Situated along the north coast of Estonia, about 100km from Tallinn en route to Narva, Lahemaa National Park and the buildings within it show both the Baltic-German and the Soviet occupations at their most benevolent.
The von der Pahlen family, which owned Palmse Mansion, the architectural high point of a visit to the park, contributed to Estonia for two centuries with their administrative, commercial and academic activities.
Whilst to the west the Soviets would blight the outskirts of Tallinn with shoddy tower blocks and to the east ransack the coast with oil-shale exploitation, Lahemaa, the Land of Bays, was given the status of a protected national park in 1971 and great efforts were made to support and enhance the wildlife of the area. Similar support was given to restoration of the manor houses and fishing villages.
The boundaries of the park stretch for 40km along the coast and include several islands. Most Estonians, and all foreigners, were forbidden to enter the park because of its proximity to the coast but this did at least prevent any tourist and industrial development. Building work is now restricted to the minimum necessary to grant access to visitors and to provide for their stay.
What to see and do in Lahemaa National Park
Touring the park
Leave the St Petersburg highway from Tallinn to Narva at Viitna and then drive through Palmse, Sagadi, Vihula, Kunda, Altja, Võsu, Käsmu and Kolga before returning to the main road 18km further west. Drivers starting from the east or south will come off the main road at Rakvere or Viru-Nigula and begin the tour at Kunda.
Viitna is best known for its coaching inn, Viitna Kõrts, which dates from 1791. Like so many buildings in Estonia, it was destroyed at some stage in its history by fire; what is surprising is that the fire here was in 1989. Let us hope that it is the last serious fire to blight Estonian architecture. The inn appeals most in midwinter with its open fire and substantial portions of food, but at all times of year offers a good respite from the dull drive between Tallinn and the Russian border at Narva. It is no longer a hotel, but in the days of horse-drawn transport it served this function, being a day’s ride from Tallinn. The inn was clearly divided into two sections so that masters and servants would not eat together.
The manor is 6km off the main road, the perfect distance to ensure easy access but equally to ensure a totally calm natural environment. It is without doubt the most impressive manor house in Estonia and the 15 years of restoration between 1971 and 1986 have left a lasting and appropriate memorial to the von der Pahlen family. They were diverse in their brilliance, some entering Russian government service, some succeeding in business and some running this estate.
Among those still remembered are Peter Ludvig von der Pahlen (1745–1826) who, as Governor of St Petersburg, was one of the plotters involved in the assassination of Tsar Paul I in 1801, and Alexander von der Pahlen (1819–95) who initiated the building of the St Petersburg–Tallinn railway. The main building and the surrounding gardens were begun in 1697 but the Northern War between Sweden and Russia halted construction. It was completed in 1740 and then work started on the other buildings.
The family lived here until 1923, when the estate was nationalised in accordance with the Land Law of 1919. The land was then divided amongst ten families and the house became a convalescent home; after World War II the Soviet administration converted it into a pioneer camp for young people. The other buildings had all been left to decline and by 1972, when restoration began, were in such poor condition that it was necessary to consult drawings and photographs from the turn of the century to see their original format.
Sagadi is a 6km drive from Palmse and its manor house is very different. Local writers prefer it to Palmse, making comparisons with the chateaux on the Loire and even with the Garden of Eden. Travellers arriving with such expectations will definitely be disappointed, but those with a more open mind will see how a typical Baltic-German family lived and ruled. The land was owned by the von Fock family from the 17th century, but the current building, and those immediately surrounding it, date largely from the 1750s. Construction was not therefore hindered by the Northern War, which halted work at Palmse.
The façade was rebuilt in 1795, with the addition of the balcony. The von Focks had a variety of business careers, largely in shipbuilding and in forestry, but none reached the eminence of the von der Pahlens. The family lived in the building until 1939 although, following the Land Law of 1919, the estates were nationalised and the main building became a primary school. It kept this function until 1970, and soon afterwards full restoration of the whole estate began. Some of the furniture is original but, as at Palmse, many pieces have been brought from other houses that were not restored.
Allow time for a leisurely walk in the park behind the house. It contains what is probably Estonia’s tallest oak tree (about 33m in height) and also exhibitions of contemporary sculpture.
The fishing village of Altja is 8km from Sagadi. It has never been much more than a hamlet but it suffered under the Soviet regime when fishing, its sole livelihood, was banned and the population dropped from around 120 to merely 20. Subsistence farming was hardly a substitute as only potatoes could grow in the sandy soil and the grazing lands supported only a minimal number of cattle or oxen.
Fishing is now being revived and the excellent inn, which tourist groups use for lunch, provides employment during the summer. The mashed potatoes, with a diversity of ingredients always added, are the highlight of a meal here. Although outsiders, even Estonians, were not allowed access to the coast at that time, restoration of the wooden buildings started in 1971. The inn dates from the early 19th century and, for most of its life, women were not admitted except on 25 March, Lady Day.