TALLINN, ESTONIA — I’ve never heard of bog hiking, until, that is, I visit Estonia. At first, I can’t understand my guide. Bug? Buck? Bock? All Estonians speak English, one reason it’s an easy country to visit, but it’s often heavily accented and after a few tries, I understand it’s bog.
Bog hiking is exactly as it sounds: Hiking not only in but also through a bog - a wetland with peat moss. Normally, you
don snowshoe-like contraptions and walk on the moss. Yet where I am in the Viru bog in Lahemaa National Park, less than an hour from the capital of Tallinn, a 2.5-kilometre wooden boardwalk has been erected to lessen impact on this ancient wetland.
Bogs, I discover, hold a special place for Estonians.
“We’re drawn to them because of their empty, wild, mystic views,” says my wilderness guide, Helen Kari, recounting stories of bog mummies because the acidic environment in the peat preserves bodies.
Legend even goes that if you take a dip in one of the bog ponds, which many do, you’ll live longer. Yet, although it’s July, it’s too chilly to do anything but dunk my hands. Bog hiking is just the start, though, as Estonians are nature lovers and take pride in their forests, which occupy over half the country.
Above: After walking the bogs, people usually head to one of Estonia's famous coffee houses, right.
After my hike, I join locals in the woods to forage. They eat off the land as much as they can, and although mushrooms are frequently foraged, strawberries and blueberries are on today’s menu.
I don’t have far to go, as the wild bushes are everywhere. And because the berries are no bigger than my thumb nail, I eat one after another, their intense sweetness surprising given their size.
Although I spend several days in Tallinn, I don’t ever feel like I’m far from nature. More than 25 per cent of Tallinn’s acreage is public green space, one reason it has some of the world’s cleanest air. I find one of the most popular spaces at Kadriorg Park, home of 30 to 40 bird species.
Above: Tallinn's main square is one of the loveliest in Europe and draws a lot of attention from visitors.
Greenery even surrounds this once entirely walled Medieval city, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site where 1.9 kilometres of original wall still stand. Its windy, cobblestoned streets from the 13th century make for great city trekking, and while I want to look up — Tallinn is a city of spires, and by standing in one spot in the main square, you can see five at a time — I pay extra attention where I step.
Tallinn truly is a pedestrian’s dream city. It’s a small enough city that I walk to its main attractions, like the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, an ornate Russian Orthodox church built in 1900, and Raeapteek, Europe’s oldest operating pharmacy from 1422 where I find exhibits like sun-bleached dog droppings, even claret wine, a “pharmacy wine” made with a recipe from 1467. I walk by two of the city’s four towers that still stand — Fat Margaret, which sits by the port, and Tall Hermann —and past the Balti Jaam Market, a massive complex next to the railway station where farmers sell their produce, vendors prepare ready-to-eat grub and tourists shop for souvenirs.
I’m here not only during the White Nights when there’s little darkness (pack a sleep mask), but also an historic time. Every five years, the country unites for the Estonian Song Festival, which celebrated 150 years in 2019.
Above: Tallinn's annual song festival and its historic landmarks, like Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, right, are big tourist draws.
Dubbed the “singing revolution,” this festival of song and dance with its 47,000 singers, dancers and musicians on the last day alone, was at the heart of the national awakening of Estonian peasants, teaching them the value of their language and culture. That collective spirit won Estonia its independence in 1918 and again in 1991.
The pinnacle of the festival is a gathering of over 63,00 spectators, many donning traditional Estonian costumes, who end by singing an iconic song with a standout verse: “The land of my fathers, the land that I love, I will never abandon her.”
Time will tell whether bog water will increase my lifespan. But one thing is clear: The combination of seeing green and experiencing the power of song has renewed my spirit, and that’s perhaps the best longevity tool of all.
JUST THE FACTS
• Plan to stay at least several days in Tallinn, choosing a hotel in the Old Town. Hotel Telegraaf and Savoy Boutique Hotel are charming options.
• Tallinn is also a foodie’s city, and the dishes don’t only involve ingredients from local farms or the forest, they’re also always beautifully plated. Visit Restaurant Leib, which changes its menu seasonally, for its outdoor garden patio where you should try the sparkling rhubarb wine or its housemade beers. At night, head to NOA, overlooking a bay and Tallinn’s Old Town. Made of wood and glass, this architectural gem is the place for sunset views. V Restoran, named one of Europe’s best vegan restaurants, is another must.
• For a pre- or post-dinner cocktail, head to Porgu, translated as “hell” in Estonian, and you’ll known why when you descend into the basement. Or check out Põhjala Brewery, a beautiful brewery with 24 taps.
• Need a coffee fix? Estonia’s coffee scene is on the rise and Kehrwieder is a local treasure. Or visit Lisanna Coffee House, the region’s first vegan coffee shop serving organic Estonian roasts. End on a sweet note by visiting a charming chocolate shop called Karu Talu with deliciously flavoured vegan chocolate like apple pie and Bailey’s.