I have been on lots of islands, some of them far away like Australia or Easter Island. After paying a lot and polluting heaps of air to get there, I was wondering if it’s really worth it. And as a European, I have to say, it probably isn’t. Because there are thousands of islands all around Europe that are easy and cheap to get to.
Sadly enough, most Europeans don’t even know Sark or Zvërnec. And that’s why they toil for years to afford a trip to Galapagos, when they could simply walk out the front door and hitchhike to Hiiumaa.
See, you never heard of Estonia’s second-largest island!
To be fair, neither had I until I lived in the Baltics in 2012. Rasmus, a young man from Estonia, was going to visit his grand-aunt on the island of Hiiumaa. He asked around if somebody wanted to join him. As trips to unknown islands in the colder region of Europe during the colder part of the year go (it was the end of October), not many people expressed their interest. I was one. The other was Rolando from Costa Rica, who was most certainly a spy because he spoke Estonian. “What’s there to spy on an island?”, you wonder, but you will be surprised.
The two of them went by ferry and I, for I was not as much of an environmentalist back then as I am now, had found a flight from Tallinn to Hiiumaa for less than 20 euros. But then it began to snow. A proper snow storm, which wouldn’t ease. No way the plane would take off in this weather. “That’s the end of the trip,” I thought, disappointed.
But this was Estonia, and although it was the first snow of the season, the airport was prepared. When planes took off, they simply had snowplows drive in front of them to clear the runway.
As we walked onto the airfield, already in the darkness of the night, I was almost freezing to death and blown away by the wind. It was a small plane, for 17 passengers. I was the only foreigner, it seemed, so the flight attendant came to my seat and translated each announcement for me personally. The plane was shaking and rocking and jumping in the air. I held on to the seat in front of me with both hands. Usually, I look at the other passengers in such situations, thinking: “Everyone else is flying this route more often than me, and they are perfectly calm. So this is nothing unusual.” On that day, however, the Estonian passengers looked equally scared.
But we made it.
The airport on Hiiumaa was just one building, where the family running the airport seemed to live, because it felt like walking through their living room as I picked up my bag. They had a beautiful cat strolling around, fat and golden, like Garfield. There was a bus waiting, and the driver took everyone to exactly where they wanted to go.
Rasmus’ grand-aunt didn’t have space for everyone, so I had booked a room with someone else. A family in Kärdla, which one could call the capital city of the island, although this makes it sound much grander than it is, had a separate building next to their house and showed me to my bed upstairs. When I asked for a key, they said: “You don’t need a key. We don’t lock the doors to the houses here.” I love islands for that.
Early the next morning, it was time to meet Rasmus and Rolando.
“How was the flight?”, Rasmus asked.
I told him, especially the part about everyone else looking scared, too.
“Of course they were scared. Because they all knew that last year, on the first night of snowfall, the plane crashed.”
Thankfully, the translating flight attendant had withheld that piece of information from me. And luckily, I had already arranged to return to the mainland with Rasmus and Rolando by car and ferry. No more flights for me.
Besides plane crashes, there seemed to be many mysterious deaths on Hiiumaa, because in every forest, there were cemeteries, hidden far from the road. Rasmus, who had spent his childhood on the island, found the way based on certain trees which to me looked like all the other million trees.
At the time, I didn’t spot it, but one of the crosses marked the grave of a similar trip to Hiiumaa two years before. Had I noticed it, I would have had a lot of questions. And I would have been more careful.
During the Soviet Union, Hiiumaa was a restricted military zone. This meant that foreigners and even most Soviet or Estonian citizens weren’t allowed to visit. The people who already lived on the island were allowed to remain, though. At least in theory, because in practice, many Estonians were deported to Siberia.
There were still plenty of signs from the Soviet time.
Like at most houses on the island, the doors to the bunkers stood open, which we interpreted as an invitation. Rasmus, a very organized fellow, had told us to bring flashlights.
I didn’t manage to take any good photos, but in some bunkers, we climbed down four levels, squeezing ourselves through narrow gaps in the concrete, holding on to rusty iron ladders. “Be careful not to get stuck on a nail, or you can get tetanus,” Rasmus warned us, and I was wondering: “Isn’t there much more danger in us getting lost? Or suffocating? Or getting stuck? Or the roof caving in?” Little did I know that this was nothing compared with the situations we would still get ourselves into.
But first some lighthouses.
Sadly, these were not open for us to walk into.
Nor was the Military Museum. But Rasmus knew the person who had a key, he picked it up, we guided ourselves through the museum, and we left some money on the table. As almost any place in Europe, Hiiumaa had been occupied by the German Army twice, once in World War I and once in World War II. And, as any place sandwiched between Germany and the Soviet Union, it had been fought over several times in World War II. Because the second of the Soviet occupations lasted much longer and into living memory, I had the impression that the time of the Nazi occupation (and especially the Estonian collaboration in the Holocaust) was sometimes glossed over too readily.
