Estonia: A Squishy Stroll Through the Bogs

Estonia bogs

The Viru Bog, taken while strolling the boardwalk.

This is the last in a series of Nadine Godwin’s posts from Estonia; you can read the others here and here.

INSIDE LAHEMAA NATIONAL PARK, Estonia — In early September, I walked on a bog here. I hasten to add, given I was not adept at this, the walk was very short. Within minutes, I had gotten my boot buried past my ankle in the waterlogged moss that I was supposed to stay on top of.

I was wearing bogshoes, which look like the aquatic version of snowshoes, but one boot — a knee-high rubber thing — had come unhinged from the shoe.

While I don’t regard bog walking — I want to call this bogging — as my next favorite pastime, I was pleased to learn something about it because it is one of many windows onto life in Estonia, a tiny happenin’ northern European country on the Baltic. About half the size of Indiana, it gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

Its history is rich and engaging, as evidenced by, for example, the medieval city center of Tallinn, the capital.

It has a place on the tech front, too: It is the birthplace of Skype, and 98% of the country is wired for free Wi-Fi access.

And, it is a natural wonderland, which is where the bogs come in. Fifty-five percent of Estonia is forested; 20% of the country is covered in bogs. It’s not a mountainous land, but there are 1,521 islands and islets along its coast.

Estonia bogs

View of the Viru Bog in Estonia’s Lahemaa National Park. Much of the area is covered with waterlogged moss, but bogs can leave spaces for pools of water, too.

Bogs are wetlands characterized, in the case of colder lands like Estonia, by bog mosses that capture and hold rainwater. The water in such bogs is typically highly acidic and generally has few minerals, which means not much else — except highly adapted plants — lives here with the mosses.

The thing is the mosses absorb lots of water (yielding an unsettling sponge-y sensation for the bog walker), take the minerals from the water and replace the minerals with acid. An unequal trade, one would say.

Estonia bogs

The Viru Bog seen from the lookout tower. The bog’s boardwalk is visible in the lower left-hand corner of the photo.

Some distance below the surface, not even a foot, the oxygen is effectively shut out, meaning decay is slowed or stopped. Peat is the partially decomposed dead moss found below the living plants.

It is because of these conditions that archaeologists who dig in old bogs can find and study preserved bodies of people who died hundreds or thousands of years ago.

But, back to the bog walking.

I was with a press group when in Estonia. For our bog experience, we headed to the Lahemaa National Park, which has a 3.5-km/2.2-mile boardwalk that visitors can use to walk — without touching water — at a level slightly above the Viru Bog. It also offers a lookout tower for viewing the landscape for some distance.

Estonia bogs

ViruBogLookoutTower

Outfitters provide equipment for those wishing to walk directly on the bogs. VisitEstonia.com lists a few.

This article and its photos are by Nadine Godwin, the author of Travia: The Ultimate Book of Travel Trivia, which was published by The Intrepid Traveler.

Tallinn: Recalling Guildhalls and Peppersacks

Tallinn’s historic city center seen from a helium balloon, nearly 400 feet in the air. The tallest spire belongs to St. Olaf’s Church. The Lower Town is in the foreground, with Toompea Hill in the back.

Tallinn’s historic city center seen from a helium balloon, nearly 400 feet in the air. The tallest spire belongs to St. Olaf’s Church. The Lower Town is in the foreground, with Toompea Hill in the back.

This is the second of a series of articles on Estonia. Read Nadine Godwin’s previous article here.

TALLINN, Estonia — In 2014, a vendor introduced balloon trips that give visitors a bird’s-eye view of the historic center of Tallinn, Estonia’s capital. The tethered balloons, using helium, rise to almost 400 feet above the ground.

Passengers get a sweeping view of the Old Town’s tallest churches, narrow streets lined with centuries-old buildings as well as defensive walls that have stood since the Middle Ages.

The vendor is Balloon Tallinn, and its 15-minute airborne excursion costs 25 euros for adults, with concessions for the young and for families.

The Old Town, home to 3,000 of Tallinn’s 400,000 people, is so well preserved the whole thing is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The elevated viewing is great for getting the picture — lots of them, in fact — but it’s no substitute for exploring such a valuable piece of real estate on foot.

Tallinn’s Town Hall Square, where old houses are often now restaurants with outdoor seating in good weather.

Tallinn’s Town Hall Square, where old houses are often now restaurants with outdoor seating in good weather.

