Estonia: State of grace

While the capital city of Tallinn plays host to riotous British stag parties, Janet Street-Porter finds that along Estonia's coast there's a gentler pace of life - complete with ladies-only beaches
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The Independent Travel

It's not often I've checked into a hotel under the gaze of an enormous wild boar's head, balefully looking down from the wall above the reception desk. My eyes travelled upwards, taking in the riot of art nouveau patterns on the double-height walls of the central hall, to a chandelier suspended from the talons of a huge eagle. Soon, I was bouncing on a mahogany bed wide enough for a family of four, and marvelling at the beautiful embroidery on the fine silk curtains. Villa Ammende, in the Estonian seaside resort of Pärnu, is the most glamorous house in a town that has leafy streets of crumbling early 20th-century summer homes, gradually being restored and cared for again. In a way, the fortunes of this flamboyant folly match those of Estonia itself, which is now experiencing independence and prosperity after long periods of invasion and occupation.

Estonia's misfortune was to be positioned between extremely aggressive neighbours. This charming country, where you can drive for mile after mile through undulating forest and heathland, with a reedy coast that is home to a rich birdlife, has been constantly invaded. It began with the Danes in the 13th century, then the Germans, the Swedes and the Russians. In 1918 Estonia tasted freedom but was then occupied by the Germans and in 1940, the Russians arrived. Finally, after only 30 years of self-rule out of 800, there was a happy ending in 1991 when Estonia achieved independence, went on to join the EU - and hosted the Eurovision Song Contest.

Tallinn, with its beautifully preserved medieval centre of narrow merchants' houses and cobbled streets, has recently become a great short-break destination. But after spending a riotous weekend there in January, I was determined to go back and explore more of this attractive country. During the winter we had driven along the north-east coast. There were signs of Russian rule everywhere - abandoned watch towers and collective farm buildings. We also visited the poignant Museum of Occupation with its lobby full of suitcases (symbolising the millions of Estonians who were shipped off to Soviet labour camps without any warning).

This time we drove south-west from Tallinn for a couple of hours, to the islands off the coast, which Estonians consider the most unspoilt part. Mind you, that's all relative in a country so under-populated. Everywhere you go you can see the havoc wrought by the disastrous Soviet collective farm policy - abandoned wooden and thatched farmhouses, uncultivated fields and ugly 20th-century blocks of housing for the workers. The place seems empty - the whole country has a population of less than 1.5 million, of which a third are Russian. But the country is starting to thrive. Many Estonians speak at least two, and often three, languages. Mobile phones and modern technology have really taken off - this is a place where MPs are in their 20s and new businesses are springing up constantly.

But the countryside is where the heart of Estonia is, and it is only just beginning to experience the effects of foreign tourism. We took the ferry that runs every hour from Virtsu across to Muhu. Everyone on board was Estonian - all going to stay with friends and family. The sky was a clear blue with gulls circling overhead. After landing it was a 15-minute drive along a dirt road to Padaste Manor, a 19th-century nobleman's estate that has been converted into a charming luxury hotel by Estonian MP Imre Sooaar (who was born on the island) and his Dutch business partner Martin Breuer.

Padaste is a group of pretty stone buildings around a central green, which leads down to the jetty and the sea. The carriage house has been turned into comfortable rooms, each with the bed on the upper floor and a sitting room below. Two other buildings house the spa and the restaurant. Still to be restored are the dairy and the main house itself, where Imre lives in a couple of rooms. With flagstones on the floor, huge fires and leather sofas, Padaste is welcoming and relaxed. Soon we were having supper on the terrace warmed by gas heaters. Some of our party were late as they couldn't tear themselves away from the outdoor hot tub by the jetty. I was soon to learn that Estonians love saunas, mud baths, eels and potatoes. But the food at Padaste was more sophisticated - I ate delicious wild mushroon soup that arrived with a pastry covering, followed by venison. This isn't a place to diet.

The next day we explored the islands - Saaremaa is linked to Muhu by a narrow causeway. Flat, and covered with low pine, birch and juniper, the coastline consists of a series of reedy beaches and wetlands. The wildlife includes deer, moose, elk and beaver. The simple tall white church of St Katherine in the nearby village of Liiva dates from the 13th century. Inside, posies of roses, babies breath and ivy were tied to every pew, in anticipation of a wedding taking place at midday. On the walls you could clearly see some of the murals of saints outlined in red that had once covered the interior.

