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Estonia - Part 1

Mon, Aug  10, 2009 - By Karl Saidla

Karl races for XC Ottowa, recently finishing 6th in the Gatineau Loppet - Keskinada 53 Km Skate. RFEad more about him on the XC Ottawa web site.

It has been a few weeks since we got home from our trip to both Finland and Estonia, and I am FINALLY getting around to writing a bit about it. Traveling is so much fun, but I have to admit I feel like I am behind of everything now that I am back.  Anyway.....

Megan and I have divided up the article writing duties, so she is going to fill you in on Finland, which actually was the first part of our trip. I will tell you a little bit about Estonia, which came second.

For starters, this trip was NOT a "ski training trip". Mainly, we went because my parents invited us to see the famous Estonian "Laulupidu" (Song Festival), which I will get to later in the article. The Song Festival itself is only about 3-4 days long, however, and we had about 2.5 weeks of vacation time, so we did get to do some pretty interesting training in both these ski-crazy countries, not to mention the usual eating pickled herring and sausage, walking around medieval cities and castles, and taking saunas every night. Here are a few highlights:

After spending a week in Helsinki with my good friend Jani Koiranen and his girlfriend Soile, we took the famous ferry ride across the gulf on Finland to Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. This journey roughly retraces the route taken by my father's family ( including my 1 year old father) across the Gulf Finland as they escaped from Estonia when the Soviets were moving in during the World War 2. It's a scenic, relaxing 4hr trip, and we celebrated by watching the sunset (well, it never really sets this time of year, but it does get lower in the sky) and enjoying a couple of cold Saku Originaals:

Tallinn is probably the most interesting city I've ever been too. Sure, I admit to some bias, but it is a cool place. Just think about it. You have a walled city built sometime starting around 1300, a history of being occupied by one major power after another ( Germans, Swedes, Danes, Russians.....) for 1000 years or so, and most recently a period of Soviet occupation that lasted until 1991. This results in some great and quirky features. Check out this patio...people acutally live in 800 year old buildings...

These towers with the distinctive orange roofs, of odd shapes and sizes, come intemittently as you walk around the castle walls. They look like something out of a fairy tale of some sort, but they are REAL, and come with gardens all along the bottom of them.

I mentioned there were castles:

If you like narrow streets, Tallinn is a good place to find them. You can find all kinds of things along these narrow streets: benches to stop and rest inside the walls, small cafes, pubs, junk shops etc.

Life imitating some Estonian art:

OK. Time to write a bit more about the Song Festival, which might be described as Estonia's most important national celebration. In fact, it has been given credit for being partly responsible for the eventual independence of the country thanks to it's use as a sometimes not so subtle form of protest during  Soviet times.  Estonia is a small country, with a population of something like 1.35 million, but for every 6 Estonians, at least one of them makes to the Song Festival, so but that's still 300 000 people in one place. On top of that, something like 30 000 of them are actually performers. The way it works is roughly like this. Every 5 years, in every city, town and village, there are local choir and folk dancing groups who spend a year or so learning the material for the song festival. Towards the beginning of July the song festival starts with all 30 000 of them walking through town in a parade that takes 4.5 hrs. Yes, we watched all 4.5 hrs of of it. Then, there are 4 performances: 2 of them folk dancing, 2 of them singing, with the singing part being the larger of the two.

At each performance of the song festival, at the peak, there are 25 000 people singing at once in a special outdoor amphitheatre built for this purpose. There are another 100 000 people, rain or shine, sitting and standing on a grass embankment watching, singing along, waving flags and drinking beer.

What it looks like when 300 000 Estonians come to party!

This structure is actually the "stage". All those people are singing the same song...

After the song festival, we participated in a family reunion of sorts, and then went to visit the family farm which now belongs to our relatives. This is actually where my father was born. It is situated in the Lahemaa National Park, about an hour or so east from Tallinn on the shores of the Gulf of Finland. If you ask me, it is about as peaceful and beautiful a piece of countryside as you will ever find, with quiet forests, famous Estonian bogs (yes, they are famous for their bogs), beaches along the sea, hiking trails, small villages, winding rivers and farms:

While this building is actually new, this is my father walking around the farm where he was born:

For the last part of our trip, Megan and I travelled to the southern part of Estonia, to visit both the "Summer Capital" of Estonia, Parnu, and the "Winter Capital" of Estonia, Otepaa. Parnu is known for its warm sunny weather,  its beautiful sand beaches on the Baltic sea and its various health spas. There is an Estonian expression which says that "in Estonia, we always have weather that is bad for skiing", and somehow, we got a taste of that on the one day we had planned on spending at the beach. Nevertheless, we did go swimming, and we did spend sometime enjoying more "sunsets" on the beach.  It is a beautiful spot, with a fun, "party town" kind of atmosphere.  We could certainly see why there were so many people from other countries choosing to take their summer vacation there.

OK. Finally, the ski training part...tomorrow.