Estonia Week on 501 Places No.5: Lahemaa National Park, and what I don’t get about Estonian tourism

LahemaaIt’s hard to beat a whole day spent surrounded by beautiful and varied landscapes, finding some great short hikes to do, and hardly meeting another person for the whole time in the park.

We had set off from Tallinn in our rental car (very expensive compared to UK/US prices: around £55 for the smallest car). Lahemaa NP is less than an hour’s drive away, and soon we were getting maps and information from a kind and very enthusiastic lady in the park’s visitor centre. LahemaaSensing we would be one of her only visitors of the day, she ushered us into the impressive auditorium and set up a 17 minute slide show. It was interesting but at the same time was standing between us and the outdoors we had come to see. We didn’t have the heart to step out early though, so we dutifully watched the full film.

Giant erratic boulders, Lahemaa NP
Soon enough we were walking, and during the day we completed three walks, each around 5-7km in distance. One was set in woodland, one was coastal and one involved a march through wetlands to a high watchtower. Lahemaa has many highlights; the giant rocks (erratic boulders), some bigger than a house, brought over by glaciers from Scandinavia; diverse and thriving native forests with the biggest variety of mushrooms I’ve ever seen; and a coastline whose tranquil beauty was hidden from the local people during Soviet rule, when a high barbed wire fence ensured the beaches would not be used as an escape route.
View from watchtower in western Lahemaa NP
And here’s my issue. Lahemaa is a very impressive park (it was the first designated national park of the USSR) and no doubt receives many Estonian visitors in the short summer season. I would recommend a visit to anyone who is in Tallinn for more than 2 days. There is so much to see and enjoy, and we didn’t even get the chance to explore any of the newly restored mansion houses within the park. And yet if you are driving to the park, there is no signage to help you find it. Far lesser parks in the UK and elsewhere would have a brown sign every mile from 20 miles out. Here, nothing. It’s either a total indifference to promoting this special place as an attraction, or another example of the Estonian trait of under-statement and modesty. Either way, the weather was perfect and we had the park to ourselves.
Jagala Falls, around 25km west of Tallinn
Another such example is the highly impressive Jagala waterfalls. More spectacular than many famous falls in Europe (and we caught them at a dry time) and yet absolutely no signs to point you there. Nothing off the motorway, nothing from the nearest  village 1km away, and only a small interpretative board when we pulled up in a small car park. It doesn’t even get a mention in Lonely Planet. And yet it is probably one of the single most impressive sights in Estonia. Whoever’s job it is to promote these attractions to an international audience probably has a clever plan somewhere, but it is beyond my understanding. We were alone at this amazing place, free to take pictures, climb under the waterfall, all with no-one else in sight. Come on Estonia, you have the special places to attract so many people to visit the great outdoors here. Why are you keeping it secret and bringing in the party gangs instead?

The evening consisted of more Estonian food and yet more great coffee and cakes to follow. Getting home tomorrow night it will be good to get back to eating normal size meals again. But for now, there is one place I want to try for lunch tomorrow, and it is only for their dessert speciality – garlic ice-cream!

I have to say it has also been great to have an apartment to call home for the last week. The only drawback (lack of maid service) is also a major benefit, in that we have been able to treat the place as our own and come and go as we please, without worrying about what is left out and what needs to be packed away. With serviced apartments now as easy to book as hotels online, it is a great option for a city break if you don’t want to have all the extras that come with a hotel (and most of which you pay for whether you use them or not).

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