An American tourist went to look for civilisation in the eastern part of Estonia–Ida-Viru County–and what he found was beauty, great food and also the remnants of the region’s tragic history.
Is there civilisation in Eastern Estonia? According to many Estonians, there isn’t. When speaking about Narva, the main city in the Ida-Viru (East Viru) region, they utter things like: “It’s just a Russian town.” “Completely destroyed in the war.” “Nothing to see there but the fortress.” And, “Where is that?” - writes estonianworld.com.
However, Narva and the Ida-Viru region do have some fans among the Estonia population. And it is also a popular destination for Russians. Nevertheless, the local tourist sector has grand plans to increase the number of domestic and international tourists. “The city of Pärnu, for example, gets ten times more Finns than Narva,” Kadri Jalonen, a tourism coordinator for the Ida-Viru region, says. “We hope to change that.”
On that note, I set out to find life in the east. It’s a long drive and on the way, the flat-as-a-pancake landscape offers mainly farm fields, sleepy villages, oil shale hills and a few windmills. Then, suddenly, I arrived at Valaste, Estonia’s highest waterfall. At 30 metres (98 ft), this is no competition for Niagara, but it’s beautiful and serene – and you don’t have to pay any entrance fees.
Life is a beach
Moving on, Toila is a picturesque village by the sea, although the sudden appearance of a high Soviet style building in the middle of nowhere is a bit of a surprise. This is the Toila Spa hotel, very pleasant inside and the Orhidee Spa area is for adults only, thank you very much. The spa has a variety of tempting treatments, including the garra rufa fish that love to eat foot skin. Speaking of eating, one can enjoy a delicious lunch the hotel’s restaurant, Mio Mare. This is the best restaurant in the village – well, it’s the only one.
The adorable Toila Harbour is hardly big enough to qualify as a marina. While one can take a little sightseeing cruise on rubber speed boats, to avoid getting seasick, I decided to check out Oru Park instead – by the way, the park once housed a palace that served as the summer residence of the first Estonian president, Konstantin Päts. It’s a splendid place to wander around and experience the hills, valleys, forests and river views.
About 40 kilometres (25 miles) eastward is another – and much larger – spa settlement, Narva-Jõesuu. This town has Estonia’s longest beach and was once a famous regional resort, frequented by the nobility from St Petersburg, which is less than 150 kilometres (93 miles) to the east, and from Moscow. One can take a walk along the beach with its popular promenade and board walk over the dunes. One can also climb to the top of the local spa hotel where one can enjoye a spectacular view of the sea and landscape.
The local county “capital” is actually Jõhvi – a town of just over 10,000 people, out of which approximately two-third are Estonian Russians. I went to the Jõhvi Concert Hall to watch a ballet performance. This is the only wooden concert hall in Estonia, and the acoustics are highly esteemed by international connoisseurs. It’s really surprising that a little place like this can offer such remarkable entertainment. One little remark – the concert hall’s café could do with more substantial hors d’oeuvres. They were delicious but small, so I think I ate a couple of napkins as well.
The good and bad of Narva
And then I was off to explore the famous city of Narva. Walking along the riverbank and waving to the Russians on the other side, it is evident how near the city to Estonia’s eastern neighbour is.
The quaint old town hall is not used as such anymore. Instead, it houses a museum and a model of the baroque-style Old Town that was completely destroyed during the Second World War. My guide informed me that by the end of the war, the town was 100% destroyed, and only two people and a cat were left.