Traveling to the interior of a small country that doesn’t see huge numbers of tourists you can usually count on certain things: peace and quiet, pastoral landscapes and maybe a few inquisitive looks. Occasionally, though, you come across a small town that’s especially full of life — without the crowds and traffic of a metropolis. There’s good food and culture and interesting people to meet, and it feels as if you have all of it to yourself. These are the little communities for which it’s worth going out of your way. Viljandi, a small town in the south of Estonia not far from the Latvian border, is such a place.
My trip there happened before the pandemic. Estonia, even then, was not on most traveler’s must-see list, and Viljandi, while it gets an annual dose of summer visitors, probably ranks well behind Tallinn, Estonia’s capital, for visitors. For much of the pandemic, they stopped coming entirely, though last summer, the town benefited from a boom in domestic tourism.
“Some of Viljandi’s hotels had record numbers in summer, which has helped them to survive the rest of the year,” said Annika Vihmann, who works with the Estonian Traditional Music Center and is an unofficial ambassador for Viljandi. She said that the pandemic also gave people time to re-evaluate their lives and that there had been a rise in entrepreneurship. There have even been some new openings of cafes and shops.
Estonia is open to visitors from within the European Union or from countries on the E.U.’s white list (which includes the United States) even if they are not vaccinated. Vaccinated travelers from any country can enter, as long as they have a visa.
Now, as travel returns, the airlines are busy adding back flights to the European usual suspects — Rome, Athens, Paris, Madrid. If the overtourism that many have decried during the pandemic is going to end, striking out to places like Viljandi, which are very much off the beaten path but still easy and comfortable to visit, might just be a place to begin.
A friend in Tallinn had told me about Viljandi, so after flying to Tallinn, I hopped on a recently extended tram line from the easy and airy Lennart Meri Airport and caught the train south from the central station. It was all very smooth. We passed miles of birch forest and a few sleepy towns, and after two hours pulled into Viljandi’s little station — the end of the line.
Part of the Soviet Union until 1991, Estonia has wholeheartedly embraced Europe in the intervening years and launched a number of forward-thinking initiatives from its e-residency program to free public transport for residents. And it remains a distinctive place despite many influences from its neighbors — it feels Nordic in many ways, from its food to its forest; there is the Soviet element, a kind of collective memory now mostly evident in some of the built environment, like the gray, melancholy apartment blocks so common to most cities and towns in the former U.S.S.R.; and the language is closely related to Finnish (meaning it’s incomprehensible to most of us).
In Estonia, I found an unassuming easygoingness, and it also felt young, dynamic — full of possibilities as it defines what kind of a nation it will be. Importantly, everything is about half the price or less compared to neighboring Scandinavia, meaning you can do a lot on a budget.
Viljandi is a charming little place, with a compact inner core made up of a well-defined old town in classic Baltic style — rows of wooden houses in varying states of renovation and decay, some painted pastel shades and others in raw wood; cobblestone streets and some grander buildings in a variety of styles, from Art Deco to Swiss chalet. It’s also unusual for Estonia in that it’s hilly. The land around and just beyond the old town undulates in small, green hills that give way to a longer slope, leading to Lake Viljandi, which runs along its southeast edge and is a popular spot in warmer months.
Perched above the large lake are the ruins of an old fortress, the setting for many of the performances at the annual Folk Music Festival, the town’s main draw. After a year off, it is returning this month, from July 22 to 27.
During the festival’s four days, this town of 17,000 people usually more than doubles in population. This year the maximum daily attendance will be limited to 5,000. But the festival is not the only show in town. The Culture Academy, an offshoot of Tartu University, offers degrees in traditional arts and crafts of many kinds, from woodworking to weaving, and music as well. There is a national theater for stage productions, the Ugala, that wouldn’t be out of place in a capital city. A massive outdoor amphitheater (the location for the all-important Song Festival) adds yet another performance venue.
All of this feeds a cycle of cultural instruction and production that keeps the town feeling like a hub despite its small size and remote location. And as more creative types from Tallinn have based themselves here with their families, there has been a snowball effect. “You might expect one restaurant in a town this size,” said Martin Bristol, an Estonian craftsman who lives in the small town of Esna, about an hour’s drive to the north. “But here we have 40, and 20 of them you might actually like to eat in.”
It’s a lovely town to wander around without much of a plan, finding little gems as you go. At the Roheline Maja Cafe, a homey, lively place next to the old town, I ordered what turned out to be the best cinnamon bun I’ve had anywhere. As I chatted with the owner Kaari Onni (she uses fresh, organic cinnamon and eggs in the buns; her husband is from New Jersey; they have six children, who all study music) a young girl appeared with a violin in hand. She found a spot to stand about 10 feet away from us, and proceeded to play a tune. Then we heard more music, a flute this time, coming from the street. Ms. Onni explained that sometimes children would play out front hoping to get a cinnamon bun out of it — though on this day they seemed to be playing just to play.
