Reasons to go: Peaceful small town charm, bike/pedestrian friendly, extremely safe for solo female travelers, budget friendly, fast wifi, many English speakers
Tartu (Estonia) was actually the destination of my first longer-term stay upon leaving Belgium, from mid-September to mid-October. I debated for some time whether or not to include this post, as many months have now gone past since that first trip. I much prefer to write about a place while actually in the city or very shortly upon departure, so that all the impressions are still fresh in my mind. But I wasn’t yet blogging at that time, so wasn’t in the habit of taking notes or high resolutions photos. Still, it seemed too important a destination to leave out entirely.
The first question after having decided to leave Belgium to become a full-time nomad was: where to go? I had a criteria in mind and could already think of a lot of cool places, but wanted more ideas from people who’d actually traveled and lived there, so posted up on the BJJ Globetrotters FB group explaining my situation and asking for recommendations.
One of the many people who replied with suggestions was Jorgen, instructor of Võimla gym in Tartu, who I’d met some weeks previously at the Globetrotters 2018 Summer Camp in Leuven (I had attended his presentation on food/nutrition there).
I’ll go ahead and admit that I’d never actually heard of Estonia at this point, and didn’t really know where it was or anything about it. But, having already been to many bigger, more traditional tourist cities on past vacations, I was interested in trying some smaller, lesser-known destinations. After some Google research, Tartu did indeed meet all my criteria and overall seemed like a pretty good choice.
Jorgen probably doesn’t realize it but was a HUGE help to making this trip possible, from finding lodging and making recommendations on transportation to making me feel very welcome to come train at his gym. Being so new to nomad-life travels and longer stays, it was also just immensely reassuring to know someone who could answer questions, or potentially offer advice if anything with the trip went wrong.
Riga to Tartu
My first challenge was actually getting to Tartu. Unfortunately, none of my usual favorite budget airlines flew to Tartu directly from Belgium, making the best options flying to Tallinn (the capital of Estonia) or flying to Riga (Latvia), then taking a long distance bus over to Tartu. I chose the latter (I don’t remember why, probably just because it was cheaper).
I arrived in Riga around noon and took a couple buses to get to my hostel (I had a private room with a shared kitchen/bathroom that time) to drop off luggage. I then spent most of that afternoon touring city center, which was actually really nice and very pedestrian friendly. Tall pretty buildings (many in the art nouveau style) lined wide brick and cobblestone streets with restaurants on every other block. Here, I had an exceptionally good and incredibly cheap meal of Latvian food which consisted of fresh bread, hearty meat/veggie soup, and salad.
Since Flix Bus (my usual long-distance bus of choice) didn’t have routes in Latvia or Estonia, I used Lux Express instead, which actually turned out great. The 4.5 hour bus ride over was comfortable and uneventful, and included free coffee. I spent most of the time listening to music and watching the scenery, which consisted mostly coniferous forests with a scattering of villages, fields and smaller clusters of houses along the way.
Tartu is full of small town charm and is possibly one of the safest cities I’ve ever been to. Here, it’s not uncommon to see even fairly young children walking or biking around solo, which would be entirely unimaginable by American big city safety standards.
The city center is clean and pretty, with medium sized classical buildings, paved stone and brick streets, and many unique sculptures. The size of the city, plus many spacious, well-maintained walking and bike paths make Tartu very easy to transverse without car. I didn’t even bother getting a bus pass while here but simply walked and biked everywhere instead.
Despite its relatively small size, Tartu does include a major University and huge student population. The campus isn’t centralized but rather comprised of a series of buildings scattered throughout town. It’s common to see young people and students going to and from class anytime of the day.
A river runs through the center of Tartu, crossed by a handful of bridges lit up with colors at night. You can sometimes see people fishing off the bridges or from piers along the shore. There’s a lot of graffiti around and under the bridges, but mostly artistically done. Instead of making the city appear shabby or sketchy, it gives the landscape a creative, crafty, almost hipster vibe.
On the outskirts of the city along the river are a couple small beaches with sand, playground equipment, and some outdoor workout equipment. I saw a guy swimming bare-chested in the river once, on a day where I was cold enough to wear my thickest coat and many layers of clothing. Estonians are so hardcore!
