Private investment is bringing much of Estonia to life, including in its farthest flung corners. Manor houses, the pride of earlier nobility, are being bought up and restored after years of Soviet, or state, neglect.
We visited two on our tour north and west along the coast to Tallinn.
Alatskivi Manor Castle was rebuilt in the late 19th century based on Balmoral.
We visited on a busy ‘castle day’ which meant a reduction of two euros. We couldn’t afford the discounted ticket or the time but did get to peek inside the grand entrance hall and waiting rooms which boasted dark wooden panelling and the remaining two of more than 20 porcelain-tiled stoves, the likes of which we had admired in Rundale Palace.
Surrounded by ancient forests and wetlands the original manor house dates back to the 14th century. It is one of the very few that are being brought back to splendid life.
Further west, Palmse Manor is the country’s showpiece, the first to be restored and opened to the public. Established in 1287 it is the mansion’s 17th century incarnation that draws in the crowds today.
On the north coast, Saka Manor was built in the 1600s after the King of Sweden, Gustav II, gave the land to Jurgen Leslie of Aberdeen.
The first and last owners of the house were Scottish, as in 1939 its grounds became a war zone. It was occupied by the armies of Estonia, the Nazis, and the Russians before being left to rot in 1992.
The ruins of the manor house and grounds were bought in 2001 by the Kaasik family, when auctioned for sale by the state. Photographs of the bombed and derelict mansion line the entrance hall and underline the triumph of the ambitious restoration project.
The manor house is a sought-after wedding and party venue, with a separate hotel quartered in the old stable block, as well as an impressive conference centre in the coastal watch tower previously used by the Soviets as a radar base to scan the vast shores of the Finnish gulf at night, for up to six miles. For what we wondered? Moomins?
Dropping down 48 meters on an award-winning steel stairway we reached the sandy shore by way of the klint – an erosional limestone escarpment that exists on the coast of Estonia, its islands and parts of Russia and Sweden.
Here in Estonia it is at its highest point of more than 55 meters above sea level.
Clogging in clumps along the sea shore was ‘blue clay’. Malleable and slightly rubbery-smelling this striking sea clay is more than 500 million years old and unique in keeping its plasticity.
We couldn’t resist handprints and footprints, which we later regretted when scrubbing and scratching away at the smelly residue left on our hands and feet.
Striking back up the escarpment we hauled up the 48 meters to the top of the Saka cascade, an underwhelmingly dry ridge that in the wet season throws a treble cascade of water down to the beach.
It was another sign of the extraordinary weather that everyone was commenting upon, bumper grain crops, low river levels, likely water shortages and a plague of wasps signalling an unseasonably long and hot summer.