Trip report - Estonia and north east Finland plus Saint Petersburg, Russia

31st May 2016
Dates: 9th to 31st May 2016

Destination: Estonia and north east Finland plus Saint Petersburg, Russia

Purpose of trip:

The purpose of my trip was to visit Estonia and north east Finland for wildlife watching with a brief extended city tour to Saint Petersburg in Russia.

I had previously planned but aborted trips to Estonia in May 2011 and May 2014 for personal reasons but my third attempt finally resulted in a visit to this country.

This trip to Finland was my fifth after first visiting the country in the late 1970s .... when I was young! This first visit was part of a 3 week Interrail backpacking trip around Europe. Much more recently, I undertook combined Finland and Norway wildlife watching trips in May/June 2009 and April 2010, the latter requiring a lengthy land and sea return journey through Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Belgium and France due to the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland! I visited Finland again, albeit a very brief cross-border foray from north Norway, hunting the Northern Lights, in March 2012.

Saint Petersburg in Russia is approximately 225 miles from Tallinn in Estonia and 245 miles from Helsinki in Finland which seemed just too close to ignore the potential for a city tour from one of these locations. As it turned out, my point of departure for Saint Petersburg was Kouvola in Finland which is about 175 miles away.

Estonia – background:



This area of the Baltic lands has been populated since approximately 2500 BC and due to its strategic location as a link between East and West it has been highly coveted through the ages.

After centuries of successive Teutonic, Danish and Swedish rule, Estonians experienced a “national awakening” that finally culminated in independence from the Russian Empire towards the end of World War 1 on 24th February 1918.

During World War 2 Estonia was occupied by the Soviet Union in 1940, then Nazi Germany a year later and again by the Soviet Union in 1944 when the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic was established.

On 16th November 1988, the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic issued the Estonian Sovereignty Declaration in defiance of the Soviet Union. The declaration asserted Estonia's sovereignty and the supremacy of the Estonian laws over the laws of the Soviet Union. Estonia's parliament also laid claim to the republic's natural resources including land, inland waters, forests and mineral deposits and to the means of industrial production, agriculture, construction, state banks, transportation, municipal services, etc. within the territory of Estonia's borders.

Estonia restored its independence on the night of 20th August 1991 following a non-violent revolution during a period of instability arising from the 1991 attempted coup within the Soviet Union. This non-violent revolution included the remarkable Baltic Way or Baltic Chain and the Singing Revolution.



Photo: commemoration of the Baltic Way in Tallinn

When the last Russian troops left in 1994, Estonia moved to promote economic and political ties with western Europe and it joined the European Union on 1st May 2004. It is now one of the more prosperous former communist states, enjoying a high-tech environment, an open and liberal economy and a transparent system of democratic parliamentary government. However, it is faced with a fairly low but growing GDP per capita (in a European Union context) and a very low birth rate which is creating a slight population decline. Between 1991 and 2007, Estonia saw rapid economic expansion, leading it to be among one of the wealthiest and the most developed of the former Soviet Union republics. However, its economy was badly damaged during the 2008 global recession although more recently it has been recovering quickly.

Estonia is a Baltic gem, a small dynamic country with a population of less than 1.5 million at a density of less than 12 per square mile located on the eastern coast of the Baltic Sea in north east Europe. It is bordered to the north by the Gulf of Finland, the easternmost arm of the Baltic Sea which extends between Finland (to the north) and Estonia (to the south) all the way to Saint Petersburg in Russia. It is bordered to the west by the Baltic Sea itself and to the east by Russia.

The area of the country is only 17450 square miles, stretching around 220 miles from east to west and around 150 miles from north to south. The average altitude is only 165 feet above sea level whilst the highest point (Suur-Munamagi in south east Estonia) rises to just 1043 feet above sea level.

Even though part of the modern world, Estonians have always enjoyed a close affinity with the natural world, a relationship which is evident in the traditions, cultures and language passed from one generation to the next. This respect for the elements of nature and adaptation to living in a climate of seasonal extremes has given Estonians a unique perspective on the natural world and an enlightened attitude to conservation. Around 18% of Estonia is afforded protection through the West Estonian Archipelago Biosphere Reserve, 5 National Parks (Lahemaa, Karula, Soomaa, Vilsandi and Matsalu) and numerous Nature Reserves, Landscape Reserves and other protected areas.

Despite being such a small country, Estonia’s landscapes are very varied and probably unique in Europe. It is a place where sea meets land and where marshes, fens and bogs alternate with forests, meadows, rivers and lakes.

In Estonia there are over 7000 rivers and streams, around 1500 lakes forming 5% of the country and including Lake Peipsi (1390 square miles) the fifth largest lake in Europe, and nearly 1000 maritime islands forming 10% of the country including the largest ones of Saaremaa (1045 square miles) and Hiiumaa (385 square miles).

Estonia is both a wooded and swampy country with around 60% of the country covered with forests (compared with 12% in the UK) and 20% with marshes, fens and bogs.

Estonian forests are renowned in Europe for their healthy populations of mammals including 700 to 800 Lynx, over 150 Wolves, 500 to 600 Brown Bears and around 20000 Beavers. In addition, Estonia has populations of several European rarities including European Mink and Siberian Flying Squirrel.

With regard to birds, the Estonia coast and wetlands are important wintering areas for huge numbers of sea duck and geese whilst the forests hold an extraordinary richness of species including many species of woodpeckers and owls. The country is also one of Europe’s most dramatic migration locations for its amazing spring and autumn passage of birds including wildfowl, waders and passerines.

Estonia – primary target areas:



Map: Estonia regions

I undertook an anti-clockwise route around Estonia from Tallinn, the capital city and my arrival point in the country. The primary target areas for wildlife watching during my trip were:

North Estonia:

Tallinn area - Paljassaare Special Conservation Area: The Paljassaare Special Conservation Area was established in 2005 and it is generally recognised as being the best birding site within 30 miles of Tallinn. It is located about a 15 minute drive north of the city and covers the northern and western parts of the Paljassaare peninsula. There are 6 birding areas within the reserve but I concentrated on the route to and the area around the wooden birdwatching tower which overlooks a large reedbed and the southern lake. This was an ideal first opportunity for some Estonian birding having arrived at Tallinn airport at 5 p.m. and having driven to and checked in to my accommodation.

Lahemaa National Park: Lahemaa National Park was established in 1971 and was the first area to be designated as a National Park of the former Soviet Union. It is located about 40 miles east of Tallinn with the Gulf of Finland to the north and the Tallinn to Narva road to the south. It covers an area of 280 square miles including almost 100 square miles of sea and it is the largest National Park in Estonia. Forest covers around 70% of the Lahemaa National Park and much of the remainder includes raised bogs. The area is rich in flora and fauna including a population of Wolves, Brown Bears and Lynx.



Photo: "Beaver Trail" near Ouanda, Lahemaa National Park



Photo: "Beaver Trail" near Ouanda, Lahemaa National Park



Photo: Lahemaa National Park



Photo: Altja, Lahemaa National Park



Photo: Altja, Lahemaa National Park

West Estonia:

Nõva Recreation and Landscape Protection Area: The Nõva Recreation and Landscape Protection Area was established to protect the coastal landscapes, wildlife and plant communities. It covers vast bogs, forests, sand beaches and coastal dunes.



Photo: Nõva Recreation and Landscape Protection Area



Photo: Nõva Recreation and Landscape Protection Area

Põõsaspea peninsula: The Põõsaspea peninsula juts out in to the Gulf of Finland and is the most north-westerly point of mainland Estonia. It is a migration hotspot both in spring and autumn and in winter the sea holds huge numbers of wildfowl.



Photo: Põõsaspea neem

Silma Nature Reserve – Sutlepa meri: The Silma Nature Reserve covers nearly 20 square miles and it was established in order to protect the local waters, wetlands and meadows and their wildlife. It covers a vast expanse of lagoons, waterways, islets and coastal meadows with up to 24 percent of the area covered in reedbeds. It is considered to be the second most important area for birds in western Estonia, second only to Matsalu National Park, and ranks as a wetland of international importance. Sutlepa meri is located centrally within the Silma Nature Reserve and it is a wetland that was once a coastal lagoon but which today is set inland in a forested landscape. It is a mosaic area with open water, bogs and reedbeds.



Photo: Sutlepa meri

Matsalu National Park: Matsalu National Park is the most famous coastal wetland in Estonia. It was established in 1957 mainly to protect nesting, moulting and migratory birds and in 1976 it was included in the Ramsar List of Wetlands of International Importance. It covers a total area of 188 square miles and comprises Matsalu Bay, the Kasari river delta and surrounding areas. 87 square miles of the protected area is terrestrial and 101 square miles is aquatic. The varied habitats include open sea, grassy and rocky islets, sandy and stony shores, saltmarsh, reedbeds, flooded meadows, pastures, arable land, mixed woodland and birch copses. Matsalu Bay is shallow, brackish and rich in nutrients. It is 11.2 miles long and 3.7 miles wide but has an average depth of only 5 feet and a maximum depth of 11 feet. The shoreline length of the bay is about 102.5 miles. The bay's shoreline lacks high banks and is populated mostly with shingle shores with reedbeds in the innermost sheltered parts. Nearly 300 species of birds have been recorded, around 175 species have nested and around 35 are migratory wildfowl. Matsalu Bay is one of the most important wetland bird areas in Europe due to its prime position on the East Atlantic Flyway. Huge numbers of migratory ducks, geese and waders use Matsalu Bay as a staging area in spring and autumn. The Kasari river is the biggest of several rivers that run into Matsalu Bay and the alluvial meadow of the delta (15 square miles) is one of the biggest open wet meadows in Europe.



Photo: Haeska, Matsalu National Park



Photo: Puise, Matsalu National Park

Tuhu Soo: Tuhu Soo is an area of fen and peat bog dotted with stunted pines but unlike many similar places in Estonia it can be crossed by a minor gravel road and accessed via a circular boardwalk.

Puhtilaid peninsula: The Puhtilaid peninsula is less than a mile long and less than half a mile wide. It was originally an island in the Suur Väin Strait between the mainland and Muhu island but it is now linked to the mainland by a forested causeway. The area includes varied habitats of broadleaved woodland, mixed conifer-deciduous woodland, wooded meadows and scrub. At the end of the causeway the Puhtu Bird Field Station and observation tower overlooks the pebbly coastal ridges and the sea.

SaaremaaKübassaare peninsula and Sõrve peninsula: Saaremaa is the fourth largest island in the Baltic Sea and the largest island in Estonia, measuring over 1000 square miles. It is located in the Baltic Sea, south of the island of Hiiumaa, and it is included within the West Estonian Archipelago Biosphere Reserve. The island lies on a major migration flyway between Europe and the Arctic and huge numbers of birds appear in spring and autumn. The Kübassaare peninsula is one of the best birding sites combining both wetland and woodland habitats including grassy shores, meadows, mixed forests, reedbeds, lakes and coastal islets, inlets and bays. The Sõrve peninsula is situated at the southern tip of Saaremaa and is a well known seawatching and migration hotspot and the site of a bird observatory.



Photo: Saaremaa ferry at Virtsu



Photo: Saaremaa ferry terminal, Kuivastu, Muhu



Photo: Kübassaare peninsula, Saaremaa



Photo: Kübassaare peninsula, Saaremaa



Photo: Sõrve peninsula, Saaremaa



Photo: Sõrve peninsula, Saaremaa

Audru polder: The Audru polder is situated just west of Pärnu between the town of Audru and Pärnu Bay. It is an extensive area of nearly 8 square miles including wet meadows, pastures, grazing land and ponds which is usually flooded in spring when it provides a stopover for large numbers of wildfowl.



Photo: track through Audru polder with the polder to the left and Pärnu Bay to the right

Soomaa National Park: The Soomaa National Park (Soomaa means "land of bogs") is located about 20 miles east of Pärnu and it was established in 1993 to protect a wilderness of bogs, fens, wet mixed forests, wooded meadows and carrs. It is also included in the Ramsar List of Wetlands of International Importance. The territory of the National Park is mostly covered with large bogs, separated from each other by the tributaries of the Pärnu river, namely the Navesti, Halliste, Raudna and Lemmjõgi rivers. Every spring the Pärnu river and its tributaries flood and vast areas are inundated. The flood has been called the “fifth season” in Soomaa. Much of the Soomaa National Park is very difficult to access but it can be partially explored by a network of dusty gravel tracks and a minor road between Jõesuu and Kildu. The Soomaa National Park supports a wide range of breeding birds and the floods attract large numbers of migrating wildfowl and waders. As a large wilderness area, Soomaa National Park is also home to numerous species of large mammals including Brown Bear, Wolf, Lynx, Beaver, Elk and Wild Boar.



Photo: Raudna jõgi, Soomaa National Park



Photo: Tõramaa to Tipu, Soomaa National Park



Photo: Tõramaa, Soomaa National Park



Photo: Tõramaa, Soomaa National Park



Photo: Tõramaa to Kildu, Soomaa National Park



Photo: Soomaa National Park



Photo: Halliste jõgi, Soomaa National Park



Photo: Raudna jõgi, Soomaa National Park



Photo: Lemmjõgi, Soomaa National Park

Pikla: The disused fish farm ponds at Pikla are easily worked and there are a number of birdwatching observation towers and convenient dyke-top tracks overlooking the ponds, reedbeds and coastal meadows.

Häädemeeste: Häädemeeste is an area of coastal meadows, grazing marshes, shallow bays, sandflats and islets in the far south west of Estonia and close to the border with Latvia.

Nigula Nature Reserve: Nigula Nature Reserve is located in south west Estonia near Häädemeeste and it was established in 1957 to protect the Nigula Bog and its surrounding untouched swamp forests and managed forests. It is also included in the Ramsar List of Wetlands of International Importance. Nigula Nature Reserve is an important area for both migratory wildfowl and breeding wetland and forest birds and it is also home to numerous species of large mammals including Brown Bear, Wolf, Lynx, Beaver, Elk and Wild Boar.



Photo: Nigula Nature Reserve



Photo: Nigula Nature Reserve

South Estonia:

Valguta polder: Valguta polder is an area of wet meadows, pastures, grazing land and ponds to the west of Valguta and adjacent to the eastern shore of Võrtsjärv, the largest lake wholly within the boundaries of Estonia.

Aardla polder: Aardla polder is an area of wet meadows, pastures, grazing land and ponds just south of Tartu. Despite its inland location, these wetlands are almost as impressive as those on the coast. This site is well known for its breeding Citrine Wagtails, one of my target species for the trip.



Photo: Aardla polder



Photo: Aardla polder



Photo: Aardla polder

Ilmatsalu: Ilmatsalu is an area of fishponds, meadows and woods along the Ilmatsalu river just north west of Tartu.



Photo: Ilmatsalu



Photo: Ilmatsalu

Karavere slid: Karavere slid is a protected floodplain meadow by the Emajõgi river just north west of Tartu. This site is well known for its lekking Great Snipe, one of my target species for the trip.

Taevaskoja: Taevaskoja is part of the Ahja River Landscape Reserve situated about 20 miles south east of Tartu and is an area of old pine and deciduous forest, fast flowing rivers, rapids and craggy outcrops.



