Beyond Tallinn, people generally don’t know of other destinations to visit on a trip to Estonia. This is a pity as the country in the north of Europe has plenty in the way of attractions, including its second city Tartu or the seaside at Pärnu. But I think the country’s most overlooked and under-appreciated spot has to be its largest island, Saaremaa.
How is it possible that Estonia’s largest island is still a secret known to so few people? No idea! I’m generally reluctant to throw phrases like “Best Kept Secret” around but I honestly feel it applies here. Saaremaa is a fantastically diverse destination, possessing unique historical, culture and natural attractions that are bound to appeal to those who visit. My time there was far too short to fully cover all there is to see and do, but I will share here three of the big sights to see when visiting Saaremaa.
Before we get into the main sights of Saaremaa, I thought I’d share a little about the island itself. Saaremaa is Estonia’s largest of the country’s 2,222 islands and lies in the country’s west in the Baltic Sea. Saaremaa Island is roughly similar to the area of Rhode Island and home to approximately 30,000 people. Much of Saaremaa’s history mirrors that of mainland Estonia, except that after WWII it was basically isolated, almost cutting it off from the mainland between 1946 and 1989. It may be this restriction that has meant the island is behind the rest of the country in terms of tourists.
Although I had difficulty in telling, the people of Saaremaa are said to speak in their own distinct accent that even mainlanders can struggle to understand. The island is well known for its dairy products, but also for the delicious and dense black bread that you can find throughout the country. I swear, this bread is so delicious that all you need is a little butter and you’re set. One evening, the free bread I was served with my meal almost eclipsed the main meal I had ordered. Now, enough raving about bread…
I don’t know if it’s just me, but the castle actually looks like the real life version of the one from Shrek.
Let’s start our look at the things to do in Saaremaa with its largest town, the impossibly quaint Kuressaare. Found on the island’s south coast, Kuressaare is most likely the place visitors will find themselves based. With almost half of the island’s population living here, it’s fair to say that the town is the hub of the island. Good news then that Kuressaare has an easy going charm to it. Throughout the town centre you’ll mostly come across old fashioned wooden houses and plenty of small boutique shops and cafes to while away your day.
If there’s a highlight of Kuressaare it has to be the town’s castle. Kuressaare Castle, once known as Arensburg Castle, is a large moated castle found by the sea shore. The castle cuts a very distinct star shaped figure on the map with its angular fortified walls surrounded by a deep moat. Outside the moat are also some very elegant manor buildings that are more recent additions and there are some spectacular views from the surrounding park. Unfortunately, I managed to delete ALL of my photos from Kuressaare so sadly the castle photos below are not my own.
The castle’s history is tied with that of Kuressaare itself, which is first mentioned in writing in 1154. It was during this time that the crusading Livonian Brothers of the Sword arrived on Saaremaa and settled. The castle was built sometime during the 13th and 14th centuries, originally of wood, aiding their efforts to spread Christianity to the locals. The castle as with the island of Saaremaa passed hands many times over the centuries between big regional players like the Danes, Swedes and Russians.
What makes Kuressaare Castle such an impressive sight today is it’s big square, almost monolithic keep. Not fancy at all, but if you were to draw a textbook basic castle, Kuressaare Castle wouldn’t be far off. I don’t know if it’s just me, but the castle actually looks like the real life version of the one from Shrek. The keep now hosts the Saaremaa Museum, but the grounds and fortifications are open to the public.
It was during my exploration of Kuressaare Castle that I came across the noise and people of the local Kuressaare Maritime Festival. Celebrating it’s 20th anniversary, this three day festival was a pretty big affair with everything from music performances, to food and antique markets. There were even some old wooden ships sailing around at one point a ship flying the Latvian Flag blasted its cannons without warning giving everyone a good scare. The festival runs during the middle of August and sees a swell in visitor numbers without losing its laid-back, seaside feel.
Kaali Meteorite Craters
It dawned on me that I was standing in the impact crater from a space rock on an island in the Baltic Sea, with it all to myself.
One of the coolest attractions I came across not only in Saaremaa, but all of Estonia was the Kaali Meteorite Craters. Across the span of 1 square kilometre in the centre of the island are 9 craters caused by the impact of a meteorite hitting the island. It is believed that when the meteorite hit the Earth, it weighed somewhere about 1000 tons, hitting the ground at 10-20km/second. Those insane figures aside, the meteorite is believed to have fallen over 4000 years ago. In what I thought was fascinating, the age of the meteorite was determined through a combination of scientific analysis and examination of folklore and sagas that actually feature the event.
