Bog Walking in Estonia
Spring is the best time to visit Estonia's prehistoric bogs, the Baltic state's best-kept secretsFeatured March 10 Words by Catherine Cooper
PHOTOS © SVEN ZACEK, JAANUS JARVA, LIINA GUITER, www.360.EE
I'd always thought Estonia sounded like a fascinating place with its ultra-long days in summer, extreme temperatures and near-constant night in winter. Its UNESCO-listed capital, Tallinn, is beautiful, but I wanted to venture off the beaten track to find out what the rest of the country was like. As more than 50% of Estonia is covered by forests and nearly a quarter of its land is swamp, it seemed like a rare and inviting place to do some walking.
There are around 7,000 peat bogs throughout the country, wetlands formed some 10,000 years ago from decomposed plant material. The two best places to visit are Lahemaa and Soomaa national parks. The latter, which translates as "land of bogs", is Estonia's newest and second largest reserve, with a network of interlacing rivers, bogs, forests, dunes and waterlogged meadows. The springtime floods, known as the "fifth season", can raise the water level by up to five metres, flooding everything in a 175km2 radius. For this reason, spring is considered the best time of year to experience this venerable landscape.
I'm visiting Lahemaa, the country's oldest and largest national park, spread across 72,500 hectares, and less than an hour's drive from Tallinn. "Estonia's bogs can feel almost spiritual because they are so quiet and still," says my guide Margit Hallmägi. "People have come here to escape the cities for centuries - the bogs are very calming." We start the trail along boardwalks - built in the 1990s to cross the watery terrain - setting out to explore Lahemaa's 235-hectare Viru Bog.
Before we enter, Margit lightly touches the two upright tree trunks that act as a gate, explaining that she is asking nature's permission to enter (likewise as we leave, to say thank you). "That way it won't rain on us," she tells me, and indeed at one point we're blessed with a small glimmer of sunshine, in spite of the cloudy day. Estonians are known for their strong connection to the land, which is why they have so many well-organised and established national parks. Margit tells me that they have been asking nature's permission for everything from entering a bog to picking berries since the Stone Age.
Despite the landscape's serene appearance, its history has dark undertones. "Over the years, local people have escaped to the bogs for sanctuary - everyone from women accused of being witches in the 17th century to Estonians trying to flee from foreign invaders," Margit tells me. "If you are not used to bogs, they can be scary and dangerous places. But of course, they are also very beautiful." Picturesque but dangerous, the bogs are deceptively unstable, so it is vital to stick to the paths and boardwalks unless you have an experienced guide.
In this unfamiliar landscape, it is virtually impossible to tell how deep the many pools are, or where the spongy ground might give way into a no-wayout quagmire.
The peat layer is typically around seven metres deep, but it can reach 17m in Vällämäe bog in the southeast of the country. I'm surprised to find my sturdy walking boots are not up to scratch. Even though we are hiking on boardwalks, the water can often creep over the top, so I'm given a pair of wellies to borrow. Many visitors are asked to don specially designed shoes with a webbing platform, similar to snow shoes, when venturing off the boardwalk. The platform stops the shoe from sinking into the soft peat, which means visitors can safely reach otherwise inaccessible areas. Though the flipside is that they can make people feel nauseous, springing along on the spongy terrain.
From the boardwalk, the park is incredibly still. There is no wind and while Lahemaa is home to an abundance of wildlife, including wild boar, beavers, European brown bears, moose, wolves, dozens of different species of birds, including owls and kingfishers, and lynx, nothing moves or makes a noise. "The animals are all nearby," Margit says, "but they hide away when people are close."
In spring, the bog is ablaze with colour - a patchwork of greens, browns and reds. In summer, wildflowers punctuate the landscape, and autumn brings cloudberry season, when the unusual berry is hunted out amongst the wetlands. Cloudberry picking can be a rather time-consuming task, as each bush yields just one berry, but the locals love to make them into jam or mix them into yoghurt.
In the centre of the Viru Bog (and many of the other large bogs in Estonia) there is a viewing tower. The peace and quiet and wide expanse of landscape that you can see from the top of the tower gives the distinct impression that, except for the boardwalks, probably little has changed since the bogs were formed thousands of years ago.
Estonia is a flat nation - its highest "peak" is just 318m - but despite this, it has some impressive waterfalls close to the bogs. Probably the best known is the crescent-shaped Jägala Falls (nicknamed the Niagara Falls of the Baltics) near to Lahemaa. By waterfall standards it is pretty small at just eight metres tall and up to 50m across - but all the more stunning for its out-of-place feel in a country of such level proportions. In spring it becomes a pounding torrent of water.
Bog walking is certainly not as challenging as hiking, but in terms of getting in touch with nature, it takes some beating. The scenery is striking: rare wildlife and a captivating landscape. You're transported back to a way of life that has remained unchanged for hundreds of years.
TAKE FIVE LOCAL HIGHLIGHTS
Five suspended walkways create a treetop trail through Otepää Adventure Park, a three-hour drive from Tallinn. Some parts are suitable for children too, and the whole course takes around two hours to complete. www.seikluspark.ee
Estonia is made up of more than 1,500 islands and has 3,700km of coastline. The best time for sailing is late spring and summer, when there are more daylight hours.www.sailing.ee
Matsalu National Park, two hours from Tallinn, hosts an estimated 50 million migrating birds each year as they fly over Estonia to summer habitats. The park is also home to an impressive 282 species of bird, 49 species of fish and 47 species of mammal. www.matsalu.ee
There are many wrecks off Estonia's coast - around 40,000 boats and ships are estimated to have sunk there. The most famous is MS Estonia, a cruise ship that sank in 1994, claiming 852 lives. www.nautic.ee
Estonia has few hills and many cycle lanes. The forest trail at Lahemaa National Park is popular with cyclists and in Tallinn there is a 7km coastal cycle trail from Kadriorg to Viimsi. www.bicycle.ee
WHERE TO STAY IN TALLINN
HOTEL ST BARBARA
Explore the highlights of Tallinn's UNESCO-listed Old Town from this affordable and contemporary three-star hotel. Doubles from €43, book at www.hotels.easyJet.com
VON STACKELBERG HOTEL
This charming four-star opens the door to Tallinn's past, with the convenience of modern amenities. Doubles from €65, book at www.hotels.easyJet.com
MERCHANTS HOUSE HOTEL
Make the most of this three-star's extensive facilities to relax and unwind after your bog-walking adventures. Doubles from €89, book at www.hotels.easyJet.com