Photo: Taevaskoja



Photo: Taevaskoja



Photo: Taevaskoja



Photo: Taevaskoja

Alam Pedja Nature Reserve: The Alam-Pedja Nature Reserve is located in central Estonia north east of Lake Võrtsjärv and about 20 miles north west of Tartu and it was established in 1994 to protect a complex of bogs, fens, pools, rivers, floodplain meadows, copses and forests. It is also included in the Ramsar List of Wetlands of International Importance. The Alam-Pedja Nature Reserve is the largest nature reserve in Estonia and it is a vast wilderness area of over 130 square miles. The nature reserve is largely a wetland, including a complex of 5 large bogs and the floodplains of the large rivers (Emajõgi, Põltsamaa and Pedja). Wetlands cover 82% of the nature reserve's territory. Most of the forests are also wet and the alluvial broadleaved and old-growth forests are particularly valuable. As with many of eastern Europe’s wildest areas, the Alam-Pedja Nature Reserve owes its present state to having formerly being used as a Soviet Union training base and bombing range. Much of the Alam-Pedja Nature Reserve is very difficult to access but it can be partially explored via a minor road heading west from the main Tartu to Tallinn road. Nearly 200 bird species have been recorded in the Alam-Pedja Nature Reserve including around 160 which have bred. It is also an important stopover site for migrating wildfowl. As a large wilderness area, the Alam-Pedja Nature Reserve is also home to numerous species of large mammals including Brown Bear, Wolf, Lynx, Beaver, Elk and Wild Boar.

Endla Nature Reserve: The Endla Nature Reserve is located in central Estonia about 40 miles north west of Tartu and it was established in 1981 to protect a complex of bogs, fens, pools, lakes, rivers, reedbeds, meadows and wet and dry forests. It is also included in the Ramsar List of Wetlands of International Importance. The Endla Nature Reserve is a large wilderness area of over 31 square miles and much of it is very difficult to access but it can mainly be explored from the visitor centre at Tooma which is about 20 miles north west of Jõgeva.



Photo: Endla Nature Reserve



Photo: Endla Nature Reserve

Estonia – getting there and leaving:

I flew from London Gatwick to Tallinn with Easyjet on 9th May. The cost of the flight including baggage and taxes was £64.99. The schedule was as follows: depart 12:10 p.m. and arrive 5 p.m. (local time GMT+2). The flight departed and arrived on time and the clear weather provided for excellent views of the Dutch, Danish, Swedish and Baltic Sea coastlines as a distraction from 2 onboard medical incidents!

I left Tallinn for Helsinki in Finland via the Viking Line ferry on 22nd May. The cost of the ferry was £16.71. The schedule was as follows: depart 8 a.m. and arrive 10.40 a.m.



Photo: leaving Tallinn



Photo: leaving Tallinn



Map: Viking Line routes in the Baltic Sea



Photo: Viking XPRS ferry on Tallinn to Helsinki route courtesy of Viking Line website

Estonia – getting around:

At Tallinn airport, I rented a Toyota Yaris for 11 days from Alamo via ebookers.com booked in advance. The cost of car rental was £147.32 reduced by cashback to £134.95.

The car proved to be very reliable and economical returning around 55 mpg with petrol at an equivalent of around £0.79 per litre compared with £1.08 per litre in the UK.

During my trip, I drove 2599 km (1615 miles) and driving in Estonia proved to be a very enjoyable experience with exceptionally quiet traffic free roads in the majority of the country. The only heavy traffic that I encountered was in and around Tallinn, Parnu and Tartu and even this was much less than typically found around towns and cities in the UK.

Estonia – itinerary:

I travelled independently following thorough research and preparing an itinerary before leaving the UK.

9th May: outward flight to Tallinn > pick up rental car at Tallinn airport > Tallinn > Tallinn Bay and Paljassaare peninsula > Tallinn

10th May: Tallinn > Paldiski > Nova > Spithami > Dirhami > Poosapea peninsula > Sutlepa Meri > Haapsalu > Vonnu > Matsalu National Park (Pogari-Sassi and Puise) > Puise

11th May: Puise > Matsalu National Park (Pogari-Sassi, Haeska, Rannajoe, Kloostri, Penijoe and Keemu) > evening Beaver watching trip on Kasari river and delta from Penijoe > Haeska

12th May: Haeska > Matsalu National Park (Rannajoe) > Tuhu Soo > Puhtilaid peninsula > Virtsu to Kuivastu ferry (outward journey to Saaremaa island) > Kübassaare peninsula > Kuressaare

13th May: Kuressaare > Sõrve peninsula > Kuivastu to Virtsu ferry (return journey from Saaremaa island) > Patsalu > Kulli > Tõstamaa > Seliste > Lindi > Kabriste > Audru polder > Audru > Pärnu

14th May: Pärnu > Audru > Audru polder > Pärnu > Jõesuu > Riisa > Soomaa National Park (Toramaa and Kildu road) > Riisa

15th May: Riisa > Soomaa National Park (Kildu road and Toramaa) > Jõesuu > Sindi > Pikla > Häädemeeste

16th May: Häädemeeste > Nigula Nature Reserve > Killingi-Nomme > Karksi-Nuia > Tõrva > Rõngu > Valguta > Valguta polder > Valguta > Tartu > Ülenurme

17th May: Ülenurme > Aardla polder > Ilmatsalu> Karavere slid > Ülenurme

18th May: Ülenurme > Taevaskoja > Räpina > Mehikoorma (Lake Peipus) > Tartu > Ilmatsalu > Aardla polder > Ülenurme

19th May: Ülenurme > Alam Pedja Nature Reserve > Põltsamaa > Jõgeva > Endla Nature Reserve > Rakvere > Lahemaa National Park (Vergi > Valupea > Rutja > Kunda ) > Sagadi

20th May: Sagadi > Lahemaa National Park (Oandu > Altja > Pärispea peninsula) > Kaberneeme > Neeme > Tallinn > return rental car to Tallinn airport

21st May: Tallinn city

22nd May: Tallinn to Helsinki ferry > Finland section of trip

Estonia – accommodation:

Prior to my trip, I had pre-booked the following accommodation via booking.com, ebookers.com and venere.com. All of these booking sites provided cashback discounts of 4% to 15% off the prices indicated below.

9th May – Tallinn: Tähetorni Hotell – £31.60 for 1 night



Photo: Tähetorni Hotell, Tallinn

Tähetorni Hotell is located outside of the city of Tallinn which is probably not ideal for a visit to the city itself. However, I stayed here for 1 night on my arrival in Estonia and before starting my trip around the country and it therefore met my needs perfectly. The hotel was easy to find, welcoming and quiet. My only issues were that the spiral staircase (no lift) was slightly difficult to negotiate with heavy luggage and sloping ceilings over the beds in the room meant that I had to be mindful of not banging my head!

10th May – Puise: Puise Nina – £29.94 for 1 night



Photo: Puise Nina, Puise



Photo: aerial view of Puise Nina, Puise courtesy of Puise Nina website

Puise Nina is situated in a remote but easy to find location at the western extremity of the Matsalu National Park on a narrow headland jutting out in to the Baltic Sea. It is a wonderful place with fabulous views and abundant wildlife. The hosts were welcoming and friendly, my room was very clean and functional with an amazing view directly out to the Baltic Sea and the freshly cooked dinner and wide choice of food for breakfast in the associated Pub Kogre Kõrts were both excellent. Puise Nina is highly recommended especially for birdwatchers and it definitely won the “best accommodation for on-site birding” award during my trip with Barnacle Geese in the garden and huge numbers of sea ducks offshore. What more can you want but to set up your telescope just outside your room, pour a Saku and enjoy the spectacle?

11th May – Haeska: Haeska Manor – £31.49 for 1 night



Photo: Haeska Manor, Haeska

Haeska Manor is an old manor house located very close to the excellent Haeska birdwatching tower in the Matsalu National Park. It is very quiet other than the sound of singing Thrush Nightingales and the drumming of woodpeckers. The host was very welcoming and friendly and since I wanted an early start in the morning she prepared me a "takeaway breakfast" the night before. Haeska Manor is highly recommended for birdwatchers visiting Matsalu National Park.

12th May – Kuressaare: Arno Apartments – £19.20 for 1 night



Photo: Arno Apartments, Kuressaare

Arno Apartments are located in central Kuressaare, a small town on the island of Saaremaa and the westernmost town in Estonia, but nonetheless I found the accommodation to be very quiet. Arno Apartments provide excellent value for money and the accommodation (a very big lounge/bedroom, shower room and well equipped kitchen) is clean, comfortable and functional. I did not use the kitchen since the Saaremaa Veski (Saaremaa Windmill) restaurant is within easy walking distance and provided wonderful Estonian food and beer in a very unique setting.



Photo: Saaremaa Veski (Saaremaa Windmill) restaurant, Kuressaare courtesy of Saaremaa Veski (Saaremaa Windmill) restaurant website

13th May – Pärnu: Villa Wesset – £38.26 for 1 night



Photo: Hotel Villa Wesset, Pärnu

Hotel Villa Wesset is close to the centre of Pärnu and easy to find. Staff were very friendly and helpful. My room was small but nonetheless clean, comfortable and functional. Both the dinner and breakfast were excellent. My only issues were that parking on site was limited/difficult and there is no lift to the upper floors. There is plenty of choice of accommodation in Pärnu and, given these issues and the cost compared to other places that I stayed at in Estonia, I would probably look at other alternatives should I visit Pärnu again.

14th May – Riisa: Riisa Rantšo – £15.37 for 1 night



Photo: Riisa Rantso, Riisa

Riisa Rantso is located by the Halliste River in the middle of the wonderful Soomaa National Park with all its opportunities for wildlife watching. This includes the on-site pair of breeding White Storks! Riisa Rantso offers clean, comfortable but very basic rooms. This is not 5 star hotel accommodation by any means but the surrounding countryside location most certainly is. The price for a single person was exceptional value for money and the lowest that I paid on my trip around Estonia.

15th May – Häädemeeste: Lepanina Hotell – £42.28 for 1 night



Photo: Lepanina Hotell, Häädemeeste

The Lepanina Hotell was the most expensive accommodation that I stayed at in Estonia and I am not entirely convinced that the price reflects the quality, facilities, etc., at least compared with other places that I stayed at in Estonia. However, there were no other options available close to the Nigula Nature Reserve in the far south west of Estonia. The location of the Lepanina Hotell is amazing set amongst a forest and right on the Baltic Sea shore with sea views from the rooms. Reception and restaurant staff were very friendly and my room was large, clean and comfortable. Dinner was very good and breakfast constituted a wide range of options pre-ordered the night before. My main criticism is that a large and relatively expensive hotel had such an appalling wi-fi internet service. There was no reception in the room or restaurant and only a limited service in some corridor areas. That really is not good enough in a country that has such a widespread, excellent and free wi-fi service compared with the UK. If I visited this part of Estonia in the future, I would probably stay at the Lepanina Hotell again but only due to the fact there are no alternatives to consider.

16th to 18th May – Ülenurme: Seitsemaja Guesthouse – £68.91 for 3 nights



Photo: Seitsemaja Guesthouse, Ülenurme

Seitsemaja Guesthouse is very easy to find and is located in the quiet neighbourhood of Ülenurme just outside Tartu. It was a perfect location and base for me to visit Tartu itself plus the adjacent Aardla area and other wildlife sites in south east Estonia. Seitsemaja Guesthouse is a lovely house and beautifully furnished. The room that I stayed in was very clean with an extremely comfortable bed which I wanted to take with me when I left! The wi-fi connection was strong and reliable. Overall the accommodation provided excellent value for money. Lynn and Bob are fantastic hosts originating from northern England .... plus fellow Manchester United supporters, not that this has influenced my opinion! They are extremely welcoming and friendly and encourage guests to share their wonderful home. Furthermore, they set a very high bar for other providers to meet in terms of the quality of accommodation and customer service. Seitsemaja Guesthouse is highly recommended to anyone looking for accommodation in the Tartu area and it definitely won the “best overall accommodation” award during my trip. Thank you so much Bob and Lynn for your warm welcome and hospitality during my stay and the opportunity to talk to you and the other guest, Märt, about all things Estonia .... and football!

19th May – Sagadi: Haaviku – £33.84 for 1 night



Photo: Haaviku, Sagadi

Haaviku is located near Sagadi in the Lahemaa National Park and offers numerous opportunities for wildlife watching both on-site and in close proximity. The host Ülle contacted me in advance to check my time of arrival and was very welcoming and friendly when I did arrive. After showing me around, she kindly checked the opening/closing times for local pubs and restaurants. Haaviku is basically "camping without a tent". Accommodation is provided in small, cosy wooden cabins whilst there are communal shower and toilet facilities, a common kitchen and a camp barbecue/bonfire area. Haaviku is not 5 star hotel accommodation but the forest location most certainly is 5 star. I really enjoyed my stay here in this unique accommodation which is highly recommended. Thank you so much Ülle for your welcome and advice. Keep up your excellent work in providing a greener eco-friendly accommodation option!

My accommodation in Tallinn on 20th and 21st May is detailed in the cities section of this report (see below) along with that for Helsinki and Saint Petersburg.

Estonia – research and planning:

Prior to my trip, I had undertaken a significant amount of research and planning and therefore had a detailed itinerary which I largely kept to other than a few variations.

Estonia has been visited by birders for some years and as a result there are a number of Internet trip reports provided by others.

However, I found the following books to be invaluable in terms of both pre-planning my itinerary and as guides whilst travelling in Estonia:

“Lonely Planet: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania”: this book follows the usual Lonely Planet format and provides essential planning information, detailed information on a region by region basis plus a wide variety of other contextual information



“Finding birds in Estonia” by Dave Gosney available from Easybirder



The Gosney book, as with all his publications, is available with an accompanying DVD.

“Birding in Eastern Europe” by Gerald Gorman



I also used Michelin regional map 782 covering Estonia in addition to my trusty TomTom satnav.



Finland – background:



After centuries of Swedish and Russian rule, Finland finally became independent in December 1917 although it subsequently lost 12% of its territory, including much of Karelia and its second city Vyborg, to the Soviet Union during the Winter War of 1939 to 1940.

After World War 2, Finland lay in a grey zone between western Europe and the Soviet Union. The Finno-Soviet Pact of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance agreed in 1948 committed Finland to resist armed attacks by the West but also allowed it to stay neutral in the Cold War and avoid a Communist government or Warsaw Pact membership.

Despite this “Finlandization” and close relations with the Soviet Union, Finland managed to retain democratic elections and remained a western European market economy, built close ties with its Nordic neighbours and made a remarkable transformation from a farm/forest economy to a diversified modern industrial economy. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Finland joined the European Union in 1995.

Finland is a peninsula country with the Gulf of Finland to the south and the Gulf of Bothnia to the west and land borders with Sweden to the north west, Norway to the north and Russia to the east. Estonia is to the south across the Gulf of Finland.

Lying approximately between latitudes 60°N and 70°N and longitudes 20° E and 32°E, Finland is one of the world's northernmost countries. Of the world's capital cities, only Reykjavík in Iceland lies further north than Helsinki. The distance from the southernmost point in the country (Hanko) to the northernmost point in the country (Nuorgam) is 720 miles.

Finland's population is around 5.5 million with the majority concentrated in the southern region. In terms of area, Finland is the eighth largest country in Europe and the most sparsely populated country in the European Union.

