Deep in the aromatic pine forests of southern Estonia are the Haanja Uplands.
This is beautiful country with a forest bird soundtrack. The people are mostly friendly and hearty. One pure Estonian smile can erase the memory of quite a few suspicious glances from these private rural people.
The Baltic States are made up of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Russia is to the east and the Baltic Sea is on the west.
Less than 20% of these three countries is more than 250 m (820 ft.) above sea level. These are flat countries.
The Haanja Uplands claim the highest point in the Baltic countries. It is Suur Munamägi at 318 m (1043 ft.). And it is an important feature that is duly publicized.
They have built a viewing tower that is quite spectacular. Towers are quite common in these flat countries. They let you view over the forest to distant horizons and are important for security and increasingly for tourism.
Suur Munamägi Tower
There is a nice cafe and a gift shop on the ground floor. But the main attraction is the viewing platform at the top of the blue spiral staircase.
It provides commanding views toward the Baltic Sea, Latvia, and Russia. The gently rolling forests stretch as far as the eye can see in all directions.
Suur Munamägi View
An interesting compass display on the viewing platform indicates the direction and distance to cities near and far. The imagination wanders over the forest canopy toward Tiblisi, Riga, Istanbul, Moscow, New York, Tokyo, Budapest, Kiev, and other landmarks.
Directions and Distances to Landmarks
If you look in another direction…well, actually, it looks pretty much the same in all directions.
Suur Munamägi View
The country around Suur Munamägi is at about 58 degrees north latitude so even though the elevation is not great the area provides winter recreation opportunities. There are established cross-country ski parks and sliding hills.
The winter sports that are important here go unreported in much of the world’s press, which focus on a few commercial national sports in each country. Sports fans are surprisingly narrow-minded.
So, for bonus points, can you identify what the facility below is used for?
Let me help by saying there is a nice stadium (behind me) for viewing the events that are held here.
You could wander around the Haanja Uplands for days. There are nice wide gravel roads and few people. The superb university town of Tartu lies to the north and it is an easy drive to reach Haanja Nature Park from there. There are a few villages with beautiful old churches and many farms scattered around in openings in the forest. There are also many lakes.
This part of southern Estonia was my favorite part of Estonia, but Tartu and the capital of Tallinn are great old cities. This is an area that is well worth visiting. You will feel the impact of the beauty and the relaxation long after you leave.
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.
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.
Country Road, Southern Estonia
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.
Farmhouse Flying an Estonian Banner
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.