My time spent in Estonia was relaxing and calm. I slept exceptionally well at night, possibly either due to the silence (there wasn’t the usual background noise of traffic ever-present in the big cities) or because the air quality was exceptionally good.
My accommodations consisted of a room in a house with a family that included two (adorable!) kids. My hosts were exceptionally kind, and very welcoming – I felt a little like I’d become a normal member of the household by the end of the month.
Besides that, I trained regularly and enjoyed many nice walks, jogs and the occasional longer bike ride through the woods on the outskirts of the city. The people of Tartu don’t consider this to be a true forest, but coming from desert and dense city, it felt like a real enough forest to me. I especially enjoyed the beautiful golden autumn colors towards the end of my stay.
Estonia has a long history of basically being conquered and occupied by various other neighboring countries. It wasn’t until fairly recently (1988) that it became independent. There’s still a large Russian population (especially in Tallinn) who are descendants of people who had immigrated over during previous Russian occupation.
The Estonian History Museum in Tartu was especially nice – huge, very modern with many interactive and digitally-augmented exhibits. What’s additionally neat is that visitors are given a “language” card which they can swipe on little panels next to each exhibit to change the language of the text.
Oddly, many of the vegetables commonly found in most European countries came in exceptionally large sizes in Estonia. Someone explained to me that this was because Estonia was very far North so had extra daylight hours in the summer. This, combined with generous rainfall and moderate temperatures, creates ideal conditions for growing giant veggies.
Estonian people are very considerate and kind, but (to someone accustomed to American culture) at first glance might seem extremely stoic and impassive. Estonians do not smile automatically and do not make irrelevant small talk (at least, not to strangers). One of my training partners once explained to me that even eyes are considered “private space”, so it’s rude/invasive to look a stranger or in the eyes too directly.
Also, “how are you” is not used as a casual greeting. That’s considered a personal question you should ask only to someone you know well, to which you can expect a very genuine, thoughtful answer rather than an automatic, offhand “I’m good, you?”. Many Estonians dislike the American “how are you” greeting for what they perceive to be insincerity. As a person who grew up in American culture, it was a surprisingly hard habit to break to stop myself from automatically greeting everyone I met with, “hi, how are you?”.
The Estonian stoicism applies more to previous generations than the younger ones though, since more recent generations have been exposed to far more western culture through television and internet. You also just get used to Estonian mannerism after having been there awhile, and begin to notice and appreciate the subtleties rather than expecting more prominent, overt displays of emotion. So, if someone in Estonia isn’t broadly smiling, isn’t asking how you’re doing, and doesn’t seem especially chatty – do not worry or take offense, they’re probably not angry or being rude. It’s just not their custom.
Võimla, owned by brown belt instructor Jorgen Matsi, was my “home gym” for a month while in Tartu. This gym was very friendly and welcoming, with an international atmosphere including some students from a handful of other different countries who were attending Tartu University. For the month that I was there, training include a strong emphasis on take-downs as well. Classes alternated between gi and nogi, in a mix of English and Estonian. On the days where the class was given in Estonian, there was never a shortage of students willing to help, who very thoughtfully took initiative and began translating for me before I could even ask.
Võimla gym has an exceptionally big group of women as well, probably 10-12 who train and compete regularly (possibly more, since not everyone attends class every day), which is HUGE for a normal BJJ class in Europe!
One very early morning I took the Lux Express up to Tallinn, about 2.5 hours to the North of Tartu to train at Priit Mihkelson’s 3D Treening – future location of the 2019 Globetrotter Spring Camp! Really nice facilities with a HUGE mat space, bean bag chairs and a sauna (which are common in Estonia) in the women’s locker room!
After training, spent the remainder of the day wandering around the adorable city center full of Gothic style buildings, with (again) many cute little paved streets and small cafes/restaurants. I stopped at one for a very good (and very reasonably priced!) meal.
Eventually the cold and pouring rain got the better of me. I spent the last couple hours of the day checking out what turned out to be a really nice (and much bigger than expected) museum, before taking the late evening Lux Express bus back to Tartu.