01 December 2007

Eestimaa (Estonia) Adventures, Part the First

I'm back! Sorry for the long silence. I was on a pseudo-Thanksgiving break trip to visit my friend Amara and spend a long weekend in Tartu, Estonia with her and another Fulbrighter, Wes. And now I'm going to tell you about it. Or at least, a little bit about it. I'll try to keep it readably short. But it was an amazing trip, so it'll be hard not to gush.

So, why did we choose to go to Tartu? Well. They say Tartu, a smallish city in the south of Estonia, is the "spiritual capital" of the country. It's historic and picturesque, with plenty to do and see. It's also a students' city, the home of Tartu University, which is the country's oldest and best; plus Amara and I had both already been to Tallinn, the capital.

But that begs the question: why Estonia? For me, there were two main attractions:
1. Crazy language. The Finno-Ugric group (including Estonian, Finnish, Hungarian) is one of the only language families in Europe that's not Indo-European, i.e., not at all related to other modern European languages;
2. Folk mitten-knitting tradition.
Linguistics and knitting? Sign me up! From trying to figure out the case system based on street signs and restaurant menus to drooling/squealing over handknits in souvenir shops and museums, I was basically in geeky paradise all weekend.

Estonia has many other draws, though: it's the most Europeanized of the post-Soviet states, very clean, modern, and well-off, with well-developed tourism; it's nearby, and both of the languages I can speak are widely spoken there; no visa is required for U.S. citizens; and finally, it's JUST SO DARN CUTE! Seriously, a very cute little country. A nice reprieve when the sprawling hulk of Russia is starting to weigh on you. (It happens to the best of us.)

And what did we do there? I could write a book about it, but it might be more interesting if you just take a look:

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The center of Tartu's Old Town is Raekoja Plats, or Town Square. The pink building is the town hall.

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All the streets in Old Town were like this. So cute!

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Tartu's oldest Lutheran church. Estonia was under German control for much of its history, so the Reformation came here swiftly. The church is noteworthy for its more than 1000 original 16th-century (I think?) terra cotta figures.

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Tartu Ülikool (Tartu University)'s main building, the "symbol of higher education in Estonia." There's an attic room where they used to lock students who broke the rules, with authentic 19th-century graffiti (mostly in German, the language of instruction until well after Estonian came to be recognized as a legitimate language and not just a local "peasant dialect" in the mid-1800's) still intact!

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The hill in the center of town, Toome (dome) hill, has all sorts of interesting stuff, like the remnants of really, really old fortifications, plus the observatory where the idea for the Struve Geodetic Arc (it's ok, I didn't know what it was, either) was conceived...

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...great views of the Old Town...

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...Toomekirik (Dome Church), a Catholic church that lay in various states of disrepair for centuries after the Reformation took hold, and now houses the university museum (formerly the library) and a tower you can pay about a dollar to go up...

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...an ancient sacrificial stone from Estonia's pre-Christian days...

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...and a little hill called "Kissing Hill," where Wes proposed to me and I pretended to be surprised. (Note: not an actual proposal.)

All that wandering around outside made us hungry (and thirsty!). Fortunately, Tartu's restaurants, cafés and bars blow Russia's (even Moscow's, since you have to be an oligarch to afford to eat there) out of the water. Highlights included a French crepes café, three different marvelous coffee/pastry shops, a decent Indian place, a fun pub inside an old gunpowder cellar... and a bar called "Place Beer Colors." Maybe you can tell from the trippy name that this bar was trés hip. It specialized in beer cocktails (I had never had one before, but they're surprisingly delicious!), and each table had a button in the middle:

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...which you could press to order a half pint of A Le Coq, the ubiquitous local brew. Fancy!

Oh, yeah, and when we weren't busy with wandering, food, or drink, we found time to stop by:
the Estonian Postal Museum
the botanical gardens
the Tartu Toy Museum
the 19th-century Citizen's Home Museum
the Estonian National Museum
and the Tartu City Museum.

That's a lot of culture for one weekend! The Tartu Toy Museum and the National Museum were particularly fantastic. The adorable toy museum had a collection of Russian wind-up toys; several dollhouses, including one built and furnished entirely during a father's decade-long hideout from the Soviets, for a daughter he had never met; wooden folk toys; bizarre Estonian puppets from the national puppet theater; an extensive stuffed dog collection; a cool-looking playroom for kids; and much more. It was so much fun! At the National Museum I kind of freaked out and took 25 pictures like this one:

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Folk mittens galore! I also bought two pattern books from the museum shop, so Estonian folk mittens may soon be coming to a pair of hands near you! (If you would like them to come to a pair of hands on you, holler.)

Okay, photo show is over... for now. For more pictures, you can check my facebook page or bug me when I get home for Christmas (so soon, I can hardly believe it!). And check back for some brief thoughts on Estonian history and the Estonia-Russia relationship, which is hopefully interesting to someone other than me. And after that, pictures from the Russian half of the trip: Pskov, Izborsk, Pechory, and even a little bit of Moscow!

5 comments:

Mike S said...

Very neat pictures. Looks like the church is still partially incomplete (and very awesome-looking, I'll add) - do they just keep the museum in the built bits and leave the rest as-is, or is there some manner of work being done on it still?

Also, consider this a holler... we just got first snow today, and I am chilly. Would be great to have some Finno-Ugric goodness on my hands.

Seriously. If you can incorporate any manner of linguistic dorkdom into folk mittens, you will have resounding applause from this part of the pond :).

E said...

Oooh! Estooonia! I miss you and I'm glad you had a great Thanksgiving/vacation!

Rosa said...

Waiting for Rita to hit you up for Estonian mitten patterns...

Lisa said...

2 things:
1) The only thing I bought when I was in Estonia was a knit hat (one of those really long ones that you can also use as a scarf).
2) I think your assessment of Estonia/Tartu is pretty accurate. Any city with a Toy Museum and a pink Town Hall is, practically by definition, cute. :-)

-L

Nana said...

I cannot believe how few PEOPLE there are in these pictures. It looks to me like there are about five people in the country.