A Drive on the Wild Side
James Parry goes off the beaten track in rural Estonia, in search of everything from its historic railways to its wild wolves. Photography by Greg Funnell
It’s 1968, and the last-ever train leaves the station at Karuse in western Estonia. With the line closed, the station master packs away his uniform, whistle and flags for good, while standing around the tracks are some of the men who laid the original rails three decades earlier. Many have tears in their eyes.
Fast forward 43 years and today new life is being breathed into the old station. I’m here to meet Meelike Naris, who bought the building in 2003 and set about restoring it to its former splendour.
She welcomes me on the lawn outside, a thin autumn sun glinting through the shades of yellow and orange of the trees around us. “I saw it advertised on a roadside hoarding,” she says. “At first I found the restoration idea totally overwhelming, but this place is so magical that I just had to save it.”
What makes Estonia such an exciting place to visit are the unexpected people you run into. People like Meelike, who is meticulously re-plastering the walls of this dilapidated building using clay mixed with her own hands, as well as using reclaimed and recycled materials elsewhere. Keen to explain her project to locals and visitors alike, she has filled the rooms with an amazing array of memorabilia connected to the railway and the people who were once its lifeblood.
The walls of the former waiting room are adorned with posters and photos from a bygone age, and Meelike hosts film screenings here. The old Soviet propaganda newsreels show courageous mine-workers and superhuman athletes flexing their muscles for the Communist cause.
Estonia was once criss-crossed by railways, but today the best option for exploring the country is by car. Driving here is a real joy, with well-maintained roads and hardly any traffic outside the main towns. After flying into the capital, Tallinn, and picking up a hire car from Hertz, I drive westwards through a mellow landscape of woodland, interspersed with fields, traditional wooden farmsteads and orchards heavy with fruit. People leave baskets of apples outside their gates for passers-by to help themselves free of charge.
I’m heading for the county of Lääne, well known to Estonians for its natural beauty but less familiar to outside visitors. I’m curious to see the coastal resort of Haapsalu, but on the way there I stop at a crossroads where a crowd of people have gathered around a man and a van. He’s busy selling fish he caught that morning in the local river. From perch to pike, you take your pick and pay your money – simple. I’m starting to like rural Estonian life.
With a fish in the back of my car I carry on towards Haapsalu, which first hit the headlines in the 1820s thanks to the local mud. Huge, foul-smelling piles of the stuff were found to have health-giving properties and wealthy Saint Petersburgers flocked here to “take the cure”. Such was Haapsalu’s popularity that a dedicated railway station was built here, complete with an ornate private pavilion for the Russian tsar and his family and a roofed platform long enough to accommodate the full length of the imperial train. It’s no longer a working station, but worth a visit for the architecture and the steam-train soundtrack (look for the push button on the wall).
A century ago, Haapsalu was the place to be seen in summer. The composer Tchaikovsky visited and many of the painted timber buildings and Baltic villas he knew are still here today, some now lovingly restored as part of the town’s recent renaissance. Right on the water’s edge is the Kuursaal, an elaborate pavilion constructed in 1898 for Haapsalu’s glittering elite to meet for tea dances and catch up on society gossip. Stylishly renovated, it now hosts one of the town’s best restaurants.
There’s also an engaging museum here (Museum of the Coastal Swedes), where you can discover the curious history of the so-called Estonian Swedes. Several thousand of them lived in local villages from the 13th century until 1943 when, in the turmoil of World War II, they were forced to flee back across the Baltic with little more than the clothes they were wearing. They had worked mostly as farmers, living in close-knit communities that maintained the Swedish language and traditions. Intrigued by what I’ve seen in the musuem, I set off for the village of Noarootsi, once a Swedish stronghold known as Nuckö.
The village church in Noarootsi has a graveyard full of tombstones bearing Swedish and Estonian names. It also contains the more elaborate tombs of another part of the local ethnic mix, the prosperous German gentry who also once lived here. I notice a group of people looking at some overgrown graves in the corner. Among them is an elderly man, who tells me that as a boy he had fled to Sweden with his family and has just returned to his native village for the first time in 67 years.
Before long my attention is drawn skywards by a series of loud, clanging calls. “Cranes!” someone shouts out, and suddenly the sky is full of large birds moving in V-formation. Knowing this area is famous for its birdlife, I have already planned to talk with a local expert, Ivar Ojaste, to learn more. When we meet, he explains how these 1.8m-tall birds are migrating south to wintering quarters that may be as far away as Ethiopia. The west of Estonia is located on the flyway of millions of birds, including ducks, geese and swans that breed on the Arctic tundra and flood south in autumn.
One of the best places to check out this amazing spectacle is Matsalu National Park (www.matsalu.ee), easily accessible from the town of Lihula. My visit there coincides with the final evening of the annual Matsalu Nature Film Festival (www.matsalufilm.ee) and I watch the 2011 winning entry – one of 206 films from 54 countries – which features breathtaking footage of bears and wolves cavorting in the forests of Finland. “We have them here, too,” says Kaja Lotman, regional head of Estonia’s Environment Board, “especially further east.”
Intrigued by what I’ve heard, I drive east via Tallinn to Alutaguse, one of the wildest parts of the country. Here the forests are full not only of bears and wolves but also moose, wild boar and even flying squirrels. I meet ecologist Bert Rähni, who has built a hide overlooking a clearing in the forest. By putting down corn and oats, Bert is able to attract bears and other creatures to within 30m of the hide. But his real skill is his ability to find wolves – as I soon find out first-hand.
We set off on foot late one starry night, into a wild area just a few kilometres from the Russian frontier. Bert stands looking across the dark valley beyond, and suddenly lets rip with an extraordinarily realistic howl. We wait. Nothing. But then, slowly welling up in the gloom, comes a hesitant reply, a lone wolf responding to Bert’s call. It’s a unique and thrilling moment, but not entirely unexpected in this most surprising of countries.
FOR MORE INFORMATION ON ESTONIA, SEE WWW.VISITESTONIA.COM. GROUPS CAN VISIT KARUSE RAILWAY STATION BY BOOKING IN ADVANCE WITH MEELIKE ON VUULU@YAHOO.COM. ESTONIAN NATURE TOURS HAS PIONEERED WILDLIFE TOURISM LOCALLY AND OFFERS TOURS AND TAILOR-MADE TRIPS – FOR MORE DETAILS, CONTACT MARIKA MANN AT WWW.NATURETOURS.EE. FOR WOLF AND BEAR WATCHING ALSO SEE WWW.NATOUREST.EE