The Independent Traveller: Around Estonia on 25 museums a day

Inside the World of Travel; Updating a book on Estonia's sights meant bird sanctuaries, painted windmills and many museums - but never on a Tuesday.
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Indy Lifestyle Online
BRITISH VISITORS used to be told that they could travel around Italy on the basis of two words - quanto (how much?) and troppo (too much). As there was no hope of learning Estonian within a decade or two of the publisher's deadline, I soon realised that my tight schedule around that country would depend on some very different words - ida paeve (daily) and suletud (closed). The first two fortunately appear on most bus timetables and, as even a journey of two to three hours never costs more than pounds 4, it was never necessary to learn the Estonian for "too much".

The all too frequent appearance of "suletud" in large capital letters on museum doors caused havoc to the inevitable seven-day-week schedule that writers need on the road. It appears without fail every Monday and Tuesday and as I happened to be there at the end of May, it was brought out a day early on Whit Sunday as well.

Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, has 25 museums, mostly open just for six hours on the five remaining days. The somnolent, elderly staff can sometimes rarely be distinguished from the costumed exhibits, but at 4.50pm they will suddenly show teenage vitality in their eagerness to remove visitors and slam the entrance door behind them.

A strict route and timetable therefore has to be worked out for each day. The entrance fee is sufficiently high to deter locals and many foreigners - so the occasional one who leaps from room to room and then buys whatever brochures are available in no matter what language does give rise to curiosity.

A very few museums do open on Monday or Tuesday, but a writer who covered those would have to offer a very original excuse for limiting descriptions to them. "Never on a Tuesday" would have to be Tallinn's slogan, unless visitors are happy to limit themselves to an unaltered Soviet energy museum, the facts of life (in Estonian only) at the Health Museum or a submarine built in Barrow in Furness for the Estonian Navy in 1937. These three alone choose other days for closing.

Up to and including the visit of Scottish football fans for the Euro 2000 qualifier in Tallinn this week, the British have fortunately always behaved well in Estonia. Thankfully, therefore, a guidebook does not need to hide British involvement in many aspects of Estonia's history. In fact there is much to be proud of - while the Danes, Germans, Swedes and Russians have all conquered Estonia, the British have only visited.

The Royal Navy in 1918 and 1919 helped to prevent the Bolsheviks from seizing the country. Estonian butter and ham was on many British dinner tables in the 1930s. The post-war Soviet occupation was never officially recognised by the UK. And aid and trade started on a large scale immediately after the proclamation of independence in 1991. I do not envy a Russian writing a guidebook.

Historians have dwelt on Estonia's tragedies; but a travel guide writer has to look forward, encourage, and even find some humour. Academic rigour and gravitas may have suited the 19th-century traveller, but today cemeteries and battlefields carry equal weight with bird sanctuaries, discotheques and brightly painted windmills. The writer must be as irreverent as his readers.

On Saaremaa Island, Germans, Russians and Estonians can now lie side by side in a well-maintained military cemetery. This needs to be pointed out but must not be allowed to take space from narrating an Estonian version of Whisky Galore. A sinking Greek merchant ship provided wonderful looting opportunities in 1980 and briefly introduced capitalist delights to the island 10 years before they reached the rest of Estonia.

The competition in Estonia may be less widespread than for books on Paris or Prague, but its attacks will be just as intense in the case of failure. The recent history of guidebooks is littered with "the imposing church" that was in fact burnt down in the Second World War or the "quaint side street" that was flattened to make way for a car park in the 1970s.

Both Estonian and British editors saved me from linguistic howlers, contradictory dates and incomprehensible syntax. Will the competition or reviewers, however, notice my sins of omission? Does it matter that I never visited Moisakula, Polva or Rapina, or can I rely on the UK's still minimal knowledge of Estonia for nobody to care?

I finished my research in Valga, a small town divided between Latvia and Estonia in 1919, as both countries wanted to claim it.

Crossing the border was like leaving an examination hall on the last day: I could treat everything with complete abandon. I have no idea what I paid for coffee, when the trains for Riga left or whether the church was baroque or functionalist. I no longer needed to care. I did of course want to change some money, so went to the currency exchange bureau. A member of staff was behind the desk but I could have guessed what her first and only word to me in Latvian would be - slegts. Closed.

Neil Taylor is author of the Bradt Guide to Estonia (pounds 11.95)