The Happy Isles of Western Estonia

While nearing the end of my bicycle journey through the happy isles of Western Estonia…..Writing a love letter from Estonia to a girl in the States…..

She wasn’t just any girl….she was my niece. And this is the first time I had ever written to her. How do you tell a young person for the first time that you love them? And how do tell her without making her feel uncomfortable? Well, you can do it simply by addressing a postcard just to her from an exotic place (like Estonia), share your experiences with her, and let her know you were thinking of her.

downtown Tallinn from Toompea Hill

The trip started in Tallinn, the charming capital city of Estonia. After a LONG travel day from the States to Europe, with a canceled flight from Amsterdam to Tallinn which rerouted me through Stockholm in the middle of the night, I decided to spend a few days in Estonia’s delightful capital city before beginning the bicycle trip.

Location of Estonia in Europe

I booked a room at Fat Margaret’s Hostel, just outside of the north gate to the historical Old Town, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The Old Town blends an interesting mix of old and new, with trendy cafes and wireless internet zones found by wandering centuries-old cobblestone streets behind fortified stone walls. It is one of the purest medieval old towns in all of northern Europe. The city has a unique cross-cultural flavor, due to its strategic geographical maritime location and influences from Finns, Swedes, German Knights, Danes, and Russians. Tallinn’s population is more than four times larger than the next largest Estonian city, but it still retains a small town vibe.

the gates to the old city
One of the main squares in Old Town

After a few days of exploring the city and recovering from jet lag, I rented a bicycle and pedaled a few kilometers over to the train station. I loaded my bike onto the train and took a two hour ride to Parnu, a spa town on the western shore of the mainland. From here, one can access Saaremaa and Hiiumaa, the two largest islands off Estonia’s west coast. As you can see in the picture below, Estonian trains are bike friendly. Now the bicycle trip begins!

bike on the train to Parnu
Map of Estonia: VectorStock.com

After riding around Parnu and exploring its environs, I stayed at Voorad Oos (Strangers in the Night) hostel near the center of town. Parnu is a laid back town, but still with some of the old world charm of Tallinn.

hostel in Parnu, Estonia

I headed out on the coastal road the next morning. Light traffic, relatively flat terrain, and a small marked shoulder on the side of the road made for a pleasant ride through the bucolic countryside. Much of the vegetation is boreal forest which is occasionally interrupted by bog or farmland fields. Estonia has a long and dramatically beautiful coastline. Saaremaa, the largest island is also known for its unique flora, and is a stopover point for migrating Arctic waterfowl using the East Atlantic Flyway. I was on the lookout for moose on the stretch of the road shown below.

typical road in Estonia with narrow shoulder for biking

On the coastal road from Parnu there were ample opportunities to stop at roadside picnic areas and interpretative sites. Thankfully, kiosks used multiple written languages, one of which was English. At the town of Tostamaa, I stopped by a public library, where I could access the internet and check emails.

roadside park near Tostamaa
A shelter from rain or sun

Occasionally, an old church would pop up around the next bend in the road, begging for a photo stop.

roadside Orthodox Church

Dispersed camping is frowned upon in Estonia, but as long as you are discreet about it there usually isn’t a problem with it, like there is in most Eastern European countries and in Denmark. At the end of the first day of cycling, I found this secluded patch of woods bordered by a marine inlet. The trees protected me from a brisk wind and some rain droplets in the middle of the night.

first campsite in Estonia

A morning ride brought me to the ferry at Virtsu, which quickly and efficiently shuttled passengers and cars over to Saaremaa. I was the lone bicyclist on that voyage.

ferry between islands

Once I began pedaling on Saaremaa, I faced strong headwinds. It is no coincidence that there are lots of windmills in Estonia, both historical and contemporary ones. The picture below is from Angla Windmill park which has several well preserved Dutch style trestle windmills built about a century ago.

historic windmills at Angla Windmill Park

Usually near the outskirts of a town you would find a convenience store that is the equivalent of an American 7-11 store. Eesti is a difficult language, but pictures of food on billboards make shopping easier. I never felt unsafe in Estonia. People are genuinely nice, although not overtly outgoing. It’s really nice to be able to get a coffee or snack every 15 miles or so.

Eesti that is easily translated

Fields of flowers seem to like the long days of northern latitude summers, and give bicyclists a reason to stop, enjoy the moment and take a picture. It also gives one a reason to stop without using a respite from the headwinds as an excuse.

