When I travel, I do my best to venture out of the ‘hubs’. Sure the big cities have great things to offer, museums, history and beautiful sites. However, the moment comes when you yearn to see more and adventure away from the big city. Over the next 5 months, while living in Estonia, I hope to get out and explore more of what this country has to offer other than Tallinn. This last weekend was my first big step out of the ‘big’ city and I have to say it was more than I expected it to be! So here’s an account of my adventure to Saaremaa!
Saturday morning we all impatiently waited for the last few members of our group to arrive so we could set off. In their hung over states, they arrived and we all loaded onto the bus for the weekend to start. Our first stop was a small town called Haapsalu, located in western Estonia. Upon arrive, from looking out the window I could have sworn we were the only life form in this town – empty streets and no lights in any house. Finally once we arrived at the old medieval castle we realized that there were in fact other living creatures present in this forgotten village – senior tourists. According to our group leader the town of Haapsalu is alive and bustling for about three weeks during the summer, other than that the streets our empty and the only two noteworthy things to do are, 1) visit the castle (which took us all of 5 minutes) and 2) eat delicious cake. Number 2 was definitely my favorite. And where might one find this delicious cake?
Muuriarre Kohvik: karja 7, Haapsalu
A cozy café with at least 9 or 10 different desserts to choose from. From chocolate / banana cake to whipped cream and pear pie. For those who have a huge sweet tooth, this is the place to go! Check it out!
After a brief tour of the unpopulated Haapsalu city center, we continued on to the port where we were able to take a ferry to the island of Muhu. The island of Muhu isn’t technically Saaremaa, but the land bridge between the two islands allows for an easy connection between the two. And after about an hour of driving you arrive in the capital of Saaremaa, which is Kuressaare.
Kuressaare is located on the shore and offers a beautiful panoramic of marsh lands and a calm sea. In the evening the sun light falls just right so that it reflects off the water and you see the shoreline in a whole other light.
Within Kuressaare there is an old medieval castle called Kuressaare castle (not very original I know), which dates all the way back to the 1380’s. Over the past couple of centuries it has been seized and under the control of multiple countries; Denmark, Sweden, the Russian Empire… just as the entire island of Saaremaa has been. Because the history of the castle is so rich and spans over such a long period of time, I won’t get into details in fear that I don’t actually known what I am talking about – I’ve never been a good history student. However, the tour guide did have lots to say and seeing as the history of this particular castle is quite rich, it is definitely worth looking into if you’re a medieval castle kind of person.
Side story: Here is a fun story shared with us by our tour guide: Within the watchtower there is a hole that measures approximately 7 meters deep and used to have a multitude of purposes (storing food, holding sewage, punishing prisioners…) Apparently, to show just how deep the hole is, tour guides used to throw a small piece of lit up newspaper so viewers could watch it fall to the bottom. Well one day, during the last tour of that particular day, a small boys’ curiosity got the best of him and he ended up falling in said hole. Luckily for him there has been enough ‘half-burnt’ newspaper pieces to somewhat break his fall and prevent serious injury. However the poor kid stayed the entire night stuck in the dungeons!
Anyways, after exploring the numerous halls and rooms of the castle we were given some free time to enjoy one of the best things Kuressaare – the spas. Kuressaare is apparently one of the best known places in Estonia for spa getaways. It’s many spa hotels offer massages, mud baths, salt soaks, saunas, Turkish baths… a relaxation haven. A must for anyone needing to get away from the everyday city life.
After dining at the Vana Willemi Pubi, and having to take cabs back to the hotel because our bus driver decided to throw a few beers back, we all took part in an Estonian wedding. Weird right? Well yes, a little, but it’s all part of the fun of going abroad and learning about local traditions. One of the traditions that our tour buddies wanted to share with us was the Estonian wedding! They had planned out and given roles to each and every one of us so we could act out the wedding on our own. Not only that but our Estonian wedding even got crashed, by a drunk Russian nonetheless, who ended up falling over while dancing and passing out on a hotel couch… Oh Russians.
On Sunday morning we all wearily got out of bed after only 2 or 3 hours of sleep. We put some food in our stomachs and set out for a day full of sightseeing and interactive activities on Saaremaa. Including learning about the Kaali crater, visiting the Angla windmills, visiting an emu farm, and riding horses in Tihuse.
Kaali crater: Formed in approximately 1530 BCE, the world’s 8th largest meteorite crater! Since then Estonians have considered it to be holy ground, and according to evidence it might have even been a place of ritual sacrifice. There exists much mythology about the Kaali crater, which can of course be found online if you’re interested.
Angla windmills: The only remaining group of windmills on Saaremaa. People used to use these windmills to grind their wheat and rye. On the windmills there is a wooden bar that is used to manually turn the windmills in the direction of the wind.
Emu farm: Who knew that Ostriches, Zebras and Kangaroos could be found so far north! Well they can!
Horse back riding: We arrived at a farm in the middle of no-where to be greeted by a warm meal and horses to ride! My personal favorite part of the trip because, well, I love riding horses!
All in all it was a great trip, and how good it felt to finally get out of the city!