Finland is a country of thousands of lakes and islands: about 188000 lakes and 179000 islands. Its largest lake, Saimaa, is the fourth largest in Europe. The area with the most lakes is called “Finnish Lakeland”. The greatest concentration of islands is found in the south west between continental Finland and the main island of Åland.

Much of the geography of Finland is explained by the Ice Age. The glaciers were thicker and lasted longer in Fennoscandia compared with the rest of Europe. Their eroding effects have left the Finnish landscape mostly flat with fewer hills and fewer mountains. Its highest point, the fell of Halti at 4344 feet, is found in the extreme north of Lapland at the border between Finland and Norway. The highest mountain whose peak is entirely in Finland is Ridnitsohkka at 4318 feet, directly adjacent to Halti.

The landscape of Finland is covered mostly by coniferous taiga forests and fens with little cultivated land. Of the total area, 10% is lakes, rivers and ponds and 72% forest (compared with 12% in the UK). The forest consists of pine, spruce, birch and other species. Finland is the largest producer of wood in Europe and amongst the largest in the world.

Wide-ranging and detailed environmental data and high levels of technological skill form the basis of Finland’s effective environmental protection policies. As one of the world’s wealthiest industrialised countries, Finland is also able to afford vital environmental investments. Low population density and comparatively unspoilt natural environment also facilitate nature conservation.

There are 38 National Parks in Finland managed by the Metsähallitus. They cover a total area of almost 3500 square miles or 2.7% of Finland's total land area.

In addition there are 19 Strict Nature Reserves in Finland. These are specific areas which have been established for the conservation of nature and scientific research. The regulations for the Strict Nature Reserves are much stricter than those for the National Parks and it is usually not permitted to travel inside these areas. The Strict Nature Reserves cover a total area of 590 square miles.

The Wilderness Areas of Finland are remote areas which are not strictly nature reserves. They were set up in 1991 to preserve their wilderness character, the Sami culture and their natural form of livelihood. There are 12 such areas, all of which are located in northern Lapland. The Wilderness Areas cover an area of 5750 square miles and they are managed by the Metsähallitus.

Finland has a diverse and extensive range of fauna. There are at least 60 native mammal species and around 250 breeding bird species.

Large and widely recognised mammals are the Brown Bear (the national animal), Wolf, Wolverine and Elk. The Saimaa Ringed Seal is among the most endangered seals in the world, having a total population of only about 320 individuals. The only existing population of these seals is found in the Saimaa lake system in south east Finland. The population is descended from Ringed Seals that were separated from the rest when the land rose after the last Ice Age. The Saimaa Ringed Seal has become the emblem of the Finnish Association for Nature Conservation.

As the easternmost country in Europe, Finland has many species of birds that are not easy to see elsewhere. In addition, the fact that Finland is located in the coniferous taiga forest zone means that there are good chances of seeing many of the northern forest species including many owl and woodpecker species, Pine Grosbeak, Parrot Crossbill, Lapland Bunting, Siberian Jay and Siberian Tit. Waders that nest on the bogs are also of interest since many of them are seen in other parts of Europe only in the course of their spring or autumn migration or in their winter plumage (e.g. Broad-billed Sandpiper, Red-necked Phalarope, Jack Snipe, Wood Sandpiper, Temminck's Stint and Ruff) whilst lakes and bogs also provide habitats for Crane and Whooper Swan (the national bird). Diurnal birds of prey include Gyrfalcon, Golden Eagle, White-tailed Eagle and Rough-legged Buzzard. Many birds of open habitats have become rarer in other parts of Europe but are still relatively common in Finland. Finland is also well known for its dramatic mass migration of wildfowl, waders and passerines to and from the Arctic in spring and autumn.

Finland – primary target areas:



Map: Finland regions

After lengthy visits to Finland in May/June 2009 and April 2009, this trip focused on central and north east Finland, specifically the following regions:

Kainuu region: This region borders the regions of Pohjois-Pohjanmaa (Northern Ostrobothnia) to the north and Pohjois-Karjala (North Karelia) and Pohjois-Savo (Northern Savonia) to the south. In the east it also borders Russia.



Map: Kainuu region

The area between Kajaani eastwards towards Kuhmo and onwards to Vartius close to the Russian border was my main focus, due primarily to my plan to visit the Wild Brown Bear Centre. This was my second Brown Bear watching trip, having visited Martinselkosen Eräkeskus near Pirttivaara (further north in Kainuu region) in May/June 2009.



Photo: landscape between Kajaani, Kuhmo and the Wild Brown Bear Centre



Photo: landscape between Kajaani, Kuhmo and the Wild Brown Bear Centre



Photo: landscape between Kajaani, Kuhmo and the Wild Brown Bear Centre



Photo: landscape between Kajaani, Kuhmo and the Wild Brown Bear Centre



Photo: landscape between Kajaani, Kuhmo and the Wild Brown Bear Centre



Photo: landscape between Kajaani, Kuhmo and the Wild Brown Bear Centre



Photo: landscape between the Wild Brown Bear Centre and Suomussalmi



Photo: landscape between the Wild Brown Bear Centre and Suomussalmi .... very close to the Russian border at Vartius .... no visa required for border crossing bears :-)



Photo: landscape between the Wild Brown Bear Centre and Suomussalmi



Photo: landscape between the Wild Brown Bear Centre and Suomussalmi



Photo: landscape between the Wild Brown Bear Centre and Suomussalmi



Photo: landscape between the Wild Brown Bear Centre and Suomussalmi

In addition to visiting the Wild Brown Bear Centre, there was an opportunity to visit the excellent Petola Visitor Centre in Kuhmo. The Petola Visitor Centre was founded to provide a permanent exhibition and information on the large carnivores of Finland, specifically Brown Bear, Wolf, Lynx and Wolverine although Golden Eagle and Forest Reindeer are also featured. Temporary exhibitions cover various other issues and customer services provide information on nature conservation and nature reserves in the Kainuu region.



Pohjois-Pohjanmaa (Northern Ostrobothnia) region: This region borders the regions of Lappi (Lapland) to the north and Kainuu, Pohjois-Savo (Northern Savonia), Keski-Pohjanmaa (Central Ostrobothnia) and Keski-Suomi (Central Finland) to the south. In the east it also borders Russia.



Map: Pohjois-Pohjanmaa (Northern Ostrobothnia) region

The area around Kuusamo in the far north east of the region was my main focus, due primarily to the excellent wildlife watching opportunities here and my previous experience during my trip in May/June 2009.

Uusimaa region: This region is located in the far south of Finland. Finland’s capital and largest city, Helsinki, and its second largest city, Espoo, are both located centrally in Uusimaa, making it by far the most populous region.



Map: Uusimaa region

My final full day of my trip focused on 2 areas in Uusimaa region and within easy reach of Helsinki.

Nuuksio National Park: Nuuksio National Park was established in 1994 and covers an area of 20 square miles of forests and lakes around Espoo, Kirkkonummi and Vihti. About 20 miles north west of Helsinki, it is the second closest National Park to the capital after Sipoonkorpi National Park. The Siberian Flying Squirrel is the emblem of the Nuuksio National Park due to the density of its population.



Map: Nuuksio National Park



Photo: Kittila, Nuuksio National Park



Photo: Hogbacka, Nuuksio National Park



Photo: Haukkalampi, Nuuksio National Park



Photo: Haukkalampi, Nuuksio National Park

Within the Nuuksio National Park, there was an opportunity to visit the excellent Haltia Finnish Nature Centre. The Haltia building was designed by the architect Rainer Mahlamäki who was inspired by the tales of the Kalevala, the Finnish national epic poem. Haltia signalled a new era in wood building as the first public building in Finland built entirely of cross-laminated timber wood elements. The environment has been taken into account in Haltia’s facilities and activities alike through skilful design and the latest ecological solutions. Among other features, the building is heated and cooled with energy derived from the sun and the earth. In the spring of 2015, at the annual European Museum of the Year Award (EMYA) ceremony, Haltia received special commendation for sustainability. Outside Haltia provides spectacular views of Nuuksio National Park and Lake Pitkäjärvi whilst inside the exhibitions, photographs, videos and interactive touch screens gather Finland’s most spectacular nature destinations and nature experiences under one roof.



Photo: Haltia Finnish Nature Centre, Nuuksio National Park



Photo: view from Haltia Finnish Nature Centre, Nuuksio National Park



Photo: Haltia Finnish Nature Centre, Nuuksio National Park

Viikki-Vanhankaupunginlahti Nature Reserve: Viikki-Vanhankaupunginlahti Nature Reserve is the most important nature reserve in Helsinki and among the most valuable conservation areas on the coastal Gulf of Finland. It is included on the Ramsar List of Wetlands of International Importance and lies around Vanhankaupunginlahti Bay, a reed-fringed sea inlet. It consists of the mouth of the Vantaa river with its accompanying floodplain forests, alder marshes and coastal meadows and can be accessed and viewed by a network of trails and birdwatching towers.



Photo: Viikki-Vanhankaupunginlahti Nature Reserve



Photo: Viikki-Vanhankaupunginlahti Nature Reserve



Photo: Viikki-Vanhankaupunginlahti Nature Reserve

Finland – getting there and leaving:

I arrived in Helsinki from Tallinn in Estonia via the Viking Line ferry on 22nd May. The cost of the ferry was £16.71. The schedule was as follows: depart 8 a.m. and arrive 10.40 a.m.

The MS Viking XPRS ferry provided a leisurely and cheap cruise across the Gulf of Finland to Helsinki. In fact the journey of over 2.5 hours cost almost the same as the 10 minute taxi journey from the Katajanokka terminal at Helsinki port to Helsinki railway station! The approach to Helsinki through the archipelago of wooded islands and islets was beautiful.



Photo: approaching Helsinki on the Viking Line ferry from Tallinn



Photo: arrival in Helsinki

During my trip, I left but again returned to Finland in order to incorporate a visit to Saint Petersburg in Russia (see below).

Returning home to the UK, I flew from Helsinki Vantaa to London Gatwick with Norwegian Air on 31st May. The cost of the flight including baggage and taxes was £51.90. The schedule was as follows: depart 8:10 a.m. and arrive 9:10 a.m. (local UK time)



Photo: the Norwegian Air plane for my flight home to the UK after 3 weeks away

Finland – getting around:

Within Finland, I used the excellent Finnish Railways VR railway network:



Map: Finnish Railways VR railway network

On the day of my arrival in Finland on 22nd May, I took a short return trip by train from Helsinki to Ainola to visit the home of Jean Sibelius. The return trip cost £11.10.



Photo: my return train to Helsinki arriving at Ainola

Later the same day on 22nd May, I took the overnight train north from Helsinki to Oulu via Tampere and Seinäjoki, departing at 6:52 p.m. and arriving at 4.42 a.m. On 23rd May I took an onward train from Oulu to Kajaani departing at 6:55 a.m. and arriving at 9:17 a.m. The complete trip from Helsinki to Kajaani cost £39.54.



Photo: my 6:52 p.m. evening/overnight train from Helsinki to Oulu



Photo: my 6:52 p.m. evening/overnight train from Helsinki to Oulu



Photo: my 6:55 a.m. train from Oulu to Kajaani



Photo: my 6:55 a.m. train from Oulu to Kajaani

On 26th May, I took a train south from Kajaani to Kouvola departing at 6:35 a.m. and arriving at 11:10 a.m. (before taking an onward train to Saint Petersburg). The trip from Kajaani to Kouvola cost £26.56.



Photo: my 6:35 a.m. train from Kajaani to Kouvola

On 29th May, having arrived back at Kouvola from Saint Petersburg, I took a train to Helsinki departing at 9:23 a.m. and arriving at 10:42 a.m. The trip from Kouvola to Helsinki cost £8.27.

On 30th May, I took the train from Helsinki to Helsinki Vantaa airport which cost £4.19.

I rented 2 cars in Finland: 23rd to 26th May in Kajaani and 30th May at Helsinki Vantaa airport.

In Kajaani, I rented a Skoda Rapid for 3 days from Budget booked in advance. The cost of car rental was £106.21 reduced by cashback to £93.94. The car proved to be very reliable and economical returning around 52 mpg with petrol at an equivalent of around £1.32 per litre compared with £0.79 per litre in Estonia and £1.08 per litre in the UK. During my trip, I drove 1028 km (639 miles) and, as during my previous trips, driving in Finland proved to be a very enjoyable experience with exceptionally quiet traffic free roads.

However, there was a major issue with this rental in that despite advance booking and advance payment, the car rental office was closed when I arrived and I was eventually provided with a car 3 hours later after several phone calls and e-mails. This was a somewhat stressful experience given that I was expected at the Wild Brown Bear Centre later in the afternoon. I did manage to arrive on time and my complaints regarding the late car rental pick up resulted in the Kajaani office confirming that I could return the car with an empty fuel tank (probably worth around £50) and, on my return to the UK, Budget additionally offering a refund of 1 day’s rental (£35.40). Therefore the car rental probably cost me less than £10 for 3 days.

At Helsinki Vantaa airport, I rented a Skoda Citigo for 1 day from Sixt via ebookers.com booked in advance. The cost of car rental was £40.69 reduced by cashback to £38.13. On my final full day, I drove 143 km (89 miles).

Finland – itinerary:

I travelled independently following thorough research and preparing an itinerary before leaving the UK.

22nd May: arrive at Hesinki port from Tallinn > train from Helsinki to Ainola and return > Helsinki city > overnight train from Helsinki to Oulu

23rd May: train from Oulu to Kajaani > pick up rental car > Kuhmo > Wild Brown Bear Centre

24th May: Wild Brown Bear Centre > Suomussalmi > Kuusamo > Yli-Kitka > Posio > Kuusamo > Ruka > Valtavaara > Lake Toranki > Kuusamo

25th May: Kuusamo > Ivaara > Lake Toranki > Kuusamo > Suomussalmi > Kuhmo > Vuokatti

26th May: Vuokatti > Kajaani > return rental car > train to Kouvola > onward train to Saint Petersburg

29th May: arrive in Kouvola from Saint Petersburg > train to Helsinki > Helsinki city

30th May: Helsinki > Helsinki Vantaa airport > pick up rental car > Nuusiko National Park > Viikki-Vanhankaupunginlahti Nature Reserve > return rental car > Helsinki Vantaa airport

31st May: return flight to London Gatwick

Finland – accommodation:

My first 2 nights in Finland included accommodation without a bed and therefore as expected I had very limited sleep!

22nd May – I took the overnight train from Helsinki to Oulu via Tampere and Seinäjoki , departing at 6:52 p.m. and arriving at 4.42 a.m. (see above). I had previously taken an overnight train in Finland during my trip in May/June 2009 and I should have remembered that trying to sleep in a seat in an almost full carriage with no darkness either outside or inside the train is hardly conducive to a restful night’s sleep! However, the advantage was that the complete train fare for the journey from Helsinki to Oulu and onwards to Kajaani was only £39.54 and travelling overnight saved spending money on what would have been a much more expensive hotel plus it saved a day in my itinerary.



