1. Tell us a little bit about Saaremaa.
Saaremaa is the biggest island in Estonia, located in the Baltic sea, with one town—Kuressaare—a kind of mellow resort town with a cute 14th century castle, some Spa hotels and a remarkable local community that has managed to maintain its numbers and livelihood despite the tendency of young people moving to bigger cities.
The island is best described by its classic four seasons climate: warm enough in the summer for a full-on beach culture—in July the seaside of Mändjala is flocked with teenagers from sunrise to sunset, taking in every last ray of sunshine, abnormally tanned for our northern climate (SPF protection is regarded either a weakness or a formality). The water is warm enough to swim during most of the summer and Saaremaa has lots of beaches, you can almost choose one just for yourself.
A story goes that a few years ago the Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich had a picnic near Tehumardi beach, he had been waiting on his massive yacht while a group of maids set a table for him on the beach, he came, had lunch, had a swim, and off he went. I have no idea whether this is true but we are really proud of all the “secret beach” options we have!
The summer always seems too short but the calmness of fall is also very charming with all its colors, tourists have left and you can see locals again, walking their dogs in the autumn leaves and gossiping on street corners. In the winter it is up to –20C, thick snow and lots of ice skating involved. I used to live near the sea, so within 5 minutes walking distance me and my friends had a whole frozen bay to ourselves to skate on. We liked to draw huge faces on the ice hoping that maybe someone sees them from a plane… backward spinning made for great curly hair! I still drool over that huge “ice-rink”.
And then the spring – well, by that time every Estonian is so utterly exhausted by stomping in the snow that the first sight of asphalt is enough to bring a happy-tear to an eye. The first hepatica flowers that rise their heads from the deep muddy forest surface are reason enough for a picnic or a grill party. In May things get into full bloom, it feels the more voluptious and fragrant the colder the winter was. This time of the year is a real resurrection for both nature and people.
2. How many people live here? Is the population growing or shrinking?
The island has around 40 000 inhabitants, the population is slowly decreasing by the numbers but it is doing quite well compared to other regions on the mainland, the tendency for young people is definitely to move away from the countryside to Tallinn or abroad. I cannot yet imagine it for myself, but I do know people who have moved back to the island after university, so I’m hoping it is not all doomed yet. The islanders (“Saarlased”) tend to be very proud of their heritage, like to visit often and keep a tight grip on their old friends and relatives, even while living in Tallinn I still regard the islander-friends my closest friends.
3. What is abundant and what is scarce on Saaremaa?
Abundant: Chantarelles, blueberries, lots of rusty bullet cases from soviet military camps and the World Wars, beaches, elderly people leaning on their bikes, lots and lots of deer and moose (during summer nights you can almost be sure to see some on the road while driving), thrift shops, wolves (we never had wolves but they came over the ice some winters ago, now they are killing too many sheep and as much as the hunters try, they can’t seem to catch them), old stone walls, junipers, barking dogs, ticks (the insects—dangerous!), cute renovated farm houses, cows, apples, and finally—sarcasm is definitely abundant.
Scarce: Traffic lights (none), noise (it’s unbelievably quiet at nights, if you ever visit—take a walk at night and enjoy the velvety vacuum in your ears), mountains (as flat as can be), fishermen (used to be plenty, but not enough fish to catch anymore!), public transport, McDonald’s (none, and people oppose having one).
4. What is important to note about the islands geographical location or history?
People of Saaremaa have always been regarded as a tough crowd, probably made that way by all the countless foreign rulers and occupations. It has always been important to sustain life on the island regardless of the regime and not really counting on any outside forces in helping you out.