The most visited of the Kaali Craters is the Main Crater found right by the town centre. A sight to behold, the main crater is 110 metres across and 22 metres deep. While it was mostly dried up when I visited, there is a lake at the bottom that can get as deep as 6 metres. Around the edge of the crater is a walking track to see the crater from various angles, but you’re also able to climb down in and admire it up close.
While being a physical phenomenon in it’s own right, the main crater also has significance as a historical and ecological site. During the late Bronze Age, a settlement was formed on the walls of the main crater and was later surrounded by a small wall when it was likely used as a place of important spirituality. As it happens, the crater is also important from an ecological standpoint as various types of local moss and flora have been discovered here.
After being wowed exploring the main Kaali Crater, I decided to see if I could search for the lesser craters spread out over the surrounding countryside. Once I had consulted the map at the main information area, I set off down a country road. I soon came across a farmer’s field with a small but conspicuous copse of trees in the middle of it. As it was in roughly the right area according to the map, I concluded it must have been the site of another crater.
Observing the farmer’s sign granting access to the property during the day, I headed into the field. Immediately I regretted my choice of shoes as my feet were quickly soaked by the dew and wet ground underneath. I followed the vague track and soon found myself in trees surrounding Crater 1. Considerably smaller than the main crater, Crater 1 made up for it with an almost magical atmosphere. It dawned on me that I was standing in the impact crater from a space rock on an island in the Baltic Sea, with it all to myself.
Once I’d had enough at Crater 1, I continued on around the countryside around Kaali and came across another crater, this time even smaller. It seems many of the craters are located in people’s farmland limiting their access. Still, getting to see 3 of the 9 was pretty fantastic.
While hunting the Meteorite Craters, I got to explore the countryside and actually came across a few eerie spots. First there was the seemingly derelict factory of some sort with crumbling sheds that looked like it had been that way since WWII. The truly creepy spot though was the abandoned manor house that I came across. As I stood in front of its unhinged gate, two unseen trees ground together making a squeaking noise that definitely startled me. I did dare walk through the gate into the grounds a little in order to get a few shots but man I was creeped out. Perfect location for a horror movie if your a film scout I reckon.
Windmills of Angla
Last of the sights of my visit to Saaremaa is the charming Windmills of Angla in the island’s north. It is here on Windmill Mount outside the tiny village of Angla that five historic windmills stand proud. While its characteristic windmill was once the symbol of the island, few remain today and Angla has the only remaining group on Saaremaa. Once, hills like Windmill Mount were common across the island and the locals harnessed this power to grind wheat and rye for bread making. There are mentions going back as far as the 16th century of 9 windmills found here at Windmill mount, making this both important to the history and culture of the island.
Of the windmills, 4 are of a traditional style local to Saaremaa Island, but the largest one is actually of a Dutch style. Built in 1927, this windmill differs from the local style due to its size, that it was more mechanised and also the fact that it was fixed in place. See, the local windmills of Saaremaa were actually able to be fully turned to face whatever direction the wind was blowing, whereas the Dutch mill had a turnable cap.
A visit to Windmill Mount includes a walk through the windmills, which are all able to be climbed into so you can see the inner working. Inside the Dutch Mill are several levels, with some information inside, but you can also walk around its outside upper deck as well. The site has a small restaurant and museum with information on the windmills and their place in the culture of Saaremaa Island. Entry costs 3.5€.
Buses from Kuressaare don’t run very frequently, so while I waited for the next one I darted off to the small village of Angla nearby. Angla is a simple farming village and extremely tiny, so it doesn’t take long to explore. What’s great is that you get to walk down a quiet country lane and admire the old, traditional farm houses that line it. Simple.
Information and Tips
- While Kuressaare is serviced with its own airport, the more likely means of getting there is by the ferry from Virtsu on the mainland. Bus connections that include the ferry ride are possible from Tallinn and Pärnu among others (Schedules here);
- Best means of getting around the island seems to definitely be by car. There is a bus network covering the island but the times are few and far between, with the schedules found at Kuressaare bus station;
- You’re likely to find most of the accommodation options in Kuressaare, but there are plenty to choose from. I’d happily recommend the comfortable and homely Muru Guesthouse where I stayed;
- There are plenty of dining options available to you when visiting Kuressaare. Personal recommendations would be Retro Kohrvik for the friendly staff (and the bread!) and Saaremaa Veski for the ambience of eating in an actual windmill;
Have you visited the Island of Saaremaa before? If not, where would you heard first? Please share in the comments below.
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