Photo: my "accommodation" on the evening/overnight train from Helsinki to Oulu

23rd May – This was the night of my pre-booked Brown Bear watching at the Wild Brown Bear Centre in the wilderness taiga forest area near Vartius close to the Finland-Russia border. During May, June, July and August, 22 photography and observation hides can be occupied between 5 p.m. and 7 a.m. Whilst the hides do provide bunk beds and sleeping bags, does anyone seriously contemplate sleep with the prospect of watching and photographing Brown Bears and potentially also Wolverine and Wolf? The cost of a single night in the hide including a “picnic basket” was £106.



Photo: hide 6 .... my "accommodation" at the Wild Brown Bear Centre



Photo: still awake in the middle of the "night" looking for Brown Bears at the Wild Brown Bear Centre



Don't fall asleep .... Brown Bears can turn up at any time!

In addition to my 2 successive nights without much sleep, I had also pre-booked the following more traditional accommodation via booking.com and ebookers.com prior to my trip. These booking sites provided cashback discounts of 4% to 15% off the prices indicated below.

24th May – Kuusamo: Hotelli Kuusanka – £52.09 for 1 night



Photo: Hotelli Kuusanka, Kuusamo

Hotelli Kuusanka is situated in central Kuusamo and whilst the location is nothing special it does offer accommodation in large, clean, comfortable and functional rooms. I received a very friendly welcome at reception. The price seemed relatively expensive for the quality of accommodation and facilities but I guess I am comparing with UK prices or cheaper Estonian prices rather than average Finland prices. The price, however, is cheaper than other Kuusamo accommodation options.

25th May – Vuokatti: Sokos Hotel – £61.95 for 1 night



Photo: Sokos Hotel, Vuokatti

I stayed at this hotel for a single night prior to taking a train south from nearby Kajaani. It is a large, modern hotel with welcoming and friendly staff who speak perfect English. Thankfully my 4th floor room was served by a lift although somewhat stressfully I did get stuck in the lift on one occasion for several minutes before being rescued! The on-site Amarillo restaurant provides "Tex Mex" food. Whilst I would have preferred more traditional Finnish food, I did enjoy my meal and (expensive) beer.

My accommodation in Helsinki on 29th and 30th May is detailed in the cities section of this report (see below) along with that for Tallinn and Saint Petersburg.

Finland – research and planning:

Prior to my trip, I had undertaken a significant amount of research and planning and therefore had a detailed itinerary which I largely kept to other than a few variations. I also had the benefit of the experience of my previous trips to Finland.

Finland has been visited by birders for some years and as a result there are a number of Internet trip reports provided by others.

However, I found the following books to be invaluable in terms of both pre-planning my itinerary and as guides whilst travelling in Finland:

“Lonely Planet: Finland”: this book follows the usual Lonely Planet format and provides essential planning information, detailed information on a region by region basis plus a wide variety of other contextual information



“Finding birds in South Finland” by Dave Gosney available from Easybirder



The Gosney book, as with all his publications, is available with an accompanying DVD.

I also used Michelin regional map 754 covering Finland in addition to my trusty TomTom satnav.



Impressions, experiences, memories and surprises:

This trip provided a wealth of impressions, experiences, memories and surprises.

Estonia is a beautiful country with a staggering diversity and abundance of wildlife in a wonderful mosaic of rural habitats which appear in many respects to be unchanged and undamaged by human impacts in a very long time. I felt the same when I returned from my trips to north east Poland in May 2013 and north Greece in May 2015. Such experiences also suggest how impoverished and degraded many UK habitats and landscapes have become in recent decades with a consequent adverse impact on wildlife.

Estonia is also exceptionally cheap to visit compared with the UK (and Finland), whether that be accommodation costs, groceries and restaurant bills, petrol costs and car rental and other transport costs.

Finland is a very beautiful country of forests and lakes but you have to work much harder to find the wildlife than you do in Estonia.

However, both Estonia and Finland are a joy to travel around on their traffic free roads away from the main cities and towns. This is so markedly different from the congestion in much of the UK, especially in the region that I live in. Estonia and Finland also put the UK to shame in respect of the high speed wi-fi Internet service which is generally free in most city and town centres and on trains and in restaurants.

Finland’s railway network and train service additionally offers another excellent way to travel through this large country. The website booking engine is very easy to use and prices can offer good value if booked well in advance. The trains themselves provide outstanding space, comfort and facilities compared with many UK services and the double decker coaches on the long distance routes give an elevated and much better view of the beautiful forest and lake scenery.

My trip involved quite a mix of accommodation offers: rural, coastal, homely guesthouse, town/city centre budget and airport, not forgetting overnight trains and bear watching hides! My particular favourites were all in Estonia:

Puise Nina

Seitsemaja Guesthouse

Haaviku

The main surprises during my trip were the weather, the insect side of the wildlife experience and what turned out to be a military exercise rather than a "hot war" between NATO and Russia!

The weather was generally very good for the vast majority of the 3 weeks that I was away from the UK (see below). Maybe I was lucky but I certainly did not expect this in northern Europe.

During my trips to north and east Finland in May/June 2009 and north east Poland in May 2013, I encountered significant problems with the abundance of biting insects. I therefore went prepared with appropriate clothing, insect repellent and post-bite treatments and a resigned expectation that I would have to give my donation of blood in return for wildlife sightings in the forests and bogs. As it turned out, both Estonia and Finland seemed to have a complete absence of biting insects, other than the evening of 17th May at Karavere slid near Tartu in Estonia when the disappointment of not seeing a Great Snipe was compounded by some insects breaking through the repellent barrier!

My “Has the hot war started and nobody let me know?” moment occurred in Estonia on 18th May. During my visit to the forests at Taevaskoja in south east Estonia, I heard what sounded like heavy gun fire. I thought nothing of it particularly but travelling from here eastwards to Mehikoorma on Lake Peipus I encountered large numbers of armoured vehicles, other military vehicles and armed military personnel along the road, in the ditches and in the fields. I expected to be stopped at any moment for a passport and ID check but my drive continued uninterrupted through what was evidently an ongoing military exercise! The Estonian and Russian border runs through Lake Peipus and there have been tensions between the 2 countries in the past, not least involving the abduction of an Estonian security official in 2014.

The non-wildlife related memories of my trip relate to one of the world’s greatest composers and a couple of museums documenting some of the most tragic events in 20th century history.

Much of the music of Jean Sibelius is so clearly inspired by the forests and lakes of his native Finland and my visit to Ainola was both an enjoyable and informative experience. The Ainola house and grounds were very atmospheric and it was easy to imagine the great man at work.

The Museum of Occupations in Tallinn provided a comprehensive account of Estonian society during occupation by the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. Since 1991, Estonia has thrived as a small independent nation and long may it remain free of totalitarian domination and repression.

The Museum of the Defence and Blockade of Leningrad in Saint Petersburg provided a sobering and poignant reminder of a huge human tragedy amidst the vibrant and bustling city of today. Prior to my visit to Saint Petersburg, I had read a great deal to understand the Siege of Leningrad, not least the extensive and detailed historical accounts in the book ”Leningrad: Tragedy of a City under Siege, 1941-44” by Anna Reid. However, despite this and seeing the displays and exhibits in the museum, it is impossible to fully appreciate this tragic event in Saint Petersburg’s history. Do we ever learn from history? Evidently not .... siege of Sarajevo and siege of Aleppo.



I met some wonderful people during my trip ....

Liz and John: an English ex-pat birding couple from Catalunya in Spain travelling around Europe in their campervan and who I met at Ilmatsalu in Estonia (we were both carrying the Gosney guide to birding in Estonia!)

Lynn and Bob: another ex-pat couple from northern England and my excellent hosts at Seitsemaja Guesthouse in Estonia

Ülle: my host at Haaviku in Estonia

Marika: the Executive Manager of Estonian Nature Tours who kindly included me on an organised Beaver watching trip on the Kasari river delta in Matsalu National Park in Estonia .... see you at BirdFair at Rutland Water in August!

The German group on the Beaver watching trip on the Kasari river delta in Matsalu National Park in Estonia: thank you for letting me join your trip to see “Der Biber”!

Riita: the lady on the reception desk at the Scandic Kajanus Hotel in Kajaani in Finland who kindly made some phone calls for me and offered me a free lunch whilst the issue with my absent rental car was being resolved .... excellent customer service provided to a non-customer!

The Finnish lady who walked with me to Ainola in Finland after I got off the train from Helsinki with no idea which direction to walk in!

The French bear watching group at the Wild Brown Bear Centre in Finland

The Norwegian birder in Kuusamo in Finland (sorry, I have forgotten your name!)

The English birding group at the Viikki-Vanhankaupunginlahti Nature Reserve in Finland

Estonia .... Aitäh!

Finland .... Kiitos!

Saint Petersburg .... Спасибo! .... Spasibo!

Weather:

During my 13 days in Estonia, I only experienced one day of rain on 14th May when I was in the Soomaa National Park. Whilst this was disappointing it did not unduly interrupt my plans given that I had allocated 2 days to this area. All my other days in Estonia were sunny with just very occasional cloudy spells. Temperatures ranged from a chilly 3°C to 4°C on 2 very early mornings to daily maxima of 17°C to 23°C.

In Finland, the weather was much more mixed with some warm and sunny days but also some days with cloud, drizzle and rain. However, the hottest day of my trip occurred on my last full day: 26°C and sunny in Helsinki (compared with 8°C and heavy rain on the next day when I arrived back at Gatwick Airport!).

During my 3 days in Saint Petersburg, the weather was dry but mostly grey and cloudy.

Wildlife highlights:

During my trip, I was able to record 160 species of birds in Estonia and 87 species of birds in Finland.

My much shorter trip to Finland explains the much lower number of species recorded but I did add 3 species (Lesser Black-backed Gull, Pheasant and Canada Goose!) to the overall trip total of 163 species of birds.

My visit to Saint Petersburg was not primarily for wildlife watching but from memory I did see House Sparrow, Starling, Fieldfare, Hooded Crow, Herring Gull, Common Tern, Mallard and Tufted Duck.

Trip records - Estonia

Trip records - Finland

My trip total of 163 species of birds included 2 species that I had not seen before.

The first “lifer” was Citrine Wagtail which I managed to see on 17th (7) and 18th May (2) in the Aardla area near Tartu in Estonia. This was one of my target species given that I had failed to see it at Siemianówka during my trip to north east Poland in May 2013. This colourful and beautiful wagtail breeds in north central Asia but its range is expanding westwards in to eastern Europe. It remains a rare but increasing vagrant to western Europe.



Photo: male Citrine Wagtail at Aardla, Estonia



Photo: male Citrine Wagtail at Aardla, Estonia



Photo: male Citrine Wagtail at Aardla, Estonia



Photo: male Citrine Wagtail at Aardla, Estonia



Photo: female Citrine Wagtail at Aardla, Estonia



Photo: female Citrine Wagtail at Aardla, Estonia



Photo: female Citrine Wagtail at Aardla, Estonia

The second “lifer” was Baltic Gull which I saw on the Põõsaspea peninsula, Estonia on 10th May (2), on the Audru polder, Estonia on 14th May (1) and at the Wild Brown Bear Centre in Finland on 23rd May/24th May (2). The Baltic Gull is the eastern form of Lesser Black-backed Gull and occurs in Norway, Sweden, Finland and the Baltic states. It is treated by some authorities as a distinct species. Compared with the UK and western Europe form of Lesser Black-backed Gull with its dark grey mantle, the Baltic Gull has a jet black mantle.

These 2 species took my European list to 439, assuming that Baltic Gull is eventually split as a full species in its own right.

In addition, I saw 30 notable species i.e. birds seen before either as a single UK vagrant or on a few occasions in the UK plus birds seen before elsewhere in Europe:

Great White Egret

White Stork

Lesser Spotted Eagle

Montagu’s Harrier

Hazel Grouse

Quail

Corncrake (heard only)

Crane

Yellow-legged Gull

Caspian Tern

Wryneck

Black Woodpecker

Blue-headed Wagtail

Grey-headed Wagtail

White Wagtail

Bluethroat

Thrush Nightingale

River Warbler

Savi’s Warbler

Blyth’s Reed Warbler

Marsh Warbler

Great Reed Warbler

Icterine Warbler

Barred Warbler

Red-breasted Flycatcher

Penduline Tit

Golden Oriole

Red-backed Shrike

Common Rosefinch

Hawfinch

The award for the “Most elusive bird of the trip” goes to .... the Corncrake. I heard 23 calling birds in Estonia but frustratingly didn’t see one. This is not surprising given that Corncrakes are notoriously difficult to see even when calling loudly in close proximity.

ARKive video - Corncrake calling in field

The runner up as the “Most elusive bird of the trip” goes to the Bittern: 14 “booming” birds heard in Estonia but no sightings.

Here is a summary of the bird highlights from my trip.

Divers: I had distant views of both Red-throated Diver and Black-throated Diver in Matsalu Bay in Estonia but as expected from my previous visits to Finland I had much closer views of 10 Black-throated Divers in the Kuusamo.

Grebes: It was excellent to see Red-necked Grebes in their stunning summer plumage in both Estonia (10) and Finland (5).

Herons and storks: 21 Great White Egrets and 121 White Storks at various sites in Estonia were noteworthy. Bittern was heard but not seen!

Swans: I saw small numbers of breeding Whooper Swans in both Estonia and Finland.

Geese: There were staggering numbers of both Barnacle Geese and White-fronted Geese in Matsalu Bay in Estonia, even more impressive considering that many more had already migrated north to their breeding grounds.

Ducks: I recorded 18 species of ducks during the trip, most notably the vast numbers of sea duck species, including Long-tailed Duck, Common Scoter and Scaup, in Matsalu Bay in Estonia.

Birds of prey: I recorded 9 species of birds of prey during the trip, most notably 6 Lesser Spotted Eagles at various sites in Estonia, 27 White-tailed Eagles at various sites in Estonia of which 13 were at Haeska alone, 1 Golden Eagle at Nigula Nature Reserve in Estonia and 2 Ospreys with singles at Ilmatsalu in Estonia and between Kuusamo and Suomassalmi in Finland.

Grouse and rails: Having only had a very fleeting view of a flying Hazel Grouse on a previous trip to Finland, I was very pleased to have much better views of this elusive bird at Nigula Nature Reserve in Estonia (3) and close to Lake Toranki in Kuusamo in Finland (2). I also managed to hear and see several Black Grouse at various sites in Estonia plus I heard a calling Quail at Toramaa in the Soomaa National Park in Estonia. Corncrakes were noisy but never seen!

Waders: I recorded 18 species of waders during my trip, most notably Crane (a total of 184 at various sites in Estonia but particularly around Matsalu Bay and a further group of 5 between Kuusamo and Suomassalmi in Finland) and a large flock of Wood Sandpipers during the Beaver watching trip in the Kasari river delta in Matsalu Bay in Estonia.

Gulls and terns: I added Baltic Gull to my European list (see above) and also saw small numbers of Little Gulls in both Estonia and Finland. In addition, I saw Caspian Terns at Puise (1) and between Puise and Pogari-Sassai (2) in Estonia and at Viikki-Vanhankaupunginlahti Nature Reserve in Finland (1).

Cuckoo: This bird was especially common throughout Estonia compared with the UK and I saw 6 and heard a further 45 calling.

Woodpeckers: I did not have much success with woodpeckers (see below) but I did manage to see 3 Black Woodpeckers at Dirhami, Kabli and Alam Pedja plus 2 Wrynecks between Puise and Pogari-Sassi and at Oandu, all in Estonia. Frustratingly, 11 heard only "drumming" woodpeckers went unidentified.