Upon entering the large village of Kuressaare, I checked by the tourist office. The staff assisted me in finding a homestay for the night. Kuressaare is one of the few places that you will find amenities on Saaremaa. In addition to a clean bed and a shower, the host washed, dried and folded my clothes for an extra 7 Euros. She also suggested a good restaurant in town within walking distance. I passed up the use of kitchen privileges in the house and traded my own cooking for an authentic Estonian meal from a local restaurant.

a private homestay

The restaurant was just a few blocks away to the East. Since I arrived early before the evening rush, there were only a few patrons in the restaurant when I dined there. The server spoke perfect English and she suggested the special of chicken, vegetables and soup.

restaurant in Kuressaare

She also bragged about the local beer and said what made it special is that it was brewed with Cascade Hops. I told her that I live at the base of the Cascade mountains and all of the local brews I am familiar with are made with these same hops. Midway through the meal she checked with me to make sure the Pintla beer lived up to my expectations. I convinced her it did by ordering another one at the end of the meal.

Estonian meal
their beer contained Cascade hops

Leaving Kuressaare the next morning, I headed across the island to catch the ferry to the neighboring island of Hiiumaa. The wind had died down, but it looked like rain was in the forecast. Halfway across the island, the skies opened up. Even though the area is very rural, there are bus shelters far from town. I often used them as rest stops, as the buses run infrequently out here. With nobody around I could fire up the camp stove and make a hot cup of tea or coffee to warm myself up.

a rest stop at a bus shelter

I made a short side trip to see the Kaali meteor crater, a lake where a meteor crash-landed about 7500 years ago. It was pouring down raining when I was there, so I will cite someone else’s picture below.

Kaali meteor crater: Photo-Flickr

When I got to the ferry terminal, it was abandoned and closed. I looked at the schedule posted on the outside of a building and it seemed that the only ferry that day would be in the early evening. Rather than wait six hours in a cold rain and risking not being able to find lodging on Hiiumaa, which is even less inhabited, I headed east on the north side of Saaremaa towards the town of Orissaare. It was the only other town on the island that might have lodging. I got to the library there just before it closed and found a listing for a homestay just about a kilometer away.

Home stay at Orissaare

The dorm style room was small, but I was exceeding happy to live in it for a night for just 20 Euros. The gracious hosts also had a sauna, which I used to thaw out my chilled body. Saunas are an important part of the culture for Estonians and Finns. They sure do have that part right! I felt like a new man after a sauna and a good night’s sleep.

my room at the guest house in Orissaare

From Orissaare it is only about a 16 mile bike ride across another smaller island linked by a causeway to the ferry terminal at Kuivistu. Ferries back to the mainland are much more frequent there and I only had about 45 minutes to wait for the next one.

Once back on the mainland at Virtsu, I started heading Northeast. A local person at Virtsu told me about camping below the historic Kasari Bridge, about halfway to my destination of Haapsalu. The bridge, built in 1904, was the longest reinforced concrete bridge in Europe at the time of its construction. It is now a pedestrian only bridge. Beneath it, on the banks of the Kasari River, I pitched my tent for the last time in the Republic of Estonia and had a peaceful night’s sleep.

Part of my bike trip followed Eurovelo Route 10, the Baltic Sea Cycle route. Eurovelo is an organization that promotes bicycle tourism in Europe and has several cross continental routes.

Part of the Baltic Sea Eurovelo route (#10)

The last day of biking brought me to Haapsalu, where I raced a bus into the bus station. It happened to be the last bus back to Tallinn, which I was lucky enough to catch. I turned in the bike at the rental shop in old town and stayed an extra two nights at Fat Margaret’s hostel before renting a car and touring other parts of Estonia and Latvia. I’ll leave that portion of the trip for another post. Then, I proceeded to write a postcard to my niece in the States.

Downtown Tallinn

I’m sure my niece was the only person in her high school to get a postcard from Estonia. Besides affirming my love for her, I hope it piqued her interest in travel, in hopes of expanding her world.

This trip took place a couple of years ago, and now she is in college. Now that Putin’s war is threatening Europe, I hope that she and her peers are learning about the real places in Eastern Europe that are threatened. I know the Estonians, who share a border with Russia, are anxious for the rest of the world to know about them and appreciate and value their beautiful country.

After my recent bicycle accident, I even more appreciate the time I spent bicycling through the Happy Isles of Western Estonia. Although there won’t be any bike camping trips this year, I’m working hard in Physical Therapy to be able to do something similar in the near future. Until then, I will satisfy myself with memories of this wonderful trip!

Estonian Road map

To keep the memory of this trip alive and to promote awareness to my community of Estonia and the Baltic States, I often fly the Estonian flag at my house. I also just ordered an infrared sauna, which I hope will arrive within a week. When it is set up, I’ll sit in it, close my eyes and transport myself back to the Happy Isles of Western Estonia…

Estonian flag o/s of my house

5 thoughts on “The Happy Isles of Western Estonia

  1. Today I learned there are moose in Estonia. 🙂 Happy and fun read as always! Really humanizes an area we as Americans only see in the news when it is tied to a frightening neighbor.

    Like

  2. Simply Wow! I have always admired your flexibility and adaptability as changing situations present themselves. Going with the flow of the day. Here’s hoping you are back on the travel trail again soon.

    Like

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