It’s no secret that I love dogs, and that I prefer colder weather to the blistering heat, so as you can imagine, a snowy dog sleigh ride has been on my to-do list since, well, since I wrote a to do list.
I’m so happy to say that I ticked it off during a recent trip to discover the magic of beautiful Estonia.
Estonia nestles in the northeast corner of Europe, it is a neighbour to both Russia and the west, and it has a heritage steeped in tradition and living at one with the natural world.
Although my first impressions of Estonia were formed through the magic of Eurovision (winners in 2001, hosts in 2002), there is so much more to this Baltic beauty. The capital, Tallinn, is built into and around the ancient city walls, creating a beautiful gem of a city with cobbled streets and century old buildings wherever you look. The country is not just about history and heritage though, this is a country that embraces modern digital culture in a unique way. Estonia prides itself on being a champion of the digital age, every citizen has a state issued digital identity, and at the turn of this century, they were the first country in the world to declare internet access a human right.
It’s not surprising then, that a walking tour of Tallinn includes a visit to the PoCo Pop and Contemporary Art Museum – home to the most amazing private digital art collection, as well as many physical works. For our group this collection was quite provocative, raising the question, ‘what actually is art if it can be created and replicated by a machine?’. Answer, we have no idea! One thing is for certain though, if you’re a fan of pop art, or just want to push your understanding of art in the era of tokenisation and NFTs, this museum needs to be on your Tallinn to-do list.
Flipping from cutting edge technologies to deep rooted, ancient traditions, in a way that seems typical of Estonia, there is a real sauna culture here. Many Estonians enjoy the ‘sauna lifestyle’, meeting with friends and family at the end of a busy week to cut loose with a sauna session, followed by a cold-water plunge or a roll around in the snow if you prefer!
Iglu Park at Noblessner Port hugs the shore of the Baltic Sea, and has the cutest, very modern sauna pods available for hire, pods for overnight stays, even office pods! I had to get involved, right? I had no idea what I was getting myself into! As a group we had a 2-hour sauna pod experience which included sauna, soundbath, birch whisks and a dip in the Baltic Sea.
The things I do in the name of research!
I have to admit that I struggled with the heat at times in the sauna, it was set to 70 degrees C, yep, 70.
It was so hot I thought that my face was going to peel off but the locals seemed unaffected. Then out we went for a quick dip in the Baltic Sea! When I got the sensation back in my lower limbs and was able to hobble back to the pod, we were straight back in the sauna and given birch ‘whisks’ soaked in ice to beat ourselves (and each other) with!
It was all a bit surreal, but so much fun! I definitely felt like I was living the true Estonian experience, but oh my word, these Estonians must be a hardy people to do this regularly.
Close to nature
Nature seems to resonate throughout the Estonian lifestyle and no visit to Estonia would be complete without experiencing their connection with the forests. It’s an everyday thing to be eating foraged food in a restaurant and to have foraged mushroom tea offered as a welcome drink.
At the Small Lapland experience in Põhja-Kõrvemaa, proprietors Marilin, Mairo and Sirli (and tiny baby Noa) welcome visitors into their home and share their passion for the nature around them with guests from all over the world. As a first-time visitor to Estonia, this was exactly the experience that I was hoping for.
Of the many outdoor activities at Small Lapland, such as bog-shoeing, kick-sledding and foraging, the number one adventure for me was a 2km dog sledding run, led by a gorgeous pack of malamutes, who live alongside the Small Lapland team in their woodland idyll. The dogs were super friendly and excited to get underway, and it’s exactly how you picture it, dashing through the snow, tucked up in a sleigh, watching the dogs’ tails bobbing up and down in front of you. Magical!
During the summer months Marilyn conducts walking tours of the forest and guides visitors on foraging, pointing out blueberries, mushrooms, and other edible plants. In the winter she leads intrepid guests in snowshoes through the icy bog, (waaaay more fun than it sounds) identifying animal tracks and beaver activity and sharing bear stories.
Yes, there are bears in Estonia. Wolves also. I’ll leave that there.
When you’re visiting Small Lapland there is plenty of time built in to cuddle the dogs and a grab a souvenir photo in the year-round Christmas barn. It’s just about the most wholesome place I’ve ever been in my life! Their plan for the future is to create some small guest pods for visitors to stay in after a day enjoying the forest and a hearty home-cooked meal around the campfire. It sounds awesome.
If this has whetted your appetite and you’re considering a trip to Estonia, now is the perfect time to visit. Tartu, Estonia‘s second city, is host to the European City of Culture this year.
Tartu is a thriving university city on the banks of the River Emajõgi and has a recorded history as far back as the early 11th century. The theme for the 2024 celebration is Arts of Survival – an area in which the Estonians are very well versed both practically and metaphorically, being sandwiched between Russia and the west! Tartu 2024 will use this platform to highlight the knowledge, skills and values that southern Estonia shares with the rest of Estonia and Europe.
In Tartu Town Hall Square stands the Kissing Students statue, which has long been a symbol of freedom and love to the people of the city. Inspired by this statue, the Kissing Tartu event will encourage people to speak honestly about respect, openness, and diversity in an unprecedented ‘Mass Kissing Event’ which will take place in May this year and is scheduled to be broadcast across Europe!
As city breaks go, Estonia, with its charming blend of rich history, stunning landscapes and warm-hearted people, is a great choice. Remember to pack your lipsalve if you’re visiting in May though!
Written by Sally Bendall @girlaboutleeds