Exploring Muhu Island

Updated on January 3, 2023 by Meg

Muhu is Estonia's third-largest island and one of 2,355 that make up the West Estonia archipelago.  After exploring the country's capital of Tallinn, I set off to catch a ferry in Virtsu, 90 minutes south, to begin some Baltic island-hopping, starting with Muhu.

I was eager to learn about the traditions of a place where it is said: "time is resting". Indeed, in just one day I would experience pagan practices, a 16th-century manor house, a Medieval church, a glimpse of daily life on a 19th-century farm and some relics of the Cold War. This time travel was even more surreal because its backdrop is some stunningly magical scenery.

Muhu Island
The ferry to Muhu island awaits! The journey across the Suur Strait takes about 40 minutes. Photo: Meg Pier

After having quickly left behind the hustle and bustle of Tallinn’s morning traffic, mine was the lone car on the ribbon of road slicing through densely-packed pine trees. Days earlier, as my plane had made its descent to Estonia’s capital, I watched out the window as the aircraft broke through the clouds at sunrise, seeing a carpet of green stretch toward the horizon line, where a speck of orange glinted — the far-away tiled rooftops of one of the world’s best preserved medieval centers. Almost half of the country is covered in forests, and having seen that vast wilderness from the air, I was now driving through it in a misty morning fog.

Happily, the straight-forward route was regularly posted with signage that offered continual comforting confirmation that I was indeed safely moving toward my destination. I breezed into the parking lot and the spot designated for the first car to board the behemoth ship I watched pull into the port.

Exploring Muhu Island

Forty minutes later, after an uneventful passage across the Suur Strait, I found Katrin Tuur exactly where she had told me she would be, waiting at the bus stop at Kuivastu port on Muhu Island. She was in her late fifties, with big eyes, a warm smile and one of those melodious voices that instantly evokes a sense of calm. I had known I would find a kindred spirit in my guide — I had been told she didn’t drive and as someone who did so as little as possible herself, we shared membership in a special club.

As she gently directed me along Muhu’s rural roads to our first destination, Katrin shared her perspective on the island’s culture.

“Most of us locals certainly are conservative and in the past even more so,” she said. “I am sure that women were more conservative because they never left our small island during their life. Of course, those that came from the poorer families, they went to the mainland to work in summer, or went to dig potatoes in autumn, at least while they were still unmarried.”

“But those who left the island to earn money somewhere else, when they returned they had new ideas,” she continued “They had seen certain things and brought back maybe a nice gift for the women folk, maybe a scarf with patterns which people here hadn’t seen before. But generally, they were not very much for modernizing things.”

Muhu Island

Katrin wryly noted that some things never change.

“The winter before last, the locals really got very annoyed with the head of the municipality — a new man,” Katrin said. “I think that his roots were here but he had spent his life somewhere else. Generally, there were many reasons why people didn’t like his way of doing things. A really, really local man is instead in now, and everybody seems to be very pleased with him.”

Katrin told me that this tendency toward conformity was reflected in the island’s architecture.

“Almost all the houses are wooden, traditionally with thatched roofs — nowadays, thatched with reeds, because it’s impossible to get proper straw anymore,” she said. “In the olden times, of course, they might have been straw-thatched, but reeds grow here at the seaside and last longer than straw.”

Katrin told me that composing and singing songs about daily life was the custom in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

“Some of them still are remembered. Fortunately, a lot of the tunes were recorded when the older men still were able to sing them,” she said. “For example, one was made about a new house that was built — different enough from our ordinary farmhouses that it warranted a song.”

At a bend in the road, Katrin directed me to turn down a gravel road toward a stone wall amidst a grove of trees.

We had arrived at Pädaste Manor. Now a five-star hotel and spa, the property dates to 1566, when the King of Denmark gave the manor to the von Knorr family in recognition of their service to the Danish Crown. The Danes were the first in a long series of conquerers who controlled Estonia. Their invasion in the early 13th century marked the beginning of more than 700 years of occupation by outside forces that over the centuries included Germans, Swedes and Russians.

