Longboard down to the beach, tuck into a shashlik, then luxuriate in a mud bath – the Baltic has so much to offer, you can’t do it all in ten days. That didn’t stop us tryinght
There is no best spot from which to view the city. At least, there is: on the 23rd floor of the Viru Hotel. It’s just that for a very long time, people didn’t know about it because all of the hotel’s elevators, and even the stairs, only went to the 22nd floor: The top floor was reserved for the Russian intelligence service. When the spooks stood on the balcony enjoying a smoke, they had the most magnificent view of Estonia’s pretty capital all to themselves.
Many of the contradictions so typical of the Baltic states can be found in Tallinn: romantic old towns, peasant life, young startups, enormous shopping malls – and many, often absurd, traces of foreign occupations. This is a special time of year, the brief intermezzo between summer, when the city is full of visitors, and winter, when it is covered in snow, like a sleeping fairy-tale city. It’s the best time to explore the Baltic region, and that’s what photographer Fabian Weiß and I intend to spend the next ten days doing.
In this part of the world, you can drive through the wilderness for hours – past woods, swamps, lakes – without seeing another soul. Here and there, a small settlement with a cell tower, a stork’s nest and a swing set. The swings are the secret center of Estonian village life. Our first stop: a garlic festival in Jõgeva with music and dancing, a competition for the biggest bulb, shashlik and garlic beer. A vendor asks why we are here. “Lufthansa?” She laughs: “I have never been higher than the 10th floor.” In Viljandi that evening, they’re celebrating, too. Crowds have gathered to mark the 25th anniversary of the small town’s independence. In 1989, the human chain stretched for 600 kilometers across the entire region. Every fourth inhabitant took part, and people sang. It all took place 25 years ago, but even the children know the songs today.
We spend the night in Tartu, a university town, before heading for Lake Peipus, the rural Baltic, and the kingdom of the Seto. The Russians defeated the Teutonic Knights here in 1242 after the northern Baltic region had been German for a very long time. Today, Europe’s fifth-largest lake is a popular place for outings, but it has its dangers: A sign warns against going ice fishing unless your phone is charged! The boundary with Russia runs through the lake, but exactly where is disputed. Part of the road also briefly crosses Russian territory, which means stopping, getting out of the car or walking are strictly prohibited. So this is the outermost EU and NATO frontier: a small pine wood with a low wire fence that we could easily scale. There are benches on the Estonian side, but what could there be to see here?
We wander around one of the villages. The bus runs four times a day, but only if you call in first. A sign points the way to the post office, the doctor and the library, all of which are typically located in the same building. Värska and Petseri are at the center of Seto life. For centuries, this ethnic minority has lived in the borderlands, undisturbed by German or Russian occupiers. Aare and Rieka Hõrn, cultural ambassadors of the Seto, invite us into their cozy home for pancakes with sour cream and smoked meat so tender you could almost suck it through a straw. The couple have plenty of stories to tell, and the table is piled high with books, photos and recipes. In between courses, they serve us home-brewed spirits. Seto culture is a happy mix of orthodox Christianity and natural religion, and the Seto are proud of their independence. “We have learned to live outside borders,” says Aare. Does he consider himself European? “Small units are more important to us. This is Setomaa. It’s like Wales, or Swabia.” He refills our glasses, always from the right, always clockwise. He doesn’t join us at the table but instead sits beside it, in Seto tradition. We are unaware that the polite way to refuse more drink is to say: “It looks like water! Drink it yourself!” By the end of the evening we are quite tipsy, whereas our host is not.
Our next destination is the Gauja National Park. A bus stocked with groceries crosses our path, and Rita, the driver, flashes us a smile. She supplies half Estonia with food. We pass Valka, a border town, and the road turns into a track. We almost miss our next appointment, a tour of the Soviet bunker in Līgatne, from where the Russians intended to rule the Baltic states in the event of a nuclear war. Boney M and Mireille Matthieu records lie scattered around the common room. The underground bunker was built to shelter 250 people for three months. Today, it sometimes hosts adventure game events for adults, so not much has really changed.
I am surprised to discover how different the Baltic countries are. In the West, we tend to lump them all together. Estonia is Scandinavian. Lithuania, as I will find out later, has been strongly influenced by neighboring Poland. Latvia is home to a large Russian minority, nearly one third of the population, including the mayor of Riga. The relationship is peaceful but slightly tense. Anete, a Latvian photographer, shows us her city, the young Riga. “New things keep coming up,” she says, “and disappearing again.” If you want to open a small shop, you have to do it in the spring and hope that business thrives throughout the summer. That’s the only way to survive the long Baltic winters when people prefer to stay indoors.
Something new always comes up, then disappears again
Our first stop is the former Kombināts Māksla factory. Sculptors and painters set up their studios here during the Soviet era, and artworks can still be found in some of the rooms. In the courtyard, we meet the brothers Sima and Pijus. They’re in the middle of breakfast, which consists of coffee and Kārums soft cheese bars, a popular treat. The brothers have been jamming with a dozen other Baltic musicians since their arrival the day before. Later we spot them hunched over their computers, searching for a groove. By the end of the week, they will have put together an entire album for a project they call “Baltic Trail.”
The air is filled with a sweet, pungent smell from the Laima chocolate factory close by. We stop for a noontime beer at Labietis, a small brewery, and sample White Aborigine, then Mēzs (which contains juniper). Not for the first time on this trip, I catch myself thinking how boring German beer is. Just a stone’s throw away is the Localboards workshop, which makes skateboards out of Latvian wood. Curved longboards are their specialty, says cofounder Alberts Vieglins, a blond, curly-haired guy, who looks like he has stepped from the pages of a book of surf clichés. “They give a little, so that you feel like you’re surfing on the asphalt,” he explains. And they are entirely handmade. How does he know when a board is finished? “When it says: ‘Let me out onto the street, man!’” A group of young women enter the shop. They take a seat and turn the music up. Groupies? Anete mockingly rolls her eyes. Yesterday’s barbeque is still on the workbench, left over from the night before. It looks like there’s another party planned.
