Breaking the ice – Estonia comes in from the cold

“First we have to cross the icebergs,” our guide, Herling Mesi, says, pointing to a barely visible ridge on the otherwise flat expanse of frozen lake.

She is worried that a patch of broken ice won’t take the weight of the truck with all its passengers, so we climb out, walk over the slushy chunks, then hop back in. As with many vehicles from the Soviet era, the truck is a homemade mashup of whatever parts were available: the front of an old VW welded to a trailer, with giant bouncy wheels taken from Russian bomber planes.


Lake Peipus, on Estonia’s eastern border with Russia, is the fifth largest in Europe. On clear nights you can see the lights of Russian villages nearly 20 miles away. Later in March the ice will start to melt, but today it is 50cm deep and covered in snow. The sky is white and it feels like we’re in a world devoid of colour.

There are several fishers in the trailer with us; they’ve travelled from the island of Saaremaa, more than 200 miles to the west, to try Peipus’s renowned ice-fishing. As we watch the fishers drill holes in the ice, Herling’s husband starts to prepare lunch, ladling water straight from the lake into a pan containing five unpeeled onions. Next a perch goes in, whole. “It cooks for about an hour. It’s the best fish soup,” says Herling. I’m not entirely disappointed when I discover we won’t be having this sparse meal. Instead, Herling passes round slices of warm onion tart.

The Elva River in the countryside near Tartu. Photograph: Jaak Nilson/Alamy

The prevalence of onion dishes is not surprising … after all, we are on the Onion Route, so called because it was once the main crop in the area. The name isn’t purely literal. “It’s the onion route because there are layers of culture here,” says Herling.

About 5,000 people who live on the Estonian side of Lake Peipus are the descendants of “old believers” – Orthodox Christians who escaped persecution in Russia in the 17th and 18th centuries after rejecting reforms to church rituals. They still speak Russian and practise the old Orthodox rituals in prayer houses. A museum exploring their history and culture has just reopened after a three-year revamp, recreating the inside of old believers’ homes and giving a glimpse into usually closed religious services through VR headsets.

A fisherman on Lake Peipus in winter. Photograph: Isabel Choat

Herling and her husband are Estonian but have embraced the culture of their neighbours. Their bright green guesthouse, Mesi Tare (Honey House), is a traditional wooden old believer’s house with dorm rooms. They also offer overnight stays in tiny houseboats on the lake.

This obscure-but-fascinating enclave of eastern Europe is about to get its moment in the spotlight as one of the European capitals of culture 2024. Encompassing the city of Tartu and the surrounding region, the year-long festival is themed on the arts of survival, and will feature 1,000-plus events celebrating the Estonian way of life: its love of folklore and nature, its resilience and entrepreneurial spirit, its culture and history.

The exhibition “washing machine made of beetroot” – a phrase referencing the ingenuity and resourcefulness of people forced to make do with very little under Soviet rule – is a collaboration between three museums and a roving repair workshop, and designed to serve as an inspiration for ways to tackle today’s overconsumption. It seems to encapsulate not just the festival but Estonia: acknowledging the past but looking to the future and ways of living sustainably.

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Perch fish soup being prepared by the side of Lake Peipus. Photograph: Isabel Choat

A mass kissing event in Tartu town square is one of the more surprising events in a country known for its reserve: the joke during Covid was that Estonians were looking forward to getting back to their usual five-metre social distancing rule. It will be a poignant moment in the year that gay marriage was legalised, says Jaan Ulst, a capital of culture curator: “It’s to celebrate different ages and different genders, to share love.”

Home to one of the oldest universities in the Baltics and an art school, Tartu has a large student population and a youthful spirit. Thanks to the annual Stencibility festival the city is decorated with hundreds of murals. As with most street art they are often political or satirical, but they also pay homage to local figures, such as shop owner Ms Reet, and celebrate Estonia’s love of forests. The fact that the “Estonian Banksy”, Edward von Lõngus (a pseudonym), is based in Tartu is testament to its reputation as a serious street art destination. If you don’t spot his work in Tartu, you can find it on permanent display at the new Pop-Co museum in Tallinn.

Tartu’s urban art is one draw. Its elegant, neoclassical old town, the Emajõgi River, the historic wooden houses of Supilinn (soup town) and its parks make this a walkable city – or rideable, if you pick up one of the 500 electric bikes. One of the newest additions is Hotel Lydia, which opened last year. Overlooking the salmon-pink town hall, the 70-room hotel has a spa and restaurant, Holm. Here, as at almost every other restaurant we ate in, an open kitchen allows diners to watch chefs painstakingly decorate dishes, and waiting staff give lengthy explanations of what you’re about to eat; it’s a little over the top – but the food is undeniably good. A main of duck with foie gras and pistachios, and a pudding of creamy yuzu mousse with sour cream ice-cream were highlights.

Street art in Tartu. Photograph: Hilda Weges/Alamy

Back in Tallinn, we ate at Lore Bistro, in a former submarine factory in Noblessner harbour, once a shipyard and now one of the city’s hip quarters. Sitting next to an open fire, we worked our way through the €56 tasting menu: starters of scallops with lemon butter; feta cheese with yellow beetroot and a beef tartare with sesame cream and hazelnuts; mains of sea bass with pumpkin and beef medallions with dauphinoise potatoes. The restaurant on the sixth floor of the Fotografiska gallery in another former industrial zone turned hip hangout – Telliskivi – was also memorable. Awarded a green star for its sustainable credentials, it grows its own vegetables, gathers honey from its own hives and recycles and repurposes where possible, including turning broken plates into a feature.

Several people told me I should come back to Estonia in summer when people spill out of cafes and bars and music and street food stalls fill its creative districts. However, winter has its own quiet beauty. There’s a filmic quality to the drive east of Tallinn: a long straight road across a flat, empty white landscape. We spend the day at Small Lapland, an activity hub run by Marilin and her business partner Sirli. It is based in an old farmhouse in a protected forest and the only place in Estonia to offer husky sledding through the forest with a team of excitable, cuddly Alaskan malamutes. We also strapped on snow shoes to walk across frozen bogs, where delicate reeds poked out of the snow.

Sledding with Small Lapland in the Põhja-Kõrvemaa nature reserve in Estonia.

Nearby Aegviidu, the “capital of hiking”, is where all five of the country’s long-distance walking trails cross each other; it’s popular with Estonians, for whom being in nature is, well, second nature, but is little known by international visitors.

That may well change thanks to growing interest from holidaymakers in search of cooler climes and nature tourism, plus travel companies like the newly launched Sustainable Journeys, which is keen to offer alternative destinations. Estonians too are eager to share their way of life: this summer Small Lapland will be offering walking and yoga tours, as well as “soul camps” to “ignite the spirit”.

Soon the ice will disappear, and spring will bring not just green shoots but a sense that Estonia is about to emerge from the tourism shadows into the light.

The trip was provided by Visit Estonia. Hotel Nunne, Tallinn, has doubles from €125 B&B and Hotel Lydia, Tartu, has doubles from €138 B&B