I recently visited Tallinn as part of a press trip sponsored by the Estonian Tourist Board. The balloon excursion enriched a visit that also featured plenty of nosing around at ground level.

Tallinn first appears in the chronicles in 1154 and by 1284 was a member of the Hanseatic League, a German-led exclusive trading cartel. Much of what we see on the tourist circuit today has its basis in league-generated wealth.

Our guided walking tour started in Town Hall Square. The gothic city hall there, now a museum and concert hall, was built in 1404. Raeapteek, described as Europe’s oldest continuously operating public pharmacy (1422), is on the same square. Besides, the tourist board says, the first-ever Christmas tree stood in this square in 1441.

Raeapteek, on Town Hall Square, described as Europe’s oldest continuously operating public pharmacy.

Raeapteek, on Town Hall Square, described as Europe’s oldest continuously operating public pharmacy.

Also from the 15th century (1410), the Great Guild Hall, once home to the most powerful of the merchant guilds during Hanseatic League days, is a block away on Pikk Street and now houses the Estonian History Museum.

Great Guild Hall, home to the most powerful of Tallinn’s merchant guilds during Hanseatic League days.

Great Guild Hall, home to the most powerful of Tallinn’s merchant guilds during Hanseatic League days.

Its near neighbor is the white Holy Spirit Church (14th century) well known for a painted wall clock that has kept time since the 17th century. Other former guildhalls are on Pikk Street, as well.

The painted wall clock on the exterior of Holy Spirit Church.

The painted wall clock on the exterior of Holy Spirit Church.

While tenderly caring for these old places, Estonians also make use of them.

The Olde Hansa restaurant, in a medieval building, features period menus and staffers in period clothing.

The Olde Hansa restaurant, in a medieval building, features period menus and staffers in period clothing.

Many medieval merchant houses are now restaurants, some with staff in period costume, such as at the Olde Hansa eatery. Its menus keep to the theme, too.

A staffer at Olde Hansa restaurant, in period costume, urging passersby to try the eatery.

A staffer at Olde Hansa restaurant, in period costume, urging passersby to try the eatery.

Medieval merchants were called peppersacks reflecting pepper’s value. Hence, another period restaurant is called Peppersack. And the nearby Hopner Beer House, does beer pairings.

These three establishments sit at a convergence of streets a few steps behind the old Town Hall.

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Estonia: Islands in the Baltic

Kuressaare, Estonia

The Ekesparre B&B, the building at right, reflected in the moat that surrounds the medieval castle in Kuressaare on the island of Saaremaa. A castle tower, at left, also is reflected in the moat.

KURESSAARE, Estonia — This small Baltic nation counts 1,521 islands. I visited two, Saaremaa, the largest, and neighboring Muhu. A bridge links the pair, and each is connected to the mainland with regular ferry services.

I was a guest, with other press, of the Estonian Tourist Board.

Part of the gear on the ferry to Muhu, appearing here simply because it made a good photo.

Part of the gear on the ferry to Muhu, appearing here simply because it made a good photo.

This excursion began with the Virtsu-to-Muhu ferry, a 23-minute ride across the clear blue Baltic, in brisk (read, windy and chilly) air but under a bright September sun.

Our trip encompassed the following:

• Shopping in Liiva, a center for Muhu handicrafts, especially goods made with juniper wood. The big item is the butter knife. I have several now, some for gifts. Many souvenirs here are juniper because juniper is richly available on these islands, although protected elsewhere in Europe.

Kuressaare, Estonia

Samples of various juniper butter knives, with a wooden spoon and comb, both also of juniper, thrown in.

Another souvenir was colorful knitted socks in huge sizes for men. We wondered, do Estonian men really have such big feet? We were told yes.

Kuressaare, Estonia

Goods seen in a Liiva souvenir shop, on Estonia’s island of Muhu.

• Lunch at Nautse Mihkli guesthouse, which is a repurposed set of farm buildings. The main structure originated as a house/barn combo more than 100 years ago.

Kuressaare, Estonia

The former house/barn combination that is now the main house of the Nautse Mihkli guesthouse on Estonia’s island of Muhu.

Our hostess, Ingrem Raidjoe, and her husband own the business. The guesthouse accommodates 30 people in summer (many in a detached building with multiple singe beds, in a setting resembling summer camp) and 12 in winter, but only in the main house.

Kuressaare, Estonia

Ingrem Raidjoe, who teaches cooking classes at the Nautse Mihkli guesthouse that she and her husband operate on Muhu island.

