It's a tribute to the resilience of the
that during the ten years since the Declaration of Independence in August 1991 they've transformed their country from a dour outpost of the former Soviet Union into a viable nation with the most stable economy in the Baltic region. This is even more impressive in the light of the fact that Estonians have ruled their own country for barely thirty years out of the past eight hundred. A Finno-Ugric people related to the Finns, the Estonians have had the misfortune to be surrounded by powerful, warlike neighbours. The first to conquer Estonia were the Danes, who arrived at the start of the thirteenth century; they were succeeded in turn by German crusading knights, Swedes and then Russians. Following a mid-nineteenth-century cultural and linguistic revival known as the National Awakening, the collapse of Germany and Tsarist Russia allowed the Estonians to snatch their independence in 1918. Their brief freedom between the two world wars was extinguished by the Soviets in 1940 and Estonia disappeared from view again. When the country re-emerged from the Soviet shadow in 1991, some forty percent of its population were Russians who had been encouraged to settle there during the Soviet era.
is an atmospheric city with a magnificent medieval centre and lively nightlife. Two other major cities,
, a historic university town, and
, a major seaside resort, are worth a day or so each. Estonia's low population means that the countryside - around forty percent of which is covered by forest and much of the rest by lakes - is generally empty and unspoilt. To get a feel for it at its best, head for the Baltic islands of
, capital of the former, is home to one of the finest castles in the Baltics.
Spring and summer are the best times to visit, with the warm weather bringing colour to the countryside and a rash of outdoor pavement-cafe drinking to the cities. In winter the temperature can fall below zero for weeks at a time, although it's worth bearing in mind that public transport continues to function normally, and the sight of both countryside and townscapes decked out in deep snow can be a magical one