To truly appreciate Estonia, you have to consider the history of this Baltic country. After spending over 50 years in occupation - first by the Soviet Union, then the Nazis, then the Soviets again - Estonia finally gained its independence in 1991. And they did it with a Singing Revolution. As they endured the years of occupation, Estonians kept their culture alive through music, but that music had to come from an approved list. When they began the quest for independence they had no army and no weapons. They used what they had, which was music. Estonians joined hands and began singing forbidden political songs and eventually those peaceful musical protests led to the country's independence. That amazing fact is just one of many things that made me fall in love with Estonia. Here are a few more!
Estonia's capital city, Tallinn, has managed to preserve its medieval and Hanseatic origin earning it UNESCO World Cultural Heritage status. Cobbled streets date back to the 13th-century, 11th-century warehouses in their original form can be found, and the town hall is the last surviving Gothic town hall in northern Europe. For seven centuries the Town Hall Square has been the heart of the city, hosting concerts and fairs during summer and transforming into a magical Christmas market during the holidays.
The medieval Old Town is home to galleries, shops, plenty of cafes, and innovative gourmet restaurants. It is also home to Raeapteek, the oldest continuously working pharmacy in Europe. Medieval legend claims the pharmacy is even the birthplace of the sweet treat, marzipan.
A viewing platform on the high tower of the 15th-century St. Olaf's Church provides stunning panoramic views of the city. Other highlights include the largest Orthodox church in Tallinn, Aleksand Nevsky Cathedral, topped with golden onion domes, and Toompea Castle, the home of Estonia's parliament.
For a bird's eye view of the medieval Old Town, the former city wall and the surrounding Gulf of Finland, take a ride in Balloon Tallinn. The helium filled balloon anchored to the ground whisks passengers up 120 meters high for spectacular vistas.
Long stretches of white sandy beaches, shallow waters, and beach boardwalks beckon Estonians to Parnu in the warm summer months. Sailing is a popular pastime in this seaside community and spa hotels are abundant.
Established in 1251, Parnu became one of the rich vibrant Hanseatic cities during the medieval period. Those medieval traditions are celebrated at the annual Hanseatic festival with traditional foods like fire-grilled boar and lamb, period costumes, and crafts.
Be sure to visit Villa Ammende, one of the best examples of early Art Nouveau style in Estonia. Built in 1905 by the Ammende merchant family, the grand villa is surrounded by beautifully landscaped gardens. In addition to the gardens, it also houses a luxurious hotel and celebrated restaurant.
Estonia has over 1500 islands, but you won't find one more charming than Kihnu. It is the largest island in the Gulf of Riga and the seventh largest Estonian island, and it is absolutely enchanting. The minute you set foot on this island of about 500 residents, you will know you are in a special place. This matriarchal community cherishes ancient traditions, even in the 21st century. For centuries, the men of Kihnu have gone to sea while the women run the island and protect its cultural heritage of handicrafts, dances, games, and music.
For the women, traditional clothing is everyday attire. It is quite common to see an old woman in traditional clothing riding a motorbike, for example. Traditional handicrafts and music are passed down to younger generations and UNESCO has proclaimed the Kihnu marriage ceremony as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
Housed in the former schoolhouse of Saarekula Village, the Kihnu Musuem displays the tools, clothes, handicrafts, and furniture of the Kihnu people. The hands of the Kihnu ladies and girls are never idol. There is always a handicraft to knit or a musical instrument to play, and of course there are the dances; many, many dances.
The most visible emblems of Kihnu culture are the woolen handicrafts worn by the women. Using traditional looms and local wool, the women weave and knit brightly colored mittens, stockings, skirts, and blouses. Vivid stripes and intricate embroidery enhance the garments, and the symbolic forms and colors of the crafts are deeply rooted in ancient legends.
When you visit Kihnu you will be welcomed to lunch at a home restaurant where your hostess will serve traditional Estonian foods, which always includes potatoes and herring. And you will be enchanted. Count on it.
Have you been to Estonia? What enchanted you?
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Terri Marshall is a New York City based freelance writer whose work includes travel, spirits, and all things chocolate. Terri's work appears in several publications. She has been a featured guest on Peter Greenberg's Worldwide Travel radio program and Denver's KZKO Radio Morning Express show. Terri will not hesitate to go to the source for great chocolate - even if that means hiking through the jungle and picking cacao pods herself.
Happiest when she's globetrotting, Terri has covered destinations all over the United States, Europe, and into Central and South America. Favorite adventures include reindeer driving in Norway and fishing for piranhas in the Amazon jungle of Peru. You can keep up with Terri's adventures on her website www.TrippingwithTerri.com. You can also find her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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