On my second day in town I had lunch with Tarmo Noormaa, the chief executive of the Estonian Traditional Music Center in Viljandi, the epicenter from which much of Viljandi’s musical life extends. The center, near the ruins, is housed in an old, renovated building that was at one time a crumbling vodka warehouse, keeps things going year-round, hosting 150 concerts a year and running a music library, among other things. The success of the festival springs from a yearslong campaign by Mr. Noormaa and others to make music an integral part of life here, and most importantly to get young people involved.
“This is the success story of Viljandi I think,” Mr. Noormaa told me. “Most of our audience is young people, and they create the atmosphere. We really wanted that young musicians would go deep in their art, and that they would bring traditional music into the present day without losing the roots.”
As if Viljandi’s cultural offerings were not already sufficient, it is also home to the Kondase Keskus, a fantastic collection of Estonian outsider art, or art by self-taught, nonprofessional artists, named after the longtime resident Paul Kondas, who at the time of his death in 1985 had produced a huge number of works, quietly, sharing them only with close friends. In the museum’s main room, which houses a selection of his paintings (a handful of other rooms are dedicated to rotating exhibitions from Estonia and abroad), the reason for his reticence quickly becomes clear. Many are works of searing political satire, though their message is often cleverly obscured.
Viljandi was lucky in that there are almost no Soviet apartment towers anywhere in the center of town. The only major Soviet edifice in the inner core was the old party headquarters, a brutalist monstrosity of a building just down the road from the Kondas Keskus that was so ugly it was interesting. It has since been torn down.
One night, I went to a wine bar called Mulks, one of Viljandi’s more popular spots. Its owner Villem Varik was running the Creative Industries Center, which was developed by the town and the Culture Academy as a way to help the artistic and the traditional meet the entrepreneurial. That center has been on hiatus since the pandemic began, but Mr. Varik remains at the middle of all things artistic in the town.
Mulks has wine and cheese and charcuterie, but it’s also the best place in town to get a wide selection of craft beers, currently a booming industry in Estonia. Mr. Varik was eager to show me the Rüki Galerii upstairs, which he pointed out was Viljandi’s first private gallery when it opened in 2019. “As a community I think we’re doing quite well,” he said. “We’re transforming, getting more money in from the private sector and investing it in our entrepreneurs.”
The following day, I headed beyond the town limits. I had heard about a former Tallinner named Andres Ansper, who had been a successful businessman in the capital before deciding he’d had enough of the grind. He ended up in an old barn in the Loodi Nature Park south of town, where he threw on a pair of overalls, grew an immense beard and began fashioning some very special lampshades and other objects out of wood. The result is The Loneliest Lamp Shop in the World. Any customers who happen to swing by are led up a set of old stairs (the barn, perhaps no surprise, also used to be a vodka warehouse) where they can behold a couple of dozen wooden lamps of different shapes and sizes hanging from the rafters or mounted on the wall. I was drawn to a wooden bowl so thin and polished it looked like china. “The working title for this bowl is ‘at the edge of functionality,’” Mr. Ansper said to me with a smile, as he balanced it on a table.
But my ultimate goal for the day was the Soomaa National Park, to the west of Viljandi. I’d arranged to stay overnight in some unusual accommodations within the park. Rene Valner and Mariell Jussi run a canoeing and kayaking operation called Karuskose out of their home, which was surrounded by pristine wilderness crisscrossed by rivers. The pair have built a tall yet compact, modern-looking cabin on higher ground — guests can stay there, as I did, but it also serves as a backup shelter when waters rise. The park is home to bears, wolves and all kinds of bird life, but the unique thing about Soomaa is that it regularly floods, extensively. When it happens, the bottom floor of their house turns into a lake — or if it happens in midwinter, an ice rink. As I crossed the wobbly rope bridge to their house, I spotted a horizontal blue line halfway up the side of one of the buildings — a marker of the highest flood they’d seen. The couple seems to take this in stride.
Mr. Valner and I went for a short canoe ride up the river. About a 20-minute paddle away we came across Soomaa’s famous “floating sauna,” built by students from the Estonian Academy of Arts as a summer project. The simple wooden boat with a sauna in place of a passenger cabin can be found floating here and there, free to use for anyone who finds it. Later, Ms. Jussi suggested that I take a bike and ride up the path to the peat bog not far away. Emerging out of the pine forest and climbing a small hill I found myself alone with the sound of the wind. A vast expanse of flat land dotted with small pools and the occasional tree stretched out in front of me, a wooden walkway and a small blue viewing platform the only signs of humanity. The pristine scene was remarkably similar to parts of the Florida Everglades.
That evening, we tried out the traditional smoke sauna at Karuskose. It was the perfect way to end the day and cap off my Estonian jaunt. Unlike a standard sauna, it is heated by an open fire with no chimney, meaning the room fills with smoke. Just before people go in, the smoke is let out. The process then is simple: sit for a while, then emerge, a little sooty, and jump in the river, then drink some beer, and repeat. As we stood outside, a cool wind picked up and I saw a pair of big birds, cranes that soared in, landed and let off a few loud screeches, the sound echoing across the field.
They say the smoke purifies the air, and that a good stint in the smoke sauna cleanses your soul.
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