Lahemaa National Park & Tartu, Estonia
Lahemaa National Park, in the north of the country, was our next destination on our travels through Estonia. Our first stop was the town of Palmse to pick up a detailed map of the area. We had planned to hire bikes to ride around the park (a popular activity according to the guide books) but we couldn't anyone lending them out, so we gave up on that idea and drove everywhere instead. We ended up hitting three coastal towns, five inland towns, two manors, two cascades and a wetlands area - probably a good thing we weren't on bikes. The park consisted almost entirely of pine trees, which meant we were walking on uneven paths littered with pine cones for most of the day. It also meant the whole area smelled like Christmas. The coast was quiet, rocky and peaceful. All the towns were extremely small – only one we visited had a shop. The manors and cascades were nothing special.
The wetlands area took us an hour and a half to walk around (after getting slightly lost), mostly on a boardwalk across boggy marsh and small ponds. One of the ponds was also a swimming hole, which was so deep that the water looked almost black. Danny was keen to jump in but there was no way I was going in there. In the end Danny relented and we both kept walking. There were cotton plants everywhere, giving off white balls of fluff that annoyingly stuck to everything. In the centre of the wetlands was a watchtower that we climbed, which didn't show us much more than what we could see from the ground. We also picked and ate wild strawberries, tiny little red ones. There were soft but not mushy, and deliciously sweet.
Overall the national park was beautiful and we were exhausted by the end. But there were two downsides: first was the part where I walked through stinging nettle, setting my feet and legs on fire for hours (somehow Danny avoided it). The second was that everywhere we went we encountered swarms of flies and mosquitoes (not too dissimilar to Australia). It was the first time we needed insect repellent since leaving Asia.
We found a free "campsite" (i.e. patch of grass) with a drop toilet and not much else, right next to a river, which looked like a perfect spot to stop for the night. Danny made vegetable risotto with truffle oil for dinner, then we did nothing but listen to the sound of water rushing down the river. Bliss.
Our night in the national park was eerily quiet, which made for a pleasant change. Feeling refreshed in the morning we drove south to the city of Tartu, taking what seemed like mostly back roads but were probably main roads in Estonia. There was so much unused land around – it seemed like only 1% of the country contained any sort of development. The rest of the landscape was just open fields and pine forests. It was also extremely flat – I think I read that the highest peak is a little over 300 metres tall. The towns we infrequently passed through were tiny and contained mostly dilapidated buildings. It was incredible how many looked like ghost towns.
In Tartu we found a car park almost in the centre of town, beside a market on the river. The river took us to the main square, which was far too neat and dollhouse-like (lots of pink buildings), except for the "leaning" house, which had a definite slant to it. Using the town map we followed a walking route of Tartu, although the heat and humidity were doing their best to slow us down. Over half of the highlights of Tartu (according to the map) were statues, mostly dedicated to famous Estonians, so they meant nothing to us.
Up on a small hill were the ruins of a cathedral, which were surprisingly interesting. Half of the building had been restored and hosted a history museum, while the other half was just the skeleton of the building. We walked up the tower in the skeleton side for apparently “great views” over Tartu. All we saw were tree tops with a couple of church spires poking through. The birds-eye view of the ruined cathedral was impressive though.
Next, we ventured past the pink and peach coloured university (really, who thought that these colours would be acceptable on the exterior of a building?) and up to a toy museum, comprising a wide variety of toys from the 19th-21st century. Most of the signs were not in English. There was an over-abundance of dolls with creepy, nightmare-inducing faces - we weren't sure how children could even look at these, let alone play with them. There was a section of toys from around the world, so we went hunting for Australia. Apparently the toys that represent our country are an Aborigine, a kangaroo and a swagman, all from about the 1970s. Can't say I had seen them before. Many of the toys were from Estonian fairytales or TV shows, which again bore no relevance to us.
Before returning to the car we ventured through the market, as Danny can never say no to a market. It was small but so so so cheap. Our purchases included a pastry for 25 cents, a bag of 20 giant spiced biscuits for €1, a small loaf of bread for 40 cents and 250 g of diced beef for 85 cents. We don't eat meat very often but now was our chance while we could afford it. We also bought a purple capsicum, only because it looked cool, but disappointingly it turned green when we cooked it.
We followed Garmin to a "campsite" a bit out of town, which turned out to be a guesthouse with a car park for caravans. We had access to everything we needed, including electricity, showers, waste disposal and water. It was set in a beautiful location, surrounded by huge open fields, picturesque ponds and no one else around for miles. Danny even took a swim in one of the ponds. It turned out that one of the girls working at the guesthouse lived in Australia for a year. I'm pretty sure I don't know any Australians who have lived in Estonia.
At night it was extremely humid, especially in the car, and we were desperate for a cool breeze. For a while we could hear thunder in the distance and see lightning flashing across the sky, and then the storm finally reached us. It lasted all of one minute. It deposited some of the biggest raindrops known to man but they were gone in an instant. Then it was back to the still, muggy air, which was disgusting and kept us awake most of the night. We didn't know whether to open the windows in the hopes of a breeze flowing through, or close them so we could block out the never-ending light.
The humidity hadn't miraculously disappeared when we woke up the next morning, which meant we were both desperate for a shower. Luckily for us, the showers at the guesthouse were amazing. It was like I was inside someone's house. Each shower was located in an individual bathroom, tastefully decorated, and contained all the bits and bobs you would usually find in your bathroom at home. It was wonderful to feel like we weren't slumming it, even if it was only for 15 minutes (okay, maybe 30 minutes).