Saaremaa: A Most Estonian Island
Guess the time seems about right to share some additional selections from my very first “blog” known as Radio Free EAJ. When I was living in Estonia back in 1993, I would draft RFEAJ offline and then distribute it online each week to my email “subscribers.” Below, you’ll find various entries about my two trips to Saaremaa that year as well as some recollections from my first trip to the island back in the summer of 1991, right before Estonia regained her independence. While I still try to make it back to Saaremaa as often as I can, I’m sad to say that my current version of “often” only seems to happen about once a year ….
***RADIO FREE EAJ***1993***Saaremaa, Eestimaa***
SAAREMAA: Aah, Saa-re-maa! With its long double a’s, the word even sounds magical …. And musical – almost like a do-re-mi. You only have to mention the word Saaremaa to an Estonian and they go “aah!” – their exhaled version of an exclamation point. My friends down in Riga were planning to give me a hard time for not wanting to come down to Latvia to celebrate Midsummer’s Night Eve when I explained that I was hoping to spend it on Saaremaa. Even these Latvians said “Ah, Saa-re-maa” and didn’t bother me again. The very word works almost exactly like magic. And in here Estonia, everything that comes from Saaremaa (one of the most Estonian parts of Estonia) is known to be good. People will tell you that the best bread in Estonia (a delicious and moist sourdough rye) comes from Saaremaa. Estonia’s best beer is also supposed to come from Saaremaa (usually home-brewed with juniper berries to accent the taste). And even Estonia’s best wood comes from Saaremaa – a juniper wood used to make cooking utensils and line the inside of saunas because of the wonderful aroma it gives off whenever it is wet and warm. My poetic translation of this Estonian island’s name would be the Island of the Earth. Even in English, Island Earth (saar & maa) sounds like magic. And Saaremaa truly is an amazing place. I was fortunate enough to visit in summer 1991 and hope to go back again soon. Even before independence, Saaremaa was at Estonia’s jäääär or at the edge of the ice – the place where that huge gray glacier known as the Soviet Union ended. As the ice melted on Saaremaa first, Saaremaa was first place to enjoy Estonia’s first spring after fifty years of winter.
OH, YEAH, SAA-RE-MAA: In addition to its reputation for having Estonia’s best bread and beer, Saaremaa is also supposed to have Estonia’s best water – as well as the best stone to go with its juniper wood. Not a bad combination if you enjoy the simple basics of life – the primordial elements of humanity. The stone that Saaremaa is famous for is its dolomite – a stone that is only mined on the island. When dolomite is cut from the quarry face, it is “alive” and flexible enough that it can be easily carved. When it dries, it hardens and thereby becomes an excellent stone something like marble. Saaremaa is also home to a spring where some of Estonia’s best water bubbles forth. Like its beer, this water is now bottled and sold all over the land. Look for it in a store near you!
AN ISLAND WITH KAARMA: Literally. In the middle of Saaremaa, not too far from the dolomite quarry, you’ll find the ancient village of Kaarma, complete with its old Lutheran stone church and lilacs blooming in front of every house. On Saaremaa, the scent of these white and purple lilacs can be almost intoxicating. In Tallinn, you can barely smell the flowers because of all the pollution – mainly the diesel fumes from buses and trucks. On Saaremaa, the smells wafts all over the entire island. And lilacs weren’t the only magical plants I found. In an abandoned and overgrown arboretum, I found three four-leaf clovers (!), three five-leaf clovers (!!), and even one six-leaf clover (!!!). You see, Saa-re-maa really is a magical place. While I’ve always had a knack for finding four-leaf clovers, my talent went wild on Saaremaa. During an entire earlier lifetime of searching, I had only found one other five-leaf clover – the Holy Grail for those of us who hunt for four-leaf clovers. On Saaremaa, I found three in as many minutes. In all my life, I had only ever seen one other six-leaf clover – found by a fellow four-leaf clover hunter in Spain. On Saaremaa, I finally found my very first six-leaf clover. Hopefully, my clover finds were further proof of Saaremaa’s magic – and not the mutant byproducts of a hidden and radioactive Soviet fuel dump. But there is magic on the island – as you can tell from the dozens of wild and majestic swans swimming in the sea and waiting to greet you as drive across the causeway joining Muhu Island to its big sister Saaremaa. In fact, there are hundreds of pairs of white swans all along Saaremaa’s coastline. They must all be here for a reason ….
