In mid-April I got off the mainland for a long weekend on the islands. Alas, it was less tropical than it sounds – but certainly just as fun!
Muhu and Saaremaa are located off the western shore of Estonia. Saaremaa is easily the “holiday” island of the country – it seems like every other person I met had a holiday or summer home there, or at least knew someone who did. A visit easily revealed why: the island has just enough space so that neighbors don’t crowd, enough coastline to go around, and a diversity of geology and ecology that captures the imagination. Muhu, a smaller island that is connected to Saaremaa features all of these attributes, but isn’t burdened by the same transient population.
To get to Muhu, a ferry is necessary. In my own memory, this is the first ferry I actually drove onto, rather than simply boarding as a walk-on passenger. The ferry ride is a mere hour – and then we were in business for the holiday.
View from trusty ship Piret.
We stayed in Kuressaare, the largest (by population) town on the island, in the Southwest of Saaremaa. The weekend was then filled with hiking and exploring semi-abandoned forts, castles, churches, and cemeteries.
Our valiant rental, on the strip of land between Muhu and Saaremaa.
Few images in Estonia may be more iconic than windmills on the islands. Used primarily as a means for grinding one of the four main grains grown in Estonia (rye, barley, oat, wheat), several types, including a “Dutch” windmill, were quite popular. In this type of windmill, only the top cap of the mill, on which the blades are fixed, rotates. In the other extremely popular type, the whole mill is situated on a foundation and the pivot point is located between the mill and the foundation (thus the whole mill actually turns into the wind).
Windmills of Saaremaa – the third from the right is a Dutch mill.
Traveling around the island, you can spy abandoned mills among the trees or along the coasts or just casually in someone’s yard. Similarly, one can spy a number of relics from the days in which Saaremaa was the location of major conflicts – remnants of the World Wars still look fresh, and prior to our visit buried artillery had been excavated.
Anti-tank line (the pyramids).
Prior to the World Wars, Saaremaa was the site of centuries of tense battle between the peoples of ancient Estonia, conquerors from Sweden, Germany, etc. The forts that dot the land pay tribute to this long history.
Outside of a centuries old fort in the process of being restored along the eastern shore of Saaremaa
The basement of the fort.
The view from the fort – no longer it was contested ground!
Due to the frequently changing “ownership” of the island, the culture of the place actually feels a bit different from the mainland. One big difference that is easily visible is the number of worship places. More than on the mainland, churches/places of worship became central places for community gathering, resource sharing, education – the list goes on. A surprising number of these churches today are still “active” in the sense that restoration is active, and community events are evidently still held on the grounds.
Check out those grave marks slowly sinking into the ground….
Hopefully not a bad omen…
At one point in history, there was a colorful patina on these walls. Now, there is only mere shreds of evidence of the former color.
The nature on the islands really shines. I was surprised by the diversity – from dense forest, to open fields, to sandy beaches, to limestone cliffs…it was exciting hiking along the shorelines.
Yes, that lighthouse is tilting and in the middle of the water. This sandy peninsula of Saaremaa is dynamically changing – a mere 40 years ago that lighthouse marked the very tip of this peninsula. The sand underneath of the lighthouse is shifting so much that the tilt of the structure changes on the order of hours – not days. The youth of the peninsula is evident in the sparse vegetation long the coast.
At a sandy peninsula.
A fishing village to the North.
Small limestone cliffs (one Christian for scale)
Tall limestone cliffs
One extremely striking place is a meteorite field on the island. The field is “fresh” enough that the actual strike has been recorded in the lore of the place. The crater lake we visited was revered, and at one point, a huge wall was built around the site by the local peoples in order to protect the sanctity of the place. There is something special about the air of the place. What are we but some lucky mix of space dust after all?
The weather played with us during the trip – from a day where it was nearly warm enough to not wear a jacket, to a day in which a blizzard caught us by surprise then melted into a perfect spring day, it was a fairly exciting time. The pictures below were taken on the same day.
In Kuressaare proper, there is of course a castle. Why wouldn’t there be? Prior to being made into a fortress, it served as a convent/abbey/place of worship. Its previous life is obvious looking at the structure of the building: the sharp corners of the building, and lack of peep-windows (for both watching and weaponry) give away the fact that defense was not really in the original plans. During fortress-era renovation, extensive work was done to create bastions around the property, effectively creating a moat (which felt very fairy-tale — no crocodiles or piranhas however).
On Easter proper we tried dying eggs the “traditional Estonian way” which involved using onion skin to dye an egg by attaching the skin (either with twine, rope, rubberbands, etc) then boiling the onion-egg package for about 10 minutes. The result brown, green, and red imprint on the egg leaves a rather unique marbled effect.
Our egg dying attempts.
I was glad to get the change to get to the islands before the end of my visit, and I was super appreciative to go with a wonderful friend. Shout out to this guy for not getting *that* annoyed at my constant picture taking!
Look at how amusing my clear inability at taking selfies must be!