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Estonia – a modern history - Occupation and awakening

Still unspoilt, but perhaps the most successful, progressive and attractive of ex-Soviet states.

Picturesque towns and cities, an appealing mix of architectural styles. Attractive landscapes of farmland, forests and sandy coasts.

Two nights on the little-visited island of Saaremaa, with its Gothic, Classical and Baroque architecture.

Led by Neil Taylor, author of a new history of Estonia, and a leading expert on the Baltics.

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Estonia has recently recovered from 700 years of conquest and struggle. Following the collapse of communism, independence was finally restored in 1991, having been gained and lost between the ends of the two world wars. Today, the Republic of Estonia has a population of 1.3 million. Among Europe’s least populous nations, it boasts one of its fastest growing economies. Estonians are their own masters now, excelling in the uses to which they put both town and country. Their eclectic tastes and diverse skills, as expressive in a piece of fabric, glass or juniper bark as in a skyscraper, can finally enjoy free rein. Meanwhile, the country’s art galleries and concert halls offer variety that a country ten times the size would struggle to match.

The material and historical legacy of occupation; Swedish, Russian, German and Soviet, and the quest for self-determination and independence, are themes of this tour. The Swedes established schools throughout the country and founded Tartu University in 1632, but the Swedish physical influence is evident mostly in Tartu and Kuressaare. The most striking architectural remnants of occupation are those of the Baltic Germans, whose political and landholding rights were upheld by the Russians following Peter the Great’s conquest in 1710. The surviving red-brick fortresses, ubiquitous manor houses and their contents point to wealth, strength and good taste.

The Tsarist policy to impose Russian instead of German as the national language at the end of the nineteenth century, and with it Russian orthodoxy, as opposed to Lutheranism, as the state religion, fuelled the Estonian independence movement. The Age of Awakening refers to a series of attempts to stimulate national consciousness, among the peasant populace, which manifested in various guises; political, artistic and literary.

Coast and countryside have always been important to ordinary Estonians as a means of enjoying relative freedom under occupation. Forest is a strong theme in folkloric tradition and Estonians are experts in the use of wood. Their distinct skills and craftsmanship are seen particularly in the spa town of Parnu, which flourished in the 1920s and 1930s. On Saaremaa, the country’s largest island – a place of special significance in the history of occupation and resistance – wood was also the major material in the construction of many of its early churches.

Day 1

Tallinn. Fly at c. 10.15am from London Heathrow via Helsinki to Tallinn (Finnair) for the first of three nights.


Day 2

Tallinn. Morning walk to the Museum of Russian Icons, remarkable for what has survived so many wars, and to the Occupation Museum, a sober chronicle of WWII and the Soviet era. 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.


Day 3

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 Maarjamäe Palace, reopened in 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 that were hurriedly removed from the streets in 1991.


Day 4

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, covering life in towns and in the countryside over 2,000 years. Opened in 2016 it is housed in a new building and its architecture, lighting and space leave a powerful impression. First of two nights in Tartu.


Day 5

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 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.


Day 6

Viljandi, Pärnu, Saaremaa Island. Visit the Paul Kondas Gallery in Viljandi to see work by the artist made between the 1950s and 80s, that could not be exhibited during the Soviet regime due to their focus on Estonian identity. 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.


Day 7

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. Wall paintings, stone carvings and masonry show the island links across the Baltic and even to Western Europe.


Day 8

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.


Day 9

Tallinn. Fly from Tallinn via Helsinki to London Heathrow, arriving c. 6.00pm.

Price, per person

Two sharing: £2,920 or £2,640 without flights. Single occupancy: £3,280 or £3,000 without flights.



Air travel (economy class) on Finnair flights (Airbus 321 & 350; ATR 72); 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. 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.


How strenuous?

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.

Are you fit enough to join the tour?


Tour Manager

Heather Millican


Group size

Between 12 and 22 participants.


Travel advice

Before booking, please refer to the FCDO website to ensure you are happy with the travel advice for the destination(s) you are visiting.

‘Neil Taylor is, as ever, a superb lecturer: erudite, witty and never fails to take the time to answer each and every question.’

‘Heather Millican is as ever the totally unflappable tour manager, doing it all seemingly without strain and taking time to socialise so charmingly with every member of the tour.’