Wagtails: The real highlight was adding Citrine Wagtail to my European list (see above). It was also pleasing to see 3 of the Yellow Wagtail sub-species in Estonia: Motacilla flava (the UK sub-species), M. f. Thunbergi (the Grey-headed Wagtail which breeds in central and northern Scandinavia) and the common M. f. Flava (the Blue-headed Wagtail which breeds in southern Scandinavia and much of western and central Europe excluding the UK). White Wagtails were especially common throughout Estonia.

Chats and thrushes: I saw 4 Thrush Nightingales and heard a further 44 singing at various sites in Estonia plus an additional sighting and 3 heard singing at the Viikki-Vanhankaupunginlahti Nature Reserve in Finland. A single Bluethroat at Pikla in Estonia, the abundant Fieldfares in both Estonia and Finland and a few sightings of Redwing in both Estonia and Finland were also noteworthy.

Locustella warblers: River Warbler was the most exciting record: 2 heard singing in Soomaa National Park in Estonia, 1 heard singing at Aardla in Estonia and finally 1 seen at Alam Pedja in Estonia and another seen at Oandu in Lahemaa National Park in Estonia. In addition, I saw 3 Savi’s Warblers and heard a further 10 to 15 singing at 3 sites in Estonia and 6 Grasshopper Warblers and a further 3 singing at 3 sites in Estonia.

Acrocephalus warblers: I recorded 5 species in this group, most notably Blyth’s Reed Warbler (2 seen and 2 heard singing), Marsh Warbler (1 seen) and Great Reed Warbler (3 seen and 3 heard singing), all in Estonia. I also saw an additional Blyth’s Reed Warbler at the Viikki-Vanhankaupunginlahti Nature Reserve in Finland.

Hippolais warblers: I saw 5 Icterine Warblers and heard a further 7 singing at various sites in Estonia.

Phylloscopus warblers: Willow Warbler and Chiffchaff were common as was Wood Warbler with 7 seen and a further 59 heard singing at various sites in Estonia.

Sylvia warblers: I recorded 5 species in this group, most notably a single Barred Warbler at Aardla in Estonia.

Flycatchers: I recorded 3 species in this group: Spotted Flycatcher (15 seen), Pied Flycatcher (11 seen and 4 heard singing) and, most notably, Red-breasted Flycatcher (2 seen and 16 heard singing), all at various sites in Estonia. In addition, I saw 2 Pied Flycatchers and heard a further 6 singing at various sites in Finland plus I heard an additional Red-breasted Flycatcher singing at Nuusiko National Park in Finland.

Golden Oriole: I heard 4 singing males at 4 different sites in Estonia but was unable to see any of them.

Red-backed Shrike: I expected this bird to be much more common given my experience in north east Poland but I only managed to see 4 in Estonia.

Crows: Hooded Crow is a very restricted upland species in the north west Highlands of the UK so it was bizarre to see so many in different habitats throughout my trip, including central Tallinn, central Helsinki and central Saint Petersburg.

Finches: Apart from the commoner species, I saw 4 Hawfinches in the Soomaa National Park in Estonia plus Common Rosefinch (17 seen and a further 19 heard singing) at various sites in Estonia and at the Viikki-Vanhankaupunginlahti Nature Reserve in Finland (1 seen and 3 heard singing).

During my trip, I was also able to record the following mammals:

Brown Bear

Beaver

Elk

Pine Marten

Muskrat

Red Squirrel

Atlantic Grey Seal

Roe Deer

Mountain Hare

Brown Hare

Red Fox

Here is a summary of the mammal highlights from my trip.

Brown Bear: It is always exciting to see one of the most charismatic mammals in Europe! Having visited Martinselkosen Eräkeskus during my trip to north and east Finland in May/June 2009, I decided to try a different site on this trip, namely the the Wild Brown Bear Centre near Vartius close to the Russian border. During May, June, July and August, 22 photography and observation hides can be occupied between 5 p.m. and 7 a.m. The hides are approached by about a half mile walk through the forest from the main lodge and they each accommodate 2 to 3 people. They are situated in a small open wetland area, near a small pond and inside a pine forest clearing. The cost of a single night in the hide including a “picnic basket” was £106.

Wild Brown Bear Centre information



Photos: courtesy of Wild Brown Bear Centre website



Photo: Wild Brown Bear Centre lodge



Photo: boardwalk to the hides



Photo: hide 6 .... my hide .... no single occupancy supplement!



Photo: view from my hide on arrival



Photo: view from my hide on arrival



Photo: hide rules .... don't feed the bears :-)



Photo: view from my hide at dawn



Photo: view from my hide at dawn

I came away from the Wild Brown Bear Centre in Finland somewhat disappointed. Whilst the setting with mixed habitat is much more interesting than that at Martinselkosen Eräkeskus, the sightings of Brown Bear (at least on my visit) were poor. I only saw 1 or possibly 2 animals at some distance and at the time of the lowest light. Hence, my photos below barely pass the “record shot” standard and are a long way off what I achieved on my trip to Martinselkosen Eräkeskus .... see here.



Photo: allegedly a Brown Bear!



Photo: allegedly a Brown Bear!



Photo: allegedly a Brown Bear!



Photo: allegedly a Brown Bear!



Photo: allegedly a Brown Bear!

The resident pair of Goldeneyes did provide a little compensation in terms of photographic opportunities but it would have been rather nice to have taken some photos of Brown Bears reflected in the pond!



Photo: male Goldeneye on the pond at the Wild Brown Bear Centre



Photo: female Goldeneye on the pond at the Wild Brown Bear Centre

I also managed to see bears at Helsinki Vantaa airport! ....



Photo: the last bear sightings in Finland!

Beaver: I had failed to see a single Beaver during my trip to north east Poland in May 2013 despite many obvious signs of their presence and activity. However, Estonia delivered! My first sighting of Beaver was a self-found individual seen from the Haeska birdwatching tower in the Matsalu National Park in Estonia on 11th May.



Photo: Beaver at Haeska, Matsalu National Park .... a very distant view



Photo: Beaver at Haeska, Matsalu National Park .... a very distant view



Photo: Beaver at Haeska, Matsalu National Park with a White-tailed Eagle watching on!

On the same day I was also able to join an evening Beaver watching trip organised by Estonian Nature Tours on the Kasari river delta also in Matsalu National Park in Estonia. This wonderful boat trip, accompanied by the sounds of “booming” Bitterns and singing Savi’s Warblers and Thrush Nightingales plus sightings of White-tailed Eagles, Marsh Harriers, large numbers of wildfowl and a huge flock of Wood Sandpipers, also produced 7 individual Beavers.







Photo: Kasari river, Matsalu National Park near departure point for Beaver watching trip



Photo: Kasari river, Matsalu National Park



Photo: Kasari river, Matsalu National Park



Photo: a poor record shot of a Beaver on the Kasari river, Matsalu National Park

Elk (Moose): I managed to see 6 Elk in Estonia. The first sighting was of 4 very distant animals at Rannajoe in Matsalu National Park on 12th May. I saw a further 2 separate individuals on Saaremaa island on 13th May with an extremely close encounter when a large bull crossed the road in front of me plus another roadside individual.



Photo: Elk at Rannajoe, Matsalu National Park .... a very distant view and a tightly cropped record photo



Photo: Elk at Rannajoe, Matsalu National Park .... a very distant view and a tightly cropped record photo

Pine Marten: I have managed to see several (mainly nocturnal) Pine Martens on my trips to northern and western Scotland but a daylight sighting in bright sunshine at Spithami in Estonia on 10th May was memorable.

Muskrat: On my previous trip to the Kuusamo area of Finland I saw several Muskrats but on this trip I only found a single individual.

Disappointments:

As far as birds are concerned, the major disappointment was not seeing Great Snipe at the well known lekking site at Karavere slid near Tartu in Estonia. Like Citrine Wagtail, this was one of my target species given that I had failed to see it during my trip to north east Poland in May 2013.

The other disappointment was not seeing any owl species at all and only 3 species of woodpecker (albeit in addition to the very familiar Great Spotted Woodpecker this included 3 Black Woodpeckers and 2 Wrynecks in Estonia plus 11 unidentified species heard “drumming”). Estonia and Finland both hold 11 owl species and 8 woodpecker species, substantially more than the UK and presumably something to do with the amount of forest habitat!

My under-recording of owl and woodpecker species was not entirely surprising given that the highest chance of seeing owl and woodpecker species is March and April when they are more conspicuous in their activity and calling.

However, I am not desperately disappointed having seen White-backed Woodpecker, Three-toed Woodpecker, Middle Spotted Woodpecker and Syrian Woodpecker on previous European trips and Green Woodpecker, Great Spotted Woodpecker and Lesser Spotted Woodpecker in both Europe and in the UK. There is just Grey-headed Woodpecker left to complete the set of Europe’s 10 woodpecker species.

With regard to owls, I have seen Great Grey Owl, Hawk Owl, Ural Owl and Pygmy Owl and heard Scops Owl on previous European trips plus Barn Owl, Tawny Owl, Little Owl, Short-eared Owl, Long-eared Owl and Snowy Owl in the UK and/or Europe. There is just Eagle Owl and Tengmalm’s Owl left to complete the set of Europe’s 13 owl species.

With regard to mammals, I failed to see Wolf, Wolverine, Lynx or Siberian Flying Squirrel but all these mammals are rare and exceptionally difficult to see without a huge amount of luck.

In terms of my trip generally, the complex itinerary over 3 weeks which included 2 flights, 9 train journeys, 1 ferry journey, 3 car rentals and 16 accommodation bookings provided ample opportunity for something to go wrong despite careful planning. In fact, the only issue that I had was the 3 hour delay in picking up my rental car in Kajaani in Finland as detailed above

Tips:

From my own experience, I have several miscellaneous tips for anyone considering a trip to Estonia and north east Finland.

Get up early! Dawn is around 4 a.m. or earlier but the best wildlife watching experiences are definitely at this time and for the following few hours. Evenings and dusk are also a very good time.

Take appropriate clothing, insect repellent and post-bite treatments. Biting insects can be a significant problem in Estonia and Finland although I was very fortunate to escape the worst on my trip. Going prepared significantly reduces but does not entirely eliminate this unavoidable nuisance. Whilst there are several brands available, Incognito is my preference due to the 100% natural ingredients.

Like much of eastern Europe, intensive agriculture and expanding urbanisation has not yet arrived in Estonia and this largely explains the diversity and abundance of wildlife in so many unspoilt habitats. Go and experience it before it is spoilt.

Brown Bear watching is highly recommended. Chance sightings of this amazing mammal are very rare so the greatest opportunity of being successful and having extended views is offered by a number of companies who provide Brown Bear watching from hides. In Estonia, Brown Bear watching does not seem to be as well established as in Finland but the country does hold a significant population of Brown Bears. Estonian Nature Tours and NaTourEst both offer Brown Bear watching. I have not used either so I can not comment on the chances of success. In Finland, there are several companies offering Brown Bear watching. During my trip to north and east Finland in May/June 2009, I booked with Martinselkosen Eräkeskus near Pirttivaara whilst on this trip I booked with Wild Brown Bear Centre near Vartius. Several other providers are listed at Wild Taiga.

I took 3 boat trips: a Beaver watching trip on the Kasari river delta in the Matsalu National Park in Estonia, a Helsinki archipelago and canal trip in Finland and a Saint Petersburg canal and Neva river trip. Despite warm or even hot weather before embarking, all 3 trips were exceptionally cold so the advice is to go prepared with some warm clothing.

As mentioned above, Finland’s railway network and train service is an excellent way to travel around this very large country and the cheapest fares can be obtained by booking up to 60 days in advance.

And finally, if in doubt ....



Photos:

During my trip, I took almost 1500 photos of the wildlife and landscapes of Estonia and north east Finland plus the city sights of Tallinn, Helsinki and Saint Petersburg.

The best wildlife and landscape photos from my trip can be found in the European trips gallery



The non-wildlife bit .... the cities of Tallinn, Helsinki and Saint Petersburg

The main purpose of my trip was wildlife watching and photography but Tallinn, Helsinki and Saint Petersburg all offered excellent sightseeing opportunities and interesting histories.

Estonia – Tallinn:

Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, is very easy to explore on foot.

I used the following for my Tallinn city trip:

“Tallinn” chapter of “Lonely Planet: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania”



“In Your Pocket: Tallinn”: a downloadable pdf. guide from In Your Pocket



Official Tallinn City Tourist Office website

In Tallinn I stayed at the Economy Hotell for the 2 nights of 20th and 21st May at a cost of £43.36.



Photo: Economy Hotell, Tallinn

The Economy Hotell has 2 very distinct advantages: it's location just a 5 minute easy walk from Tallinn Old Town and the very reasonable prices. I stayed for 2 nights and the room was clean, comfortable and functional and met my needs perfectly. All the staff at the Economy Hotell were welcoming and friendly and spoke excellent English and on check out they booked a taxi for me to the ferry terminal. My only issues were the very poor wi-fi internet service (I had to sit outside in the corridor to get any service!) and the lack of a lift to the upper floor. However, overall I was very happy with my stay and I would definitely stay at the Economy Hotell again on any further visit to Tallinn.

The following were my highlights in Tallinn:

Toompea Hill: Toompea Hill is a limestone hill in central Tallinn which measures about 1315 feet by 820 feet and is about 100 feet higher than the surrounding areas. The history of Toompea Hill is closely linked to the history of rulers and power in Estonia. Today, Toompea Hill is part of the Tallinn Old Town UNESCO World Heritage Site and the locaction of the Estonian Parliament (Riigikogu). It is also the site of the Saint Alexander Nevsky Cathedral (see below). The viewing platforms of Kohtuotsa and Patkuli on Toompea Hill offer panoramas over the city skyline.



Photo: view of Tallinn Old Town from Patkuli on Toompea Hill



Photo: Estonian Parliament



Photo: parkland on Toompea Hill

Saint Alexander Nevsky Cathedral: Saint Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is located on top of Toompea Hill and is Estonia’s main Russian Orthodox cathedral and the grandest and most opulent Orthodox church in Tallinn. It was built in 1900 when Estonia was part of the tsarist Russian empire and was originally intended as a symbol of the empire's dominance, both religious and political, over this Baltic territory.



Photo: Saint Alexander Nevsky Cathedral



Photo: Saint Alexander Nevsky Cathedral



Photo: Saint Alexander Nevsky Cathedral



Photo: Saint Alexander Nevsky Cathedral

Tallinna Neitsi Maarja Piiskoplik Toomkirik (Cathedral of Saint Mary the Virgin (Dome Church)): The medieval Tallinna Neitsi Maarja Piiskoplik Toomkirik (Cathedral of Saint Mary the Virgin (Dome Church)) is located on top of Toompea Hill. It was established sometime before 1233 but has been repeatedly rebuilt since so it displays a mix of architectural styles. Historically this was the church of Estonia's elite German nobles.



