I am a very keen walker and have walked many hundreds of miles on National trails in Britain. It is possible to gain some spectacular views by climbing hills and walking on cliff tops or ascending ancient monuments. But you are always surrounded by the signs that remind you of ever present danger. DEATH BY NOT LOOKING WHERE YOU ARE GOING etc. It would be impossible to have a tower to climb up of the type that I found on that first day in Estonia, in Britain now.
Because somebody would have to build and commission it. But since it is predominantly councils in this country who would be responsible, they just would not do it because of the ever present Health and Safety legislation. (This is the country where councils have banned flower baskets and kids playing conkers on Health and Safety grounds).
So what about Estonia to the newly arrived tourist? Well, it helps if you understand that Estonians do everything on the basis of networking. So don’t expect anything to be obvious. In Britain there are many guides to walking for instance. They will tell you all about footpaths and bridleways, all of which are signposted all over the countryside. There is a Right to Roam act and something called Ordnance Survey maps giving absolute detail of every square metre of the entire geography. There are literally thousands of books detailing where to walk, how to get there, what to see and do and where to stay when you have finished. There are guides to camping sites, bed and breakfasts, hotels, beaches – the list is endless.
But where in Estonia is the information for the keen walker? For one thing, Estonia is predominantly flat making it a lovely place for those who do not have the stamina for hiking up mountainsides. It is a beautiful country with mile upon mile of gorgeous coastline, but where are the guides and books for the walker? Where are the signs, the National Trails, visitor’s centres? And where can you read about it?
Let me develop this theme about an Englishman taking a walking holiday in Estonia.
Let us say that I know nothing of Estonia. All I remember is that some years ago they won the Eurovision Song contest. A friend of mine has told me that Tallinn is a fine old place to spend a weekend for a stag party because the beer and food are cheap (and the women very pretty). Apart from that I hardly know where to start looking on the map.
Obviously the first place to start is the internet, which I do. I type in walking and immediately the drop down menu offers suggestions from all around the world. I go the next step and type the letters “walking e”. Similarly dozens of options are available. With mounting excitement I type “walking es” and I’m given the opportunity to consider the “essentials of walking”, “delights of Essex” or merely “essays” on the subject. However upon entering “walking est”, the trail goes blank. There are no clues, no previously entered requests for “walking est”. So I type the full enquiry and am presented with – practically nothing. If I do the same for almost any other country in Europe I get a bit more information. For instance almost the smallest principality in Europe is a place called Andorra. Anyone reading this should try googling ‘walking Andorra‘. There are hundreds of entries
So having realised that Estonia is not well known as a walking centre I am still determined to try and walk in your little country. Even more now because of the challenge. There is nothing on the Internet and there are no guides available in print. So what do I do next? Well I decide to go anyway and see what happens.
There are three options for UK citizens to get direct access by scheduled flights to Tallinn and that is by Estonian Air, Ryanair or Easyjet. I recommend the latter because it offers the best value for money. Having got to the capital however the visitors challenges are only just beginning.
If you remember, I said that the Estonian character is to be unselfconscious. In extremis this equates to being so self-absorbed they hardly really notice that anyone else is there. So if you expect information to be offered you can think again because it won’t be and if you need to find directions or any information pertinent to your stay, you will have to be quite assertive. I would say make sure you take a guidebook with some useful phrases for everyday transactions, but the language whilst beautiful to listen to, is about as easy for an English speaker to learn as Greek – and even if you master some rudimentary words, the chances of getting the correct pronunciation is about zero.
Fortunately the Estonians are taught English as their second language and so it is generally possible to get by. Finding a hotel in Tallinn is not too difficult, and neither is getting a meal. You could imagine therefore that it would be quite possible to get started on this adventure and at least get a nights rest.
Unless you have booked your holiday time in May or June, the first unwelcome event upon waking on the second day of this odyssey could be the weather. Of course we know little of what the climate has in store for visitors, but just remember that it can be wet. And cold, v. cold. And windy. Waterproof’s and warm fleeces are the order of the year usually, so pack for winter.
OK, so you found a hotel for the night, slept well and are ready for the day. Now you are ready for the day’s challenge which is to find a walking centre. For someone new to Estonia you can use the services of tourist information centres which are much the same as in any other part of Europe. They will offer free maps and guides to places of interest. You can obtain information about hotels, restaurants and the major conurbations. This is very good if you want to visit Viljandi or Tartu and any of the other major towns, and of course you will probably be doing this during your stay. But if you are particularly interested in walking across the countryside and perhaps staying in the forest overnight, where is the information to inform you how to do it?
The simple fact is that there are very limited facilities available for anyone wanting to explore Estonia on foot. Which is quite ironic because the public transport infrastructure is in itself rather limited. And since the country is quite small and rather beautiful, especially on the coastal areas, it is just the right size for some seriously good hikes across the country. So why doesn’t Estonia encourage a walking tourism agenda?
Well for one thing we are told that there are indigenous bears. They are cuddly creatures when seen on the television in nature documentaries, but close up can present a bit of a problem for campers. And then there are the wolves. And the beavers. Hold on, I hear you say, there is nothing wrong with beavers and I think that is correct, but what this indicates is that there is no real state control over wildlife in Estonia and so the wild is exactly so and maybe a bit too much so for the average walker who sees a lot of sheep in the Yorkshire Dales. Throw into that mix the fact that there are still a bit of a problem with rabies and the ordinary weekend hiker is likely to opt for a tour round the old town in Tallinn.
Estonia doesn’t have a culture of the ’Bed and Breakfast’ which we have in the British Isles. Any farmer who wants to make some extra cash in the summer in England, will let out rooms to holiday makers. I don’t see enough evidence of this entrepreneurial activity in Estonian countryside yet, so there’s definitely room for an improvement.
Photos: David Foreman/VisitEstonia.