This past weekend we finally got in our car and drove north from Tartu, all the way up the spine of Estonia to the north coast of Lääne Virumaa.
We started heading north along a road that would take us straight up through Jõgeva and Rakvere to our destination, but on a whim we decided to drive east to Peipsi Järv, which is really something of an inland sea., separating Russia and Estonia.
We traveled through Alatskivi, the former home of Juhan Liiv, who wrote the famous lines, "sügise tuul, raputab puud." This was a picturesque area of rolling hills and forests and little lakes. I could feel the tension of living in a town stripping off my body as trees became often the only sign of life.
Then farther to the northeast, stopping in Kallaste, where we came upon a community that is partially Russian-speaking, but has lived in Estonia since the 18th century. My wife said they spoke to her in the shop in accented Estonian. Driving north along the shores of Peipsi, we encountered many of these villages of "Old Believers". The homes in their villages are built closer together, and I see what kept them apart from the Estonians for so long -- thick forests that separate their perches on Peipsi from the Estonians inland. These places feel isolated. They are literally stuck between forest and lake.
We headed north through Omedu, and other seaside villages. It's amazing to think that Estonia is happening everyday here too. That while I was worried about the troubles of last week spreading to Tartu, the people of Omedu were perhaps worried about making some pickles or smoking some fish. And they do sell smoked fish on the side of the road. I have never been a lover of smoked fish but I have to say being so close to the wind and Peipsi made me consider changing my mind.
As soon as we hit Ida Virumaa the trees shot up tall and imposing. The soil was sandy and the forests were thick. Trucker traffic began to weigh down on the roads and we decided to turn towards Rakvere at Rannapungerja. Legend has it that some uppity Estonian peasants beat up some of Napolean's troops in this small seaside village, an act that would foreshadow his stunning defeat at Waterloo.
The road to Tudalinna was mostly dirt. Cars take a beating in this country and dirt roads are marked in yellow on our map. By the time we arrived at a road that wasn't made of gravel or dirt, my car was surrounded by a thick ribbon of yellowy dust. Heading across Lääne Virumaa my opinion that most of Estonia is made up of farmhouses and guys on tractors was reinforced. Finally we spotted signs of life, and the city of Rakvere began to emerge, filling my heart with joy at the sight of actual people living close together in dwellings.
Being in Rakvere was odd. Again I had that, "So Rakvere has also been living its life all the time here in Estonia?" sense of bewilderment. You see, Estonia looks so small on a map that you think that just by being inside of it you can sort of cover it all at the same time. For Tartu I use my eyes and ears, and for Tallinn I use Aktuaalne Kaamera and Reporter. But I hadn't considered Rakvere before, and there I was, staring at its yellow teacups (later explained to be a modernist Lily of the Valley), wondering why it was that I had been to Viljandi so many times, but this was my first time in Rakvere.
One thing that is obvious about traveling in Estonia is that the money that has enriched cities like Tallinn and Tartu has trickled down to some places, including Rakvere, but that many towns are still huddled groups if 19th century wooden houses and crumbling Soviet-era apartment blocks. But these still are functioning communities, not just little enclaves of pensioners and alcoholics. Wherever you go you'll see a couple of Estonian boys in a souped up car driving across a field. Or teenage girls walking down the road from the local Konsum eating jäätis.
North from Rakvere we headed into the deep forests of Lahemaa National Park. It's called Lahemaa in that there are many bays, not 'lahe maa' in that it's a very cool place. I'm still keeping my eye out for a place called Vahvamaa, let me know if it exists. Anyway, beneath the stars that night on the coast, looking at the Gulf of Finland and hearing the lapping of the waves, I have to say I felt at peace and a little strange.
The legs of the pines that stretch up to the heavens look solid and peaceful during the day, but at night they resemble the legs of giants, and I can see how nature has inspired the mythic race of Estonian giants, from Kalevipoeg to Suur Tõll to Leiger. I could imagine them walking through the forest on a night like that night, picking up and hurling the huge boulders that lie strewn along the coast.
So often I hear people talk about Estonia as if it were only Tallinn. But nothing could be farther from the truth. For a country the size of Denmark or the Netherlands, Estonia seems roomy inside. It's a big little country, if such things exist.