Estonia. Saaremaa Island

Saaremaa Island. Part 1: nature and antiquity

I have told about Saaremaa, the area and population of which surpasses the other 1520 Estonian islands all together, in the previous parts – about Mihkli Farm and Kuressaare, the “capital” of the island, with its grandiose Ahrensburg Castle. I also told that we should not overestimate the unpronounceability of its name – Estonian Russians say simply “Sarema”, but trying to pronounce the 4 “a” they immediately identify a tourist. Or that the former Ezel, among all the islands of the former Soviet Union, is the second by population (35,000 inhabitants) after Sakhalin and along with the Big Solovetsky – the clear leader on the historical heritage.

The island, like the city, is a closed system, and therefore I will talk about it in three parts, where the different sides of the island are mixed up, and the common themes and aspects. The first part was more about the nature of the island’s interior (there’s even a real meteorite crater here!) and pre-revolutionary antiquities like churches, manors and mills; the second was about the most interesting sight of Saaremaa, the giant medieval fortified churches; the third was again about nature, primarily the harsh coasts of Sõrve and Harilaid, and the heritage of the 20th century, whether lighthouses or Soviet military bases. Besides, there was also “zero” part about Muhu island, which is fused with Saaremaa by the dike.

Former Ösel is really a GREAT island: a hundred kilometers from west to east, fifty from north to south, not counting the long branch of the Sõrve peninsula. This, it should be noted, extremely complicates survey of its antiquities without a car: on their wheels here “all near”, but on foot – a little far, there are few buses, hitchhiking is not checked, but the roads here are very deserted. And unlike Muhu or Ruhnu, where you can’t forget about the fact that you’re on an island in the middle of the sea, Saaremaa is not very different from the mainland in some places: the same forests and fields. But in the fields, like in the title picture, it’s not uncommon to see poppies in bloom, and in the woods there are such things as this:

The proximity of the sea usually gives away the “drunken forest”, quite worthy of the Dancing Forest on the Curonian Spit:

And the shores of Ezel, firstly, are extremely intricately cut, and secondly, they are very diverse. Somewhere there are meadows and marshes, more often I found them closer to the mainland and Muhu Island, which is here in the background:

Somewhere – windy stony wastelands (in Estonia they are called alvars), such I remembered the west coast turned to the open Baltic, especially Harilaid peninsula:

And somewhere there are classic cliffs (or “punks,” as they are called in Estonia) that reach an impressive height, like this one:

This is the Great Escarpment, or the Baltic-Ladoga Klint, which we have already encountered in Estonia (although I showed it four months ago) – for example, at the Vallaste waterfall in industrial Ida-Virumaa, in port Paldiski or even on the Tallinn Vyshgorod, built on top of a rocky outlier. The cliff starts under the Baltic Sea off the Swedish island of Öland and stretches for more than a thousand kilometers, beyond the Narva River far out to sea, to the southern shore of Lake Ladoga, stringing together the Estonian castles (Rakvere, Narva) and Ingermanlandian castles (Ivangorod, Koporje), and it is not quite obvious that Saaremaa and Hiiumaa lie on different sides of it. As for the origin of the glint, there is still no consensus about whether it was an ancient shore (of a river or a sea) or a glacier bed, which was pressed into the ground. The highest bluffs are in Ida-Viru County (up to 56 meters), but the Pangi Bluff in Saaremaa, which is only 22 meters, seems even higher:

Here the coast faces northeast, toward the open Baltic. In the background is Ninase Peninsula with the remnants of Soviet batteries and its own hardly visible cliffs, and behind it is Tagalaht Bay, where the German landing force landed in 1917.