Nearby, lanes 200 years old, bordered by mossy stone walls, brought us to the hamlet of Koguva, a series of thatched cottages and barns dating from the 19th century. This is the best-preserved village in the country and, far from being a museum-piece, is now a thriving community. The surrounding cottages have been restored and are now occupied as small-holdings and holiday cottages. In the main dwelling, the Tooma farmhouse, rooms have been kept just as if the family was still living there, with thick woollen dresses on hangers made from sticks, photos in old frames, simple bedspreads, and pitchers for washing water. Koguva is full of atmosphere, with separate buildings for grain, meat, cattle and equipment. This is all the more poignant because it symbolises everything about Estonian rural life that the Russians sought to eradicate.

Estonian cuisine is hearty fare, built around rye bread, barley, herrings, perch, pickled cucumber and pork. We ate lunch upstairs in a wooden café overlooking the yachts moored at the tiny port of Orissaare, over the causeway on Saaremaa - a meaty broth flavoured with paprika followed by perch with baked potatoes and salad, washed down with beer. On a Saturday in this part of the world there's not a lot happening - a couple of sailors sat downstairs drinking pints and waiting for the weather to improve. A little way down the road we visited a group of five much-photographed windmills at Angla. Once windmills were everywhere on the island, used by farmers to grind the wheat and rye. In 1925, the village of Angla consisted of 13 farms and there were nine windmills on the hill where now just five remain. They are constructed so that they rotate on a stone base, in order to face whichever way the wind is blowing.

Saaremaa and Muhu were ruled by Baltic Lords and the people treated as peasant serfs. In the town of Kuressaare, the largest on the island, there is a wonderfully intact Bishop's castle, dating from the 14th century. Outside the walls lies a moat, a leafy park and a largely 19th-century group of townhouses on cobbled streets. Now the centre of Kuressaare is being restored and hotels, shops, galleries and cafés are springing up outside the castle walls. The castle is well worth a visit, with a museum of local history, as well as a great natural history section, complete with giant stuffed moose. Crossing the causeway back to Muhu I was knocked out by the huge expanse of stormy sky. On the islands the landscape and the light are mesmerising.

Back at Padaste, I took a hay bath in the spa. This consisted of taking a shower, then being wrapped in cloth, lying on warm manure (hay and mud mixed) and having more muck piled on top of me. After 30 minutes of being trapped in this way, it was all washed off. Outside I could hear nothing but the driving wind and rain. I was beginning to understand where the music of Arvo Pärt and Veijo Tormis (another celebrated Estonian composer) came from. My skin glowed.

The following day was sunny. After taking the ferry back to the mainland, we drove on deserted back roads through the empty farmland of western Estonia down to the seaside resort of Pärnu. Along the way we passed deserted villages, cottages with lace curtains, abandoned barns and a splendid 19th-century red-and-white wooden church. Approaching Pärnu, suddenly the road became a massive four-lane highway - and then, just as suddenly, inexplicably reverted back to normal Estonian size. The coast to the north of the town is packed with weekend villas, once occupied by wealthy Germans and Russians.

The outskirts of Pärnu weren't promising - ugly apartment buildings, factories and garages. But after crossing the bridge over the river into the centre it all changes. There's an anonymous main square with a theatre and a (weirdly) popular Mexican restaurant, where, anxious for a herring-free meal, we had lunch. It was packed with young people, clearly the hot place to hang out. The old centre of Pärnu is a neat grid of wooden and stone houses dating from the 17th century, the main thoroughfare is pedestrianised and consists of souvenir, clothes and gift shops, cafés and bars.

But the real attraction in Pärnu is the wide, sandy beach. It lies at the end of a beautiful park, reached by a series of wide, leafy avenues of lime trees bordered by swanky villas, mostly built in the Twenties and Thirties for rich Germans, Swedes and Russians who would come here to play.

Pärnu hosts a series of musical, film and cultural events in the summer, from concerts to ballets and plays. The town feels like a sleepy Baltic version of Santa Barbara - a place where the wealthy came to gamble, take the spa waters, indulge in mud baths, drink and dance. The Pärnu Baths are a neo-classical confection on the promenade and are still going strong. The mud baths were fully booked for days, so I wandered around a weird exhibition of life-like wax figures instead, from Michael Jackson to Stalin, occupying the front rooms of the building.

