Since their independence in 1991, Estonia and its capital Tallinn has fast become a country of innovation and technological progression. It has also become very well placed on the European tourist map with its rich, cultural heritage thriving to the day. In 2011, they were awarded Europe’s capital of culture.
The biggest attraction in Tallinn is the medieval old town, which, as the most intact medieval city in Europe, has joined the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites. The old town lies within an impressive medieval fortification, of which dates back as far as 1265. By the 16th century the wall dominated the land for 2.4 km and loomed up to 16 metres in height, defending its town within. There were 46 towers along the wall and the walls were up to 3 metres wide in parts. Today, there is still 1.9 km of the original city wall still standing its ground, along with 20 of the defensive towers in phenomenal condition.
When you enter the old town through the gates of the fortification, it is like stepping into a scene from a fairytale. The architecture is that of its Hanseatic past, tall red slate roofs with spires and church steeples soaring above the city. Colourful and decorated buildings have been both preserved and restored but still encapsulate its medieval routes.
The traditional food of Estonia is largely characterized by the pheasant lifestyle of its historical past; grains, rye and pig in varying forms, pig heads, tongue, blood sausage, jellied meat and broths. With influences from Scandinavia, Germany and Russia, potatoes, sauerkraut and Baltic herring also joined the menu. Of course, modern living now offers a near limitless option of international dishes but the traditional cuisine is largely favored.
We decided to go for a meat feast for two, which involved a whole pork knuckle, pork ribs, pork fillet, meatballs, bacon, potatoes and sauerkraut! We skipped the enormous mugs of local beer and decided to try the Estonian cider instead, not too bad.
Routes 1, 4 and 3, Tallinn – Tartu – Valga are also part of the Euro Velo route 11 from North Cape to Athens, 5984 km. If you are looking for some inspiration for interesting cycle routes around Europe, check out the Euro Velo website and see the 14 extended bicycle routes that connect the entire continent. www.eurovelo.org/routes
We used routes 2, 16 and 4 of the Esto Velo to Tartu, all clearly marked with blue signage from the port area of Tallinn and covering more than 300 km.
What we had not anticipated was how good Estonia is for cycling! Along with the varying landscape and rich culture steeped in history, the astounding quality of the cycling infrastructure that is well under way, made Estonia a true cycling paradise! The work is very much still happening, but I am not kidding, if they keep going the way they have began, Estonia will soon be knocking on the door of The Netherlands for a place in the top ranked cycling destinations of Europe!
There are not yet paths scaling the entire country, that is for sure, but the gravel roads were fairly solid, with only the odd passing vehicle and the main asphalt roads were either of exceptional quality, with a narrow hard shoulder or they were under going major road works, which appeared would also eventually include a cycle path alongside too. The signage throughout Estonia was very clear and easy to spot, in fact, we did not once stop to look at our map on the way to Tartu!
Ok, so these pictures are actually from the town of Valga on the Latvian border, but it is a great example of what to expect;
Two minutes later we were ushered in to have coffee and cake and told to delve into the leftover buffet on the table! The family and friends were wonderful and it was great to be a part of an Estonian celebration. It was also fascinating to learn about the home and equestrian centre that Sven and Hele had created here.
Equilibre NPO is a family ran organisation, which offers Equine Assisted Therapy and Learning and also courses in Ecological and Sustainable living, including natural building techniques. The site includes the family house, lecture rooms, riding stables and guest accommodation, all of these have been built with the passion and bare hands of Sven and his team of working bees. The main building materials are wood, straw, clay and lime and they have been built to serve the ecological values that Equilibre stand for. Key aspects that have been considered are waste water management, recycling and green energy and they are also co-operating with European Ecovillages which are known as the best laboratories in finding solutions for ecological and sustainable living.
The goal of Equine Assisted Therapy is to improve a person’s physical and mental wellbeing through contact and techniques with horses. Equilibre believe that Equine assisted psychosocial rehabilitation is a powerful and effective therapeutic approach that addresses a variety of mental health and human developmental needs. They work with the local school and hospital and also offer lectures at Tallinn University on the subject of Animal Assisted therapy.
The family house waiting for its final coat of lime plaster in the top left. Donkey house above. Lecture rooms and facilities top right. Sven Aluste and David with the donkeys, bottom right. The beautiful interior of the lecture room on the left, where we ended up sleeping! Note the feature in the middle of the vertical wooden beams in the left hand photo - you can see the straw bales construction!
The photos below are of the main square in Tartu with a stunning statue of students kissing in the water fountain. There are bars and restaurants in the square and along the adjacent streets, we tried a few of them out!
Last year, Taavi (our host) pursued his first bicycle tour and cycled across Australia, starting in Perth, crossing the Nullabor, detouring to Tasmania and skirting up the east coast to his end point in Brisbane, so we had lots to talk about!! Taavi also told us that his Estonian name actually translates to David, how about that! Thanks Taavi for a great few days and great hospitality!
Estonia is not a large country and so on our third day cycling, we were heading for the Latvian border, loosely following route 3 of the Esto Velo. It was a beautiful hot day and the scenery was picturesque as we passed through the Otepää region which has the largest landscape reserve in Estonia. To the south west of the village of Otepää there is a lake called Pühajärv and in 1991 Dalai Lama blessed this very lake. The cycle route trailed alongside the lake, undulating but nothing too serious. We also came across Sangaste Castle which was built 1881 and belonged to a well-known rye grower Count Berg..