But although the coasts are the most photogenic place of Saaremaa, and make only a small part of it – but basically here, as already mentioned, the landscape is not very different from the mainland, except that the air is cleaner, the grass is greener, the life is more measured, but in the villages there is an extraordinary abundance of mossy stone fences, which have become one of the symbols of the island:

The most famous natural landmark is situated in the center of Kuressaare, in Kaali village about 20 km away, and the Peepelats standing in the middle of forests hints that something cosmic is to come:

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Although the first thing you encounter is a hotel with a restaurant, souvenir shops, and several buses with pensioners in the parking lot:

About 4 thousand years ago, that is, already in the memory of people, including those who lived directly on Saaremaa, meteorite fell here weighing several hundred tons – and not ice, as a couple of years ago in Chelyabinsk, and quite a metal, that is reached the earth and broke through her full crater. And since 4000 years – is the geological standards, “almost just now”, the crater is well preserved and, of course, turned into one of the main attractions of the island. The souvenirs around, however, are not of space subjects, but folk crafts common to Saaremaa – there are innumerable private workshops in local farmsteads:

Here’s the crater surrounded by the visible “shaft” – its depth is 16 meters, diameter – 110 meters, and the lake Kaaliarv at the bottom. Fall of the fiery star is reflected in Scandinavian legends and songs, the ancestors of Estonians came here later, and their legend is not so global – allegedly, the church fell through the earth at this place, in which the brother and sister got married. It is also stunningly similar to the Lithuanian Devil’s Pit – only there at the bottom is not a lake, but a swamp, and the origin is still not clear.

The boulders of stone, scattered by the impact and cleared of the layered earth in our time. The meteorite flew at speeds of several tens of kilometers per second, and the explosion scorched the forest for 6 kilometers around, and the content of nickel – one of the most characteristic “meteorite” metals – is high in the ground and the remains of burnt trees.

But all in all, especially when combined with the crowds of tourists, in practice all this is not as impressive as in theory:

Kaali, like any “package” attraction, has a “second bottom” – because the meteorite still split apart in the air, and the Main Crater was knocked out by the largest debris weighing up to 80 tons. Small debris burned in the atmosphere, according to the laws of physics at such a speed rubbed into ash in the air, but still 9 debris reached the ground, including the main one, leaving respectively 9 craters within a radius of a couple of kilometers from the extreme to the extreme. We did not look for all of them, confining ourselves to the nearest to the road. The main crater – no number, and here is a barely visible crater number 6 by the side of the road:

Behind the trees by the road, a round grove can be seen in the field, hiding the second largest crater #1:

Everything is carefully supplied with diagrams and information boards, and this crater, though smaller and without a lake, impresses almost more than the main crater in the absence of tourists:

There are five known meteorite craters in Estonia, of which only two are on the mainland (Ilumetsa and Tsyrikmäe, also “young”). Hiiumaa has Kärdla crater, which is huge (4 kilometers wide) and very old (400 million years old), and that is why almost invisible to non-specialists. Our Naugrund crater is 25 meters under water near Osmussaar (Odensholm) island in the north-west corner of Estonia. To be honest, I don’t really understand what attracts meteorites to Estonia (more of them have fallen to Siberia, of course, but the size is not comparable!), but the concentration of their craters here is truly unique.

As already mentioned, people caught the fall of the Kaali meteorite. Who they were at that time – is not clear, but the name itself Ezel goes back to the Varangian Eisula, and in 2008 near the village of Salme were found two rotten 7th century boat with the skeletons of several dozen Vikings, most likely died in the campaign against the Estonian natives. Local Proto-Estonians called Aesilians were not really Vikings themselves but pirates who terrorized all the Baltic and ravaged the Danish dominions in what is now Sweden – chronicles indicate that they had a full-fledged fleet of 16 ships and about half a thousand soldiers. Danish king Woldmar II, who later conquered Estland, could not take Osel in 1206, but in 1227, crusaders did it. The Oselians kept apart, they did not help much to their mainland brethren in the battles with the Germans. Considering this and their warlike temper, the Germans left to Oselian natives some semblance of autonomy, which lasted until the 14th century, when the castles and churches were already built here. In 1322, the bishop of Ösel-Vikk moved to the island, and I suspect, that was when the screws were tightened on the islanders, which turned into the last and bloodiest turn of St. George’s Night uprising in 1343 – when it had already been suppressed on the mainland, the Oselians rebelled again, and only after that Ösel was subjected to Livonia for good. However, there are many Ossilian settlements scattered across the island, such as this one in Kaarma, which from afar looks like another meteorite crater:

