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Estonia and long nights

Travel editor Neil Sowerby is entranced by the Baltic state

Written by . Published on April 27th 2011.

Estonia and long nights

WHEN revolutionaries assassinated the Baron of Pädaste, imperial hunting master to Tsar Nicholas II, in 1919 it froze in time the manor house that was his summer home. History, often bloody history, now passed it by.

Axel von Buxhoeveden’s heartbroken widow left to live in Germany, never to return, and as a turbulent century saw Estonia crushed by war and Soviet domination, medieval Pädaste Manor sank slowly into decay. Destined, it seemed, to be submerged in the marshes of Muhu island. Trees took root in its lofty halls.

IMG_0566.jpgBut like the sleeping beauty in the fairytale it has been magically reawakened as a hotel just as the Baltic state itself has shaken off the years of repression.

If the beautiful heart of capital Tallinn has turned into a kind of tourist toytown, seducing the cruise ship parties (the stag and hen hordes have thankfully moved on), then Muhu and the other islands out to the west seem the keepers of Estonia’s rebellious pagan flame.

We arrived to stay at Pädaste Manor, now a five-star luxury hideaway like no other, a couple of weeks before the great celebration of the White Nights, 19 hours of daylight demanding much tree-hugging and vodka swilling. It hits you that Christianity was late coming to these northerly parts.

Wild boar and moose roam the woods of Muhu, along with the huntsmen who track them. Rare butterflies flit among the juniper trees, even rarer orchids carpet the woodland clearings. Half of Estonia is forest, a valuable source of wild mushrooms and herbs. A landscape with much to tell.

One man who has listened is Martin Breuer. Over a decade ago the erudite Dutchman had a vision for Pädaste. It has taken a lot of sweat and toil to realise it, along with a welcome cash injection from the European Union.

IMG_0563.jpgThe result is captivating. We arrived late. A journey from Tallinn that had promised to take little over two hours on blissfully quiet roads had been extended by our foolishly not taking the pre-booked lane on the Virtsu quayside.

We missed the boat and looked like missing lunch, but Kuivastu where the next ferry dropped us is just 10 minutes from Pädaste and the Manor kitchen stayed open to accommodate us. Our first taste of chef Peeter Pihel’s take on ‘Nordic Islands’ cuisine.

Think good game and fish, wild greens, birch sap, all palate-tinglingly pure. The hotel’s Alexander restaurant has just been voted Estonia’s best by a panel of international judges, but the simpler fare at its Sea House Terrace down by the marshes was impressive, too.

A good start. So too, our suite, which sported a terrific bathroom, with a free-standing tub, and a balcony overlooking woodland.

No two rooms are the same at Pädaste, either in the art-filled Manor House itself or in the Carriage House in the grounds – a consequence of the quirky, organic feel to the place Martin and co-owner Imre Sooäär have been determined to maintain. Even the sauna, in a separate cottage brings a smiling, homely feel to state of the art facilities.

The position helps, convenient yet remote feeling. We soon ventured beyond the gate and into a piece of unsoiled Muhu.

IMG_0579.jpgDespite, or perhaps because of the unseasonal heat, mist cloaked the distant creek. After lunch and a beer we took our books out to the loungers on a little jetty and drifted off to the sound of birdsong and bee hum. If shacking up in a lost domain is your thing, then there’s no need to venture out. We took the hire car for a morning’s spin around Muhu, which is really just a staging post en route for Estonia’s largest island, Saaremaa.

Our favourite spot was Koguva fishing village, a lovingly preserved gaggle of farmhouses. There’s a museum of island life with staff in traditional costume and an art gallery but really it’s just an idyllic maze of lanes to wander around. It helps that it’s mostly inhabited by locals whose families have been here for generations.

I think it’s the seeming absence of real folk living in situ that mars Tallinn, whose old town and hilltop quarter, aims to be a mini-Prague. Still it is remarkably beautiful and, once you get away from the main square in All-Linn, the lower town, it boasts some lovely quiet medieval corners. Don’t miss the town hall chemist’s shop. It’s the world’s oldest, founded in 1422 and displaying apothecary jars of dried deer’s penises and sun-bleached dog’s faeces, as well as purveying paracetamol and other essentials.