Photo: Tallinna Neitsi Maarja Piiskoplik Toomkirik (Cathedral of Saint Mary the Virgin (Dome Church))



Photo: Tallinna Neitsi Maarja Piiskoplik Toomkirik (Cathedral of Saint Mary the Virgin (Dome Church))

Oleviste kirik (Saint Olav’s Church and Tower): Oleviste kirik (Saint Olav’s Church and Tower) is Tallinn's iconic Gothic church. From 1549 to 1625 this church was the tallest building in the world. However, it’s gigantic 522 feet high spire, intended as a signpost for approaching ships, also turned out to be a very effective lightning rod. Throughout the church's history lightning hit the spire repeatedly, completely burning down the structure 3 times. Today its shorter 407 feet high spire still dwarfs most of Tallinn’s buildings and remains an important symbol of the city. The church itself dates back to at least 1267 when it is thought to have served a group of Scandinavian merchants who settled in the area. It was dedicated to King Olaf II of Norway.



Photo: Oleviste kirik (Saint Olav’s Church and Tower)

Raekoja plats (Town Hall Square) and Tallinna raekoda (Tallinn Town Hall): Raekoja plats (Town Hall Square) has been the undisputed hub of the Old Town of Tallinn for the last 8 centuries and is surrounded by elaborate merchant houses. Historically it served as a market and meeting place and today it remains the social heart of the city, a venue for open-air concerts and carnivals, handicraft fairs and medieval markets. The Gothic Tallinna raekoda (Tallinn Town Hall) that dominates Raekoja plats (Town Hall Square) was built in 1402 to 1404 as a meeting place for the ruling burgomeisters and has been a showpiece of the city ever since. Today it is the only intact Gothic town hall in northern Europe and it is used mainly for concerts and for entertaining visiting kings or presidents and as a museum.



Photo: Raekoja plats (Town Hall Square)



Photo: Tallinna raekoda (Tallinn Town Hall)

Kiek in de Kök: Kiek in de Kök is a massive 125 feet high cannon tower which was originally built in the 1470s but quickly expanded and strengthened with walls that are 13 feet thick. Today it houses an extensive museum of Tallinn's fortifications, weapons and medieval era life and is also the starting place for the system of hidden tunnels that run underneath the old bastions of Toompea Hill.



Photo: Kiek in de Kok

Viru Gate: The Viru Gate is a pair of picturesque, ivy-covered towers at the entrance to Viru Street. The towers are actually only the foregates of what was a much more complex gate system built in the 14th century. Most of the gate was pulled down in the 1880s to make room for traffic but 2 towers remained and have since become a symbol of the town.

Katariina käik (Saint Catherine's Passage): Easily the most picturesque of the lanes in the Old Town of Tallinn, the half-hidden walkway of Katariina käik (Saint Catherine's Passage) runs behind what used to be Saint Catherine's Church. What makes the passage particularly interesting is that it's home to the Saint Catherine's Guild, a collection of craft workshops where artists use traditional methods to create and sell glassware, hats, quilts, ceramics, jewellery, hand-painted silk and other wares. The workshops are housed in the small 15th to 17th century rooms on the south side of the lane and they are set up in an open-studio fashion so visitors can watch the artists at work, be it glass-blowing, weaving or pottery making.



Photo: Katariina käik (Saint Catherine's Passage)



Photo: Katariina käik (Saint Catherine's Passage)



Photo: Katariina käik (Saint Catherine's Passage)

Vabaduse väljak (Freedom Square) and Jaani kirik (Saint John's Church): Vabaduse väljak (Freedom Square) is an open area at the edge of the Old Town of Tallinn and is a place of national symbolism and civic pride as well as a favourite gathering spot. From the last days of the Tsars and through Estonia's first period of independence, Vabaduse väljak (Freedom Square) was a place of parades and fanfare but it fell into neglect during the Soviet and post-Soviet period. In 2009, after extensive renovation, it was restored to its former glory. The large pillar with the cross that dominates the west side of the square is one of its new features. This is the Monument to the War of Independence, commemorating Estonia's hard-fought struggle in 1918 to 1920 to free itself of foreign rule. Jaani kirik (Saint John's Church) dominates Vabaduse väljak (Freedom Square) and is a large Neo-Gothic Lutheran church built between 1862 and 1867. It is dedicated to Saint John the Evangelist. From the time of the Reformation, Estonia's primary religious tradition has been Lutheranism and the national church of Estonia is the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church of which Jaani kirik (Saint John's Church) is a parish church.



Photo: Vabaduse väljak (Freedom Square)



Photo: Vabaduse väljak (Freedom Square)



Photo: Jaani kirik (Saint John's Church)

Rootsi-Mihkli kirik (Saint Michael's Church): Rootsi-Mihkli kirik (Saint Michael's Church) is a Lutheran church used by the Swedish congregation in the Old Town of Tallinn. A Swedish-speaking minority and congregation has probably existed in Tallinn since the Middle Ages but the first written reference of Swedish congregation dates from 1531. For some years during the early 1700s the congregation was without a church until they relocated to the present premises in 1733. During the upheavals of World War 2 and the Soviet occupation of Estonia, most Estonian Swedes fled the country and resettled in Sweden and the Soviet authorities expropriated the building which was used as a sports club until the restoration of Estonia's independence in 1991. In 1992, following a state visit by the King of Sweden, the building once more passed into the hands of the Estonian-Swedish congregation. Rootsi-Mihkli kirik (Saint Michael's Church) is also the location of a very old Linden tree which was planted around 1680 or possibly earlier. Today, it is called the Kelch Linden after the former pastor of the church. It is Tallinn’s oldest tree and survived the burning of the rectory and the church next to it during the bombing of March 1944. It is one of Tallinn’s natural monuments and has been under conservation since 1966.



Photo: Rootsi-Mihkli kirik (Saint Michael's Church)



Photo: Rootsi-Mihkli kirik (Saint Michael's Church)



Photo: the Kelch Linden

Museum of Occupations: The Museum of Occupations provides a comprehensive overview of Estonian society during 3 periods of occupation: the first Soviet occupation from 1940 to 1941, the German occupation from 1941 to 1944 and the second Soviet occupation from 1944 to 1991. Audio-visual displays and photos highlight the events of the era, repression and national resistance as well as showing how people coped with the day-to-day realities of these difficult periods.



Photo: courtesy of Museum of Occupations website

Finland – Helsinki:

Helsinki, the capital of Finland, is very easy to explore on foot.

I used the following for my Helsinki city trip:

“Helsinki” chapter of “Lonely Planet: Finland”



Official Helsinki Tourist Office website

In Helsinki I stayed at Hotelli Finn on the night of 29th May at a cost of £64.21.



Photo: Hotelli Finn, Helsinki

Accommodation options in central Helsinki are generally very expensive for a budget traveller. However, Hotelli Finn is located in Helsinki centre just 5 to 10 minutes walk from the main railway station and it provides excellent value for money. Hotelli Finn offers a budget option with small, clean, comfortable and functional rooms. The wi-fi internet signal was reliable and strong. Hotelli Finn met all my needs for a single night stay perfectly. Finding Hotelli Finn is possibly a little difficult. External signage was not great and I walked right past the entrance to start with. Inside the foyer area to the block, you have to take a not completely obvious (very small!) lift to the 6th floor reception. Reception staff were welcoming and friendly and spoke perfect English. Hotelli Finn is highly recommended as a budget option in central Helsinki and I would definitely stay there again should I make yet another visit to Helsinki.

At Helsinki Vantaa airport I stayed at Airport Hotel Bonus Inn on the night of 31st May at a cost of £69.11.



Photo: Airport Hotel Bonus Inn, Helsinki Vantaa

I stayed at Airport Hotel Bonus Inn for a single night prior to my return flight to the UK. Airport Hotel Bonus Inn is located in close proximity to Helsinki Vantaa airport and the hotel operated free shuttle minibus offers speedy and convenient transfer from/to the airport. Reception staff were welcoming and friendly and spoke perfect English. My room was very large, clean and comfortable, other than that the windows barely opened and there was no air-conditioning. This proved to be somewhat of an issue since Helsinki was experiencing a hot and sunny day with temperatures of around 26 degrees when I stayed there. Rooms maybe do need some upgrading but I think that some previous website reviews are over-critical of the quality of accommodation currently offered. The on-site restaurant offered a range of "international" options rather than traditional Finnish food which I would have preferred but nonetheless the food and (expensive) beer were very good. Airport Hotel Bonus Inn is recommended for a pre-flight stay and I would definitely stay there again should I need such accommodation in the future.

I have visited Helsinki on a number of occasions previously so on this trip I concentrated on the city centre and harbour area plus the following:

On the day of my arrival in Finland on 22nd May, I took a short return trip by train from Helsinki to Ainola. Ainola was the home of Jean Sibelius and his family from 1904. Its distance from the hustle and bustle of Finland’s capital gave the composer the peace that he needed for his creative endeavours whilst other artistic families living in the neighbourhood provided a lively social circle. Jean and Aino Sibelius lived at Ainola until the end of their lives: Jean died at Ainola in 1957 and Aino in 1969. They are buried together within the grounds of Ainola. After their parents’ death, the couple’s daughters sold Ainola to the Finnish State in 1972 and currently Ainola is a special museum under the auspices of the National Board of Antiquities. The Ainola Foundation administers the property in this capacity. Ainola is located close to Lake Tuusula in Järvenpää to the north of Helsinki. It can be reached by a commuter train in 26 minutes (£11.10 return ticket) from Helsinki plus a walk of about 0.5 miles. The entrance cost includes a free guided tour if booked in advance. The guide on the day that I visited was exceptionally knowledgeable about Sibelius himself and the history of the house.



Photo: Jean Sibelius



Photo: Jean Sibelius



Photo: Ainola .... the house



Photo: Ainola .... the house



Photo: Ainola .... the garden



Photo: Ainola .... the garden

On returning to Helsinki on 29th May after my trip to Saint Petersburg, I took a ride on the Finnair SkyWheel. The Finniar Skywheel was opened in 2014 and it is located in the Katajanokka district of Helsinki. It is a 40-meter high observation wheel with 30 blue and white gondolas that provide a spectacular 360° view of Helsinki and its most important surrounding attractions.



Photo: Finnair SkyWheel



Photo: Finnair SkyWheel



Photo: Finnair SkyWheel

I also took a Helsinki archipelago and canal boat trip. The 1.5 hours Strömma trip from the main harbour travels through the beautiful Helsinki archipelago passing many sights en-route and returning via the Degerö Canal.



Map: Helsinki archipelago and canal boat trip route



Photo: Stromma sightseeing boat



Photo: Helsinki archipelago



Photo: Helsinki archipelago



Photo: Helsinki archipelago

In the city centre and harbour area the following were my other highlights in Helsinki:

Senaatintori (Senate Square) and Helsingin tuomiokirkko (Helsinki Cathedral): Senaatintori (Senate Square) and its surroundings form a unique example of Neoclassical architecture. It is dominated by 4 buildings designed by Carl Ludvig Engel between 1822 and 1852: Helsingin tuomiokirkko (Helsinki Cathedral), the Government Palace, the main building of the University of Helsinki and the National Library of Finland. The beautiful and historically significant Helsingin tuomiokirkko (Helsinki Cathedral) is a Lutheran church and for many it is the symbol of Helsinki. Situated in Senaatintori (Senate Square), the cathedral was completed in 1852 and is probably Finland's most famous and photographed building.



Photo: Helsingin tuomiokirkko (Helsinki Cathedral)



Photo: Helsingin tuomiokirkko (Helsinki Cathedral) from Finnair Skywheel

Uspenskin katedraali (Uspenski Orthodox Cathedral): Uspenskin katedraali (Uspenski Orthodox Cathedral) is the largest Orthodox church in western Europe and its golden cupolas and redbrick facade represent one of the clearest symbols of the Russian impact on Finnish history. Situated in the Katajanokka district of Helsinki, the cathedral was completed in 1868.



Photo: Uspenskin katedraali (Uspenski Orthodox Cathedral) from Finnair Skywheel

Kauppatori (Market Square): Kauppatori (Market Square) is located in the South Harbour at the beginning of the Esplanade Park and it is Helsinki's most international and famous market selling traditional market foods (yum!) as well as handicrafts and souvenirs.



Photo: Kauppatori (Market Square) from Finnair Skywheel



Photo: Kauppatori (Market Square) from Stromma sightseeing boat

Sibelius-monumentti (Sibelius Monument): The Sibelius-monumentti (Sibelius Monument) is located in Sibeliuspuisto (Sibelius Park) in the Töölö district and was unveiled in September 1967. Resembling organ pipes, the monument is made of welded steel with the bust of the composer on one side and it is one of Helsinki's most popular statues and one of the most well-known tourist attractions.



Photo: Sibelius-monumentti (Sibelius Monument)



Photo: Sibelius-monumentti (Sibelius Monument)

Saint Petersburg – background:



Saint Petersburg is Russia's second-largest city after Moscow with a population of 5 million and an important Russian port on the Baltic Sea. Situated on the Neva river, at the head of the Gulf of Finland on the Baltic Sea, it was founded by Tsar Peter the Great on 27th May 1703. Between 1713 to 1728 and 1732 to 1918, Saint Petersburg was the imperial capital of Russia.

The 1905 Russian Revolution began in Saint Petersburg and spread rapidly into the provinces. In September 1914, after the outbreak of World War I, the Imperial government renamed the city Petrograd ("Peter's City") to remove the German words “Sankt” and “Burg”. In March 1917, during the February 2017 Russian Revolution Tsar Nicholas II abdicated both for himself and on behalf of his son, ending the Russian monarchy and over 300 years of Romanov dynastic rule. On 7th November 1917, the Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (alias Lenin), stormed the Winter Palace in an event known thereafter as the October Revolution. This led to the end of the post-Tsarist provisional government, the transfer of all political power to the Soviets and the rise of the Communist Party. On 26th January 1924, 5 days after Lenin's death, Petrograd was renamed Leningrad.

During World War 2, German forces besieged Leningrad following the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. The siege lasted 872 days from September 1941 to January 1944. The Siege of Leningrad proved to be one of the longest, most destructive and most lethal sieges of a major city in modern history. It isolated the city from most supplies except those provided through the “Road of Life” across Lake Ladoga. More than 1 million civilians died from starvation and disease. Many others were eventually evacuated or escaped.

On 1st May 1945 Joseph Stalin named Leningrad a “Hero City” along with 11 other cities in the Soviet Union. However, Leningrad took a back seat to Moscow during the Soviet era.

On 12th June 1991, in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union and simultaneously with the first Russian presidential elections, the city authorities arranged for the mayoral elections and a referendum upon the name of the city. Renamed once more, most Russians know it as Piter, a familiar diminutive of Saint Petersburg. Saint Petersburg has since become the most cosmopolitan and western of Russia's cities as well as its cultural capital.

The “Historic Centre of Saint Petersburg and Related Groups of Monuments” is the name used by UNESCO when it collectively designated the historic core of the city as well as buildings and ensembles located in the immediate vicinity as a World Heritage Site in 1991. The site was recognised for its architectural heritage, fusing Baroque, Neoclassical and traditional Russian Byzantine influences.

On 27th May each year, Saint Petersburg celebrates its “City Day”. This is always a special day since it was on this day in 1703 that Tsar Peter the Great laid the foundations of a new fortress on territory recently regained from Sweden in the Great Northern War. This would grow to become the city of Saint Petersburg as the new Russian capital. I was not aware until I arrived that my visit coincided with the 2016 celebrations.



