of three nights.
Tallinn. Morning walk to the Museum of Russian Icons, remarkable for what has survived during so many wars, and to the Occupation Museum, a grim chronicle of WWII and of the 46-year Soviet era which followed. Afternoon in the Upper Town, the oldest part, to the Russian Orthodox Cathedral, to the Dome Church, for centuries the religious centre for the Baltic Germans, and along the city walls, to finish at the 15th-century Town Hall, still used for ceremonial events. Overnight Tallinn.
Tallinn. Coach to Tallinn Synagogue, a new building opened in 2007, and to the Jewish Museum beside it. Now, as so often in the past, Tallinn provides a sanctuary for those persecuted elsewhere. Then to the massive Song Festival Grounds, so crucial for keeping alive Estonia’s national consciousness in Soviet times and still a major choral centre. Afternoon to Kumu Art Gallery, the repository for the best of 200 years of Estonian painting in totally modern surroundings. Continue to Maarjamae Palace, reopening in spring 2018 as Estonia’s early 20th century museum, on the 100th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Behind it are many of the communist statues hurriedly removed from the streets in 1991. Overnight Tallinn.
Tallinn, Tartu. Morning drive to Tartu, with a stop en route at Paide, with its limestone tower and outdoor sculpture exhibition. Afternoon drive to the National Museum, opened in 2016 in a completely new building outside the town at a former military base and manor house. Its architecture, lighting and space leave as powerful an impression as any of the exhibits, covering life in towns and in the countryside over 2000 years. First of two nights in Tartu.
Tartu, Lake Peipsi. Morning walk through Estonia’s university capital to the aula where students receive their degrees and the lock-up where in the 19th century they could be confined for not returning library books or for abusing women. Many 18th- and 19th-century buildings in Tartu have survived the War: the Jaani Church (St John’s), with its unique rows of terracotta sculptures, was restored soon after re-independence in 1991. Afternoon drive to Lake Peipsi; the villages along the shore are still inhabited by Old Believers, driven into exile here because of their unwillingness in the 17th century to accept changes in the Russian Orthodox Church. Dinner at Alatskivi Castle, modelled on Balmoral in Scotland, which houses a museum in honour of the composer Eduard Tubin. Overnight Tartu.
Viljandi, Pärnu, Saaremaa Island. Visit the Paul Kondas Gallery in Viljandi to see work he was never allowed to exhibit during his lifetime in the Soviet period. Drive to Pärnu, a spa town known for its functionalist buildings and its turn of century flamboyance along the coast. Ferry to Muhu Island where many of the pleasures of rural Estonia remain, wooden cottages, windmills and wild seacoasts, then drive across a causeway to Saaremaa Island. First of two nights in Kuressaare.
Saaremaa Island. Spend the morning in Kuressaare, the capital of Saaremaa island with its Swedish town houses and intact castle, the only one remaining in Estonia, which now houses the island museum and an extensive natural history collection. An afternoon tour of the 13th-century island churches and the ruins of Pöide. The artistry of the wall paintings, stone carvings and masonry show the links between the island across the Baltic and even to Western Europe. Nowadays the link is provided with stained glass. Overnight Kuressaare.
Muhu Island, Haapsalu, Tallinn. Before taking the ferry back to the mainland, visit Muhu Church in the village of Liiva, a 13th-century building with 14th-century mural paintings. Haapsalu owes everything to royal patronage in the 19th century, when Tsars Nicholas I and Alexander II were frequent summer visitors, as was Tchaikovsky. The railway station, with appropriate elegance, dates from that time. Overnight Tallinn.
Tallinn. Fly from Tallinn to London Heathrow (British Airways), arriving c. 3.00pm.
A leading expert on the former Communist world, he travels there as visiting university lecturer, tourism consultant and tour leader. He read Chinese at Cambridge and has worked in tourism in China, the USSR and many developing countries. His publications include The Bradt Guide: Estonia, The Bradt Guide: Tallinn, The Bradt Guide: Baltic Cities and A Footprints Guide to Berlin.
Price, per person
Two sharing: £2,870 or £2,530 without flights. Single occupancy: £3,210 or £2,870 without flights.
Included: air travel (economy class) on Finnair and British Airways flights (Airbus 321 and 320); travel by private coach throughout; accommodation as described below; breakfasts, 1 lunch and 7 dinners with wine, water and coffee; all admission to museums, sites, and donations to churches; tips for restaurant staff, drivers, guides; all state and airport taxes; the services of the lecturer, tour manager and local guides.
Hotel Palace, Tallinn: comfortable 4-star hotel on the edge of the old town, recently reopened after a smart refurbishment. London Hotel, Tartu: modern, centrally located 4-star hotel with a good restaurant; decor is quite bright. Georg Ots Spa Hotel, Kuressaare: plain but comfortable 4-star spa hotel on the waterfront.
There is a reasonable amount of walking each day and some long coach journeys, which are broken en route. Outdoor terrain is good but there are few steep slopes. Average distance by coach per day: 75 miles.
Between 12 and 22 participants.
Before booking, please refer to the FCO website to ensure you are happy with the travel advice for the destination(s) you are visiting: www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice.