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Hum along, at Estonia

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A land in the midnight sun, and always ready to burst into song.

'Elves town': Tallinn, capital of Estonia.
'Elves town': Tallinn, capital of Estonia.

Preeti Mehra

A veritable combination of western modernity and the civilisation of yore, the tiny country of Estonia along the Baltic Sea is perhaps one of the most exotic destinations for an average Indian. Tucked away just below Finland, this 45,000 sq km island-nation in the region of the midnight sun, surprisingly has everything that a traveller could ask for — a mind-boggling history, breathtaking old-world architecture, magical green vistas, an abundant shoreline and, above all, an air of modernity.

Having recently become a member of the European Union and proud of its extensive e-network, 11 per cent GDP growth with exports at 58 per cent of GDP, Estonia seems to have found its feet, despite all the setbacks its turbulent history has dealt it. Due to its strategic location as a link between East and West, this Nordic nation has witnessed conquests since the 13th century. Though Estonians were perhaps the earliest European settlers, with a civilisation that goes back to around 2,500 BC, they have experienced invasions from the Germans, Danes, Swedes, Poles and Russians.

Though after a nationalistic movement in the late 19th century Estonia became independent in 1918, once again in the 1940s it was overtaken by erstwhile Soviet Union, which had its KGB headquarters here. It was only in 1991 that Estonia once again managed to gain independence by what has come to be known as the “Singing Revolution”.

Best preserved medieval town

What is remarkable about the Estonians is their ability to assimilate cultures and influences of other nations, make the most of them and at the same time retain the distinct Estonian essence. Tallinn, the capital of the country with its walled Old Town, in fact, even today tells travellers tales that would be part of the country’s folklore. No wonder then that the Old Town is included in the UNESCO World Heritage List as one of the best-preserved medieval town centres in Europe.

The quaint red roofs of the Old Town Square, spiralling Russian church minarets, winding alleys with cobbled streets makes this one of the most picturesque places to visit. Viewed from a height, it resembles what imagination would describe as an “elves town”. With a solid town wall made up of 26 defence towers, within it are housed a Dominican St. Catherine’s Monastery founded in 1246, the 600-year-old Gothic Town Hall, the world’s oldest functioning pharmacy, and the 159-metres high Oleviste Church which was recorded as the highest structure in the world in the 16th century. Toompea Castle, built in the 13th and 14th centuries, houses the nation’s parliament, while Estonia’s “first flag” flies atop the tall Hermann’s Tower.

Modern business environment

Though Tallinn is steeped in history, it has consciously developed its industry in its new business district and is trying to create a modern business environment that will attract foreign investment. Information technology companies such as Skype, which was recently bought over by the e-bay portal, and foreign investors such as Swedbank, Maersk, Galvexm, including the NRI-owned entity Tolaram Group have a presence here.

Apart from IT, tourism is also one of its mainstays. The Old Town in Tallinn attracts visitors in large numbers and what is unique about it is that it has not been preserved like a typical heritage town, but vibrates with a life of its own. Besides pulsating with an old-world charm, it offers visitors cafes, shops, boutiques, art galleries, a variety of cuisine and a distinct shopping experience that is a welcome change from the malls that dot the European landscape.

Besides Tallinn, Estonia markets a variety of different destinations that visitors can get to in a few hours. Its tourism brochures are replete with information on places an hour’s drive away from the capital. Visitors are recommended to check out Estonia’s largest brewery in Saku, a museum that offers an overview of the history of brewing along with local beer at a pub and ethnic Estonian cuisine, which is essentially dairy-and potato-based. Brochures also entice visitors to a motorcycle museum in Kurtna and the Vembu-tembumaa family amusement park.

Estonia evokes a sense of the exotic for many reasons, including its Hanseatic legacy. The Nordic countryside is also dotted with ancient castles that used to be inhabited by the Teutonic knights. To the nature lover, Estonia offers a variety of vistas in all four seasons. Though it is devoid of high mountains or deep canyons, this “great little country” as the Estonians call it has limestone cliffs which in some areas extend to 20 km, waterfalls, national parks and several lakes. The country lies on a major route that is used by migratory birds, hence it is known for flocks of birds, especially geese, storks and waterfowls that come to roost here in spring. With 48 per cent of its land as forest area, this thinly populated land with only 1.3 million inhabitants, has a variety of flora and fauna.

To acquaint visitors to the country’s natural resources and of course to give a boost to its tourism industry, a number of vacation homes, camping sites and nature study trails are being built.

Its tourist communication speaks about the smoke saunas and the floating saunas that visitors can experience in southern Estonia.

Love for music

However, where Tallinn is concerned, for visitors who do not have the wherewithal to explore further, a holiday could include a rollicking night life in the city’s “superclubs” that are packed, especially on the weekends. The Estonians are known for their love for music and are lucky to have famous musicians and celebrities come here to holiday as well as entertain.

So great is their love for music, that their revolution for freedom from Soviet hegemony was christened the “Singing Revolution”.

However, Estonia, like the other regions of the Baltic Sea, has one obstacle that visitors have to overcome — its visa policy.

The Baltic Sea region countries give extremely short-term visas, making it difficult for first- time visitors to discover and explore over and above the stay they have planned. Hence, if your dreams want to take you further into the countryside, you will be forced to harness them or leave them for another time. In fact, it would be advisable if the region gives an increased thrust to its tourism by scanning visa requests better and giving genuine visitors a longer duration stay.

However, this does not take away from the fact that exotic Estonia and its neighbours Finland, Latvia, Lithuania and Sweden are more than worth a visit.

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated October 5, 2007)
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