Padaste Manor Muhu Island Estonia
The Neo-Gothic five-star Pädaste Manor. Photo: Pädaste Manor / Facebook

The prominent neo-Gothic main building was completed in 1875. In front of it was a sweeping courtyard, on the perimeter of which were granite and dolomite auxiliary buildings — a two-story granary, cheese dairy, smithy, stables and coach house. Under the Soviet regime, the property became an army headquarters, then a fish distribution center and later a nursing home. In the early 1980s, it was abandoned, and bought by the current owners in 1996.

We peeked in one of the outlying buildings, where the staff was setting tables in the elegant dining room, preparing for a weekend visit by Parliament speakers from the Nordic countries. Walking past ponds that had held carp in medieval times, we reached a private dock set in marshlands where fluffy clouds were reflected in the tranquil waters. It was an idyllic, timeless spot and I could imagine the view having been appreciated by the generations of noblemen who had called the manor home.

The grounds of Pädaste Manor include a peaceful waterfront. Photo: Meg Pier

Returning toward the manor house, Katrin pointed out a helipad in an outlying field.

“One of the owners comes from Muhu Island, so he is a local man and very talented — he composes music and is a very keen chef,” Katrin told me. “Around the time the property opened, the press was alerted that Luciano Pavarotti was invited to an event being held here. Of course, the media assumed that he would come, although it was not said so in those words.”

“I didn’t see it with my own eyes, but as I have heard, a helicopter arrived at the appointed hour,” Katrin continued. “A big man who looked very much like Pavarotti stepped out, waved to the crowd, and got back into the helicopter, which flew off. Of course, the press was terribly angry and even accused the owners of lying. But the name of a very remote and unheard-of place became known all over Estonia.”

Katrin and I shared the first of many good laughs. I told her that I had spent 25 years in public relations and that I found the publicity acumen of Padaste’s owners remarkable for citizens of a non-capitalist country until just five years earlier. I failed to fully appreciate what masters of illusion the Soviets were, a misperception soon rectified.

From the southern coast of the island, we headed inland to its geographic heart, stopping at St. Catherine’s Church outside of the village of Liiva. Set on a large green lawn surrounded by mossy stone walls and stands of birch trees, the white-washed building seemed to embody grace, with the lines of its perfectly proportioned walls emanating an aura of peacefulness. Said to be built on a pagan worship site, the church dates to 1267; inside, Katrin pointed out a rare 13th-century trapezoidal grave slab fastened above a door.

Muhu Island
Rare 13th-century grave slab at St. Catherine’s Church in Liiva. Photo: Meg Pier

We drove to downtown Liiva, a crossroad at which a cluster of commerce is centered, and stopped first in a shop selling the handicraft work for which Muhu Island is well-known. Weaving and embroidery are ancient art forms here, practiced for eons during the long winter nights when the austere Nordic landscape was warmed by the Muhu people’s creations of whimsical patterns in vibrant colors of hot pink, blazing yellow and fiery orange.

Next door was a small antiques shop, where I gravitated to a glass case displaying rows and rows of Soviet medals, colored ribbons hung with medallions emblazoned with words in the Cyrillic alphabet and engraved with the Communist emblem of a hammer and sickle.

Katrin explained the medals were not necessarily for military service but for any type of work.

“In Soviet times, medals were given out quite a lot — to factory or agricultural workers, hairdressers, photographers,” she explained. “They were given to those who worked hard, and, in many cases, the ‘best workers’ were those being promoted for some political reason. I suppose the medals motivated the Russians who took things connected with the Soviet Union more seriously but for Estonians they were not such a big thing. The Soviets just liked to give out medals — it was routine. We laughed at it but it was part of life. When we knew better, it was over.”

