I went to Käsmu with cousin Kalle for Jaanipäev (St John’s Day) - Midsummer Eve. I like this way of getting to my ancestral lands because I can go to Tallinn on the train, my favourite mode of transport, stop over in the Old Town and enjoy the ride north to Lahemaa National Park without the hassle of driving. I like being able to focus all my attention on the forests after we turn off the motorway. Although I’ve been passing through this endless, unspoiled nature now for over a decade, I never tire of the sunlight among the close-knit rows of red pine trees, the waterfall by a little bridge, the glimpses of the Baltic sea through the thinning trees as one nears Käsmu.
Käsmu village, like the forest, is timeless. The sea, the shore, the forests, rocks, the peninsula change very little and very slowly. The hand of man (or woman) rests lightly on Käsmu: the whitewashed wooden houses of the sea people teeter on the edge of a bay littered with rocks, including some very large ones with name such as 'Old George’ (Vana Jüri). Everything is reassuringly predictable. The same people, the same routines, the same (simple but delicious) food. The cousins are always busy about the house and garden even though it is a holiday. However, I couldn’t live in Käsmu - not enough going on for me - but it is wonderful to visit. I got a great deal of reading done whilst sitting on the shore with only seagulls, swallows and, maybe, a distant boat for company.
We arrived in early afternoon and, after a snack, I set out for a long, 3-hour walk, having donned suitable shoes and covered myself with imported UK jungle-strength mosquito repellent. The weather was glorious, the sun was shining, it was warm (the two don’t always go hand in hand in Eesti) and I walked along the shore to the peninsula and back down the main road, not forgetting to visit the cemetery and pay my respect to a bevy of ancestors.
During the Soviet time Käsmu was one of the borders of the USSR and was closed to outsiders. When I first came, 10 years ago, there were no easy ways to walk beside the sea. This is changing now as nearly 20 years of visitors have tread unofficial footpaths along the shoreline. The view across the water is worth a visit in itself - the horseshoe of the bay is surrounded by thick forests that come down to the very shore, and when I walked out there was hardly a breeze - the sea was almost totally still, like glass.
Pirates of the Baltic
I left Kalda, the family home, and picked my way across grass and rocks to the old mole, thence on past the meremuuseum (run by rellies) where a pirate raft has appeared, moored to a rock. It was a wooden hut built on planks with a straw roof. Boxes were piled up around the hut, it had rigging, ragamuffin sails, an oil lamp swinging in the breeze and a gangplank. I suppose the builder got the idea from Pirates of the Caribbean, though there were plenty of Baltic Sea pirates who could give the Caribbean ones an excellent run for their money – one of the reason that the Germans, Danes and Swedes invaded was to get the Estonian Vikings (‘viking’ means pirate) under manners.
Later, in the 14c, the Victual Brothers made life a misery for merchants and sovereigns alike. The Brothers were hired by the Dukes of Mecklenburg to fight Denmark because the Danish had imprisoned the Mecklenburg king of Sweden in a move to seize control of Scandinavia. The name ‘Victual’ Brothers is from the Latin victualia (provisions) and refers to their first mission to bring supplies to a besieged Stockholm.
The Victual Brothers attracted men from all over Europe. They raided shipping impartially and their battle cry was "God's friends and the whole world's enemies". From 1392 for several years, the Brothers were a power to be reckoned with. Maritime trade virtually collapsed, and the herring industry suffered greatly. Queen Margaret of Demark even turned to Richard II for English ships to fight the pirates. After the Victual Brothers' defeat in 1398, the Hanseatic League tried to end the anarchy in the Baltic Sea, but with little luck.
The successors to the Brothers were the Likedeelers, meaning “to share in equal parts,” which they did with the poor along the coast. Their most famous leader was Klaus Störtebeker whose name means, "to empty the mug with one gulp" because he could swallow four litres of beer at one go. In 1401 the Hamburg warship “Brindled Cow” (great name!) caught up with Störtebeker. According to some stories, a traitor cast molten lead into the links of the chain that controlled the ship’s rudder and disabled his ship.
Legend says that Störtebeker offered a chain of gold long enough to enclose the whole of Hamburg in exchange for his life and freedom but he and his 73 companions were sentenced to death. The most famous legend tells how Störtebeker asked the mayor to release as many of his companions as he could walk past after his head had been chopped off. His request was granted and Störtebeker's headless body walked past eleven men before the executioner tripped him. The masts of his ship contained cores of gold, silver, and copper and legend says it was used to create the spire of St. Catherine's church in Hamburg. Störtebeker's famous beer mug was kept in the town hall of Hamburg: it was destroyed in the great fire of 1842.
Back in Käsmu I passed a very big rock with a metal plate and a picture of a sailing ship. This was where that the big ocean-going sailing ships of the Käsmu captains were built - the Salme (1891), the Julia (1899), the Hermine (1900), the Kristenbrun (1902) and the Anette (1913) , all named after the women of the shipbuilders. Käsmu was known then as kapteniteküla, village of captains. At this point a drummer in the holiday camp built for Soviet Pioneers broke the silence. The camp is privatised now , of course, but still popular – the car park behind the rows of single story, one room holiday lets was full. Then on to the peninsula.
Käsmu peninsula juts out into the Baltic Sea. It has amazingly tall trees packed into a dense forest interspersed with stony clearings where the dappled light on the stones is one of the high spots of the Park. I reckoned the trees were at least 60 times my height (I am 5’5’’ tall) - its like being in the nave of a natural gothic cathedral. The way takes the walker down a pedestrian track with little mossy paths - so springy underfoot - leading off. The woods here suffered during the horrendous storm of last November. I was in Tallinn and could hardly stand in the winds and snow so lord knows what it must have been like out on the exposed headland! Many trees had been blown over and the stumps just left up ended. Near a natural newly clearing is a big pile of rocks. Placing a stone on it is supposed to bring luck. A pair of lovers was doing just that when I strolled by. I don’t bother as when I first came to Käsmu coz Mart lugged a hernia-inducing boulder from the beach, so I feel I am signed up with Lucky Rock for life.
There is a notice board with information where the path opens out to the tip and from where its possible, when the tide is low, to walk a natural causeway to a little hilly knoll called Devil’s Island. I asked cousin Anneliis why it’s called ‘Devil’s’ island but she doesn’t know. Maybe I will find out as my Estonian improves! The board tells the reader that the peninsula looks just as it did a thousand years ago. The area is a reserve for birds and the board has sprouted birding information in (odd) English. Besides material for ornithologists there is also a survey of local plants for botanists.
And, for geologists, the board comments that Käsmu bay has the largest field of erratic boulders (400 hectares) in Eesti ... and believe me, that’s going some, as there are rocks aplenty here!
Changes are happening at Kalda. The sauna (the most important place in any Estonian home) is being renovated and all the old boards went on the Jaanituli, the midsummer bonfire. As midnight approached Kalle got into his boat (with two pretty girls) and chugged around the rocks in the bay putting little coloured candlelights on each. This is a family tradition, and long may it last because it is soooo pretty.
But there are times when I am glad of modern technology! I have an ancient, no-frills, mobile phone that I am very fond of, not least of all because texting is such a marvellous invention for deaf old bats. But it is a real bonus to sit by the grey waters of the Baltic and get messages from friends in London, Amsterdam and Venice. I wish you all a great summer!
Bird Droppings from Estonia: Jaanipäev in Käsmu