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Today in the ancient fortress the descendants of the Ossilians sing and celebrate. A monument stands in the middle, apparently to the victims of the St. George’s Night uprising. In the background is the spire of the medieval Kaarma (Carmel) church, which I’ll tell you more about in the next section:

The Germans divided Ösel between the Order and the bishopric of Ösel-Wiek, and the former got the east (including the neighboring Moho/Muhu) and the northwest. The bishop’s Ahrensburg is not the only castle in Saaremaa, there are also the ruins of the Order’s Zoneburg on the eastern shore, almost opposite the museum village of Koguva on Muhu. But the main monument of Livonian Middle Ages is not castles, but churches, which are extremely huge (as big as Tallinn and Riga), medieval in spirit and clearly designed for defense. The easternmost – St.Catherine’s Church on Muhu Island, I have already shown in the corresponding post, and now let’s go to the village Kihelkonna (literally – “Parish”), the former center of the West-Ezel possessions of the Order, where there is the Church of Archangel Michael – the westernmost and yet the most “continental” in its appearance:

Basically, I’ve shown similar churches before – be it Harju-Risti and Harju-Madise in the western outskirts of Tallinn or even Jõhvi in the same post where Wallaste Falls was – but only Kihelkonna is larger than any rural church on the mainland. It began to be built in the 1250s, and its altar part is almost the oldest building in Estonia, while the current tower was built only in 1899:

We were met at the gate by a bent old lady with a stick and a sad look, more usual in the Central Russian countryside. Kihelkonna parish is sparsely populated, not spoiled by tourists, and therefore very poor. The church is damp, uncomfortable, smells musty, the ceiling is reinforced with wooden rafters – it all looks a little forlorn:

The decorations are not as fantastic as in the churches I’ll show in the next part, but there’s a lot to see here, too. The chandelier alone and the oldest organ in Saaremaa (1805) stand out behind it:

Under the lancet vaults is the pulpit and altar (1591) with The Last Supper:

You can climb the tower by dark stairs and see the farmsteads at the foot of the tower, the meadows and the distant sea with its rugged coastline. When the weather is good one can see a 37-meter lighthouse (1809) on the island of Vilsandi (Felsland), most of which is an ornithological reserve founded by one of the lighthouse keepers, but I couldn’t see anything in the gray haze no matter how I scanned with my camera. The children of the late ESSR are more familiar with “One-Eyed Silver, the terrible bandit from Felsland Island”, who was in fact a downshifter who moved from the city to a remote island and became the hero of the book. This is the western edge of Saaremaa, then the cold sea all the way to Gotland:

As we descended, we heard a bell and headed for the belfry – it’s medieval here, and looks not like a slender bell tower, but a rough, purely functional, U-shaped arch. And in the overall picture of harsh stone buildings, leaden sky and cold wind from the gray sea, damp hall with the smell of mold, sad caretaker with a doomed look rare beats of the bell sounded somehow particularly gloomy: “for whom it rings?

What was our surprise when the belfry was empty! No, actually the bell is automatic (which somehow does not tie in, by the way, with the overall poverty of the parish – maybe someone donated it?), but in combination with the overall atmosphere of the place it seemed to me that in 1710, and in the plague-stricken region the wind or the ghost of a dead parson was beating the bell.

