Estonia: A walk in the park

"Sometimes, I walk here for an entire day without meeting anyone," says Anne Kurepalu, my guide, as we stride along a trail cut through the dense, pine-scented forest of Lahemaa National Park in northern Estonia.

By Stuart Forster
Published 23 Oct 2012, 12:45 BST, Updated 30 Jun 2021, 11:32 BST

"I've seen a brown bear three times up close, a lynx twice and a wolf once," she says, putting the brakes on my exuberant hope we'll spot an abundance of wildlife lurking in the undergrowth between the closely packed tree trunks. Anne has worked here since 1972, the year after Lahemaa became established as the Soviet Union's first national park. So, applying the laws of probability, spotting anything today is rather unlikely.

The path we're walking on is part of a 447-mile network of interconnected hiking trails, including one that runs almost 200 miles down through Estonia's sparsely populated countryside to the Latvian border.

At Oandu Nature Centre — a mint green wooden cottage built in 1860 that's typical of the region's architecture — Anna suggests we pause so I can watch a short video about Lahemaa's flora and fauna.

We then visit the neighbouring barn, known as the Cone Hut, to learn about forestry in the region and how logging was once a major source of employment. The exhibits inside the high-ceilinged structure include aged tools, logs plus old photos of foresters at work. Being accustomed to Britain's sometimes overly protective health and safety laws, I'm taken aback when Anne encourages me to pick up a saw and have a go at cutting firewood — even suggesting improvements to my technique when the blade gets stuck.

It's strange to think that prior to 1986 — five years before Estonia officially regained independence — foreign visitors such as me wouldn't have been allowed here. Even Estonians had to receive clearance to visit the coastal areas of this expansive national park, whose name translates as 'the land of bays'.

As we drive towards the picturesque Baltic coast village of Käsmu, Anne recalls having her identity card checked by Soviet guards: "Every day, I used to show my pass on this road, sometimes several times a day."

Anne tells me that many of the impressive buildings in the village were built using profits from trade, sometimes illicit, with Finland. During the era of Finnish prohibition, from 1919 to 1932, vodka distilled in the region was smuggled across the Baltic. "Käsmu has some nice houses, very big, and many of them once belonged to sea captains," she explains.

Money is not the only thing from Finland to have shaped the landscape of Käsmu and Lahemaa. During the last ice age, large rocks were pushed southward by shifting ice and worn smooth on the way. Known to geologists as 'erratic boulders', these rounded stones are scattered among the national park's trees and under the pastel blue sky of Käsmu's bay.

Both the ice age and the Cold War have thawed but their respective legacies live on in Lahemaa.

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