Lahemaa National Park in Estonia

Stuart Forster visits Lahemaa National Park in Estonia.

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“I have had several unforgettable moments. In 1976 an elk jumped onto the car and smashed the window and door. Nothing happened to the animal, but the car was not very nice looking afterwards. Happily, nothing happened to us but we were shocked,” says Anne Kurepalu, my guide in Estonia’s Lahemaa National Park.

Established on 1 June 1971, Lahemaa become the first national park in the Soviet Union. Eight months later Anne joined the park’s staff to work as a researcher and in the visitor centre.

Since 2000 she’s been a freelance guide and is showing me sites of natural and historic interest in and around Lahemaa, which means ‘land of bays’.

Huge boulders are strewn in the national park’s dense woodland; they were carried here from Finland during the last ice age. Anne then demonstrates her knowledge of history at the Baltic German manor houses at Palmse, Sagadi and Vihula.

Käsmu by the sea

We also spend time in the attractive coastal village of Käsmu. Käsmu’s sizable properties, I learn, were funded by the hard work of locals in building ships during the late 19th century and early 20th century and sailing them on global trade routes.

Talking with Anne also provides an insight into the region’s changes over the past 41 years.

On starting work at Lahemaa National Park Anne moved into a 100-year-old cottage. “Altja became my home village and I learned a lot from the old local people,” she recalls.

“I was very lucky to have 11 grandmothers, as I was the only person younger than 50, except for small children.

Memories of Soviet border guards

“In the middle of the 1950s a barbed wire fence was built along the coast and boats were taken to the next village and guarded by Soviet border guards. Only professional fishermen could fish, with a special permit which was given only for a year. Next year you had to prolong that.

“If family members who were not living in the village wanted to visit they had to send an invitation for a certain period. With that paper, their children went to the militia office and got a special permit which was checked at the Tallinn bus terminal. Without that, you couldn’t buy a ticket for the bus.

“I had to carry my passport with me every day. You never knew when you’d meet Soviet border guards who could ask for this permission. Those of us who lived all year in the border area had a special number in our passports, so we could travel in the territory of the national park, which was a border area.”

Cycling in the forest

Anne’s initial role involved speaking to people in the national park’s villages, collecting information and old photos of buildings, to aid preservation. She travelled by bicycle along forest tracks, building extensive knowledge of the region.

“Lahemaa has changed a lot,” says Anne. “Not so much nature but the villages; I miss very much those old people with whom I lived together and when I travel in these villages I think about them. The villages have become more beautiful. Houses have been repaired and painted. During the Soviet time, it was very difficult to buy a good colour for houses. But there is also pressure to build new summer cottages, especially in coastal villages and sometimes those don’t fit here.”

I ask Anne what she likes most about Lahemaa.

“I have always enjoyed the coastal villages, lifestyle, and nature; I know a lot about that thanks to local people. As I hiked a lot in the forest I found very nice streams, old trees and abandoned houses. Spring brings a great variety of wildflowers and the forest is full of birdsong, autumn has rich colours and winter delivers frost, snow and silence,” she responds enthusiastically.

Picking mushrooms and dining

“Everybody is allowed to pick berries and mushrooms in the national park…I know about 20 species of edible mushrooms and I pick only those which I know 100 per cent,” says Anne as I tuck into a sauce featuring chanterelles at the Lahemaa Kohvikann restaurant.

As we dine Anne talks about the nature trails running through the forest.

“One of my favourites is a 3.5-kilometre trail through Viru Bog. This is how Estonia’s landscape would have looked after the ice age and is in bloom at the end of May and the beginning of June. Sunrise is especially beautiful; I have seen that with several groups and individual tourists over the summer.”

Animal sightings are rare in Lahemaa, I learn, despite the impressive list of mammals living in the forest.

Wildlife including elk and boars

“During all those years, I have seen brown bear three times, lynx twice and a wolf once. I’ve seen beavers, elk, roe deer and wild boars many times but not so often anymore. In the first years, we had too many elk and they destroyed a lot of young trees. Then they were hunted to regulate their numbers,” explains Anne.

After telling me about the kamikaze elk she then says, “I nearly had an accident with a big brown bear on the road. He suddenly jumped out of the forest in front of my car. I stopped the car and he crossed the road, stopping to look at me; the distance was less than 20 metres. I’ll never forget that moment. As usual, I had no camera with me,” recalls Anne.

I have my camera by my side but the bear doesn’t show himself to me. Perhaps I’ll have more luck when I return?

Further information

For more information on the country’s attractions, including Lahemaa National Park, see the Visit Estonia website.

Vihula Manor Country Club and Spa, is a 16th-century property that’s a one-hour drive from Tallinn and well situated for visiting attractions inside of Lahemaa National Park.

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