South from Tartu to Tootsi and beyond.
Rolling slowly along on wide gravel roads; rolling over low hills through the forest; rolling past ancient working hill farms; rolling into the lush quiet of southern Estonia.
Lakes shimmer through the pine forest that stretches to the horizon in all directions.
An old, easy relaxation settles in. Nobody else is on the road. Windows down, birds calling in the forest, the tires crunching the gravel. Rolling into Haanja Nature Park.
This is the verdant high country of the Baltic states. Russia is a short walk to the east and Latvia is close by, to the south.
There aren’t many villages. The farms are scattered and clumps of houses only occur at road intersections. And even then there are only three or four.
Haanja Nature Park was established long after generations had passed through these old farms. So there are farms, villages, and roads within the park. This is typical of regional and national parks in the Baltic countries. The park was created to re-establish the natural communities of Haanja Uplands, which includes dispersed farming and handicrafts. Human culture is recognized as part of these landscapes. It was a good choice to have the park around the people who live there and let them stay on their farms. And it adds to the richness of the experience.
But many people have left behind rural farm lives and congregated in the bigger cities, such as Tallinn, the capital. It is far to the north on the Gulf of Finland.
As you visit this country you learn of its pagan past and of its succession of religious influences. Some old country churches survived the Soviet occupation. They are varied and occupy central positions in the tiny villages.
Every once in awhile you sit by the side of the road and listen. In the distance sometimes you can hear people working. But mostly you hear only birds and wind in the forest.
Then you roll on, slowly, watching and thinking. Families struggled on these farms and sometimes succeeded. Then the Nazis rolled over them. After a short dark period this beautiful forested land was gobbled up by the Soviet Union. Soviet occupation lasted more than 50 years.
Once again these are Estonian farms and Estonian forests. They are growing strong. The quiet and solitude are very relaxing. But these forests don’t reveal all the agony and treachery they have endured. They have grown back and hidden the scars.
On your way back toward Tartu you roll past many beautiful lakes. There is no reason to hurry. Lakeside homes sit just above the marshes, many with a small boat pulled up onto the grassy hill next to the house. These would be truly restful holiday places.
As you enter the paved highway heading north you are filled with memories of old farmsteads, rolling pine forests, and sparkling lakes. Southern Estonia is a wonderful and beautiful land.