I bought one for my husband Tom, both a joking acknowledgement of his patience with his nomadic wife and because I knew he would find of interest the piece of a bygone era.

Muhu Island
Tasty lunch at the Fish Cafe on Muhu Island. Photo: Meg Pier

We crossed the street to the Fish Cafe, a charming establishment of gleaming white painted wood strung with colorful handicrafts. We took a table on the patio outside, which was soon crowded with locals and tourists alike. Girls in folk costumes and kerchiefs delivered lunch — simple food artfully presented. My body clock was still adapting to the seven-hour time difference and my stomach had been growling all morning. I devoured my fish cakes, pickled beets, juicy tomatoes and dilled boiled potatoes, sharing with Katrin a plate of delicious, moist black bread.

We headed northwest out of Liiva, stopping a short distance away to admire Rinpsi Orthodox Christian Church, built-in 1871. Estonia had become part of the Tsarist Empire in 1710, and a sweeping religious conversion movement occurred across the country in the mid-19th century as part of a “Russification” campaign. About 70% of Muhu’s population left the Lutheran faith to embrace Orthodoxy, motivated by both eternal aspirations and earthly rewards, as Estonian peasants believed conversion could improve their economic situation.

Katrin told me she had been baptized here when she was 26 in the mid-1970s.

“The priest christened me so that I could stand up as a godmother to my goddaughter,” she explained with a twinkle in her eye. “Then she was christened, and that made it alright — a rather unorthodox happening in an orthodox church!”

Back in the car, Katrin went on to tell me that another friend, with whom she went to college, later expressed his admiration for her daring.

“I belonged to the Young Communist League, as most of us did,” she explained. “It was something we didn’t take at all seriously. We were not communists. We were far from political. But at school, if you didn’t join up, then it meant that things might be a bit more difficult for you. It was easier to join up than to fight them all the time, always asking — ‘why don’t you join?’ And of course, religion was considered opium, as Marx said.”

“For my college friend, such a baptism would have been worse,” Katrin said. “He had returned to Muhu after graduating and was already working on the island. If he had converted, it would have been known immediately to his bosses. At that time, I was living on the mainland, so it didn’t matter so much.”

“Pull off here,” Karin said. “I have something I want to show you.”

Muhu Island
Study in contrasts: 19th-century Rinpsi Orthodox Christian Church and the remnant of Soviet rocket base. Photos: Meg Pier

I turned down a muddy rutted road, following it through a field of tall grass to its end, where a black hole gaped from a small hillock. Moving closer, it became clear I was seeing a camouflaged warehouse for something big.

“This was the first rocket base on Muhu Island and it was built at the end of the 1950s,” Katrin told me. “The Soviets built 25 military places on the neighboring island of Saaremaa, because it was the westernmost area of the Soviet Union. After independence from the Soviets, the locals stripped all the useable wood here — I suppose it’s been used to make saunas.”

“Those who built this place were conscripts, young men from all over the Soviet Union–from Central Asia, from areas in Russia, from Siberia, and of course, from Latvia, and Lithuania, too,” she continued. “The idea was to send boys as far from home as possible.”

“At first they were not kept so strictly in their camp and came to the local dances and danced with the girls. Local boys were not very happy about that, and there were fights. Later they were kept on their premises, and when they came out, they came together with officers.”

“Generally, the relations with the locals were not bad, and I think there were friendships among the officers and locals. The officers gave concerts here, and they helped with collective farm work like hay-making and digging potatoes. They had a shop, which naturally was well-stocked. In local shops, people hardly ever saw imported goods. You would be surprised at what items at that time were very difficult to get–even canned peas, not to mention boots for ladies. When the officers had what they and their families needed and there was still a supply, the locals could visit and buy things, too. They were very nice towards the locals.”

“We know now that people in the United States were told that missiles were being pointed at them, and of course people here were being told that missiles were being pointed at them.”

