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Trip report: Setomaa and sandstone caves – A journey to the southeast of Estonia


Even for the experienced Estonian traveller, the southeast of Estonia has something surprising to offer. The “common” tourist may just make it from Tallinn to Tartu, the second largest (university) city in the country. But it gets really exciting only further south.

Since a trip to the southeast of Estonia from Tallinn cannot be done in one day, Tartu is a good starting point. In addition, this city is always worth a visit.

We start in the direction of Otepää, Estonia’s winter capital. Therefore we leave the main road a few kilometres south of Tartu, which has the pleasant side effect that we can slowly tune in to an area where terms like hectic and mass tourism seem to be completely unknown.

Estonian Switzerland and the Holy Lake

Otepää with its 2.500 inhabitants is situated in a hilly landscape covered by forests at the so-called Pühajärv, the holy lake. The landscape is one of the most beautiful spots in Estonia, and especially in summer, it radiates idyll and peace. The locals like to call the area around the town of Estonian Switzerland.

From Otepää we drive through Voru, one of these quiet little towns so typical for Estonia, to Suur Munamägi, the Great Egg Mountain, which at 318 metres is the highest elevation in the Baltic States.

I passed the parking lot at the foot of Munamägi three times, because after some good signs at the beginning, suddenly nothing points to the sightseeing anymore.

This “mountain” is not able to impress by its size, especially not a Central European who grew up in the Alps, as from the foot of the mountain to the “summit” it is less than ten minutes “walk”. But what makes one’s breath away is the view from the 40-metre-high observation tower, from where visitors can see all the way to Russia in clear weather.

They’re a dark green sea of forests spreads out, occasionally interrupted by idyllic villages and hamlets. But this view has to be deserved – the tower can only be climbed on foot.

Piusa Caves Visitor Centre, Estonia | Photo: J. Nilson

Back to Voru and from there eastwards, we arrive in the PiusaUrstromtal, an area that is hardly mentioned in travel guides, but has recently become more and more popular: The artificial sandstone caves created thereby sand mining are strikingly reminiscent of excavations in the Middle East. We are lucky, the sun is at the right angle and the inside of the cave really begins to “glow” – an incomparable experience.

Piusa is also the border to another fascinating region, Setomaa, the land of the Seto. This is a Finno-Ugric ethnic group, but unlike the Estonians, they have adopted the Orthodox faith and speak a dialect that is difficult to understand for the North Estonians. The peculiar, oversized breast jewellery of the Seto women is famous. The Seto was never subjected to serfdom, so there are no mansions and lords of the manor in this area.

Seto children in traditional costume

However, they had to pay a tax to the Petseri Monastery, which owned the properties, for the use of the land and Lake Peipus. The Seto live in an area that belongs half to Estonia and half to the Russian Federation.

This is not only a pity for tourists, as the fairy-tale monastery of Petseri, for example, cannot be visited spontaneously (Russian visa required), but above all tragic for the Seto, who are thus separated from their families on the other side.

The Culture of the Seto | Estonia Nomad Stories | World Nomads

There are two places to visit: Obinitsa with the Seto Museum and Värska because of its enchanting location on a river delta. If you enter the museum in Obinitsa, you will also find yourself in the living quarters of a typical Seto family from the 1920s and 1930s. The museum is tiny, but it is worth a visit to see the radiant face of the museum director, who warmly expresses her delight at the interest of the guests in her ethnic group.

Värska is particularly enchanting because of its location on Lake Peipus, but the sleepy village itself is also an idyll of a special kind. A Central European has to get used to this peace first, and the emergence of a certain melancholy cannot be denied.

And since we have already reached the shores of Lake Peipus, the fifth largest lake in Europe, we drive along the shore and indulge in the illusion that we have the sea before our eyes. But this requires a detour, as there are only lakeside roads on the northern shore.

Relaxing with your soul in the peace of nature

Not only the view of the huge lake and the many small orthodox churches in the coastal towns of Kallaste and Mustvee, but also the countless fishing villages with their numerous colourful wooden houses are a feast for the eyes and a balm for the soul.

After the fabulous impressions of this round trip, we find ourselves again in the lowlands of everyday life: After the drive from Mustvee to Rakvere, thus already on the expressway direction Tallinn, the traffic intensifies, and we quickly approach the capital. With 400.000 inhabitants, it could hardly be called a metropolis, but after this side trip to the southeast of Estonia, it couldn’t seem more metropolitan.

by Peter Sieberer

The Baltic Review
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