Tourists can book rooms, meals and/or cooking classes on line. Ingrem teaches the classes, specializing in ostrich (raised on Muhu) and wild game, meaning red buck (she and her husband hunt).

Lunch was mushroom quiche (way better than I expected), red buck, beet cake and beet ice cream.

Our visit included a folk dance program. Muhu is renowned for the dancing, which resembled square dancing/circle dances/polka. The accompanying accordion music included pieces called polkas.

Kuressaare, Estonia

Muhu women folk dancers showing off both the dances and traditional costumes for which Muhu is noted.

All dancers were women, and they wore costumes that are specifically identified with Muhu. Skirts were bright yellow with vertical stripes of varying colors. Our hosts said that, traditionally, there were more women’s dances because men were so often out to sea.

• Making soap at GoodKaarma, an eco-farm on Saaremaa that makes organic soaps.

Kuressaare, Estonia

The house that accommodates the GoodKaarma soap factory, on the island of Saaremaa.

Co-owners Ea Velsvebel Greenwood and her husband remade an old house to accommodate their factory and themselves with children. She leads the soap-making sessions.

Kuressaare, Estonia

Ea Velsvebel Greenwood leading a soap-making workshop on the island of Saaremaa.

For our group, this involved rebatching, meaning the shaping of new soap bars from the shavings left from making the soaps that GoodKaarma sells. We could add flowers and spices for scents of our choice.

At GoodKaarma, soaps are based on olive, linseed and other oils, but no animal fat, which means the process does not involve stovetop cooking.

Two workshop options are available in the summer, one at six and one at seven euros per adult, bookable through the GoodKaarma Web site.

Our project was easy, and the factory certainly smelled nice!!

• Touring Kuressaare, capital of Saaremaa County, which includes Saaremaa and Muhu islands.

Kuressaare, Estonia

The central square in the town of Kuressaare on the island of Saaremaa. The town’s 17th century weighhouse is the white building at right.

Kuressaare’s architectural centerpiece is a 14th century castle (with 13th century origins) and its water-filled moat.

We also paused in front of a tavern called Veski located inside a windmill — where I had eaten a lunch 21 years earlier! The Saaremaa countryside is noted for windmills.

Saaremaa was a well-established tourist destination by 1900, with a focus on spas — producing the nickname Spa-remaa. Further, our guide said, Saaremaa, a “human-sized place,” is good for hiking, biking and cross-country skiing, but “not for the party animal.”

Kuressaare

An early morning view of Saaremaa’s medieval castle.

Our guide said Saaremaa has one traffic light, installed as a joke.

However, while thinly populated, these islands are very connected. One can access free Wi-Fi almost anywhere in Estonia, including the islands.

• And eating a lot of things made with sea-buckthorn berries. At breakfast, at a Kuressaare B&B called Ekesparre, my smoothie combined carrots, bananas and the berries.

At lunch, after a spa treatment at Kuressaare’s Georg Ots hotel spa, lunch in the hotel’s restaurant ended with a sea-buckthorn sorbet.

Kuressaare, Estonia

Sorbet, made with sea-buckthorn berries, served at the Georg Ots hotel restaurant in Kuressaare on Saaremaa. The yellow orange berries have a knack for thriving where other plants don’t such as in salty coastal areas, including Estonia’s islands.

And, during a grand multicourse dinner at the luxurious Padaste Manor on Muhu island, we had a fish dish topped with a sea-buckthorn sauce and, later, another sea-buckthorn sorbet.

A course of needlefish and carrots, topped with sea-buckthorn sauce, served at the Alexander restaurant in the luxury Padaste Manor on Muhu island.

A course of needlefish and carrots, topped with sea-buckthorn sauce, served at the Alexander restaurant in the luxury Padaste Manor on Muhu island.

The Padaste dinner was served in the former manor house, now the hotel’s main building. The restaurant, called Alexander, emphasizes Nordic cuisine; it has been voted Estonia’s best eatery for three years running.

Kuressaare, Estonia

Robot lawnmower making its way, over and over again, across the lawns at the Padaste Manor on Muhu island.

Aside from the expected luxury features, Padaste Manor amused us with something unique — a robot lawnmower. My room, in the carriage house, overlooked the lawns, where a robot busily mowed the grass endlessly, hence ensuring lawns were always in fine trim. This vision suggested (to me) a very large bug crawling across the ground, and I laughed a lot.

 

 

This article and its photos are by Nadine Godwin, the author of Travia: The Ultimate Book of Travel Trivia, which was published by The Intrepid Traveler.