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Discovering the Baltic Islands

200904-a-baltic-islands

Photo: Blasius Erlinger

At the outskirts of Ventspils, gray Soviet-era housing blocks rose from the fields. One of them, an unfinished skeleton, looked almost archaeological, a ruin from the previous empire. We drove past little houses, each with a fastidiously tended garden out front. They made the town seem house-proud and tidy. Ventspils is an ice-free port where Russian oil and minerals are loaded onto ships. It is bisected by the Venta River, over which rises an elevated bridge that swept us up and then gently deposited us in the center of the sleepy old port town. Our room that night, in the Hotel Vilnis, was modest and clean. Only the convention of attack-dog trainers, whose dogs were barking in cages outside the lobby, made the visit the slightest bit unsettling.

The next morning we woke very early and drove to the ferry to cross over to the Estonian island of Saaremaa. As we set off, I noticed a line of tankers running parallel to our course, sailing along the horizon in a way that made the world seem flat. A vague fantasy of the naval maneuvers on the Baltic—both those of the 15th century, when the Swedes fought the Russians for control of the region, and those of the 20th century, when the Germans battled the Soviets—emanated from that line of ships and stayed with me until we landed on Saaremaa. Under Soviet rule, the island and its smaller neighbor, Muhu, were part of the “border zone.” No one—not even Estonians—could travel to the area without a visa, and even since becoming part of the EU, the islands have seen few visitors and little in the way of economic development.

On Muhu’s southern shore, we located Pädaste Manor, a series of low stone houses and a main house arranged around a beautiful quad. Thick old trees sway high above the lawn, which is intersected by paths that lead to a gate and a long, thin strait of water to the Baltic. We dropped off our bags at our attractive duplex room and rushed to the Sea House restaurant to eat. It was nearly three in the afternoon, and we had the place to ourselves. The stone walls felt so heavy and protective that each small window seemed like its own miniature Dutch Renaissance painting, capturing landscapes of iridescent green grass, pale light, and calm if slightly ominous water in the distance.

I wanted to get into the carnivorous, hunter-gatherer vibe of the place as much as possible and, not being able to decide between the roasted and dried ostrich and the moose carpaccio, I chose the “Muhu antipasti,” which had them both, along with smoked eel and something called “dried roach.” (The roach, I was relieved to discover, is a small fish found in the rivers and creeks of western Estonia.) The moose carpaccio was fantastic, like pork but smokier and gamier. Elizabeth had the squab. The Nugget had Elizabeth. Sated, I left the two of them in the room for a nap and headed out past the gate. There, amid the tall grass, I found a helipad, and beyond that a dock at the foot of the long, bowling alley–like lane of water stretching out to the sea. The sun was setting now, though the sky had a couple of more hours of daylight left in it. I lay down on the pier and looked up at the sky, and then sat up to take in the stillness of it all, the distant shore dark with trees, the streaks of pink light playing on the water.

The next morning I met Martin Breuer, the Dutch-born proprietor of the manor, who told me about the island’s history. Muhu has only been accessible since 1992. “There was never any Sovietization, no shipping in workers from Russia, and so tradition and culture survived much better here than in other parts of Estonia,” he said. Built by German aristocrats in the 19th century, Pädaste, he explained, was one of the few manor houses in Estonia that had not been built over by the state during the Soviet era. “Most of them now have corn silos, or ugly apartment blocks.”

Breuer came to look at the place in 1993 and, after purchasing it three years later, has rarely left. Estonia then had a kind of innocence, he said. “In ’93 you’d come to a bar, there were three bottles of hard liquor and four bartenders. And everyone sat together and sang songs. Now there is so much energy. You feel a people building their country.” One of the virtues of Pädaste is that you can project yourself into a fantasy in which it is your own ancestral manor.

On the last morning there, I had my hay treatment. The Baltic States have retained the old-world idea that holidays should be more than just fun—they should be restorative, curative—as though the Baltic itself were a kind of aquatic version of the Magic Mountain. For a moment, the line separating the height of luxury and medieval punishment seemed very thin. I was wrapped in a giant gauzy tea bag packed with hay and told by the young woman attending to me to lie down on a plank suspended over a wooden vat of warm water. With the press of a button, the plank beneath me miraculously folded itself into a kind of easy chair and I was lowered into the vat and left to steep.

The rich, grassy aroma of the hay began to percolate into my nostrils. The whole thing combined a kind of return to the womb and a return to the manger—thus appealing to fantasies both Freudian and biblical, along with the as-yet-uncategorized desire to be wrapped in a tea bag and dunked in hot water. When it was over I was led to my goat-milk massage by a young woman with platinum hair and multiple piercings.

I didn’t want to break the mood too much, but I couldn’t help asking, “Is this special hay?”

“No,” she replied. “It’s just hay.”

“The brochure implies there is some special property in Estonian hay.”

“Well, the hay is from Estonia,” she said. “But I’m not sure what the special properties might be.”

“How do you get it?”

“We mow the lawn.”

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