There used to be three similar belfries in Saaremaa, but the other two were demolished in the late Soviet Union, not even under Khrushchov, but in the late 1970s. It is not even clear why, either they were closing a plan to combat religion (churches were not really destroyed here!) or some party boss urgently needed a stone for a summer house. For example, the bell tower in Kärla, demolished in 1980:

But mostly the churches in Saaremaa are from not so distant times, the same Kihelkonna is separated from them by the breakup of Livonia, Danish (1559-1645) and Swedish (until 1710) domination and the Ösel county of the Livonian province. Here is the Kärla church of Mary Magdalene (1847) that was caught in the frame on the way. From the stones of its medieval predecessor, dismantled due to dilapidation, the farm Mihkli was built – one of the stones of the vault I showed in its summer kitchen:

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Or Jaan’s Kirche (1703) near Orissaare and that very Zoneburg Castle – in general, they are simple and unassuming here:

But almost more often we can find orthodox churches on Saaremaa, mostly typical and of very typical architecture. About the Estonians’ mass conversion to Orthodoxy in hope to get rid of the baronial oppression and grant them Russian land (they were presented – but far away from Estonia) and the same mass exodus back to Lutheranism after 1905 (when the Orthodox were allowed to convert to other religions, I have written about this more than once, and it seems that on the islands it was especially widespread – here, in the most mono-ethnic part of Estonia, one can find Orthodox churches almost more often than on the mainland. On Muhu, for example, at one time 70% of the population walked under an eight-pointed cross. The characteristic appearance of churches in Ezel county with a large dome and chapels “sticking” to it on the towers goes back to the churches in either Tartu or Pärnu, and it is a typical project – I cannot even identify from the available reference book which of several churches is depicted in the next frame:

A slightly different version. They were all built almost at the same time and consecrated in 1873 – such consistency and seriality would be the envy of even Lithuanian “ants”, while the architecture of the Ezel churches is much more interesting and original – not dull pseudo-Russian style, but an attempt to create something local, orthodox, “eastwise”. But we didn’t get to the most interesting examples – Pokrovsky church in Tornimägi (the first among equals, in my opinion) and John the Baptist monastery in Räomäe (the only monastery of Constantinople patriarchy in Estonia), but all in all Churches-1873 is a unique part of Ezel landscape.

Slightly older (1867) Church of the Transfiguration in Lümanda looks more like a church. By the way, I do not need to explain that nowadays most of these churches are part of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, which provides service (through the Estonian Apostolic Church) to Orthodox Estonians.

The wooden Church of the Epiphany in Metsulya (1915) may have been built for the Russian garrison that came to Moonsunds after the WWI or even brought from the mainland:

And here in the woods at the crossroads is a wooden Baptist house of worship – their time here came in the 1930s, and in general they preached a lot in the coastal wilderness, including in neighboring Courland – the wooden architecture museum in Ventspils has almost the same, there is a church hall and a living room for the pastor inside.

As for the manors, there are about a hundred and fifty on Saaremaa and Muhu – again, almost the highest density in the country, not counting, perhaps, the outskirts of Tallinn. But they are mostly small and unimpressive, but some of them are interesting: for example Pilguse (Hohenechen) and Lakhetaguse (Lakhetagge) – birthplace of Thaddeus Bellingshausen, the first (together with Lazarev and of course the team) to see Antarctica. The most beautiful is considered to be Oti (Pöidehof) manor, but Josef Kats, who was with us on the first day, took us to Tyllaste (Thellits) manor – the most mysterious:

Either the ancestral home of the Barclays de Tollejs, or the hidden summerhouse of the Big Tull, but most likely neither: the Scottish Barclays “de Tollejs” were after the town of Toey in their historic homeland, and the Tull is altogether a mythical character and inhabits the entire island evenly. In general, nothing is known about this manor, and if its barns and main house, though rather peculiar, are not out of the ordinary .

. then this structure, like a summer house, now in someone’s possession, is quite unusual. I have never seen anything similar in Estonia, and my first associations were probably with Transcarpathia or Moldavia – it might have been just like a boyar’s estate in a huge and old village.

There is also a dansker on the back side, like in medieval castles, so the date on the foundation stone raises serious doubts; either the building has some very storied history, or it is a hundred, if not two hundred, years older, and the stone was laid in honor of some repairs. Maybe a Danish heritage? The bastions of Arensbug Castle were built from what I showed under the Danes.