Muhu Island
Valke Vain or “small strait,” separates Muhu from the neighboring island of Saaremaa. Photo: Meg Pier

“At school, there were lessons where we learned all about nuclear bombs and what to do, how to escape, how to find shelter, how to help those who have suffered. That was the general practice all over the Soviet Union. Whole enterprises, factories, offices, schools, they had certain civil defense lessons. And, of course, we had to be able to wear gas masks.”

“I personally can’t remember that I had any fear of all of that happening. I don’t think that we did, really. It was purely academic for us. I can’t, of course, say that there were not people who really were afraid and who thought that the third world war might start immediately. Maybe there were people who believed in that.”

We drove to the west of the island and Koguva Village, on the shore of Valke Vain or “small strait,” a narrow strip of water that separates Muhu from the neighboring island of Saaremaa.

Visiting the Ethnographic Museum, Muhu

Set alongside the charming, thatch-roofed homes of Koguva’s current residents is an ethnographic museum. Under a canopy of ash, maple and juniper trees and encircled by meandering stone walls wearing velvet moss, a labyrinth of buildings are maintained as they existed in days gone by. Hens roam and cluck in the farmyard and a series of adjoining rooms with bare log walls and stone floors offered a glimpse of daily life in Koguva in the 19th century.

The significance of textiles was in evidence everywhere immense hand-hewn chests overflowing with elaborately-decorated garments, the dowry each wife was expected to provide; rustic spinning wheels and giant looms served as the centerpieces of the farm’s furnishings; a simple toy horse made of a tall stick topped by a swatch of sheepskin.

Muhu Island
Koguva’s ethnographic museum highlights daily life in the 19th century. Photos: Meg Pier

The museum housed a collection of Muhu costumes — peculiar headgear under which the women’s coifs were held in place by twigs, lace-ornamented midriff blouses, aprons, embroidered textile shoes. The stockings were extraordinary not only for the complex patterns woven into them, but for their girth as well — there was a local expression that an ideal women needed to be able to feed her husband and six children. Men preferred strong women with heavy legs. In the complete antithesis of today’s mentality, women attempted to appear as bulky as possible, often wearing two skirts and several pairs of stockings, into which they would stuff material.

Katrin and I walked to the shoreline, along which sat a statue of writer Juhan Smuul, who was born on a farm in Koguva in 1922. Smuul died young at age 49 in 1971 and Katrin filled me in on his short life.

Smuul was conscripted into the Soviet army at age 19 when the war began. Because his health was not good, he spent most of the time in army hospitals, where he started to write. He went on to produce dramas, feature stories and poems–inspired by his native village and the sea. He had wanted to become a sailor when he was a young boy, and so he traveled as much as he could, spending considerable time on the Atlantic in a fish trawler and also in the Far East. He participated in an expedition to Antarctica, about which he wrote a book.

“His humorous stories, written in the local Muhu dialect, consist mostly of folk stories — events that actually happened to our grandfathers and mothers, or great-grandfathers and great-grandmothers and are kept alive that way,” Katrin said. “People enjoy them very much, and in some cases they still remember the proper names of characters, or at least the villages they came from. One of the tales has been made into a film. Every year they show it on TV, and still people watch it and laugh.”

Muhu Island
Statue of Estonian writer Juhan Smuul, who was born on a farm in Koguva in 1922. Photo: Meg Pier

In carving the statue of Smuul, the sculptor depicted a bird on his shoulder, and I asked Katrin about its significance.

“Many writers are very often a bit different from ordinary people,” she said slowly. “They must be, and to have a bird on your shoulder is maybe a way of showing that, a sign of inspiration.”

We next travelled northwest on back roads to the hamlet of Paenase. I had heard that throughout Estonia there are ancient sacrificial boulders believed to have significance since pagan times — and Katrin was going to show me one.

She directed me down a narrow gravel lane and into the driveway of a fairy-tale like house, adorned with tree stumps transformed into whimsical, smiling characters. Katrin said a friend lived here, who perhaps we would see after a jaunt into the woods to behold the revered rock.