It’s best to visit the upper town, Toompea, early before the tour guides are plying their trade and it’s all too bustling. Then you can savour the wonderful, rooftop views to the sea or find calm in the Russian Orthodox-blingy Alexander Nevsky Cathedral or its rival, the sublimely austere Toomkirik (St Mary’s Cathedral).

IMG_0602.jpgThe most ostentatious tomb in the white-walled Toomkirik is that of French general Pontus de la Gardie. when he won the town back from the Russians in 1581 he massacred 7,000 citizens. According to legend he will not rest in peace until he has rid himself of all the skins of those 7,000. That’s why at midnight his ghost clambers out of the tomb, mounts a steed and wearily trots round town peddling human skins.

Glad we had an early night, but not before we had sampled a more palatable slice of Tallinn history – a medieval feast in the dungeon-like Olde Hansa. Yes, we are talking guttering candles, tankards of mead, serving wenches and men in red leggings. Of course, it’s all a big tourist honeypot, but the locals seem top like it, too, and the food’s not bad.

According to availability they serve bear marinated in rare spices and spit-roasted in honour of ‘Waldemar II, the brave King of Denmark’. At a price of nearly £60! I chickened out and went for affordable wild boar and sauerkraut.

Reason for the early night? Earlier in the day, after discovering the town’s Depeche Mode themed bar (honest!) had now closed down, we had drunk long and hard at the Beer House micro-brewery (cue front of house dwarfs, men in pirate costume and, yes, more costumed wenches) opposite our cosy, centrally-placed boutique hotel, the Merchant’s House.

IMG_0691.jpgWith charming staff and surprisingly large rooms built around a courtyard, its only disadvantage is the pre-eminence of pink its colour scheme!
Tallinn, itself, sprawls out well beyond the church and mansion-thronged old town, to display much evidence of prosperous economic growth, but also some ugly reminders of its recent totalitarian past – grim looking housing colonies, in particular.

We had little time to venture beyond the touristy bits, but for an informative take on Tallinn’s turbulent history visit the City Museum on the street called Vene. Lots of multi-media stuff chronicling what Soviet rule entailed. Particularly poignant are records of the Second World war when Estonia lost 200,000 of its people. Sobered by this, we just needed to wander aimlessly through All-Linn, to get our thoughts. Particularly atmospheric are the parallel Lai and Pikk thoroughfares.

Even there, en route for dinner at a gourmet destination restaurant called Egoist, we stumbled upon the old interior ministry, with its bricked-up cellar windows, where the KGB did many terrible things.

Estonia, a place to party, definitely, but also a place to ponder.

Fact file

Manchester-based Baltic Holidays offer three nights in Tallinn at the Merchants House Hotel, with return airport transfers,in August, from £168 per person. www.balticholidays.com. Tel: 0845 0705711. Padaste Manor. Doubles from 190 euros (carriage hpuse) and 263 euros (Manor House). Junior suite from 421 euros and 479 euros, including breakfast. www.padaste.ee / info@padaste.ee Tel: +372 454 8800.

One-way private limousine transfer from Tallinn to Pädaste costs 198 euros and includes ferry ticket and reservation. For hire cars there are two options: exclusive private use of an Audi A6 from 99 euros per day, or car rental from partner company Hertz starting at 75 euros a day. Book car hire from Pädaste website to get a discounted rate and complimentary upgrade depending on availability.

Finnair has daily flights from Manchester to Helsinki; with daily connections to Tallinn. Fares from £186.70 return, including all taxes, surcharges and an online booking fee. They are standard seats based on flights booked seven days in advance, with a minimum stay in Estonia of three nights, and a maximum stay of seven days. Tickets can be booked at www.finnair.co.uk or 0870 2414411. For more information see www.finnair.com.

Finnair is the Fast Airline from Europe to Asia, offering some of the best transit and flight times to nine cities in China, Japan, India, South Korea and Thailand. They also have excellent connections into Russia and the Baltic States. Finnair fly twice daily from Manchester airport and four times daily from Heathrow airport via Helsinki to the Far East.

Finnair remains a full service carrier still providing complimentary wine, beers and soft drinks to all passengers on all long haul routes. Lie flat beds are standard for business class in the long haul fleet and the brand new Airbus A330s are being used on some Japan routes.

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