Back in the USSR: Come on in, the water's lovely (but avoid the bogs)

Every year, Estonia's Soomaa National Park floods, creating a network of rivers and streams navigable by canoe. Mark Rowe grabs a paddle
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The Independent Travel

The Estonians talk of five seasons. The fifth is between winter and spring, when the ice cover breaks up and the unrelentingly flat landscape of Soomaa National Park, two hours south of Tallinn, is awash. A hundred years ago, the floods were so high that people could navigate their canoes into their living room. Even today, some farms can be reached only by boat.

By mid-April the waters have receded to leave a network of rivers and streams, which are the veins and arteries for the forests and bogs. Soomaa, which means "the land of bogs", comprises four main bogs and much of this small country's central mires. Enter by car and rivers flash by on either side; on foot you are aware of the lattice of small bridges. Soomaa is a bucolic version of Venice.

The best way to enjoy Soomaa, therefore, is on the water, where you can explore rivers fringed with reedbeds and high banks with overhanging willows. The canoe is to Estonians what skis are to the Swiss and Norwegians. Thehaabja, a dugout made from aspen (which does not crack when bent), is thought to date from the Stone Age. Later, Vikings are believed to have used the waterways of Soomaa as they headed south into Russia. Estonian is a Finno-Ugric language and several peoples in Siberia, as well as North American Indians, used similar boats.

The catch for landlubbers is that they are heavier than normal canoes, and tend to rock. Estonians say that to avoid toppling you must keep your tongue suspended in the middle of your mouth. Most outsiders are given a 21st-century kayak.

The seven-mile stretch of the river Halliste, near Aesoo, is idyllic. The current is gentle and the deepening and straightening of rivers that has taken place across much of Europe has not happened here. Otters abound, feeding on the plentiful fish, lesser-spotted eagles perch on treetops, herons cruise.

With an eye to the tourism industry of tomorrow, there is a network of boardwalks and trails, with English signs. At Karusekose, not far from the helpful national park headquarters, the boardwalk heads straight into a forest of silver birch for half a mile or so before rising up on to the bog of Kuresoo. I climbed up the shiny new watch tower and gazed out toward the horizon. The late afternoon light was clear and golden, the bog spirit-level flat. Clumps of cranberries, cotton grass and dwarf pine were dotted around.

It's tempting to strike out across the bogs, but your lack of options should misfortune befall is a deterrent. By the entrance to Kuresoo I came across a sign, immaculately translated into English: "If you fall into a bog hole, do not struggle. Keep calm. Call your mates for help."

Mud and bogs feature heavily in this country. A 100-mile drive took me to the coastal resort of Haapsalu. During Soviet times, when the area represented one of the borders facing the West, the town was all but closed to foreigners. The town's belle époque was in the 19th century when it was the summer retreat of the well-to-do of St Petersburg; several tsars visited. One attraction was the curative property of the vast, black-mud beach.

Haapsalu is immensely likeable. For most of the year the waters seen from the promenade teem with birds, wildfowl in particular. Thousands of birds aquaplane on to the water, swans paddle by the reedbeds, flanking their cygnets.

Tchaikovsky was among those who took the air in Haapsalu. He visited in 1867 and by all accounts loved to walk along the promenade in the early morning. A marble bench commemorating his visit plays extracts from his works. It is not as corny as it might seem, and sitting on the bench listening to the overture to The Nutcracker while gazing at the vast sea and the birds is quite therapeutic. The bench is by a neurological hospital, whose patients enjoy its restful charms. The idea deserves to catch on.

Haapsalu is full of wooden houses, little museums and sleepy coffee shops. In the Rondo café, we ate pancakes with cream and ham against a backdrop of 1970s wallpaper.

The 13th-century castle and cathedral, joined at the hip in leafy grounds a short walk from the shore, are gems of the kind that the unexplored outposts of eastern Europe have a habit of throwing up. You can learn more about the town's turbulent history at its museum, where I met probably Estonia's most enthusiastic curator, who made it clear that she had not been able to speak her mind in public during the Communist era, and was now making up for it. The museum tells the dramatic history of the town, from its domination by the Swedes and the Russians to the heyday of the 19th century.

Those times are clearly returning to Estonia. Much of eastern Europe's appeal as a tourist destination is the fascination of watching these evolving countries shed the lingering vestiges of Communism. Estonia, which looks towards the economic powerhouses of Finland and Sweden, is ahead of the game.

GIVE ME THE FACTS

How to get there

Regent Holidays (0117-921 1711; www.regent-holidays.co.uk) offers tailor-made packages to Estonia. A seven-day trip, including return flights, and B&B accommodation in Tallinn and Haapsalu and car hire cost from £455 per person, based on two sharing. Aivar Ruutel (00 372 561 896; email: info@soomaa.com) hires out canoes, and offers guided tours of Soomaa, from around £12 per person.

Further information

Estonian Embassy (020-7589 3428). Go to www.visitestonia.com and www.soomaa.ee

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