Hidden Europe: The Summer Island – Muhu, Estonia

The Summer Island: Muhu, Estonia
Photographer: Adrienne Pitts

There’s a phrase on Muhu that’s near impossible to translate into English, and even harder to pronounce: ‘Muhune haalestumine’. It is the salty, windswept feeling that locals have when they’re on the island, tied to a sense of belonging. Only 1,900 people call the tiny speck of rock off the Estonian mainland home, and they are fiercely protective of its unique identity and traditions, forged through centuries of Swedish and then Soviet rule. Summer – when the sun bounces off the Baltic Sea and the forests and meadows bristle with wildflowers – is the best time to join them, and find a bit of Muhune haalestumine yourself.

WORDS AMANDA CANNING
PHOTOGRAPHS ADRIENNE PITTS

Take a walk in the woods
Maarika Naagel bounds from plant to plant, stopping to examine a marsh orchid, point out the green berries of a juniper bush or to pick wood sorrel to add to the St John’s Wort, yarrow and wild thyme in her basket. “Even after 800 years of Christianity, we still have one eye on the forest,” she says, threading wild strawberries onto a blade of grass, for future snacking. “Instead of going to church to pray, if we want to find peace, we go into the woods.” A guide since 1980, Maarika takes people into the forests and along the craggy coastline of Muhu, to teach them about local flora and its many uses through history – from the rowan trees that are said to keep evil away to the necessity of home-pickling during the collective-farming days of the Soviet era. Spend an hour in her company, and you’ll soon know which plants will cure a headache, and which will poison you. In the process, her guests find themselves slowly switching to island time. “You come here, you walk, you pick, there’s no need to rush,” she says, handing over a bunch of primula with instructions how to make tea from it. “You soon see that Muhu has a special atmosphere. Everything feels different here. This is a place where even time rests.”

Make wine, drink wine
“In the beginning, the islanders were a little surprised!” says Peke Eloranta, popping open a bottle of sparkling wine. “But they’re OK now.” The guesthouse and restaurant he runs with wife Ingrid are home to Muhu’s least likely enterprise: one of Europe’s most northernmost wineries. “This place belongs to Ingrid’s mother,” he says, pointing to the red villa behind him, the words “Muhu is great” chalked on a wall. “I was on the steps drinking a glass of wine one evening and looking at all the empty fields, and it made me sad that nothing grew here. So I had the idea – why not grow vines?”

He taught himself viticulture, crowdfunded some of the costs and planted his first vines in 2009. He now has 800, running off in neat lines towards the forest, the sea glinting beyond. “We are learning all the time,” he says, “but come back in five years and the vines will be singing!”

What brings most people to the farm is not an interest in viticulture so much as an interest in drinking the product.

Throughout the summer, Peke and Ingrid run feasts on the lawn overlooking the vines. Guests sit down to dinner at a long table beneath a string of festoon lights and fishing nets. The highlight, produced just as the sun begins to drift behind the trees, is a leg of lamb that’s been cooked all day over an open fire. “I calculated that this place needs a new kind of spirit,” says Peke, “We don’t want to be like a manor or château – we are a farm. We are easygoing and we don’t worry about etiquette, but the food and the wine is top quality. It suits the pace of life on the island very well.

Catch a fish
It takes half an hour to drive from one side of Muhu to the other, so an afternoon here is all it takes to become fully familiar with its features: the forests in which lurk wild boar, elk and roe deer; the meadows over which swoop hawks and barn swallows; the quiet gravel lanes lined with wildflowers and thatched wooden farmhouses; and beyond them all the bright blue sea. Down one such lane lies a small harbour, and the boat shed of Tarmo Korv. Several boats dip and bob in the waves, the neighbouring island of Saaremaa visible across the channel behind them. Born in a house just up the road, Tarmo has been a fisherman all his life, as his father and grandfather were before him, spending long months out at sea, but always returning to Muhu. “I tried living on Saaremaa for a bit, but I came home,” he says, smoothing down silver hair whipped by the rising wind. “I’ve seen so many faraway countries, but Muhu is the very best place,” he says with a laugh. “If I didn’t think that, you wouldn’t find me here!”

Tarmo is recently returned from a fishing trip and stands in the shade of a tree, checking over his nets and taking calls on his mobile about the day’s haul. People used to come to the harbour to buy their fish, but Tarmo and the 10 or so other fishermen on the island opened a fishmongers in the main town of Liiva a few summers ago, and their catch is now taken there to be sold. At any time of day, a long line snakes out the door, customers queuing for Baltic herrings, perch and flounder. Some fill bags with pickled or smoked fish and Muhu’s distinctive black bread from the neighbouring bakery and head down to Koguva, a wide harbour round the bay from Tarmo’s. Here they sit with legs dangling over the quayside, staring out at the old wooden fishing boats hoisted on to the shore and the waves beyond, enjoying their spoils with the smell of salt hanging in the air.

Visit your neighbours
There are two ways to get from Muhu to the islet of Kõinastu: you climb into a trailer and have a tractor pull you across through the water, or you strip down to your pants and wade over. Its inaccessibility proved its downfall, and has ensured its preservation as a place where time passes even more languidly than on Muhu. “Forty or fifty people lived here from the 17th century to the early 20th century,” says Kadri Tüür, stopping to scoop up a tiny pale octopus from the clear water. “But they all left. There’s no transport, no electricity and no running water. If you wanted to send your kids to school or listen to the radio, you had to move.”

Once on the other side, with trousers back on, the visitor finds an island just 600m by 1,200m wide, ringed by a pebbly shore and crossed by a couple of overgrown tracks. A professor of semiotics at the University of Tartu on mainland Estonia, Kadri has spent time conducting fieldwork on Kõinastu, talking to the ancestors of former residents, and discovering a wealth of local cultural knowledge, from ways to predict the weather to songs known only here. The farmsteads that made up the village still stand, and there’s a wooden windmill too, sail-less and bald. The barn that was turned into a cinema by the Soviets, and showed only Soviet war films, also remains. The islanders have found a way to return to the abandoned farms, reclaiming them as summer cottages. At one, a cheery gentleman comes out to show Kadri grainy black-and-white photos of his grandfather standing in the same garden at the turn of the century. His own children race past, ready to spend the day in a way that would be immediately recognisable to their predessors: hunting fossils on the beach, spotting sea eagles and oyster catchers, following wild-boar tracks through the woods, or simply dozing with a book in the shade of a rowan tree.

To know more about Muhu, check out LPMI’s September 2018 issue. Pick up a copy from your newsstand or click to subscribe via Zinio or Magzter.