Take a trip to Estonia, land of saunas, forests, and startups
The northernmost Baltic state sheds its troubled past to become one of Europe’s most intriguing destinations.
The weather when I arrive in Tallinn can’t quite reach a decision. As I amble around the walled medieval Old Town of the Estonian capital city with my guide for the day, Mari Toom, the sun and the clouds grapple. When we reach a lookout point, the sun gets an advantage and lights up the red tile roofs and painted buildings, and the steeples, spires, and domes that make the place look like Europe as Americans imagine it. A gloom hangs over the Baltic Sea in the distance, and a shower begins to fall, but the sun is holding on, and the rain glistens in its beams. A sparkling rainbow comes between them as if to declare the match a tie.
“In South Africa,” I say, “when there’s sun and rain at the same time, they call it a monkey’s wedding.”
“In Estonia,” she says, “they call it summer.”
Figuratively, at least, it’s more like springtime in Estonia. The country is hosting a three-year celebration marking 100 years since its first period of independence. The German occupation during World War II and the Soviet annexation was a grim half-century interruption during which Estonia was literally wiped off the map. Now, Estonians want the world to know who, what, and where they are — and how in a few short years they have become the creators of outsized achievement.
“Skype,” Toom says, “is from Estonia. Scandinavians created the company but the knowledge came from Estonia.”
The country sits atop the geographic stack of the Baltic states, just above the other two, Latvia and Lithuania. It has little in common with them culturally, and even less with Russia, but a lot with Finland, whose language is similar. At different historical periods, it has been considered the easternmost edge of Europe or the westernmost maw of the Soviet Union. In the three decades since that deep fog lifted, it has become a beacon of progress in which all citizens have health care and access to free tuition at every educational level, and where filing taxes takes only minutes a year.
Estonia wants you to do more than just visit: Through its e-Residency program, anyone can apply to incorporate a business and access the services residents use to run companies entirely online. Most small countries know their existence depends less on physical borders than on a good argument. For Estonia, knowledge is power. The University of Tartu and the Tallinn University of Technology are its MIT and Stanford. It’s a nation of startups — Bolt (formerly Taxify), the Europe-based ride-sharing service; TransferWise, a global currency exchange; and Playtech, a leading gambling software company (an Estonian-Israeli partnership), round out, along with Skype, the tech “unicorns” that blazed a trail with many followers. One venture, SprayPrinter, created a “robot muralist” that can put up a mural on the side of a multistory building in a matter of hours, with minimal paint and no scaffolding. The co-founder, Mihkel Joala, has an engineering background but didn’t graduate from college. “I invent by meditating,” he tells me.
Success has infused a certain zest and optimism, and high expectations. I’ve come just to have a look around, and I am as interested in the recent past and ancient traditions as in the innovations and everything else that makes this place so intriguing.
To get a sense of where Estonia is going, I visit a couple of museums (vabamu.ee) that show where it has come from. Just off Town Hall Square on Pagari Street is The KGB Prison Cells, a remnant of a former prison. Down a few stone steps, you enter a compact space of a half-dozen cells, and it doesn’t take long to see the brutality associated with so much grief — arbitrary arrests, interrogation, banishment, a program of incomprehensible cruelty.
At the Vabamu Museum of Occupations and Freedom, which reopened last July after a renovation, the emphasis is on the years after liberation, and it avoids the kind of propagandist and triumphant style that would, I think, trivialize what was in fact a gargantuan struggle.
I step out into Freedom Square and explore Old Town. In Town Hall Square, the outdoor tables of cafés are full, suitcase wheels clack on cobblestone streets they weren’t built to roll on, and people steal a smoke in a narrow alley as if it’s an illicit pleasure. In Valli Bar, a local joint that’s not for the faint of heart, I try the house shot — sambuca, tequila, and Tabasco sauce. It’s an assault on common sense, but I seem, I admit, to be the only one in the place who thinks so.