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Tõlliste Manor is not a tourist attraction at all; tourists are usually shown Kuressaare, Kaali meteorite crater and Angla mills. We go to the Angla mills at the end of the story – they are one more ski resort (alas, two Mihkli farms were not the last!), but very specialized – five mills were brought here from different parts of Saaremaa:

You get used to mills, winged and wingless, stone and wooden, museum-like, café-like and abandoned, in Estonia very quickly, and I can’t even remember if I’ve ever seen any mills along the roads in Saaremaa. It is indicative that in South-Estonia, they are mostly stone mills, while on the rocky islands they are mostly wooden, because the choice of material was determined not so much by its availability but by basic wealth, and the South-Estonian peasants were rich and the islanders, in comparison, were poor. Of the four mills, two are from the 1880s, two from the 1910s, and one, a Dutch type from the village of Tedre, from 1927.

The ratio of the two types: the local ones are small, on stone sills and turned in the wind (by hand, of course) as a whole; the Dutch one is much larger and had only the top turned, which was of course much more efficient:

A figure in the doorway of a “Dutchman.”

And the tractors remind us of farming in the not so distant past. So, here is another tourist center, and we were lucky to arrive at dusk (when everything is closed) and in the rain – usually there are a lot of tourists:

The next part is about the four medieval churches, compared to which Kihelkonna is modest and ordinary.

Island of Ruhnu. Muhu Island. The gate of Moonsunds. Two farms of Mihkli. Saaremaa and Hiiumaa. Kuressaare. Ahrensburg Castle. Kuressaare. City. Saaremaa. Nature, manors, mills. Saaremaa. Medieval churches. Saaremaa. Lighthouses and military bases. Hiiumaa. Ports, manors, Kärdla town. Hiiumaa. Churches and lighthouses. For the day in Finland Tallinn-Helsinki. By ferry. Helsinki. Impressions of the first day of the real Europe.


To those who live, enjoy life here (H.J. Caesar)

The unfinished war of Saaremaa Island


The archipelago of Moonsund , the island of Ösel , the peninsula of Sõrve – I want to tell you about a place with such a poetic address. These data, however, slightly outdated in the last hundred years. Now this place is known as the Estonian island of Saaremaa. These days, people come here for a passive holiday in the many spa hotels or for active pastime on bicycles, windsurfing or an excellent hiking. Places for all this here are great.

Sõrve Peninsula is interesting to most visitors only because of the picturesque lighthouse of the same name located at its tip. Today not many people know that during the last century this island has become an arena of bloody battles, and the peninsula, extending deep into the Gulf of Riga, was one of the most desperately defended by both Russian and German military.

No one knows exactly how many soldiers were killed or lost their lives here, but it is certain that there were many! The land of Sõrve is still full of rusty relics of wars gone by. We were personally convinced of that when we visited a rather peculiar local museum, which can be easily mistaken for a den of black diggers.

I invite you to take a walk together, albeit virtually, through this unusual place and find out what makes the Sõrve peninsula so interesting.

  • THAT WAS A LONG TIME AGO. The neighboring islands Saaremaa and Muhu, formerly called Ösel and Mohon, have always had an important strategic importance. In fact, they completely close the Gulf of Riga, so in any military conflict in the region their possession is key.

Even in times immemorial, Estonian pirates, called Eastern Vikings, were hiding here. They often disturbed the possessions of the Swedes and Danes. Naturally, it could not last long. Ösel was conquered by the Crusaders and made into a bishopric with Ahrensburg as its capital, which eventually became the present main town in the Kuresaare Islands.


But that is a thing of the past. I found the history of the last century of the islands, where the Sõrve Peninsula played an important role, much more interesting.


Even before the First World War, the Russian Empire created here a network of coastal defenses, which became part of the so-called huge Peter the Great Fortress, stretching from modern Tallinn to the Moosauni Islands. At the very tip of the Sõrve Peninsula a battery Nr. 43 was built, which soon became legendary.


