Wednesday morning, we met our fellow cyclists and boarded the Baltic Bike Tours charter bus to Lahemaa National Park (see those double vowels?).
Twelve of us are on the unguided tour, but we are traveling half the way with another group of about the same number who are on a guided tour. We will be on the same general daily plan until Riga, Latvia, where we will leave them; the rest of us, the unguided tour group, will be on our own after that with just a mini-bus and driver to transport our luggage from hotel to hotel. Here’s our route, part in the bus, part on bicycle:
Our first day out of Tallinn, we took the bus to Sagadi Mõis, the Sagadi Manor House, which would serve as our accomodation for the night.
Sagadi Manor is now owned and operated by the Estonian Forest Service as part of the National Park. It was built in the 1750s and belonged over the years to several Baltic German families. In the 20th century, the property functioned as a school. It was renovated in the 1980s when Estonia was part of the U.S.S.R.
Manor houses have a special place in Baltic history. Preceding WWI and going all the way back to the 13th century, the countries known today as Estonia and Latvia were, for the most part, a single entity known as Livonia, so named by the German Order of Teutonic Knights of Livonia who had conquered these lands during their northern crusades. These German crusaders brought with them the technology to build stone forts and manor houses from which they governed as feudal lords. By the end of the Middle Ages, there were over 500 such manors in Estonia alone. Though feudalism ultimately died out, the manor houses remained the focal points of local government and over time the descendants of the German knights became the local governing nobility. When the Russians conquered the region in the 1700s, this arrangement was formalized by treaty, leading to the further construction and improvement of manor houses throughout the countryside. These manor complexes were more like business and administrative centers for the local population, than residences of the reigning nobility. In appearance and function they were more like a minor palaces than plantations.
This system reached its zenith just prior to the outbreak of WWI, at which time there were about 1,245 manor houses in Estonia alone. But with the end of the Great War, the dissolution of the Russian Empire, and the outbreak of the Russian Revolution, Livonia gained its (brief) independence, forming the sovereign nations of Estonia and Latvia. The Estonian peasantry, however, was finished with the German knights lording over them, so all the manor estates were confiscated by the new Estonian government and carved up and given to the peasants, although some, like Sagadi Manor, were preserved in part to function as public buildings and schools. During Estonia’s Soviet era, most of the manor houses were left to decay or were simply destroyed.
After checking in at Sagadi Manor, we made friends with Stuart and Belinda, a couple from Christchurch, New Zealand, and off the four of us pedaled through Lahemaa Forest.
Just before reaching the seashore, we stopped at a small park where we were invited by an older Estonian couple to join them kiiking. They still get a kick out of mixing it up with the foreigners!
Kiiking – traditionally, swinging back and forth on a special wooden swing – has become an extreme sport in Estonia where the swings have been adapted to be capable of making a complete 360° rotation. The record is making such a rotation on a swing with a 21-foot swing arm length!
We pedaled on and had lunch with Stuart and Belinda on the water…
…before completing our 30-mile biking loop back to Sagadi Manor and the courtyard behind our room, abuzz with starlings catching bugs in the evening light:
Before calling it a day, we walked around the grounds and came upon one of the “people’s cars” of the Soviet Union, the Ukranian-built Zaporozhets lovingly known as the mylnitsa (“soap-box”). Like the German Volkswagen “beetle,” the “soap-box” had an air-cooled, rear engine.
It reminded me of the car I had in law school of the same vintage, my 1968 BMW 1602.