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We left Tallinn in our rental car and headed southwest toward Pärnu, the start of our counter-clockwise trip around Estonia. With little idea of what to see en route we decided to wander from one historic spot to another using the guidebook, Estonian Museums, and following the ubiquitous brown signs pointing to historic/cultural sites. Occupying a strategic location, Eesti has long been coveted and fought over and, thus, has an enormous number of castles, fortifications and other ruins. As we soon discovered, history abounds. Our first stop was Padise Monastary, whose construction began in the 13th century. It had a vaulted church and was fortified, but fell into ruins after a fire in 1776. The monastery was not fenced, there was no entrance fee, we wandered freely and, best of all, there was a large sign that provided a detailed history. And we had the place to ourselves. We meandered along back roads, passing small villages and enjoying the countryside. There was little traffic, the signage was good and there were virtually no billboards nor litter. It was peaceful and restful. Near Taebla we stopped at the Ants Laikma Museum, the house of the deceased famous painter. It was closed, but we explored the extensive grounds and admired the thatch-covered house. I chatted with the only other visitor in my broken Estonian. The steepled church at a small village beckoned. The cemetery was beautiful, in a natural setting and we read the dates and names on the tombstones with fascination. A monument to more than 100 people massacred by the Russians gave an insight into the sad decades of oppression that Estonia suffered. With “Agnes” (our Estonian-speaking GPS) giving directions and rain starting to spatter, we drove through a flat landscape with birch forests, wetlands and occasional farms and villages to Pärnu, and our hotel, Villa Wesset.  Pärnu (populaton 45,000) is a popular sea-side resort with a long sandy beach, many parks and a rich cultural life including the excellent New Art Gallery. However, it was the end of September and a cool wind blew along empty streets. The town centre featured a walking promenade and, delightfully, no big American chain stores. At a small, back-alley restaurant, the Veerev Ōlu (Rolling Beer), we enjoyed a (very) cheap, tasty meal while other customers contested a chess game.  Next morning the breakfast table was elegantly adorned with cloth napkins, a fresh rose and two candles in pewter holders. Omelettes were followed by Eesti pankookid (one of my childhood favourites!), crepes with icing sugar and lingonberry sauce. We drove leisurely toward Saaremaa, Estonia’s largest island. Along the coast, the blades of 19 towering wind turbines slowly turned. The ferry was cheaper and more efficient and comfortable than the ones plying Canada’s west coast.  On Muhumaa we wandered around Koguva village, a national heritage fishing village with moss-covered stone fences, log buildings and thatched roofs. My camera clicked constantly. The highlight of Kuresaare, Saaremaa’s capital, was the castle, the best-preserved medieval (14th century) stronghold in the Baltics. A small exhibit dedicated to the Estonians murdered by the Soviets in 1941, brought tears to our eyes. It differed dramatically from other memorials by naming those responsible and showing their photos.  We returned to Pärnu through birch forests with yellow leaves and past prosperous farms. At Liiva village, we visited the church and cemetery where a massive oak loomed over ancient stone crosses.  Next morning, we headed toward Võru, passing wooden houses and remnants of the Soviet-occupation days: deteriorating apartment blocks, and large collective-farm buildings, now abandoned. A small detour led us to Karski Fortress (1248) along with its pretty Baroque church. Wildflowers bloomed alongside the ruins.  Motoring eastward, the countryside became rolling and more forested. At Valga we popped into Valka, Latvia. There was no border stop, just a sign. What a contrast to the long line-ups and formal process at the Canada-US border! Latvia looked the same as Estonia except the signs and names were in an incomprehensible Slavic language. Nearing Võru, “Agnes” led us along a dirt road to the farm of my cousin, Matti, whom I had never met. His family greeted us with open arms and sat us down to a hearty farm meal. They spoke no English but we managed to bumble along quite nicely, aided by a few glasses of Vana Tallinn, a liquor they explained was more valuable than money during the occupation. Then we visited the neighbouring farm, now abandoned, where my father grew up. It was very emotional to make these connections with my roots. Finally we arrived at the Kubija Hotel-Naturespa, south of Võru where roller-bladers and runners raced along forest trails preparing for the cross-county ski season. Erki Nool, the legendary gold-medallist in the decathlon at the 2000 Olympics, trained here and the lobby boasts a statue of him pole-vaulting.   Hans Tammemägi      


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