Regis St. Louis in Estonia travel blog

After a few days of traveling from Tartu across the southeast of Estonia we reached Setumaa, where the culturally and historically distinct Setu people reside. The Setus are a small and dwindling community numbering only 4000 in Estonia. Sadly, today, whole communities and even extended families are split in half by the very restrictive Russian border -- beyond which another 3000 Setus reside, just a few kilometers from the areas we visited in Estonia.

You can still see this very clear divide in the tiny village of Podmotsa. The road ends at a small estuary of Lake Peipsi, and across the water looms an imposing Russian border tower, with the gleaming spires of an Orthodox church off in the distance. We drove to Podmotsa to see the border, stopping at an old sanitorium en route (not a recommended place to stay, unless you enjoy the ambience of a hospital).

From there, we explored other villages in Setumaa. In addition to distinctions like the language (quite different from Estonian), the old farmhouses are fascinating and their layout (closer together, often facing one another) is one indication of the strong community network that exists here. The Setus are also Orthodox rather than Lutheran like the rest of Estonia. This religion was adopted slowly, and even today old Setu folklore is still an intrinsic part of the culture.

The Setu are a bit wary of outsiders (both Estonians and foreigners), which is not surprising given their marginalized status over the years. Still there are some places where you can tap into Setu culture. This is most easily done in the villages of Obnitsa and Varska, which have museums housing information on Setu history and culture. At the Farm Museum in Varska, the hosts there can tell you about Peko, the most important deity to the Setus. He is the god of fertility and good harvests, and a carved wooden sculpture of him resides next to the stables. Here is also the place to see displays of the traditional wear of different Setu villages. Colorful woven dresses, scarves, socks and hats each bear a design unique to the village they come from. Setu cuisine is on hand at the old wooden building next door to the museum -- good, simple fare made with fresh ingredients.

We explored the rest of Setumaa, then headed southwest, where rolling hills, rivers and thick forests cover the landscape. At Rouge we stopped for a swim in Surjarv, Estonia's deepest lake. According to one old man we met at a cafe in the village, this lake had powerful healing properties, and it was known to make women pregnant among other things (the old man's granddaughter translated for us -- somewhat reluctantly at times). Others believe that witches come to bathe here.

Janipaev was now rapidly approaching -- the next day would be the big celebration. Although we were far from the islands, and would have to backtrack to cover the areas we missed for the book, we decided to accept an invitation from a friend we'd met earlier in Tallinn, and join the group celebrating the Midsummer night in Hiiumaa, the second largest island off Estonia's west coast. The laid-back islands were a favored destination for Janipaev (more on this in the next blog), and we were excited to celebrate it most traditionally. So, we bought our food for the day -- including a few kilos of the delicious locally grown strawberries available in Rouge -- and began the long drive (by Estonian time, really only 4 hours) up to Rohukala, from which a ferry would take us to Hiiumaa.

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