The building styles change quickly outside of Old Town as I make my way toward the Baltic Station Market and neighborhoods beyond. In recent years they have become like Brooklyn on the Baltic, and in some ways demonstrate how a lot of “local” scenes around the world have come to resemble one another. The “Balti Station” sells the area’s artisanal products: cheese, chocolate, textiles, and souvenirs. Its name comes from the train station next to it — the first line connecting Tallinn to St. Petersburg.
Telliskivi is the prime hipster area, gritty but not grimy, with evocative street art and some great spots to eat and drink. It’s anchored by the Telliskivi Creative City, a private development project that repurposed Soviet industrial sites and now houses cafés like Lendav Taldrik (lendavtaldrik.com), a casual but tasty Asian fusion place; a craft beer bar, Pudel (pudel.ee); and a number of fashion and design shops. It also hosts live arts events, including a recent dance/theater piece called “Together Forever,” which asked if love can last, with allusions to Nicolas Cage. (Estonians are passionate consumers of American pop culture. Several times people referred to actors and TV shows like The A-Team, Knight Rider, and others that I’d never really followed, leaving me feeling as though I’d disappointed them.)
Telliskivi is part of a larger revival of a neighborhood called Kalamaja, where I meet Adam Rang, a 32-year-old who moved here from England in 2016. His grandfather had left Estonia in 1944, so it wasn’t a totally random choice, and now, on the side, he and Anni Oviir — his partner, whom he met going to sauna parties — have started a business to introduce tourists to the Estonian saun (the Finnish word is sauna). His own sauna, open by appointment only, is about 20 minutes by car from the center of Tallinn. Since a saun takes hours to reach a proper temperature, we meet instead at a historic public one. While every hotel has a sauna, the real experience is largely a communal one. “It’s as central to Estonia as the pub is to Britain,” Rang tells me. Unlike the pub, though, that real experience is not that accessible to outsiders. Most Estonians have a saun in their homes and view the public places as down-market. Also, there was a time, not that long ago, when some saunas doubled as brothels, and Kalamaja was one of the sketchiest areas.
In the Kalma Saun, men and women are in separate sections. We shower and enter the sauna and settle in. The regulars swat themselves with whisks made up of slender leafy branches, most commonly birch, a practice said to promote circulation and relieve muscle aches. They have a lot to say to one another. It’s in Estonian, though, so I have no idea what that is. It’s pretty hot, but still not hot enough for the hard-core types. One wizened veteran pours water with some eucalyptus oil on the hot stones, which smells good at first but spikes the humidity until the heat feels like pepper flakes on my skin. We cool off in a tank of cold water, grab a beer, and go for round two. But I’m a newbie and soon enough have to tap out.
I reach out to see if I might meet Estonia’s best-known street artist, Edward von Lõngus, whose work I’d seen in Telliskivi and shared pictures of even before I knew who he was. Except von Lõngus’s real identity is a secret. I manage to get a meeting with his representative, Andra Orn, though.
I ask how old he is. “I won’t even tell you if he is a he,” Orn says. “I won’t give you any clues.”
“Is it you?” I ask.
“No,” she says with a laugh. “It’s not me.”
“Well, that’s one clue.”
Von Lõngus’s work includes motifs about death that manage to inject some humor into the topic. It also includes figures from Estonian folklore. “We have two stereotypes,” Orn says. “We’re the digital people and the forest people.” At first I think she means to challenge the stereotypes, but she doesn’t. Perhaps a better word is dualities, like sun and rain.
“An Estonian is only truly happy in the forest,” she says.
I decide to spend time in one. First, though, I stop in Tartu, which is about two hours away in the southern half of the country and whose relationship to Tallinn has the love-hate aspect of Boston’s to New York. Tallinn is four times bigger, and from a Tartuvian perspective, it sucks up too much of the national oxygen, a frustrating reality considering that Tartu, residents say, has breathed so much life into the country. “You can’t spell ‘startup’ without Tartu,” one resident tells me, and illustrates it on a notepad: sTARTUp. The University of Tartu sits atop a hill that runs down to the Town Hall Square, and beyond that to the Emajõgi River. The Estonian National Museum (erm.ee), which reopened in 2016 in a gleaming 365,000-square-foot building, narrates the 11,000-year history of the Finno-Ugric people, which includes Estonians, Finns, Hungarians, and others who are scattered across the countries and borders.