AT THE END OF THE ISLAND OF THE EARTH: On this visit, we also went to the Sõrve Peninsula – the panhandle on the south-western end of the island which is perhaps the most remote and least populated part of Saaremaa. Because the good people of Sõrve feel ignored by the politicians in Tallinn, they recently declared their peninsula a Kingdom and ask the head of the Royalist Party in the Estonian Parliament to become their king. He accepted – pending the as yet uncertain arrival of the King of Sweden’s youngest son to become the first King of Estonia. Of course, this will only happen if the Royalists become Estonia’s majority party in parliament. Back on Sõrve, at the very tip of the peninsula, there is a Soviet lighthouse over 50-meters-tall built back in the 1960s. We asked the lighthouse keeper if we could climb to the top and he let us in. The keeper’s seven-year-old daughter then raced us up the rickety stairs to the top – and, of course, beat us. If you’ve ever been in a Soviet-era apartment building and know how poorly they were made, then you can just about imagine how haphazardly that lighthouse was built. Both the climb – and the subsequent decent – were quite frightening – especially as I’m afraid of heights. But the view from the top of the lighthouse – out in the open and buffeted by strong winds – was exhilarating. To the south, we could see Latvia. To the north, we could see the entire panhandle peninsula stretching all the way back to Saaremaa’s “pan.” In other words, the view from the very End of the Island of the Earth was quite amazing. Sõrve was also covered with abandoned Soviet military installations and barracks – not to mention all the WWII-era Nazi and Soviet military ruins as it was the site of the last German evacuation back to the mainland. These days, Sõrve seems now to be inhabited mainly by thousands upon thousands of rainbow-colored dragonflies. During our explorations of the peninsula, we also spotted pheasant, deer, and even a moose. And I kept looking for those wild boar known for tearing up everyone’s potato gardens ….
THE REAL BISHOP’S CASTLE: For those of you who read the draft of my story The Color Thieves, the real Bishop’s Castle is on Saaremaa in its capital town known as Kuressaare. During the Soviet occupation, the town was renamed Kingisepp – the name of the best known Estonian communist revolutionary. Kuressaare’s castle looks like it might have come right out of fairy tale. With its two (rather than four) towers, it almost looks two-dimensional. And since one tower is bigger than the other, the castle looks like something a kid might have drawn. It is that simple. That regular. That wonderful. And that magical. The night I arrived in Kuressaare, I walked around the restored castle with my friends. Around and over its fairy-tale moat. Around and over its fairy-tale outer wall with its one forward tower. The original castle was built by and for a real Bishop – a Teutonic Bishop-Knight intent on converting or killing the native Saaremaa islanders who were Estonia’s last pagan holdouts. The Bishop put his new castle right on the coast of the Baltic Sea, partially protected by the water. Near the Bishop’s Castle is a spit of land where today’s Kuressaare residents build their main bonfire to celebrate Jaanipäev or Midsummer’s Night Eve – a much older tradition celebrated in the Christian fortress’ shadow. You now know where I want to be on the evening of June 23rd.
GRAY DUST: When I last visited Saaremaa, it rained most of the time. Although the ground was wet, it didn’t dampen my enjoyment of the island. This time, however, it was dry and the roads were dusty. Many of the roads on the island are still not paved. Instead, they’re covered by gravel and gray dust … just like in The Color Thieves. As our Dust-Devil (a VW) drove around the island, it would kick up clouds of gray dust into the air. All the trees, bushes, and grass around the roads were covered by a thin blanket of fine gray dust just waiting for the next rain to fall. When our car finally arrived at my friend’s family farmhouse on the north-west corner of the island, the entire car was covered in gray dust as well. And as we exited the car, we saw that the dust had even managed to sneak its way inside under the hood, into the trunk, and even around the doors and through the locks. The Bishop’s Dust is truly some amazingly persistent stuff. And as the Bishop had not entirely left the Island of the Earth, I even spotted two of the Bishop’s Men (Soviet Army officers) walking in downtown Kuressaare although they did seem somewhat harmless. But I’ll be much happier when they’ve all gone back to where they belong far, far away from the Island of the Earth and Estonia’s other islands.