The events that took place here in the autumn of 1917 became the basis for Valentin Pikul’s novel Moonzund and the film of the same name. During the large-scale Operation Albion the battery was captured by the Germans after an uneven fight, which cost the lives of dozens of soldiers. It was one of the last battles of World War I on the eastern front.

Miyajima Island


As soon as Soviet troops entered the Baltics in 1939, heavy battery guns and the construction of a military camp began again on Sõrve. In 1941, Ezel again became a bone in the throat for the Nazi military. The first bombing raids on Berlin were organized from here, which was a complete surprise to the Germans.


Capturing each of the islands of the Moonsud archipelago was not an easy task. The whole operation of capturing the archipelago was called Beowulf by the Germans. The Sõrve Peninsula once again became the last battlefield for the garrison of Ösel.

The new authorities immediately assessed the importance of the Sõrve Peninsula and by 1944 turned it into a powerful stronghold in the form of a solid defense line with trenches, pillboxes and anti-tank trenches. A corresponding name was given to it – The Irbensky Shield. Now the Soviet troops had to solve the problem – how to break this castle.

For two weeks constant battles were fought here, resulting in hundreds of casualties per day. Total losses on both sides amounted to over 10 thousand dead.


After the war Sõrve was completely occupied by the military. To ordinary mortals it was virtually impossible to get here. Only after the departure of the Soviet army did the peninsula start to reveal its secrets.


Now in this quiet and tranquil place it is hard to even imagine the degree of exasperation to which people in war can reach. But stopping and standing here for a while is worthwhile. Many thoughts fly through your head when you look at the granite slabs with the names of Soviet soldiers. Maybe the main one is that war is the most senseless and ruthless thing in the world.

Then we went deeper into the peninsula. Here there are many relics of the past. Remains of concrete pillboxes, abandoned barracks, other not very clear artifacts.

Forest and bushes reliably hid the wounded land of Syrve from prying eyes.

It is not safe to wander through these places even nowadays. You just can’t help catching the pieces of rusty armature or falling into a concrete well, practically invisible under the dense vegetation.

Then, already approaching the very tip of the peninsula with the Sõrve lighthouse, we stopped at a strange parking lot. The places for cars were marked with an unusual fence made of rusty bombs and half-exploded shells.

Looking closely at the signs, we realized that we were in the local military museum. But it was quite unconventional.

First, there was not a soul here. No tourists, no employees, no one.

Second, it was open. Yes, there were tickets with prices and signs for money at the entrance.

Thirdly, the museum was not small at all, consisting of several buildings and stuffed with exhibits.

The more valuable items were in locked cabinets. The least valuable were scattered on the ground throughout the museum.

There were a lot of rarities here, by the way! And from different epochs! For example, here is a gun marker, which was dug up nearby by wild boars, if you believe the inscription in Estonian. They are the main black diggers of Saaremaa!)

A separate part of the exposition is devoted to German artifacts from World War II.

But most of the local collection consists of objects from the recent Soviet past.

To tell the truth, it was very difficult to look through this heap of rarities of different times and eras. Yes, and did not want to bother. In fact it is not even a museum, but a warehouse of artifacts, carelessly stacked in the corners. It is strange that all this was not cleared away by unscrupulous tourists!

On the territory of the museum we found many more unusual rarities. There was a red Moskvich hidden near the barn. And between the trees a little further away there were the remains of an entire battery hidden.

Yes, this museum seemed to me a very strange place. As well as all Sõrve peninsula. Somewhere nearby, life was boiling, cars were driving, non-poor Estonians were resting in their spas. But here life seemed to stand still.

There was a feeling that this peninsula decided to press pause after too turbulent events of the last century. Except that numerous traces of this tumultuous period seemed to tell me that the war for Saaremaa was far from its logical end. The peace has not yet finally come here.

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