Tallinn may be beautiful but British stag-weekenders can make you despair. Instead, head for the Estonian coast and the bogs of a serenely silent countryside
The opening up of countries in eastern Europe has been at times a mixed blessing for locals. One of the more unwelcome consequences has been that of stag-weekenders marauding, or lurching, through old town squares. Tallinn has been on the receiving end of this phenomenon more than most cities. Type “stag night Tallinn” into Google and you are confronted with more than 26,000 results.
If you are judicious, of course, you can avoid these groups by steering clear of the major pubs and clubs. Another way is to simply strike out into the Estonian hinterland, a countryside of small towns and vast wilderness, interconnected by rivers and mires.
Haapsalu, a coastal town two hours’ drive from Tallinn is a good starting point. The town, full of wooden houses, little museums and sleepy coffee houses, possesses a faded grandeur of the kind you find in Normandy; a heyday that ran from the 1850s to the early 20th century.
In the Rondo café, we ate pancakes with cream and ham against a backdrop of 1970s wallpaper; in the Haapsalu Museum we embarked on something of a tour de force of the town, from its domination by the Swedes and the Russians to the belle époque of the 19th century. The town’s castle and cathedral are precisely the kind of gems that the unexplored outposts of eastern Europe tend to reveal to the more dogged traveller. The two of them date back to the 13th century, and the climb up to the watchtower gives a good view over the town and sea.
The town is also on the flight path for wildlife passing to and from the Russian Arctic to warmer winter locations, and if you go in spring and autumn you will be confronted with the sight of thousands of birds aquaplaning onto the water, and swans paddling along the fringes of the reedbeds. You can see all this from Africa beach, which was politically incorrectly named for its black sands.
Among those to take the air here was Pyotr Tchaikovsky, who would join the evening promenade here and composed his sixth symphony in the town. A musical stone bench recalls his visit. When you step forward to it, you trigger a device that starts playing a selection of his works. Sitting on the bench, listening to the overture to the Nutcracker and gazing at the vast sea, made me think this was a gadget that deserves to catch on. An iBench, perhaps.
Further inland lies the enigmatic, watery world of Soomaa national park. This is an unrelentingly flat world of mires, bogs and woodlands, which eerily recalls the sunken Somerset Levels in south-west England. Each year, in the thaw as spring approaches, the landscape is awash with water, meadows and forests flooded and home to beavers, otters and herons. As the water drains away, they leave a network of seasonal rivers and streams. Soomaa, just two hours south of Tallinn, translates as “the land of bogs” in Estonian, and comprises four bogs and much of the country’s central mires. Enter the park by car, and rivers flash by on either side; on foot you are aware of the lattice of small bridges that connect isolated homesteads and shorten journeys from one community to another. This is a bucolic version of Venice.
Our guide, Aivar, was effectively a one-man tourist industry outfit, who takes visitors out on canoes along the waterways and, if he judges you to be competent, will allow you loose by yourself along rivers fringed with overhanging willows. Local boats are known as haabja, a dugout made from aspen, a soft wood that does not crack when bent. Locals punt them while standing up. They list, and visitors attempting to navigate one invariably fall overboard. The trick to keeping your balance, said Aivar, is to keep your tongue in the middle of your mouth.
The bogs also merit exploration. A fifth of Estonia is covered by raised marshes and bogs, which have developed over tens of thousands of years, and were formed by the gradual regression of the Baltic Sea. The forests in this landscape are precious too, for they border the ecological zone between the taiga and deciduous forests, which means plenty of silver birch and Scots pine.
There is a network of self-guided boardwalks and trails, with English translation, throughout Soomaa. One such walk starts at Karusekose, not far from the helpful national park headquarters. The boardwalk headed straight into a forest of silver birch for half a mile or so before rising up onto the bog of Kuresoo. The late afternoon light was clear, the bog spirit level flat. I climbed up the shiny new watchtower and gazed out toward the horizon. The golden light was similar to that of the African savannah yet the sense of timelessness was prehistoric. Clumps of cranberries, cotton grass and dwarf pine were dotted around the landscape.
Its tempting to strike out across the bogs, but your lack of options should misfortune befall you is something of a deterrent. Just by the entrance to Kuresoo I came across a signboard, immaculately translated into English: “If you fall into a bog hole, do not struggle. Keep calm. Call your mates for help.” It sounded like a warning for any stag-weekenders who made it this far.
Regent Holidays offers tailor-made packages to Estonia. A seven-day trip, including return flights, and accommodation in Tallinn and Haapsalu, and car hire costs from £455 per person.