A Birthday in Toila, Estonia: cycling, saunas and spruce forests

When you turn 23, you party until the moon becomes a sun, and drink enough beer to single-handedly keep AB-Inbev’s business figures up. It’s the celebration of your life and all your friends are invited! Then, seemingly the next day, you turn 33 and you feel weary, beat, exhausted. You’d love to go to the bar, but how about getting rid of that sleep deprivation? You need a good soak in a jacuzzi and a decent night of sleep. That’s the story of life, dear friends. One day, you’re young and the night is endless, the next you’re contemplating the value of different supermarket loyalty cards. One day, your hobbies include sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll. The next, you like birdwatching and spa visits, and consider fleece blankets the best thing since sliced bread.

Fat City

That is why we board a train to Jõhvi on my birthday. I might be getting old, but I’ll be damned if I’ll let life lull me to sleep. Trains in Estonia look like carrots, but they’re comfortable, fast and have free wifi. We sit opposite a guy in khaki camouflage colours who’s slurping coffee. He leaves the train in Tapa, which translates as Kill. Tapa is the home of a large military base. I think it’s brilliant that the Estonian army is based in Kill. More enterprises should be that transparent. Think about McDonald’s opening its HQ in a place called Fat City, Obesity or Diabetes, Facebook in Fuck Your Privacy, or the Belgian train company NMBS in Always Late. It would so much fun!

Anyway, there’s a reason why I’m mentioning that soldier with his coffee on the train. By the time we arrive in Jõhvi, we’re dying for a coffee. Alas, Jõhvi, like most other mid-sized Estonian cities, is deprived of many facilities. At least if you’re not looking for a mall, because, like most other mid-sized Estonian cities, Jõhvi has malls a-plenty. All the cafés are closed. Good thing we’re not in a hurry, so we idle away until the bar of Wironia Hotell opens its door.

We step inside and wait in line behind two middle-aged ladies who discuss loudly which cake they should have with their alcoholic cocktails. It’s ten in the morning on a weekday. I order a piece of cake with cranberries. After all, we’re in Jõhvi. Cranberry translates into Estonian as jõhvikas. Even though the two have no real connection, I like the logic behind ordering jõhvikakook in Jõhvi. It makes almost as much sense as building an army camp in Kill.

Vodka drama

According to some Estonians, Jõhvi is the “real” border of Estonia. Everything that lies east of Jõhvi is predominantly Russian-speaking. In fact, Jõhvi is too, with two-thirds of the town ethnic Russians. We stand in line for the ATM between Estonian Russians and buy a raincoat in a kiosk from a Russian. It’s not weird – by now, I’m used to life in Lasnamäe. In one of Tallinn’s most Russian neighbourhoods, you can witness a marital drama over a bottle of vodka any time of the day.

Jõhvi’s only landmarks worth mentioning are the concert hall from glass – which spearheads the attempts to re-establish something of an Estonian identity in this town – and two churches, one orthodox and one Lutheran. The latter, the Jõhvi Church of St. Michael, witnessed the execution of two vicars, in 1918 and in 1941, which, according to Bradt’s Estonia guidebook, gives it “the macabre distinction of being the only church in Estonia with two martyrs.”

Jõhvi Church of St. Michael.
One church, two martyrs.

Estonia, the Anti-America

We jump onto our bicycles, leave Jõhvi northwards, direction Toila, and cross the pühajõgi, the Holy River, which is more like a creek than anything Grand, Big or Larger Than Life.

I like that about Estonia, that everything is on a human scale. The country doesn’t try to be more impressive than it actually is. It’s the anti-America. Even its highest mountain is nothing more than a molehill with pretension. It’s called Big Egg Mountain, for fuck’s sake, hardly a name that strikes fear into the hearts of mountaineers. In Estonia, even your grandmother can summit the 20 highest peaks of the country in one day. To make it more challenging, Estonians make that hike on Christmas Day. Possibly they do so while still drunk from the previous day’s celebrations, as that seems to be a thing with the people from this wondrous country.

Anete cycles near Kotinuka, Estonia.

We turn right after the Holy River, cycle past a lonely wild strawberry picker and through the spruce forests. We encounter two cars before we reach Kotinuka. As soon as we leave the village and its 40 inhabitants behind, the road turns dusty and we’re on our own.

Winter swimming in summer

Famous for its spa, Toila always attracted a lot of wealthy Russians and Baltic Germans. We’re staying in Voka, on the other side of Oru Park, in a lovely cabin with access to a swimming pond. Which is all we need after marinating for a couple of hours in the Estonian summer sun – yes, climate change is real! It’s not our only swimming option. Toila has a pebble beach which – I can attest to – is a great place for winter swimmers, even in summer. Not for the faint of heart!

Pebble beach in Toila, Estonia.

Oru Park once held a castle, built by a certain Grigory Yeliseyev, a rich merchant from Saint Petersburg who made his fortune with a shop on Nevsky Prospekt. Now, I’m not sure if Russia has its own version of Monopoly. But if it has, Nevsky Prospekt is probably the most expensive street on the board. So yeah, Yeliseyev had the dough to construct a fabulous palace in Italian renaissance style in Estonia and he even had the money to swap Toila for Paris when the net was closing in on rich bastards like himself. A few Estonian industrials bought the property in 1934 and gifted it to the young Estonian state. The palace in Toila served as a holiday house for Konstantin Päts, the first Estonian president.

Coffee with a view

Nowadays, there is no palace to be found in Toila. The Red Army, retreating from advancing German forces, burned it to the ground in 1941. By that time, Päts was already dwindling away in a psychiatric institution somewhere in Siberia, where he kept insisting that he was the president of Estonia. A sad end, both for the castle as well as for Päts. Luckily, the garden has regained its former glory, with fountains, flower beds, tree-lined avenues and little trails that meander through the scenery. On a cliff, we find Päts’ little coffee pavilion. The president constructed a rock garden on the slopes, the biggest of its time. The pavilion overlooks the Baltic sea and the sunrise. We can see all the way to Sillamäe. Not a bad place to have a cup of coffee! I start to understand why Päts spent his free time in this slice of paradise.

O, by the way: forgot what I said about the pühajõgi, the Holy River, not being grand. In Toila’s Oru Park, it cuts the landscape in half. Which allows for hilly views uncharacteristic of this part of Estonia. To reach Toila, we have to zip down the hill on our bicycles and, err, toil our way up again. It’s a good thing that the spa awaits on the other side. After soaking in various baths and saunas for a couple of hours, we blissfully swoop down the hill again, accompanied by the most glorious of sunsets. Which idiot said Estonia couldn’t be grand?