Biking in Estonia, through a National Park
When B, C and I spent a few weeks in Eastern Europe, we allotted several days for Estonia. We didn’t really know much about this little country, but we’d read that Tallinn was awesome and figured we’d be able to find things to keep us entertained. We were correct. I had read that biking through the countryside was a lovely way to spend your time, so we found a few recommendations in Rick Steves and made our way down to City Bikes. This post tells our story about that time we went biking in Estonia.
We walked into the shop and found two hunky men and a bunch of bikes. Since it was early May, the bike season hadn’t actually started yet. But after talking to one of the handsome fellas (Australian, I think), he disappeared into a backroom and came out with the bossman, Toomas (also a hunk) who decided he would take us on a tour–I think mainly so he could check out the route himself in anticipation of the upcoming season. Toomas described what the ‘tour’ would entail and after some convincing, B and C agreed to go along. (Have we mentioned the importance of good travel buddies?)
The adventure begins
The next morning, Toomas picked us up in a van loaded with four bikes. We headed out in the direction of Lahemaa National Park, where we would be riding that day. Toomas decided to jazz up our ride by showing us several Estonian landmarks and explaining a lot about this country. Our first stop was the Jagala Waterfall, the largest in the land. School children come here on field trips and I was (per the ushe) amazed at how few restrictions there are in places compared to the U.S. No way would there not be fences, signposts and handrails everywhere if that was in, say, Ohio. And you know what, the school kids survive their visiting the falls without the regulations. Go figure.
And so it begins
Our next stop was the beginning of the bike tour in a town called Palmse. Let me explain what that meant: Toomas pulled over, took our bikes off the van, handed us a bottle of water and a photocopied piece of paper that had a hand-drawn map on one side and useful phrases in Estonian on the other. Phrases such as, “Help me, I’m lost” and “Please call the police.” He pointed in the direction we should go and circled a town on the map and said he’d pick us up in four hours. C looked a little uncomfortable; it probably didn’t help that when she had texted her sister the night before about our day’s adventure, her sister’s response was not terribly encouraging…it ended with ‘it was nice knowing you.’
Lahemaa National Park
The day was just about perfect for a ride through an unknown land, a little misty but not raining. We were riding on a paved road, one of many in the national park. Lahemaa is in the center of the northern coast of Estonia and is about 300 square miles. Luckily, we were only biking a short portion of that (around 35 kms.) The majority of the landscape is forested with lots of trees like what we see in our mountains back home; there are also lots of areas of bogs, something we definitely do not have in Idaho. It took us a while to figure out when we were looking at a bog actually, but we got the hang of it eventually.
Our first stop of the tour was at the Sagadi Manor. This manor was built in the 1400s in the Baroque style by a German family. There are several buildings that comprise the manor, but we only toured the main house. I’ve read that this is one of the most visited manors in Estonia, but not all of us were that impressed…as we rode off B described it as creepy.
Swinging on a giant swing
Our next stop was in the town of Altoa. Town is pretty generous, actually. There were a few deserted buildings and a giant wood swing (the reason why we stopped). There was a sign that explained that swings like this were an important part of the countryside’s culture and people gather together and sing and swing on them during festivals and celebrations. The three of us easily could all fit on this thing. Side note: this swinging tradition has found itself in a new extreme sport in Estonia called kiiking. People in giant swing pump their way up and eventually swing over the top. Youtube it.
Russian red soup…just don’t
By this point in the journey we were a bit hungry so we stopped in a seaside town of Vosu for some lunch. This town is on the edge of the Baltic Sea and reminded me of an old summer resort in 50s America, kind of like on Dirty Dancing. Except without Johnny. B went with a seafood soup since we were so close to the ocean, and I went with a Russian soup, since we were so close to Russia. Hers turned out much better than mine…a strange red color with hot dog like pieces floating around.
We then took a stroll down to the Baltic Sea, the northernmost body of water I’ve ever been to. If the weather was warmer, this town would be quite nice. The beach was pretty and I could imagine lots of kids splashing around for the two weeks of the year that it was above 80 degrees. (Not really sure if this is true, but it seemed very cold!)
We can do it!
At this point we were getting pretty tired of biking, but our final destination was only a few kilometers away. Toomas caught up with us and offered to go get the van and bring it back to us, but our pride wouldn’t allow such a thing. We huffed and puffed our way to the van and climbed off our bikes for the last time. (Thankfully!)
And so it ended
Our ride back to Tallinn was interesting. Toomas pointed out the Tallinn TV tower, where, in 1991 a few Estonians stood up to the Soviets in a bid to protect the freedom of media. He also explained that the old, derelict-looking buildings we saw were communist-era housing complexes and talked about how there is a lot of tension with Estonian-Russian relations. Lots of Russians moved to Estonia during the communist era and they relate more with Russia, whereas the younger generation consider themselves Estonian first. Tip: if you can, get a local talking about the history and politics of the country you are visiting. You’ll learn a lot more than what you pick up in a book.
Once we arrived back at the City Bike office, Toomas disappeared inside for a while. We couldn’t figure out what he was doing, but eventually he came back out with gold medals (chocolate in gold wrappers) that we earned for completing our bike tour. All in all, our bike tour was a terrific way to see more of Estonia and Toomas and the City Bike operation was just delightful.
We didn’t know what was going to happen on this bike tour. It could have ended very badly (lost, rained on, broken bike, exhausted) but sometimes you just have to go for it while traveling. Biking in Estonia through the Lahemaa National Park ended up being my favorite thing we did in that country.