With Indian summer approaching, we revisit Andrei Tuch's spring guided tour through the best of what many consider the "true Estonia."
Now that it’s mid-May and the motorists of Estonia finally have the confidence to put away their studded winter tires, it’s time for both locals and prospective visitors to remember that Estonia is more than just a sequence of castles, spas and scandalously affordable alcohol. There’s plenty to see out in the Estonian countryside, and plenty of very fun ways to get there.
Why head south? Because that’s where the best roads are. Nobody would fault you for going to an eco farm out on the islands for your holiday, or a bird-watching hike in the central and western swamps or a drive along the bluffs of the north coast. But for enthusiast drivers and riders, the rolling hills of South Estonia are by far the greatest attraction.
This is the home turf of the country’s most successful race car driver, Marko Märtin - it’s where the big international rally event is held every year. And here’s the best part: You don’t have to take the Tallinn-Tartu highway to get there.
Once known for one of the highest death tolls per kilometer anywhere in Europe, Route 2 has been made much safer with massive road-building investment and the addition of speed camera boxes. The latter are used by frequent travelers in a game of wallet chicken: fines are steep, but not every box contains a working camera and they rotate.
However, while it’s no longer so common to have a twenty-year-old BMW come screeching out at you in the opposite lane of a blind corner, it’s now a supremely boring two-plus-hour journey that is best enjoyed from the comfy seat of an express bus, complete with entertainment screens and coffee machines.
The classic and still best alternative is the so-called Piibe Maantee. Used years ago as a diversion for heavy trucks on weekends (to make highway traffic safe without actually having to spend money on road maintenance, a civic spirit which still lives on in Tallinn’s bus lanes), it is now mercifully free of traffic and only adds about 20 kilometers to your journey.
Route 13 branches off the Narva highway just past the Jägala waterfall, itself one of the best casual destinations around the capital, and heads southeast through a sequence of fields, forests and villages. Fans of the American school of motorsport will be tempted when the road opens up onto three kilometers of extra-wide, arrow-straight tarmac of a reserve air strip, but should restrain themselves: not only is this still a public road with oncoming traffic, but the local traffic police also know perfectly well what you’re thinking.
Instead, keep heading south to the half-way point and the village of Järva-Jaani, charming enough on its own but made especially attractive by the Old Machinery Refuge (Vanatehnika Varjupaik), a graveyard of fascinating vehicles ranging from military machines to fire trucks to cars for which you simply cannot get parts anymore. Some of the exhibits have been restored to at least ambulatory condition and the keepers might just give you a ride if you call ahead and ask nicely. But as it’s a volunteer effort, most of them are left in the same condition as when they arrived.
Following Route 39 south, you’ll soon get to Tabivere and the beach on Lake Saadjärv, a beloved summer destination within bicycling distance of Tartu and a good place for a dip to cool yourself off - especially if you’ve been wearing motorcycle gear ever since you got off the morning ferry from Helsinki.
Choose from any of Tartu’s fine restaurant options for lunch and rejoin Route 2 south of the city briefly. Just past Tartu’s tiny civilian airport, turn off towards Haaslava and join Route 141 to find the eminently impressive Aviation Museum with its ever-expanding collection of Cold War birds from both sides of the Iron Curtain.
Keep heading south and join Route 61 until you get to the border of Põlva county and the start of Route 15. It's called the Old Võru Road, but mostly known as Postitee - the old stage coach route. This is the mecca for Estonia’s drivers, some 40 kilometers of fast flowing corners over rolling hills. If you get spooked by one too many locals sliding over a crest, scraping knees or door mirrors, you can always turn off towards the beautiful nature reserve of Taevaskoja or continue to the Road Museum, the establishment behind the Tallinn’s Best Pothole competition that ERR News reported on earlier this year.
Postitee terminates in Võru, that town you probably only know from the Estonian Moments blog. Still have some road warrior spirit left in you? Then head south from the city towards Haanja and Suur Munamägi, Estonia’s highest point above sea level. The hill is an embarrassing 300-some meters on paper, but the view from the top of the observation tower on a clear day is excellent, stretching perhaps all the way into both Russia and Latvia.
From the village of Haanja, double back to the west on Route 148 - another nine kilometers of excellent twisting tarmac through rolling hills, terminating in Rõuge. Follow the signs to Ööbikuorg for an achingly pretty river gorge, complete with wooden wind generator tower (with the requisite “Funded by the EU” placards), an ostrich and reindeer farm, and a few examples of hydraulic rams - ingenious pumps that deliver fresh water up the hill using nothing more than the force of a modest stream.
Return to Võru and head north on Route 2, then turn west onto Route 69 towards the Nõiariik theme farm and children’s traffic learning center. Keep going past the church spire at Sangaste village and turn north just before you get back onto the main road (Route 3 from Tartu to Valga and Riga).
You’re looking for the village of Puka, from where you can finish up your road trip with a blast down Route 175 to Otepää, fifteen kilometers of some of South Estonia’s best driving roads. Of course, speeding is highly discouraged: before this stretch got re-surfaced with nice new tarmac, some of the tighter curves were adorned with signs nailed to surrounding trees, advertising the phone numbers of local residents who owned a tow truck.
You will end up on the shore of Lake Pühajärve, home to the Pühajärve Beach Party - a major summertime music festival (so time your trip accordingly). Just next door is Otepää, a prominent skiing destination in the winter and home to a number of comfortable hotels that probably offer great summer discounts in case your road trip has left you craving more comfort than a campsite provides.
From here it’s an easy drive back to Tartu, and you won’t have trouble finding the road to Riga. But perhaps a better idea is to get out your maps and find some more great South Estonian back roads to try out.
After your trip, be sure to report in the comments section below what other great bits of tarmac you come across.
Looking for suggestions or accommodation? The national tourism website, VisitEstonia.com, lets you set up a journey and see the available options along the way.
Andrei Tuch will be found on some of these roads this summer, but you can be sure he didn’t give away all of his secrets.