Tartu is a “smart city,” meaning its entire design is meant to serve and engage citizens in a way that I imagine would have appealed to Cicero or Aristotle. “People think ‘smart’ means new technology, or something [that’s] futuristic, fully automated, and works without people having to touch it,” says Lauri Sokk, the head of a group called Smart City Tartu. “But what makes a city ‘smart’ is about how the citizens connect with the city.” For three weeks in April, the organization, working with the local government, takes suggestions from anyone on how to allocate the town’s budget.
Tartu’s cleanliness, pace, and public spaces like the Town Hall Square and the promenade along the Emajõgi River make its case. Citizens don’t jaywalk or cross against lights, even when there are no cars to be seen. One evening a woman notes that I am walking without a reflector on my clothes and tells me I could get fined. “In Philadelphia,” I tell her, so she gets where I’m coming from, “a green light means go, a yellow light means go faster, and most drivers regard the first three seconds of red as optional.”
“What about the police?” she asks.
“For them,” I explain, “all red lights are optional. Sometimes they stop, but it’s always advisable to look both ways twice.”
Her look makes me think maybe I should move to a more civilized place.
The next day I head south to Võru to explore the forest that is said to animate Estonians so. The area is flat and dense with birch, pine, and spruce trees. There are vast expanses of bogs and wetlands, and villages with wood houses whose communities speak their own languages and dialects. Almost invariably, Estonians I meet want me to know theirs is the least Christian country in Europe, that they’re pagans at heart and even in practice. They believe trees are imbued with the spirits of ancestors. They do exquisite fairy-tale carvings out of stumps.
The saun tradition draws on four earthly elements: hot stones, gelid ponds, wood for heat, and the leaves of various trees, each said to contain its own properties and energy. “The sauna is our chapel,” says Eda Veeroja, who hosts visitors at her smoke sauna near the Latvian border. The saun chamber is heated, like a barbecue, with smoke, and Veeroja, a 56-year-old who learned the saun customs and history through an oral tradition, “greets” the sauna with sonorous incantations that grow in intensity as she summons ancestors, whose spirits live in the forest.
I lie down, letting the sweat work itself into me. The wood planks, the aroma of the whisks, the chiaroscuro of the chamber, all work into my mind a little, too. I’m a rationalist. I don’t go in for mysticism. Nonetheless, there is something transcendent about letting go and reaching a state of deep physical relaxation.
One day, as I walk through the woods and onto a narrow boardwalk that runs through a bog that empties into an immense pond, it occurs to me that I like small countries the way I like short books. They don’t feel like a great commitment, which lowers my resistance to making one.
IF YOU GO TO ESTONIA
WHERE TO STAY
In Tallinn, at the contemporary Hotel Palace (tallinnhotels.ee/hotel-palace-tallinn), rooms start at $145 in summer. The Hotel Telegraaf (telegraafhotel.com) in the center of Old Town is a more traditional Old World option, with summer room rates starting at $175. In Tartu, check out Lydia Hotel (lydia.ee) with rooms starting at $120 in season. In Võru, near the smoke sauna in Mooska, Georgi Hotel (georgihotell.ee) is a low-cost option, with rooms starting at $80 in July.
WHERE TO EAT
■ Talinn — The contemporary Estonian culinary scene interprets traditional ingredients — expect a lot of fermentations (especially of root vegetables), game and smoked meats, and salted fish. The menu at ORE (orerestoran.ee) is among the most sophisticated and daring in Tallinn. Try the deer filet with beet cream and juniper salt. Pegasus (restoranpegasus.ee) is stellar—try the salted halibut. ÜLO (facebook.com/Kopli16) offers splendid vegan options alongside non-vegan fare.
■ — Hõlm (holmrestoran.ee) in the Lydia Hotel offers a dish featuring guinea fowl, onion, and cabbage that’s worth the visit.
For more information on the Estonian sauna culture, check out:
■ Kalma Saun in Tallinn, (kalmasaun.ee)
■ Mooska Farm (mooska.eu)
For more information, visit visitestonia.com.