Estonia

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Introduction to Estonia

Ever wanted to eat blood sausages washed down with a syrupy liquor of unknown origin, go bog walking and sleep with 80 untouchable nuns and novices? You can do it all in Estonia, the small territory which packs in some charming quirks without ruining your budget.

The early years of independence brought hardship, but Estonia is recovering. Despite the rapid changes since it regained its independence in 1991, there's still a lot of tradition, including a language packed with deep 'oo's and 'uu's and thriving folk shindigs.

Today Estonia welcomes visitors with a well-organised tourism infrastructure that typifies the country's willingness to embrace all things European. Don't expect stark contrasts or grandiose scenery. The Estonian landscape is poetic and subdued; its appeal lies in the gentle nuance of colour, defined by the elements and sometimes redefined by political exigencies.

Full country name: Republic of Estonia

Area: 45,226 sq km

Population: 1.41 million

Capital City: Tallinn

People: Estonian (68%), Russian (26%), Ukrainian (2.1%)

Language: Estonian

Religion: 23% Christian (Lutheranism and Orthodoxy)

Government: parliamentary republic

Head of State: President Arnold Rüütel

Head of Government: Prime Minister Andrus Ansip

GDP: US$15.52 billion

GDP per capita: US$11,000

Annual Growth: 5.5%

Inflation: 3.7%

Major Industries: Food, clothing, oil shale, metals, woodworking

Major Trading Partners: Finland, Sweden, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania

Member of EU: Yes

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Traveler Facts

Visas: Estonia requires visas from all nationalities except citizens of most northern, central and eastern European countries, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and the USA.

Time Zone: GMT/UTC +2

Dialling Code: 372

Electricity: 230V ,50Hz

Weights & measures: Metric



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Events

Two of Estonia's major festivals only come around every few years. Tallinn's July Baltika Folk Festival is a week of music, dance, exhibitions and parades focusing on Baltic and other folk traditions. The All-Estonian Song Festival, which climaxes with a choir of up to 30,000 people singing traditional Estonian songs on a vast open-air stage to an audience of 100,000, is held every five years.

Summers are packed with events. Estonians celebrate their folk culture in mid-June during Memme-taadi Days, held in Tallinn. The night of 23 June is the eve of Jaanipäev, the climax of midsummer events. It's considered a night of magical powers and the traditional way of celebrating it is to head out into the countryside to dance, sing and make merry around bonfires, and seek the mystical fern flower which is said to only bloom that night and bring luck to anyone who finds it. Many Estonians take a holiday during the week around Jaanipäev. The Viru Säru folk festival is held at Lahemaa National Park during the first weekend in July in even numbered years.

Estonia's most famous ghost, Haapsalu, is said to appear at August's White Lady Festival. Later in the month a new king of the traditional Setu kingdom is appointed during the Day of the Setu Kingdom. It gets very quiet during November's Time of Spirits, when Estonians remember their past and their dead, and spirits roam freely through the land.

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Best time to Visit

Given the severity of Estonian winters (December to March) and the dampness of its autumns, the best time to visit the country is in the late spring (April and May) and summer (June to early September). July and August are the warmest months, with daily highs reaching 30°C (86°F). If you're keen on skiing, skating or ice fishing, though, winter is a great time to go. Besides the cold, the main drawback to visiting during winter is the limited number of daylight hours.



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Currency / Costs / Approx. Spending

Currency: Kroon

Meals

Budget: KR1-40

Mid-range: KR40-80

High: KR80-140

Deluxe: KR140+

Lodging

Budget: KR350-550

Mid-range: KR550-900

High: KR900-1600

Deluxe: KR1600+

You can travel comfortably in Estonia for around US$100-150 a day, depending on your taste for Vana Tallinn (Estonian liqueur) and snowflake sweaters. Travellers on a moderate budget should expect to spend around US$75 a day, though they can shave that figure considerably by self-catering and staying outside of the larger towns. Budget travellers can find serious bargains: campsite cabins are as low as US$8 per person, and decent meals can be found for under US$5.

It's difficult to find places to cash travellers' cheques once outside the big cities and larger towns, but Eurocheques can be cashed in most banks, and you can change cash in every town. Exchange rates vary from one outlet to another. Cash dispensing ATMs accepting Visa and MasterCard/Eurocard are widespread in cities and larger towns. Credit cards are widely accepted in hotels, restaurants and shops.

It's fairly common, though not compulsory, to tip waiters 5% or 10% by rounding up the bill, but don't get sucked in by the few waiters that try to give themselves a tip by 'not having' any change. Some bargaining goes on at flea markets but savings are not likely to be more than 10 or 20% below the initial asking price.

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Attractions

Tallinn

There are few places in Europe where the aura of the 14th and 15th centuries survives intact the way it does in Tallinn's Old Town, a jumble of medieval walls and turrets, needling spires and winding, cobbled streets. Nevertheless, Estonia's capital is so modern it's been dubbed 'a suburb of Helsinki'.

The area of Toompea is home to a bevy of fascinating sights including the 19th-century Russian Orthodox Alexander Nevsky Cathedral; Toomkirik, the Lutheran cathedral founded in 1233; the Estonian Art Museum; and the kookily named Kiek-in-de-Kök, a tall, stout tower built around 1475.

Hiiumaa

This quiet, sparsely populated island just west of the mainland has some beautiful stretches of coast. The main town, Kärdla, is a sleepy place full of gardens and trees, but its main interest for travellers is as the jumping off spot for the Tahkuna Peninsula, just north-west of town.

Hiiumaa's second largest settlement is Käina, whose main appeal is its idyllic location in the south of the island near the shore of Käina Bay, a major bird reserve. The town's low-key atmosphere is its biggest charm, though the ruins of a fine 15th-century stone church are worth a peek.

Lahemaa National Park

Estonia's largest national park is an interesting mix of coastal bluffs, dense forest, 18th-century manor houses, and numerous lakes, rivers and waterfalls, located in northern Estonia. You'd think you were in a Jane Austen novel but for the bears and lynxes.

Waterfalls cascade down some of the cliffs along the northern edge of the North Estonian limestone plateau, the Glint. The Koljaku-Oandu Reserve is an area of wet sea forest in the north-eastern part of the park, while the Laukasoo Reserve, in the park's centre, is home to the 7000-year-old bog.

Saaremaa

Estonia's biggest island has always had an independent streak and was usually the last part of the country to fall to invaders. Just a few kilometres south of Hiiumaa, Saaremaa is a thinly populated place of unspoiled rural landscapes. Farmsteads nestle among forests that cover half the island.

Kuressaare, Saaremaa's capital, is the site of a 13th century castle founded as the Bishop of Ösel-Wiek's island base. Viidumäe, west of Kuressaare, is a botanical reserve, where the favourable climate and conditions make it home to rare plant species such as the blunt-flowered rush.

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Sources: CIA FactBook, World FactBooks and numerous Travel and Destinations Guides.

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