This is a contribution by Julie Bowen, who also wrote a guide to the Baltic for Iglu Cruise.
Music is a huge part of Estonian culture dating back to c. 1179 when ancient warriors were said to sing before a battle to rally the troops and instil morale. It’s developed through the ages and Estonia’s heritage song became their anthem of independence and even now, music festivals of all genres are held all over their country to celebrate their culture.
History of Music
Estonia has deep roots in animism – the belief that all animals, plants and objects have feelings and spirits. Therefore, storytelling and folklore have a huge place in their culture. These tales were often told though music and these songs were passed down from generation to generation. In fact, they weren’t even written down until the 19th century during wartime, when preserving Estonia’s culture and history was of the utmost importance to the Estonians. These songs not only told stories of the afterlife, giving more modern Estonians a better idea of their ancestor’s belief system, they also provided teachings on life, birth and marriage.
The Singing Revolution
When Estonia gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 with other Baltic countries Lithuania and Latvia, their love of music took on an even more important role. The “singing revolution” saw hundreds of thousands of Estonians gather to raise their flag and sing their heritage song during the 1980s. These songs had previously been banned by the Soviet Union and therefore carried a strong message of defiance. This show of togetherness and solidarity caught the attention of the Baltic’s Communist party, who eventually pushed for Estonia’s independence in the early 90s.
Music is still a prevalent part of modern Estonian life with a range of festivals taking part every year. Estonia’s Song Festival is one example. Every five years in the country’s capital, Tallinn, up to 18,000 choir singers take part in the atmospheric song festival in order to sing well-known Estonian songs, including their heritage song.
As well as the song festival, Estonia also hosts a range of instrument-based festivals, including the incredibly varied Haapsalu String Festival and Accordion Festival also known as “Harmoonika”. The latter sees several accordion players pay homage to famous Estonian musician Karl Kikas. The popularity of the modern song, dance and music festivals reflect the country’s deep love of music to this day, showing the world that peaceful protesting and storytelling through verse still has a firm and effective place in Estonian culture.
This is the last of the posts in my series about the division of Europe into travel-ready regions. I’ve originally started this series because so many people go to “Europe” not being aware of the size and diversity of the continent, and try to cover too much in too little time. I hope these posts have been useful to some readers.
The Baltic is the only European region I haven’t visited so far. My review is therefore based entirely on hearsay (and the photo’s used here are from Wikipedia). But then again nobody’s been to Mars, yet it doesn’t prevent people from writing about it, and the Baltic is a whole lot closer. Usually, the Baltic states include Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, but since I’ve already excluded Finland from Scandinavia and since Finland shares a history of Russian domination with the other 3 states, I’ve decided to include it as a “Baltic state” as well.
Trakai Island Castle, Lithuania (Wikipedia)
Sunrise in Viru bog, Estonia (Wikipedia)
Suomenlinna fortress, Finland (Wikipedia)
Slītere National Park, Latvia (Wikipedia)
- Why go there?
Tucked away in a quiet corner of Europe, this compact region pretty much leads its own life, seemingly unconcerned by the rest of Europe. Although in relative numbers these countries get more tourists that Italy or France, none of them is a major tourist destination. So if you want to experience life in a small European country in its most authentic form, I’d say the Baltic is the right region for you.
- What’s it best for?
The Baltic states don’t share a common language or religion like many other regions do. They do share a calm, reserved character which has probably a lot to do with the local nature – long tracks of sandy beaches on cold shores and dark forests with quiet bogs and lakes, the perfect place for reflection.
- When is the best time to go?
Autumn is the calmest season in Europe. Summer tourist peak is already gone and the X-mas business is some time away, and since I think the Baltic is best for relaxing, why not experience it at its calmest – in September-October, when the simple melancholy of a small European capital or a bog at the end of the world are entirely yours?
- How to get around?
The distances are quite small here, so a local bus can easily be your best bet even on cross-border routes.
- Why is it best to avoid?
If you’re impatient and look for the fast-paced thrills, you may be better off in more Southern parts of Europe, like the Pyrenees or the Balkan.
- Where to go if you just have one week?
The compactness of the Baltic actually means you can spend a week hopping between the capitals, comparing the subtle differences between neighbouring small European countries, spending one or two nights in each. Or treat yourself to a week-long retreat in a remote rural corner the area is so blessed with and spend some time living the country life in the slowest pace in Europe.