From World War II, the seas around the island are littered with shipwrecks, but a more recent naval disaster weighs more heavily on everyone’s mind. In 1994, the ferry MS Estonia sank northwest of Hiiumaa, killing 852 people. “For a few years after the accident, there were still bodies being washed ashore,” Rasmus remembered. Facing the direction of the maritime mass grave, there is a simple memorial.
In the evening, Rasmus and Rolando went to a sauna, which, after they explained the concept to me, I found a very dubious way to spend one’s leisure time. So, I walked to my accommodation alone through the cold night, guided by the full moon, which other people might deem a rather dubious way to spend one’s leisure time.
It rarely happens to me, but that night, I had run out of books. As I laid awake, I wrote my first story with a more creative aspiration than simply reporting the facts. And I learned that a secluded spot, cold climate and lack of distraction are important factors in my writing, a lesson which I have heeded far too rarely since.
After we had been underground the day before, the two young intrepid gentlemen wanted to climb some towers, not knowing that I am afraid of heights. Someone must have had a lot of time (and wood) on their hands and built a replica of the Eiffel Tower. He wasn’t home, but there was a jar into which we deposited one euro each.
It looks a bit shaky, doesn’t it? And the wind was blowing. But then I thought, the structure must weigh hundreds, if not thousands of kilos, so three slim guys won’t make much difference.
The higher we climbed, the more I realized that the creative lumberjack was in the process of rebuilding a whole Disneyland from wood.
I was ready to launch a tirade against deforestation until, finally at the top, I saw that I needn’t have worried. There were still plenty of trees around.
This tower was not the last one to climb, nor the scariest.
No, that one was okay.
But the next one, the concrete tower, had obviously exceeded its sell-by date and was about to collapse.
Large junks of the interior staircase were missing and we had to jump over abysses or use wooden planks to climb up. Then, we had to crawl through a window, jump from wooden plank to wooden plank around the outside to reach rusty metal ladders and climb to the top, where we sat on the “balcony”.
I have no idea why I went all the way up. But reflecting on this eight years later, I can at least say that I did mature in some way.
Actually, I learned the lesson quickly, because at the next tower, by the sea, I did refuse to climb to the top. That one really looked too fragile.
And the view from inside the bunker was beautiful enough.
Speaking of the sea, and unexpectedly hitting you with heavy history, people always associate the Iron Curtain with the Berlin Wall. But the Baltic Sea was the Iron Curtain, too.
And that is one reason why the whole island is criss-crossed with trenches, bunkers, watchtowers and barracks that now stand empty.
There are also remnants of villages, but even without taking a census, I had the feeling that the population was in decline.
Some of the churches were still kept in good shape, though.
Okay, the last one was not a church, but this very useful building was to be found in a churchyard.
Since Rasmus’ last visit, the gas station had closed.
But, as with everything else on the island, this just meant that we left some money in a jar next to the pump. And off we went, onto the ferry to the mainland, thinking once again of MS Estonia.
“If you come back in a few months, we can save the money for the ferry,” Rasmus said, confusing his friends from warmer climatic zones. In winter, the sea freezes over and the ferries stop. The 26 km between Hiiumaa and Estonia turn into the longest ice road in Europe.
“You take some precautions, and nothing should happen,” Rasmus said. “Turn off the radio, don’t buckle up, have your backpack in your lap and the windows open. Just listen to the ice and when you hear a cracking sound or you feel your car sinking, grab your bag and run.”
“Does it happen that cars sink?”, I asked incredulously.
“Yeah, sure,” Rasmus replied, as if speaking about a minor inconvenience.
“And what then?”
“You file a claim with the insurance company.”
Back on the mainland, the snowstorm was still raging.
But our host had one last idea on the way home: “In Haapsalu, there is a Soviet military airfield, as abandoned as everything you have seen on Hiiumaa. Let’s see if the gate is open.”
Of course it was open, and in the darkness of the night and the cover of the snowstorm, Rasmus used the runways to test to what speeds he could take his car. On the ice. There was no way to see more than a few meters through the falling snow, but I think we went up to 180 km/h.
“Don’t worry, guys,” he said, “I know that the runway is exactly 2500 meters long and I am watching the odometer.” It worked, but it was close.
We did a few more laps, one with the lights switched off, and Rasmus explained what was already obvious to everyone:
“My real dream was always to become a race-car driver.”
“And what work do you do instead?”, I asked the tower-climbing, tunnel-exploring, race-car driving, ice-breaking, death-defying and risk-taking young man, expecting him to be a stuntman or a Special Forces demolition diver.
“I work at a bank, in the risk-assessment department.”
Oddly enough, that information made me feel much safer in retrospect.