MILTARY MEMORIES: I have this one particular memory from my first visit to Saaremaa back in June 1991. The Soviet Army Headquarters (now gone) was right downtown on Kuressaare’s main street. Standing and squatting in front of the building, I spotted four Soviet Army officers on their smoking break (перекур). But the most fascinating part of what I saw was that they hadn’t even bothered to put on their boots or outdoor shoes. Instead, they were all wearing their indoor slippers (тапочки). I almost laughed out loud in amazement when I tried to imagine General Norman Schwarzkopf or his men doing the same outside of their tent in the Middle East. Right. And while I’m on the subject of military memories of the island, I have another one of waiting to take the Tehumardi ferry over to Muhu Island so that we could drive across the causeway to Saaremaa. We drove up alongside of a long convoy of Soviet troops who had just pulled out of another part of Estonia or the Baltics and were going to park themselves – at least for a while – on Saaremaa. These were not elite soldiers but conscripts – just the rank and file. They were driving the saddest, dirtiest, and most beaten up military trucks – seemingly held together by pieces of wire – that I’d ever seen. The poor soldiers looked equally filthy and disheveled. But the saddest part of all weren’t the soldiers or their vehicles but what they were carrying with them on the backs of their trucks – what they had taken the trouble to lug with them all the way from wherever they had been. Rusted balls of barbed wire. Chopped wood to keep them warm during the winter. Battered pieces of tents and other temporary structures. And a sad assortment of other junk and debris. And I thought to myself, “So this is how the mighty Soviet Army ends …”.
MIDSUMMER’S NIGHT ON SAAREMAA: Well, I made it back to Saaremaa for Jaanipäev – Midsummer’s Night Eve. Both Wednesday (Victory Day) and Thursday (St. John’s Day) were national holidays so that everyone could celebrate the summer solstice properly in this Land of the (Almost) Midnight Sun. It rained Tuesday and Friday – but in between the weather was perfect. The main Midsummer Night’s celebration on Kuressaare’s beach which was held in sight of the Bishop’s Castle was a little out of control. There were far too many people – including what seemed like half of Estonia which had traveled to Saaremaa just for the occasion. The ferry lines to get here were more than four hours long …. There were even dozens upon dozens of drunken Finns around the bonfire who had joined their Finno-Ugric Estonian cousins who were also all properly drunk for the occasion. At first, the huge bonfire was smelly and smoky – especially after some drunken kids had thrown some car tires into the fire until the rest of the crowd got them to stop. Once the rubber had burnt off, the bonfire was wonderful – sending showers of sparks into the evening sky which slithered through the air like fire-snakes. The light in the never-quite-dark sky was beautiful as well as we watched sunset merge with sunrise.
MORE KAARMA: Perhaps for my next Jaanipäev I should go to someplace less crowded like Kaali or Kaarma. As we went around the island this time, we stopped again in Kaali to admire its perfect meteor crater which is just so wonderfully strange especially as it is filled with water tinted an eerie shade of phosphorescent green. We also stopped again in Kaarma to admire its beautiful old dilapidated stone church – along with its ancient Stone Age earth works. After the Kaali crater, Kaarma’s dolomite mine seemed like an unattractive hole in the ground. Littered around the crater were slabs of discarded dolomite – inferior stone made brittle by the presence of too many air pockets. All these huge blocks piled helter-skelter reminded me of a kid’s Lego set scattered all over the ground – although this kid would have had to have been a Giant. Sadly, I don’t think that Saaremaa’s resident Giants – Suur-Tõll and Piret – ever had any children ….
PICNIC AT PANGA: During our time on Saaremaa, we also had time for a couple of wonderful picnics including one at Panga Pank – the island’s highest cliff running along its northern shore. We sat on the grass overlooking the sea, enjoying Saaremaa’s bounty: Wonderful cheese. Wonderful smoked ham. And that wonderful black bread known as Orissaare leib which is almost so sweet that it tastes like cake. Its crust, however, is perfectly crunchy while its slightly salty, sour, and spongy interior tastes of rye with a hit of caraway. This amazing picnic also reminded me that everyone really seems to know everyone in Estonia and so chance encounters become commonplace. As we were enjoying our meal at Panga, who should drive up, but a couple of Americans I know followed by a few of my Estonian colleagues – one of them an Estonian-Canadian. After all my acquaintances had left, it was time for some Estonian friends of my Saaremaa friends to show up – proving once again that everyone here is interconnected. Aah, Saa-re-maa!
Image: The cover of my Saaremaa-inspired book subtitled “A Gray Fairy Tale” which was published by the now defunct Estonian publisher Koolibri back in 1996. Below you can see the back cover of this bilingual tête-bêche book with its alternate Estonian-language title of Värvivargad. Thanks to Arvi Jürviste for his translation – sadly, he is no longer with us – as well as Reti Saks for her illustrations. Hopefully, you were able to spot Reti’s version of the Bishop’s Castle on one corner of this out-of-print book.
One Response to “Saaremaa: A Most Estonian Island”
I loved this post, Eric. I feel like I am getting to know you and your part of the world. Thank you.