Small countries have a lot of history, especially the ones not in the mountains: it’s to do with getting invaded a lot. In the millennium since written records began with the Northern Crusades, Estonia has belonged to Danes, Germans (twice), Poles, Swedes and Russians (also twice). Located on a key salt trading route between Russia and the West (Paldiski, near Tallinn, was the nearest Baltic harbour to Russia that didn’t freeze in winter), 18th-century Estonia became a uniquely layered society, with the Russian military and nobility at its top, followed by the German-Baltic barons, merchants of Hanseatic origin and an Estonian-speaking common people.

Tallinn city walls
© Bachtrack Ltd | David Karlin

A great deal of this history is on display if you walk around Tallinn’s Old Town. Start at Viru Gate and you’ll see that large sections of the often-battered medieval city walls still stand, as do many of the impressive towers. Their conical roofs might be more romantic than medieval (they would have been far too vulnerable to gunfire), but most of what you see is the real deal: a powerful fortress that resisted many sieges, including one by the forces of Ivan the Terrible. The streets and courtyards in the Old Town are wonderfully atmospheric: from the shadow of the walls, slip through the narrow stone-sided Katariina Kaik into the larger Vene, then round the corner into Meistrite Hoov (Master’s Courtyard) to get a flavour of how medieval nooks and crannies have turned into a home for today’s craftspeople.

Katariina Kaïk
© Bachtrack Ltd | David Karlin

Estonia is very flat (its highest point is at 314m above sea level), so the idea of an Estonian hill attracts a certain level of merriment amongst locals. But there’s an exception: much of Estonia is built on limestone strata, in which a large slip has created a hill in Tallinn whose combination of limestone cliff and fortified surrounding walls is particularly formidable. Atop the hill sits the 13th-century Toomkirk (also known as the “Dome Church” or St Mary’s Cathedral), which tells the story of Tallinn’s German classes: inside are hundreds of carved coats of arms of the baronial families. The altarpiece is by Estonia’s greatest wood carver of the baroque period, Christian Ackermann; when we visited, there was also an exhibition of his superb carvings. The Toomkirk was enhanced in baroque times by a tall bell tower and in 1914 by a Ladegast-Sauer organ, which has been restored recently and sounds magnificent. From there, it’s only a short walk to the onion domes of the Toomkirk’s Orthodox rival, the imposing Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, built during the Russification period at the close of the 19th century and named after the legendary Russian hero; the cathedral is an important centre for the Russian-speaking 25% of the country’s population.

While Estonians have little positive to say about the Soviet era, there’s a certain level of affection for the better parts of tsarist rule, of which the most elegant reminder is to be found just east of the Old Town at Kadriorg Palace and Park, whose German name is Katharinenthal or “Catherine Valley” – the “Catherine” being the Empress Catherine I and the “Valley” being somewhat notional, given the general flatness of the landscape. The palace, built on the orders of Peter the Great, is a beautiful miniature of those in St Petersburg and houses the country’s foreign art collection. In summer, the park is a lovely place for adults to wander and children to play. Estonian art is housed in the impressive Kumu Art Museum nearby, whose building is carved into the continuation of the limestone cliff that houses the Toomkirk; the architecture facilitates the particularly natural and pleasant lighting of the collection. 

Toomkirk (Dome Church) organ
© Bachtrack Ltd | David Karlin

Estonian identity is primarily defined by its language, of which Finnish is the only close cousin (although, our guide explained, there are enough false friends to add considerable hilarity to any attempt at speaking Estonian in Finland). It’s ironic that the concept of Estonian nationhood only began to come into being with the influx of Romantic ideals from Germany, starting in the 19th century; one of the incarnations of this was the idea of communal singing and song festivals, originating in Switzerland and brought to Estonia by the German barons. The first Estonian Song Festival took place in 1869 in Tartu and it became a focus for the Estonian language and national aspirations; it’s now a five yearly event and has mushroomed to an enormous size: the sold-out 27th edition, in 2019, brought together 35,000 singers from over 1,000 choirs and was attended by an estimated 90,000 people. The emotions are so strong that the leadup to the 1988 independence from the Soviet Union is described as the “singing revolution” and even when the festival isn’t on, the Festival Grounds, some 4 km east of the centre of Tallinn, are well worth a visit. The enormous stand for the singers is an elegant masterpiece of engineering; if you can get up its observation tower, the view towards the Baltic is splendid; the visitor centre has a booth that immerses you in the patriotic fervour of the occasion.

Travel another 3km along the coast and you get to the ruined 15th-century Pirita Convent, the site of another major Estonian vocal event, the yearly Birgitta Music Theatre Festival, run by the Tallinn Philharmonic. The roof of the convent is gone (a temporary roof gets erected for the festival), but its walls are broadly intact. The 2021 festival fell victim to Covid-19, but it hopes to be back in style for 2022.

Singing is an integral part of being Estonian: the vast majority of children sing in school and there are uncountable numbers of choirs. In our short visit of just three days, we randomly came across an amateur choir giving an a cappella concert: the technical qualities of the singing and the complexity of the folk song arrangements were dazzling.