We drive along the coast road, which glitters as though glass had been mixed into the asphalt. Or is it amber? Cars are parked across the road, and mushroom gatherers and berry pickers are heading into the woods. The sun casts patches of pale light onto the forest floor, where mosses and grasses weave a carpet of colors from white to red to bluish-green to purple between the slender birches. Nature is not awe-inspiring in this part of the world; its quiet magic affects you gradually. It’s the same with the people: They are reserved, almost frosty, when you first talk to them, but by the fourth or fifth sentence they usually give you a smile that stays.
We arrive in Kolka, at the northwestern tip of Latvia, where the Gulf of Riga meets the Baltic Sea. Normally, the two currents are distinguishable by their different colors, but today, a bracing wind mixes everything up. We continue south, stopping at a former military zone near Irbene. The giant radio telescope there is a ghostly reminder of the country’s Soviet past. Barbed wire juts out of the ground in the forest like plants that are impossible to uproot.
A ferry takes us to the Curonian Spit, a long, narrow strip of sand, half Latvian, half Russian, covered with dense trees. To get to the sea, you have to use the wooden walkways built above the dunes. We wander through Nida, the village where Thomas Mann spent his summers. Just past a sign saying “Kaliningrad 86 km,” we see a magnificent elk cow. A police car has pulled up beside her and is trying to scare her off the road with loud bursts of its siren. The elk won’t budge. Eventually, half-turning, she saunters back toward the woods at a maddeningly slow pace as if saying: “I’m going. But not because of you. Because it’s what I want to do.”
We meet Asta in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. Her eyes are still slits after a short night. “Summertime is nonstop party time for us,” says the young IT manager, gripping a bottle of the salty mineral water Vytautas. “This is the perfect cure for hangovers.” In Vilnius they say you can always see two church towers, no matter where you are. Asta takes us to her favorite house of worship, the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul in the embassy district. Completely white on the inside, it has a model ship hanging from the middle of the ceiling, and two drums dating back to a battle with Russia. Demons, half-hidden in the plasterwork, grin down at visitors from between scenes from the Bible.
Summer is nonstop party time for us
There are more Catholics in Lithuania than in the other Baltic states, but natural religions are everywhere here, too. Heathen rituals are even gaining in popularity. “I think the person who built this church was a member of a cult,” says Asta, “and only wanted it to look like it was Catholic.” Next on the itinerary: Užupis, an artists’ colony in the heart of the city, a kind of state within a state with its own constitution and its own government. I want to become a citizen. Asta makes all kinds of calls, but eventually she’s successful, and Tomas Čepaitis, the Foreign Minister of the Independent Republic of Užupis, opens the door. I ask him what he was doing when we disturbed him. “Mushroom soup,” he grunts, “I was making mushroom soup.” He is a little bit peeved, and not so sure about the camera. In his hand he holds the constitution: 10 articles in postcard format, the souvenir shop version.
But then this disappointing news: “Anyone can be a citizen who subcribes to our ideals.” What ideals? “Do not be victorious! Do not defend yourself! Do not surrender!“ I was actually hoping for something official, something with a seal. He thinks for a minute: “You could be an ambassador.” The inauguration ritual takes place in a gallery down by the river. There’s a lot of pantomime involved. Wedding parties pass by outside as they do every Friday. They laugh and dance so loudly in the street that I can hear them later from the top of the university tower. So I become an ambassador, and the official document is mailed to my address in Berlin.
And back again
Originally, we had wanted to return to Tallinn the long way, but we absolutely have to go back to the bunker. On top of it, there’s a spa, and this trip will not be complete without a mud bath. Leyla, a mountain of a woman, takes us in hand. At first, we feel a bit apprehensive, but she is a gentle giant. Shyly, she prepares our black, bubbling bath, and we relax, time passing at half the usual speed. Outside, we hear the others giggling. It doesn’t often happen that two men from the West stop by and order a mud bath.
We drive back to Tallinn along the country’s western coast. The beaches stretch as far as the horizon and there’s nobody to be seen. We grab a couple bottles of rye beer and walk down to the water’s edge. Tonight, great bonfires will blaze on every beach along the Baltic coast – one last time before the entire region goes into hibernation until next spring.
Addresses you’ll like
Modern gourmet cuisine and Latvian tradition; one of the best restaurants in northern Europe.
Lithuania’s first post-Soviet Union private hotel; family atmosphere, old-town location, nine rooms.
KGB-Museum im Hotel Viru
Experience the absurdity of the Soviet surveillance state here – and enjoy the best view across Tallinn.
These city tips are on Foursquare, too
Sebastian Handke was born at a very early age. He spent his childhood in San Francisco and the heartland of Swabia. Once it was over, he earned his living as a director’s assistant, a Flash developer, a musician and a journalist. These days, Sebastian is the editor responsible for Lufthansa Magazin Online.
Fabian Weiss is a freelance photographer and a member of the photo agency LAIF. In his photo essays, Fabian explores the cultural changes taking place in our turbulent times, his intimate pictures and perceptive observations creating nuanced portraits of life within each individual culture. While on a teaching assignment with the international workshop series Publish Yourself! he produced entire magazines in record time. Fabian lives in Estonia and Germany, and works in the Baltic states, Eastern Europe and further east.
Our photographer was surprised to find dense jungle, broad bays and rugged cliffs right on the doorstep of Hong Kong. And no matter which nature trail he took, it always ended at an inviting food stand.