Some time ago there was a story in the papers about a viking ship found in an old fisherman village on Saaremaa – a proof that the islanders were part of the vikings! A suspicion that has long lingered in the history pages and the word ‘viking’ has a good ring to it, being part of a famous scandinavian gang, but no proof. Then some months later, another article – the archeologists found out that there were viking shipmen still sitting in that boat, slaughtered by the villagers. Which means saarlased had killed all the vikings. In an exaggerated way, that’s pretty much how we like to think of ourselves – even tougher than the vikings :)
Another layer of history still visible in the landscape are Soviet and war-time relics, if you know where to find them. This summer a friend of mine went to Sõrve Peninsula with a metal detector (just for fun, to see what he could find) and he came back with a German helmet from the WWII, with the skull inside, and a belt buckle from the same soldier. Also landmines and all sorts of ammunition can still be found in those areas.
5. What are some of the practical challenges of living on Saaremaa?
Now in the year 2013 I can’t really think of many practical challenges, of course there is less variety in the tropical food section and it’s not the best place for shopping, but on the whole everything is very up to date and high tech, sometimes even more so than in bigger cities. I only feel sorry for elderly people living in distant villages because the public transport is very scarce and that makes it difficult to get to the dentist. The ferries work very swiftly, they go from the mainland every 30 mins, you can have an ice cream on the deck and it’s time to drive off again. It takes around 3.5 hours to drive to Tallinn but the locals are so used to it, once my brother drove to Tallinn and back just to get McDonald’s.
6. Is there an assumption or stereotype about Saaremaa you’d like to correct.
The only stereotype I remember being confronted with was when a teenager from mainland asked me if we have cars and Kroonika (a local gossip magazine), when in reality I see people opening their garage doors with their iPad. The island has lots of wild nature and people cherish their countryside, but we are as addicted to WiFi as any other place, it is definitely not conservative in that regard.
7. What do you think makes island communities, like yours, unique?
I have thought a lot about this and the thing I feel can’t be replicated in a big city is the sense of community and responsibility towards your surroundings. My friends from childhood are like brothers and sisters to me, there was no choice who you live next to or who came to your class for the next 12 years, and you learn to be friends with any kind of people you are dealt with. There is lots of gossip but also compassion and tolerance, similar to the kind you feel towards a close relative.
8. How are tourists generally seen by locals?
Depends entirely on the tourist, but generally they are very happy to welcome all visitors. They enjoy the busy-ness of summertime! Once there was a tourist in a cafe complaining out loud about not enough sightseeing on the island and I remember feeling how all the locals around me wanted to gang up and expel her from the island, seeing she wasn’t able to appreciate it. We asked a backpacker from a neighbouring table if he feels the same – lucky for him, he didn’t – and for the next three days we drove him around the island, showed him the most romantic places and gave him the best food, he couldn’t believe how lucky we had been to be born on that island.
So it comes down to this old Estonian proverb: “How the village treats the dog depends entirely on how the dog treats the village”.
9. What is the best way to get here?
In the winter you can drive over the ice. Yes, the sea freezes! My grandmother told me that’s how people used to move to Saaremaa when there was no ferry yet – her family moved over the ice with horses and carriages, because the boats couldn’t carry that much stuff. Otherwise taking the ferry from Virtsu to Koguva is the easiest, cheapest and most common way. You can also drive through the neighbouring island—Hiiumaa—and land on Saaremaa through the Triigi harbor. Lots of people come with a yacht also, or you can take a plane from Tallinn.
10. What should visitors know or read before setting out for Saaremaa.
I would recommend just taking the trip and let the locals will take care of you (not so familiar with the literature, to be honest). The island is best for a quiet retreat, it has many naturally beautiful places to see and you can be active in many ways, the locals will tell you their stories themselves!
And a little bit about Brit:
I myself lived there until I was 18, all the islanders and their mothers know that after high school, the kids go to universities and their nests will be empty. Since then I have lived in Amsterdam for 5 years and now in Tallinn for a couple of years. I studied in two art schools, now I work as a (graphic) designer and sometimes I’m guest teaching at the art academy.
A couple of years ago I started a little shop on Etsy called GrannySocks to sell my grandmother’s knits, she still lives on Saaremaa, always has. Knitting has been her pastime ever since she was a teenager and her mom taught her how to knit her own clothes because there was no other option during the war. There are lots of knitters on Saaremaa and if all goes well, we might expand in the future to honor the level of craft these people have.