Photo: commemorating 27th May 1703



Photo: commemorating 27th May 1703

The city was very busy and the number of people on the streets reminded me of New Years Eve in London and Edinburgh. Apart from a lot of street artists and street music, there was also an excellent free classical gala concert in Palace Square.



Photo: promoting the classical gala concert in Palace Square



Saint Petersburg – pre-planning:

My visit to Saint Petersburg required careful pre-planning in the UK before I left for Estonia and Finland. There are strict entry requirements involving the purchase of a Russian tourist visa.

I used the services of Real Russia based in Islington, London to ensure that everything was processed correctly and in time. The cost of my Russian visa and the services provided by Real Russia was £128.40. Although not the sole company providing visa services, Real Russia are highly recommended from my experience with them.



In addition to applying for and receiving a visa in the UK and having your passport and visa checked on entry to and exit from Russia, there is also a requirement to fill out an immigration card at the border and to ensure that the visa is registered by your accommodation provider. Not much bureaucracy then! .... but a necessary frustration in order to visit this wonderful city.

Saint Petersburg – getting there and leaving:

After my short trip to north east Finland, I travelled to Saint Petersburg from Kouvola, a town in Finland located 80 miles north east of Helsinki and on the main Helsinki to Saint Petersburg rail route.

VR Group Finnish Railways and RZD Russian Railways have a joint venture to run a high-speed Helsinki to Saint Petersburg train service known as Allegro. There are 4 departures per day from Helsinki and Saint Petersburg and the Allegro trains are electric tilting Pendolino trains. Passport and customs controls are conducted on board the moving train in both Finland and Russia and include in the Finland sector a very friendly black Labrador “sniffer dog” kitted out in his jacket decorated with Finland and EU flags. Apart from checks for a valid passport and visa, there is a requirement to fill out a 2 part immigration card on entry to Russia. One part is surrendered immediately whilst the other part is surrendered on exit from Russia.



Photo: Allegro at Heslinki station

On 26th May, I took the Allegro train from Kouvola to Saint Petersburg departing at 12:13 p.m. and arriving at 14:27 p.m. The trip cost £42.94 booked via VR Group Finnish Railways.



Photo: Allegro arriving at Kouvola .... my outward train to Saint Petersburg

On 29th May, I took the Allegro train from Saint Petersburg to Kouvola departing at 6:41 a.m. and arriving at 8:54 a.m. The trip cost £21:15 booked via RZD Russian Railways.



Photo: Allegro at Saint Petersburg station .... my return train to Kouvola

Saint Petersburg – getting around:

The historic centre of Saint Petersburg is quite compact and very easy to walk around.

In addition, the metro system provides a means to travel around the city and to more distant locations from the centre. It is very easy to use with colour coded lines and signage at stations and on trains in both Cyrillic and Roman script (the latter including English translations). It is also exceptionally cheap with a single journey of any distance costing just 35 roubles (approximately 35p). Most metro stations are accessed by extremely long and steep escalators to a great depth and many exhibit beautiful decorations and artwork.



Apart from seeing Saint Petersburg on foot, a boat trip along the canals, Fontanka river and Neva river gives a completely different perspective of the city.



Photo: sightseeing boat on the Fontanka river by the Anichkov Most (Anichkov Bridge)

I took a 1.5 hours trip with Angloturismo from their dock on the Fontanka river next to the (Anichkov Most) Anichkov Bridge.



Map: Angloturismo route map

There are a large number of boat trip operators in Saint Petersburg but Angloturismo are highly recommended by Lonely Planet since they have English speaking guides such as Olga ....





Photo: Fontanka river by the Anichkov Most (Anichkov Bridge) from the Angloturismo dock



Photo: Fontanka river and Troitsky Sobor (Trinity Cathedral)



Photo: Neva river, Winter Palace, Admiralty and Isaakievskiy Sobor (Saint Isaac's Cathedral)



Photo: Neva river, Admiralty, Isaakievskiy Sobor (Saint Isaac's Cathedral) and Dvortsovy Most (Palace Bridge)



Photo: Neva river, Petropavlovskaya Krepost (Peter and Paul Fortress) and Petropavlovskij Sobor (Peter and Paul Cathedral)



Photo: Neva river and Troitsky Most (Trinity Bridge)

Saint Petersburg – accommodation:

Prior to my trip, I had pre-booked the following accommodation via venere.com:

26th to 28th May – Hotel Peterville – £122.13 for 3 nights



Photo: Peterville Hotel, Saint Petersburg

Saint Petersburg has a huge range of accommodation options, ranging from the ridiculously expensive to the very cheap with highly critical reviews. For a budget traveller, the Peterville Hotel is perfect and provides excellent value for money combining quality accommodation at a very reasonable cost.

I stayed at the Peterville Hotel for 3 nights and I found the location to be very convenient being just 5 minutes walk from Ligovsky Propsekt metro station allowing fast access to the metro network for the city centre and beyond. The reception staff were welcoming and friendly and spoke very good English. On leaving, they also booked a taxi for me to Finlandsky station for my return to Helsinki on the high speed Allegro train. My room was clean and comfortable and met all my needs during my stay. The wi-fi internet reception was reliable and strong. The only issue I found was that the breakfast included in the price did not offer as many options as most accommodation providers. However, breakfast did start at 7:30 which allowed for an early start to the day.

Saint Petersburg is a beautiful and interesting city and the Peterville Hotel is highly recommended as a base. I would certainly stay at the Peterville Hotel again should I re-visit Saint Petersburg in the future.

Saint Petersburg – research, planning and sights:

I used the following for my Saint Petersburg city trip:

“Lonely Planet: Saint Petersburg”: this book follows the usual Lonely Planet format and provides essential planning information, detailed information on a district by district basis plus a wide variety of other contextual information



“In Your Pocket: Saint Petersburg”: a downloadable pdf. guide from In Your Pocket



Official Saint Petersburg Tourist Office website

I used street maps accompanying the Lonely Planet book and a tourist map provided free by Hotel Peterville.

The following were my highlights in Saint Petersburg:

Ploshchad Lenina (Lenin Square): Ploshchad Lenina (Lenin Square) is located between the Finlyandsky train station (terminal for the Helsinki to Saint Petersburg high speed Allegro train route) and the Neva river. It is best known for its statue of Lenin and the fountains. In April 1917, Lenin returned from exile to the Finlyandsky train station to lead the October Revolution. Standing on an armoured car, he gave one of his most famous speeches, inspiring the actions of the Bolsheviks for years to come. Due to this historic event, the square was renamed in his honour in 1924 and 2 years later the monument to the revolutionary leader was erected.



Photo: Finlyandsky train station



Photo: Ploshchad Lenina (Lenin Square)



Photo: Statue of Lenin in Ploshchad Lenina (Lenin Square)

Nevsky Prospekt: Nevsky Prospekt is the main street in the city of Saint Petersburg and one of the best known streets in Russia. In the very first days of Saint Petersburg, it was simply the beginning of the road to the ancient city of Novgorod but it quickly became adorned with beautiful buildings, squares and bridges and became the very centre of the bustling, rapidly growing city. Planned by Tsar Peter the Great, the broad avenue runs for almost 3 miles from the Admiralty to the Moskovsky train station and, after making a turn at Ploshchad Vosstaniya (Uprising Square), it continues to the Alexander Nevsky Monastery. Nevsky Prospekt is served by a number of metro stations and, whilst it includes a number of historical sights, the majority of the city's shopping, entertainment and nightlife are located on it or on streets off it.



Photo: Nevsky Prospekt

Church of Our Saviour on Spilled Blood: The beautiful Church of our Saviour on Spilled Blood is one of the main sights of Saint Petersburg and was built on the site where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated in March 1881 by a group of revolutionaries who threw a bomb at his royal carriage. A decision was taken to build a church on the spot where the Tsar was fatally wounded. It was built between 1883 and 1907 and was officially called the Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ. Construction was almost entirely funded by the Imperial family and thousands of private donators. Both the interior and exterior of the church is decorated with incredibly detailed mosaics, designed and created by the most prominent Russian artists of the day. The Church of our Saviour on Spilled Blood was closed for services in the 1930s when the Bolsheviks went on an offensive against religion and destroyed churches all over the country. It remained closed and under restoration for over 30 years and was finally re-opened in 1997 in all its dazzling former glory. The Church of our Saviour on Spilled Blood is prominently situated along the Griboedov Canal and the view from Nevsky Prospekt is absolutely breathtaking.



Photo: Church of our Saviour on Spilled Blood



Photo: Church of our Saviour on Spilled Blood



Photo: Church of our Saviour on Spilled Blood

State Russian Museum: The State Russian Museum is the largest depository of Russian fine art in Saint Petersburg and one of the largest museums in Russia. It was established on April 1895 upon the enthronement of Tsar Nicholas II to commemorate his father, Tsar Alexander III. The main building of the museum is the Mikhailovsky Palace, a Neoclassical residence built between 1819 and 1825.



Photo: State Russian Museum (Mikhailovsky Palace)

Kazanskaya Ploshchad (Kazan Square) and Kazanskiy Kafedralniy Sobor (Kazan Cathedral): Kazanskiy Kafedralniy Sobor (Kazan Cathedral) is located in Kazanskaya Ploshchad (Kazan Square) on Nevsky Prospekt. Built between 1801 and 1811, it is dedicated to Our Lady of Kazan, probably the most venerated icon in Russia. In 1876, the Kazan demonstration, the first political demonstration in Russia, took place in front of the cathedral. After the October Revolution in 1917, the cathedral was closed. In 1932 it was reopened as the pro-Marxist Museum of the History of Religion and Atheism. Services were resumed in 1992 and 4 years later the cathedral was returned to the Russian Orthodox Church.



Photo: Kazanskiy Kafedralniy Sobor (Kazan Cathedral)

Summer Garden and Mars Field and the Eternal Flame: The Summer Garden is located where the Fontanka river flows out of the Neva river. It was founded in 1704 by order of Tsar Peter the Great, who was personally involved in planning it. It is laid out according to strict geometrical principles and is home to marble statues acquired from Europe especially for Russia's new capital plus rare flowers and plants and fountains. The Summer Garden is also the location of Tsar Peter the Great's first Summer Palace. Adjoining the Summer Garden, the Field of Mars has a long and varied history dating back to the very beginning of the city's history when it was originally an overgrown bog. In 1805 it acquired its present day name. After being used as an area for celebrations and parades and as a training ground for troops, in 1917 it was used to bury those who died in the February 2017 Russian Revolution and a monument to "Fighters for the Revolution" was created there. During the Siege of Leningrad the Field of Mars became a huge vegetable garden. In 1957 the Eternal Flame was lit on the Field of Mars in memory of the victims in Saint Petersburg of all wars and revolutions.



Photo: Summer Garden



Photo: Mars Field and the Eternal Flame

Dvortsovaya Ploshchad (Palace Square), the Alexander Column, the Winter Palace, the General Staff and Ministries Building and the Hermitage: Dvortsovaya Ploshchad (Palace Square), connecting Nevsky Prospekt with Dvortsovy Most (Palace Bridge) leading to Vasilievsky Island, is one of the most beautiful and harmonious ensembles of architecture in the world. It remains the main public space of Saint Petersburg after nearly 3 centuries and, like Red Square in Moscow, it has been the setting of many major events in Russian history, including the October Revolution in 1917. The Alexander Column is the focal point of Dvortsovaya Ploshchad (Palace Square) and was built between 1830 and 1834 to commemorate the Russian military victory in the war with Napoleon's France. It is named after Tsar Alexander I who ruled Russia between 1801 and 1825 during the Napoleonic Wars. The monument is 155 feet 8 inches tall and is topped with a statue of an angel holding a cross.



Photo: Dvortsovaya Ploshchad (Palace Square) and the Alexander Column

The earliest and most celebrated building on Dvortsovaya Ploshchad (Palace Square) is the baroque white and azure Winter Palace built between 1754 and 1762 and which gave the square its name. It was the official residence of the Russian Tsars. The storming of the palace by a detachment of Red Army soldiers as depicted in Soviet paintings and films became an iconic symbol of the October Revolution in 1917 and a defining moment in the birth of the Soviet Union. The Winter Palace physically dominates Dvortsovaya Ploshchad (Palace Square) and the south embankment of the Neva river and plays a central political, symbolic and cultural role in the history of the city.



Photo: Dvortsovaya Ploshchad (Palace Square) and the Winter Palace



Photo: Winter Palace



Photo: Neva river and the Winter Palace

The General Staff and Ministries Building curves around the south side of Dvortsovaya Ploshchad (Palace Square) and matches the Winter Palace opposite for scale and grandeur. It was built between 1819 and 1829 to house the Headquarters of the General Staff of the Russian Army in the west wing and the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the east wing. The 2 wings of the building are connected by a magnificent triumphal arch designed to commemorate victory over Napoleon in 1812. The arch links Palace Square via Bolshaya Morskaya Ulitsa to Nevsky Prospekt. Today the west wing now hosts the headquarters of the Western Military District, one of the operational strategic commands of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, whilst the east wing is now part of the State Hermitage Museum.



Photo: Dvortsovaya Ploshchad (Palace Square) and the General Staff and Ministries Building

The State Hermitage Museum is a museum of art and one of the largest and oldest museums in the world. It was founded in 1764 by Catherine the Great and has been open to the public since 1852. Its collections, of which only a small part is on permanent display, comprise over 3 million items including the largest collection of paintings in the world. The collections occupy a large complex of 6 historic buildings along Dvortsovaya Naberezhnaya (Palace Embankment) including the Winter Palace.



Photo: State Hermitage Museum

Dvortsovy Most (Palace Bridge): Dvortsovy Most (Palace Bridge) is a road traffic and foot bascule bridge (drawbridge) spanning the Neva river and it is one of the most famous sights of Saint Petersburg. Like every other Neva river bridge, it is raised at night, making foot travel between various parts of the city virtually impossible. The bridge is actually composed of 5 spans and joins Dvortsovaya Naberezhnaya (Palace Embankment) and Admiralteyskaya Naberezhnaya (Admiralty Embankment) between the Winter Palace and the Admiralty to Vasilyevsky Ostrov (Vasilyevsky Island). The history of Palace Bridge dates back to 1901 when a competition for designs for a permanent bridge at the site was announced. Construction began in 1912 but World War 1 severely interfered with the completion of the project. The incomplete bridge was eventually opened in 1916 but it was not fully completed and decorated until 1939 when it was known as the Republican Bridge. The bridge's original name was returned in 1944 and it has since been fully restored several times. Views from the bridge are some of the most impressive in the city.



Photo: Neva river and Dvortsovy Most (Palace Bridge)

Strelka: Strelka is the easternmost tip of Vasilyevsky Ostrov (Vasilyevsky Island) and where Tsar Peter the Great wanted his new city’s administrative and intellectual centre to be. In fact, Strelka became the focus of the city’s maritime trade. The 2 Rostral Columns, Saint Petersburg landmarks, are studded with ships’ prows and 4 seated sculptures representing 4 of Russia’s great rivers: the Neva, the Volga, the Dnieper and the Volkhov. Strelka provides some of the best views in the city.