Further down the beach is the gorgeous Rannahotel, which looks like a giant art deco liner. Designed by Olev Siinmaa and Anton Soans between 1935-7, it was beautifully restored and reopened by the Scandic Group in 1994. The roof terrace is a terrific place to enjoy a cocktail and watch the sun go down. The same architects designed the nearby beach café, with its mushroom-shaped awning. Further along the beach there's a new steel and glass high-tech beach café and bar, and past the mud baths the glorious Kursaal beer hall, a lavish art nouveau wooden structure, where you can enjoy a beer sitting on the veranda overlooking the park.

For me, however, the whole point of a trip to Pärnu was not simply to enjoy the beach with its changing booths, ladies-only section and shallow waters and serried ranks of white loungers, but to stay at Pärnu's temple of Jugendstil, Villa Ammende. Set in green parkland, Ammende is high style. It's impossible to miss - a confection of turrets, towers, verandas and canopies that wouldn't be out of place in Vienna or Paris. In 1904, a German merchant Herman Leopold Ammende, whose family had moved to Estonia in the 18th century, decided to build a new house for his daughter's wedding. No expense was spared in the effort to reflect his position and power - and the result was a villa dwarfing all the others in town, in the latest art nouveau style. It had salons for men and women, a bar, studies for the host and his wife, dressing rooms and a tower. Everything was decorated: doors were carved, there was a wood-panelled dining hall featuring stained glass, chandeliers and parquet floors. It cost a fortune, and was completed in 1905 - the talk not just of Estonia, but the whole region.

In 1927 the family moved back to Germany, and the house was sold to the city of Pärnu. Olev Siinmaa, the town architect, had big plans to redesign the ground floor in the new modernist style. Luckily, they weren't completed. Then Villa Ammende became a casino, and in 1940 was seized by the Russians. German officers used it during their occupation, and after the Second World War the villa became a health spa, a library and then a restaurant. After independence two Estonian businessmen bought it in 1995 and spent millions restoring the place to its former glory, going back to the original plans and designs to recreate the wall painting and decoration. It opened in 1999, and now has palatial rooms and suites on the first floor, gorgeously luxurious rooms on the second - all with period furniture - and simpler, cheaper rooms in the servants' quarters in the grounds.

The chefs have been trained in France, so the food is not heavy. One study has been turned into a billiards room and cocktail bar. The hotel offers candlelit suppers in the tower room, weekly concerts in the grounds in the summer season and rose-petal baths. Our room, the mahagony suite, was of French chateau proportions, with suitably massive furniture, a veranda complete with wicker chairs, and the most beautiful silk hand-stitched curtains gently moving in the breeze. Villa Ammende is a total trip - and it's not often I can say I've stayed somewhere that audacious.

Tallinn is a wonderful city but to really discover Estonia you need to rent a car and visit the islands before indulging in a sumptuous weekend in Pärnu. You won't run into many other Brits, that's for sure, and you can always work off the wine and food with a bike ride or a brisk swim off the ladies-only beach.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

The writer flew to Tallinn with easyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyJet.com). Estonian Air (020-7333 0196; www.estonian-air.com) also flies from Gatwick and Manchester.

GETTING AROUND

Argus Car Hire (00 353 14 90 4444; www.argusrentals.com) offers four days' car rental in Estonia from €167 (£119).

Ferries to Muhu depart hourly from Virtsu with a journey time of around 30 minutes (00 372 4775 020; www.laevakompanii.ee). One-way tickets cost 35 EEK (£1.50) or 70 EEK (£3) with a vehicle.

STAYING THERE

Villa Ammende, Mere Pst. 7, Pärnu, Estonia (00 372 44 73 888; www.ammende.ee). The mahogany suite costs 4,800 EEK (£210) in high season; doubles start at 1,550 EEK (£68), including breakfast, in the summer.

Padaste Manor, Muhu Island, Estonia (00 372 454 8800; www.padaste.ee). Doubles start at 1,580 EEK (£69), including breakfast.

Scandic Rannahotell, Ranna Pst. 5, Pärnu (00 372 44 32 950; www.scandic-hotels.com). Doubles start at 1,490 EEK (£65), including breakfast.

VISITING THERE

Museum of Occupation, Toompea 8, Tallinn (00 372 66 80 250; www.okupatsioon.ee). Open Tuesday-Sunday from 11am-6pm; admission 10 EEK (£0.45).

Parnu Mud Baths, Ranna Boulevard 1, Pärnu (00 372 44 59020). Mud baths cost 160 EEK (£7), reservations essential.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Pärnu Tourist Information (00 372 44 73 000; www.parnu.ee).

Estonia Tourist Board (00 372 64 57 777; www.visitestonia.com).

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