I went abroad on my birthday (7th January) with a pal, Tracey. To Latvia, just 30 minutes away. We were stopped by the police on the way, in the middle of nowhere — the 7th is Orthodox Christmas day and we were very close to the Russian border, so I suppose they were checking for drunken driving (or illegal immigrants!). We had to produce our 'person passports' and 'car passport' once again when we got to border control — unlike the Amsterdam-Brussels run, where I'd been in December before the holidays, this journey is not seamless.
(The highlight of the Bruxelles visit was the Musées Royaux des Beaux Arts where I re-made my acquaintance with the Master of Flemalle, Roger van der Weyden and Pieter Brueghel the Elder. "The Fall of Icarus" was, unfortunately, being titivated but there were lots of other goodies and I spent ages peering at all the wonderful little details of 16c peasant life. "Icarus" just about says it all for me. A peasant ploughs his field.A ship ploughs the sea. A shepherd tends his flock. The sun shines on town, country and the sea. You really have to look very closely to see a smidgeon of foam and legs sticking out of the sea. The legs belong to Icarus, whose father has built wings that enable flight. Icarus has flown too close to the sun, despite warnings, and the heat has melted the wax that holds the wings together. The peasant, the sailors and the shepherd either don't care or don't notice as Icarus plummets to his death. Life goes on.)
Over the border and travelling through some very pretty and absolutely deserted country we passed a wonderful serene lake and a head-scarved peasant lady on a cart bursting with hay drawn by a beautiful horse. It was a fine sight — she could have just stepped out of the famous Brueghel. I'd lay odds on that she wouldn't give a sod what Icarus was up to. On the way back we passed the horse running free in the forest.
Our destination was Alüksne, with some fine 18c buildings, a lovely park and a 19c repro-Gothic manor house, now a museum. Its main claim to fame is as the birth place of the Tzarina Catherine 1 of Russia, the Lithuanian wife of Peter the Great and the only one who could calm him when he was in one of his filthy tempers. Quite something considering he was over 6 foot tall. Everything was shut, unfortunately, as it was Sunday.
Later we explored Setumaa, driving south right next to the Russian border to Värska where there is a huge Soviet health spa-sanatorium, still very much in business and offering some very tempting packages — mud baths, massage, physio, aromatherapy — for a song.
Time stands still in Setumaa. When we stopped to snap a picture with a wooden Peko, the local legendary strong man, a lady directed us to the church. We parked and as we got out of the car we were approached by two friendly dogs eager for a sniff. As we were petting them another head-scarved old girl opens her front door and a large goat ambled out. Tracey was rather gob-smacked by this but these Setu still live in one long barn-type farmhouse building where half is lived in by people and the other half by animals. The old girl was very friendly and spoke to us in Setu - it's similar to Estonian but I can't understand it. The people were never serfs tied to the land but paid rent for their farms to the Russian Orthodox monastery of Pechory (Petseri). It's sad because this colourful and distinct community has been sliced in half by barbed wire since the break-up of the USSR. Estonia's and Russia's inability to come to terms on a border treaty means that part of their community, including its heart at Petseri, is now in a different country. We ran into the border bristling with not so friendly pooches and a border guard house.
Back in Tartu we caught up with pal, Dr Helgi and her family, feline and own (home-made from orange boxes and complete with towers, bells and streamers) kitty castle full of charming wriggling kittens. Helgi made us a wonderful 'high tea' with cakes on a stand (how this took me back!), fruit bread and home made lime tea in front of her wonderful wood burning Finnish stove — it has glass panels so that you can see the fire roaring away. We were sorry we couldn't stay longer, especially when we had to dislodge snoozing kittens from our laps.
Off to Tallinn it was, as for my birthday I acquired a rescued Tallinn yard cat — Mustu. She's a very serious puss. No chasing cat toys for Mustu, unlike the Tartu model. And you can't blame this attitude on a bad start in life as Jelly de Tartu was also born in an underprivileged inner-city Tallinn background.
But her future is now rosy: the lady in the dry cleaners adores her and calls her meie kass, 'our cat' and takes care of her when I'm in Tartu. I haven't told Jelly, who is lying heavily on my typing arm and purring raucously as I write, about her new pal yet ... will 2007 be a year for kitty capers?
Bird Droppings from Estonia: Visits to Brussels, Latvia and Setumaa