Photo: Neva river, Strelka and Rostral Columns



Photo: Strelka



Photo: Strelka



Photo: view from Strelka ..... Neva river and Winter Palace



Photo: view from Strelka ..... Neva river and Petropavlovskaya Krepost (Peter and Paul Fortress) and Petropavlovskij Sobor (Peter and Paul Cathedral)

The Admiralty and Alexander Garden: The original Admiralty was one of the first structures to be built in Saint Petersburg and was designed to be a dockyard where some of the first ships of Russia's Baltic fleet were built. The Admiralty building today was built between 1806 and 1823. The gilded spire and weathervane of the Admiralty is another of St. Petersburg's famous landmarks and it is the focal point of 3 of the city's main streets: Nevsky Prospekt, Gorokhovaya Ulitsa and Voznesensky Prospekt. The Admiralty was Russia's Naval Headquarters until 1917 but it now serves as a naval college. The Alexander Garden lies along the south and west façades of the the Admiralty, parallel to the Neva river and Admiralteyskaya Naberezhnaya (Admiralty Embankment) and extending from Dvortsovaya Ploshchad (Palace Square) in the east to Isaakievskiy Sobor (Saint Isaac's Cathedral) in the west. The park is named after Tsar Alexander II.



Photo: Admiralty



Photo: Neva river and Admiralty

Senatskaya Ploshchad (Senate Square) and the Bronze Horseman: Senatskaya Ploshchad (Senate Square), formerly known as Decembrists' Square between 1925 and 2008 and Peter's Square before 1925, is a city square situated on the left bank of the Bolshaya Neva in front of Isaakievskiy Sobor (Saint Isaac's Cathedral). It is bounded by the Admiralty to the east and on the west side is the Senate and Synod Building (now the headquarters of the Constitutional Court of Russia). The Bronze Horseman monument adorns the square. The Bronze Horseman is an equestrian statue of Tsar Peter the Great which was commissioned by Catherine the Great and created by the French sculptor Étienne Maurice Falconet. The monument is now one of the symbols of Saint Petersburg. The statue's pedestal is the enormous Thunder Stone, the largest stone reputedly ever moved by humans. A 19th century legend states that while the Bronze Horseman stands in the middle of Saint Petersburg, enemy forces will not be able to conquer the city. During the 900-day Siege of Leningrad by the invading Germans during the World War 2, the monument was covered with sandbags and a wooden shelter. Thus protected it survived 900 days of bombing virtually untouched. True to the legend, Leningrad was never taken.



Photo: the Bronze Horseman



Photo: the Bronze Horseman

Isaakievskiy Sobor (Saint Isaac's Cathedral): Isaakievskiy Sobor (Saint Isaac's Cathedral) is the largest Russian Orthodox cathedral in the city and the largest orthodox basilica and the 4th largest (by the volume under the cupola) cathedral in the world. The dome of the cathedral dominates the city skyline and its gilded cupola can be seen glistening from all over the city. It is dedicated to Saint Isaac of Dalmatia, a patron saint of Tsar Peter the Great who had been born on the feast day of that saint. Construction was ordered by Tsar Alexander I and it took 40 years to build between 1818 and 1858. Under the Soviet Union government, the building was stripped of religious trappings and in 1931 it was turned in to the Museum of the History of Religion and Atheism. In 1937, the museum was transformed in to the Museum of the Cathedral. With the fall of communism, the museum was removed and regular worship activity has resumed but only in the left hand side chapel. The main body of the cathedral is used for services on feast days only.



Photo: Isaakievskiy Sobor (Saint Isaac's Cathedral)



Photo: Isaakievskiy Sobor (Saint Isaac's Cathedral)

Mariisnskiy Palace: The Mariinskiy Palace occupies a prominent position across Isaakiyevskaya Ploshchad (Saint Isaac's Square) from Isaakievskiy Sobor (Saint Isaac's Cathedral). It is a Neoclassical palace built between 1839 and 1844. In 1884, it was assigned by Tsar Alexander III to house the State Council of Imperial Russia. The Provisional Government took full possession of the palace in March 1917 and gave it over to the Council of the Russian Republic. After the October Revolution in 1917, the palace housed various Soviet ministries and academies. During World War 2, it served as a hospital and was subjected to intensive bombing. After the war, the palace became the residence of the Leningrad Soviet, succeeded by the Saint Petersburg Legislative Assembly in 1994.



Photo: Mariisnskiy Palace

Mariinsky Theatre: The Mariinsky Theatre is a historic theatre of opera and ballet. It is a monumental Neoclassical building most impressive for its sheer bulk and the beautiful decoration of its auditorium. Opened in 1860, it became the pre-eminent music theatre of late 19th century Russia, where many of the stage masterpieces of Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov received their premieres. Through most of the Soviet era, it was known as the Kirov Theatre. Today, the Mariinsky Theatre is home to the Mariinsky Ballet, Mariinsky Opera and Mariinsky Orchestra.



Photo: Mariinsky Theatre

Ploshchad Vosstaniya (Uprising Square), Hero City Obeslisk and Moskovsky train station: Ploshchad Vosstaniya (Uprising Square), formerly known as Ploshchad Znamenskaya, is a major square in the city centre. It lies at the crossing of Nevsky Prospekt and Ligovsky Prospekt in front of the Moskvosky train station. The square's construction began in 1844 to coincide with the construction of the railway from Saint Petersburg to Moscow. During the February 2017 Russian Revolution, mass demonstrations and clashes with police took place in Ploshchad Znamenskaya. In memory of these events the area became known as the Ploshchad Vosstaniya (Uprising Square) in 1918. The Hero City Obelisk was erected on Victory Day in May 1985 in Ploshchad Vosstaniya (Uprising Square) in order to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Victory Day of the Red Army's victory in the German-Soviet War during World War 2. After the Alexander Column, the Hero City Obelisk is the highest stone monument in Saint Petersburg. Moskovsky train station is a terminal for the Saint Petersburg to Moscow railway line and other lines running to/from central and south Russia, Crimea, Siberia and eastern Ukraine. It is the oldest preserved station in the city, erected between 1844 and 1851. As Tsar Nicholas I of Russia was the reigning monarch and the greatest patron of railway construction, the station was originally named Nicholaevsky after him. Re-named Oktyabrsky in 1924 to commemorate the October Revolution of 1917, the station was not given its present name until 1930.



Photo: Ploshchad Vosstaniya (Uprising Square) and the Hero City Obeslisk



Photo: Ploshchad Vosstaniya (Uprising Square) and the Hero City Obeslisk



Photo: Ploshchad Vosstaniya (Uprising Square)



Photo: Ploshchad Vosstaniya (Uprising Square) and Moskovsky train station

Smolny Cathedral: The Smolny Cathedral is one of the most beautiful churches in the city although during my visit it was undergoing renovation and it was impossible to appreciate it. The Smolny Cathedral site is located on Ploschad Rastrelli on the banks of the Neva river and consists of the cathedral itself and a complex of buildings surrounding it which were originally intended for a convent. The cathedral is a sky blue and white building and it is considered to be one of the architectural masterpieces of the Italian architect Francesco Bartolomeo Rastrelli who also redesigned the Winter Palace and created the Grand Catherine Palace in Tsarskoye Selo (Pushkin), the Grand Palace in Peterhof and other major Saint Petersburg landmarks.



Photo: Smolny Cathedral .... all covered up



Photo: Smolny Cathedral .... as it should have looked

Monument to the Victims of Political Repression: During the period of Perestroika (the Mikhail Gorbachev led "restructuring" of the Soviet Union political and economic system) in the 1980s and on into the 1990s, as Russians began to come to grips with the horrific and long suppressed history of repression and state murder in the Stalin era, monuments began to appear to the many millions who had suffered and died at the hands of the Soviet authorities.



Photo: Monument to the Victims of Political Repression

Museum of the Defence and Blockade of Leningrad: The Museum of the Defence and Blockade of Leningrad commemorates the Siege of Leningrad which lasted from 8th September 1941 to 27th January 1944. During this period, the citizens of Leningrad suffered chronic deprivation and constant bombardment. Although the precarious “Road of Life”, the ice road winter transport route across the frozen Lake Ladoga, brought supplies in the winter months, food was woefully short, fuel was scarce in winter and in summer the dire state of sanitation spread disease at epidemic levels. In all, over 700,000 civilians died during the siege. Their sacrifice and the extraordinary endurance of the survivors is etched on the conscience of the city, a source of immense pride and profound sorrow. A memorial museum was established around the current site immediately after the end of the siege and it covered an area over 30 times the size of the present exhibition. However, fearing the unifying power of such a monument, Stalin ordered its destruction during his purge of the Leningrad Party in 1948. The museum's director was shot, the larger exhibits were disbursed and destroyed in secret and the rest were burnt until there was nothing left. It was not until the late 1980s that it became possible to re-establish the museum which reopened on 8th September 1989. Marked by 2 anti-aircraft guns flanking its entrance, the new museum is considerably more modest than its predecessor but it still contains fascinating displays and exhibits. Whilst all the text to the displays and exhibits is in Russian, foreign visitors can use audio guides.



Photo: Museum of the Defence and Blockade of Leningrad



Photo: Museum of the Defence and Blockade of Leningrad

Ploshchad Aleksandra Nevskogo (Alexander Nevsky Square) and Alexander Nevsky monastery: Ploshchad Aleksandra Nevskogo (Alexander Nevsky Square) is located at the end of Nevsky Prospekt. Construction of the square began in front of the monastery in the late 18th century. In the 19th and early 20th century, the square was a very unpleasant place. In 1923, as anti-religious propaganda spread, the area was renamed Red Square as an analogy to the main square of Moscow. In 1952 it regained its original name and with the opening of the Alexander Nevsky Bridge in 1965, the square began to change for the better. For the 300th anniversary of Saint Petersburg, an equestrian statue of Alexander Nevsky was unveiled in the square. Almost every tourist visits Ploshchad Aleksandra Nevskogo (Alexander Nevsky Square) because it holds the entrance to one of the main attractions of Saint Petersburg: the Alexander Nevsky Monastery. Alexander Nevsky was an outstanding Russian commander in the 12th century who routed the Swedish army on the banks of the Neva river near this location. Because of this, Alexander Nevsky is the patron saint of Saint Petersburg and was greatly admired by Tsar Peter the Great whose idea it was to found a monastery in his honour. The monastery complex is home to some of the oldest buildings in the city as well as to cemeteries which contain the graves of some of the giants of Russian culture, including Tchaikovsky, Dostoevsky, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Glinka. The monastery was founded in July 1710, 7 years after the foundation of Saint Petersburg by Tsar Peter the Great. In 1712, the first wooden church was built on the site of the future monastery and consecrated in Tsar Peter the Great's presence in March 1713. The monastery began working shortly afterward. In 1724, a new church was consecrated and named for Alexander Nevsky. By the beginning of the 20th century the territory of the monastery complex was home to an impressive 16 churches but today only 5 survive. In January 1918, the Bolsheviks attempted to seize the monastery and its valuables but were driven off by determined church-goers. However, the monastery was closed shortly afterwards and robbed and looted of its valuables. From 1931 to 1936 all of the churches and cathedrals within the monastery were closed and the remaining space was turned over to the city government which distributed it to various different institutes, offices and warehouses. After a number of petitions, the Holy Trinity Cathedral was returned to the Orthodox Church in 1955. Services began in the Church of Saint Nicholas behind Holy Trinity Cathedral in 1985. In June 1989, the remains of Alexander Nevsky were moved back and in the early 1990s the monastery was the centre of celebrations of Alexander's life and heroic deeds.



Photo: Alexander Nevsky monastery



Photo: Alexander Nevsky monastery



Photo: Alexander Nevsky monastery

Ploschad Pobedy (Victory Square) and Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad: Ploschad Pobedy (Victory Square), with its location at the southern tip of the city, is often referred to as a "gateway" in to Saint Petersburg and here the highways leading from Kiev and Moscow to the city converge. Until the mid-20th century, the square was well beyond the city limits. During the World War 2, it was just behind the front line during the Siege of Leningrad, the site of artillery units and other defences. The second life of the area began in 1945 when a wooden Triumphal Arch of Victory was built to greet soldiers returning from abroad. Today, the square provides a grand welcome to visitors to Saint Petersburg whilst the Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad reminds them of the defining tragedy that shaped the city's recent history. The monument faces Pulkovo Heights, the series of hills to the south of the city where the German forces were halted in 1941 and was built to commemorate the heroic efforts of the residents of Leningrad and the soldiers on the Leningrad Front to the repel the Nazis in the Siege of Leningrad. The first plans to build a monument to the World War 2 victory were announced in 1958 when the city opened a competition for its design. The monument is one of the best examples of Soviet monumental art dedicated to World War 2 victory and comprises a broken ring and obelisk. The space inside the broken ring is lit with gas torches and engravings on the walls of the monument are dedicated to the nationwide recognition of the courage shown by the defenders of Leningrad. On the outside are sculptures representing soldiers, sailors and civilians who did not surrender to the Nazis despite hunger, cold and constant bombardment.



Photo: Ploschad Pobedy (Victory Square) and Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad



Photo: Ploschad Pobedy (Victory Square) and Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad



Photo: Ploschad Pobedy (Victory Square) and Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad



Photo: Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad



Photo: Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad



Photo: Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad



Photo: Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad



Photo: Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad



Photo: Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad

Petropavlovskaya Krepost (Peter and Paul Fortress) and Petropavlovskij Sobor (Peter and Paul Cathedral): The Petropavlovskaya Krepost (Peter and Paul Fortress) is the original citadel of Saint Petersburg and was founded by Tsar Peter the Great on a small island in the Neva river delta on 27th May 1703 (that day has become the birthday of the city of Saint Petersburg) and built between 1706 and 1740. The fortress was originally intended to protect the area from possible attack by the Swedish army and navy. However, the Swedes were defeated before the fortress was even completed and for that reason from 1721 onwards the fortress housed part of the city's garrison and served as a high security political jail. In the early 20th century, it was still used as a prison by the Tsarist government. In 1924, most of the site was converted to a museum and today it comprises the central and most important part of the State Museum of Saint Petersburg History. The structure suffered heavy damage during the bombardment of the city during World War 2 by the German army who were laying siege to the city but it has been faithfully restored post-war and is a prime tourist attraction. In the middle of the Petropavlovskaya Krepost (Peter and Paul Fortress) stands the impressive Petropavlovskij Sobor (Peter and Paul Cathedral), the oldest church in Saint Petersburg and also the second tallest building in the city at 404 feet after the television tower. It is intimately linked to both the history of the city and to the Romanov dynasty. Work began on the first wooden church to be erected on the site just one month after the city was officially founded and the church was consecrated on 1st April 1704. In 1712, the current stone cathedral started to be built and this was consecrated on 29th June 1733. The cathedral marked a radical departure from traditional Orthodox churches, being built in early Baroque style. Its rectangular shape, bell-tower and landmark needle are all features borrowed from the protestant churches of western Europe, all of which was in accordance with Tsar Peter the Great's wishes. One major attraction is the graves of most of the Romanov rulers of Russia from Tsar Peter the Great onwards.



Photo: Petropavlovskaya Krepost (Peter and Paul Fortress) and Petropavlovskij Sobor (Peter and Paul Cathedral)



Photo: Petropavlovskaya Krepost (Peter and Paul Fortress) and Petropavlovskij Sobor (Peter and Paul Cathedral)

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