Arvo Pärt Centre seen from its observation tower
© Bachtrack Ltd | David Karlin

When it comes to classical music, Estonia has a clear national hero in the shape of Arvo Pärt, a strong contender for the title of world’s greatest living composer. With Pärt now in his late 80s, his family started a few years ago to consider how to secure his legacy, which has resulted in the setting up of a foundation which, with strong government support, has created the Arvo Pärt Centre, near the composer’s home in Laulasmaa, on the shores of the Baltic, some 40km west of Tallinn. The Centre opened in 2018 and now houses a massive archive of his scores, diaries, sketches and other material, which is worked on daily by a team of musicologists. Pärt himself is often to be seen there, working with the researchers, attending concerts in the beautiful-looking and beautiful-sounding 150-seat chamber music hall or praying in the tiny chapel with its icons of St Sylvan and St Sophrony.

Quite apart from its sheer practicality, the Centre is a wonderful and unique piece of architecture, its curves and vertical lines blending organically into the surrounding pine forests, its generous windows and indoor courtyards drawing one into a oneness with nature that is integral to Pärt’s music. A tall watchtower gives a panoramic view of the forests and the coastline: it was extremely windy when we visited, but in normal weather, it’s a place to escape the hurly-burly of daily life and contemplate the vastness of nature.

And indeed, many Estonians would claim a deep personal connection to their land and to nature. There’s an element of kidology here, just as there is with English people claiming kinship with cricket on the village green: most Estonians are as likely to know how to harvest a wheatfield or skin a rabbit as English people are likely to be able to bowl a googly. But still, they have a lot of forest and nearly fifteen times as much land per head as England; Estonians in autumn are often to be seen picking mushrooms and berries; hiking and other outdoor pursuits are popular throughout the year.

Bog lake at Lahemaa National Park
© Bachtrack Ltd | David Karlin

If Estonia’s history is that of multiple conquests, its prehistory is the Ice Ages and particularly the northward travel of the retreating ice. We visited the country’s largest national park, the Lahemaa National Park, to enjoy the forests and coastline and to marvel at the “bog lakes”: boardwalks and an observation tower allow you to get through to the heart of a vast peat bog with an explosion of colour in its grasses, mosses and lichens, to reach an extensive patchwork of shallow lakes. As you approach the coastline, the peat gives way to granite boulders deposited by the ice – or, if you prefer the folkloric version, thrown by the legendary giant Kalevipoeg in the direction of Finland. To be fair, Estonia’s National Hero must have suffered from somewhat erratic rangefinding, because a lot of the boulders have ended up scattered along the Estonian coastline: you get a good sight of some of them from the pretty former fishing village of Altja in the Lahemaa Park.

Also to be found in Lahemaa are several baronial mansions. We visited Palmse Manor, built in the baroque era for the von der Pahlen family, who were later awarded the lucrative concession for Estonia’s first railway, linking St Petersburg to the harbour at Paldiski. The manor house itself is drop dead beautiful; it’s flanked by a lovely orchard, a substantial greenhouse/palmhouse, a formal garden and boating lake and a former vodka distillery and brewery: the von der Pahlens evidently believed in keeping their workers happy. The distillery is now a guesthouse well used by hikers.

Vodka distillery (left) and outbuilding at Palmse Manor
© Bachtrack Ltd | David Karlin

For all the history and nature, however, it doesn’t do to forget that Estonia is a very modern country. It’s one of the foremost IT centres in the European Union (housing, among other things, NATO’s Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence); most Estonians use digital signatures regularly in daily life and when they travel abroad, they are struck by the fact that no-one else does. It’s a country where most things seem to just work without a fuss, whether it’s the local taxi apps, the airline or just about anything in the hospitality industry. In Tallinn, we stayed in the comfortable four star Tallinn Palace Hotel, well located for the many areas to the east of the city, and in the gorgeous five star Telegraaf Hotel, a former post office in the middle of the Old Town: both were excellent examples of hotels at their different levels. The coffee-and-cake culture (always, for me, a measure of a city’s attractiveness) is well up to scratch, whether it's the Maiasmokk café, celebrated for its marzipan painting, the coffee at the Katharinenthal café or the best chocolate in town (or, indeed, many other towns) in the über-boho setting of the tiny Chez Pierre in the Master’s Courtyard. We had many memorable meals, the most notable being at Mon Repos Restaurant, which gave us exceptional high end food in an airy mansion by Kadriorg Park, and our last night at the informal Rataskaevu 16 Restaurant in the Old Town.

The staff at Rataskaevu 16 gave us a defining example of something that made this a memorable trip: when you get to know Estonians even a little and when they trust you, they can be incredibly warm people, destroying to shreds the stereotype of the ice-cold Nordic personality. We realised that this had been the case with just about everyone we had met, from the grandest to the most ordinary and that, in the end, makes for great travel.

This article and David's trip were sponsored by Visit Estonia