As we trudged down a grassy path, Katrin told me most villages had rocks like this in olden times but by the 19th century fewer and fewer people sought help from them — although some still did. She stopped, cocked her head and plunged off the trail into the brush, holding back brambles for me to follow her. For an instant, I thought “Am I crazy to trapse after this woman, and risk poison ivy or being bitten by a tick?” The thought vanished and I stepped off the path and into the woods, my feet sinking into spongy mud as I kept my hands in front of my face to avoid branches.

Soon enough, we came into a clearing where a sign marked a boulder draped in soft, emerald moss. The huge stone was indented with a natural shelf, on which nestled a small ceramic bowl, small rocks, and twigs. As we stood in front of it, Katrin closed her eyes and I felt it perfectly natural to do the same. We stood still that way for some minutes, and I made my request of the power said to reside here. It seemed Katrin and I both opened our eyes at the same time.

Muhu Island
Pagan beliefs endure in Paenase. Photos: Meg Pier

“It was important always to leave or “sacrifice” something in return for your wish being granted, even if your offering was only a rusty nail or a bit of thread,” she said.

That seemed only fair and right. I picked up a thick twig twisted in an unusual way and placed it on the rock shelf.

Retracing our steps, Katrin saw that her friend had returned and gave her a wave. We crossed the yard to meet her and Liivi welcomed us, suggesting we stroll around her yard, being sure to look in on her beloved greenhouse, while she made coffee.

Liivi clearly had a green thumb and the plants she was cultivating were thriving but it was a tee-pee like structure that captured my attention. Set apart on the large parcel of land was a lean-to made of tall branches. Inside, there was just enough room for one person to stand in. Katrin entered and tilted her head back, closed her eyes, and held out her hands as if in the act of receiving. I was surprised to feel tears spring to my eyes, which I realized were not borne of sadness and it was a curious, foreign sensation.

We joined Liivi on her porch, and I inquired about the tee-pee. She smiled and said “Oh, that is my secret place!” I asked if she meditated there and she said, “Yes, yes. I made it myself, I felt I needed it and it just happened. We had a sheep pen constructed of wooden logs but decided to stop caring for sheep. The wood was good quality and I wanted to do something with it.”

She told me that she spends part of the year in Lapland in Northern Finland, where the herdsmen make “winter fireplaces,” where they can cook and make themselves a cup of tea when they are out hunting. Their “igloos” were her inspiration.

Liivi said she had run a guest house here for many years, but it became too much and she felt she needed a break. Now officially closed, from time to time she opens it up for people, but balance had become more important. She began to understand the need for rest and relaxation along with periods of activity and stimulation.

I told Liivi and Katrin this awareness was just dawning on me and I was struggling with it.

“It’s not that complicated,” Liivi said. “Listen to your heart and watch your thinking. Once you find that point, things work out within you.”

Muhu Island
Liivi and Katrin, able ambassadors for Muhu Island! Photo: Meg Pier

Taking our leave, Katrin and I got in the car. A wave of intense exhaustion swept across me; I felt like I could barely keep my eyes open.

As if reading my mind, Katrin said “You look quite wiped out — do you think you can manage getting to Saaremaa?”

My itinerary called for me to drive over the causeway that joined Muhu to its neighbor and then traverse the width of Saaremaa to its principal town. It hadn’t occurred to me that it might be an option to change my mind on where I called home for the night.

Rigid adherence to following rules and conforming to expectations had been guiding principles my entire life. On an island where conventional wisdom embraces uniformity and time-honored tradition, two strong Muhu women who knew their own minds inspired in me a radical departure from my own habitual thinking.

Resisting the barked commands from the internal authoritarian dictator that drove so much of my decision-making, I said to Katrin, “I just don’t think I can make the drive. Do you think I could find somewhere nearby to stay the night?”

A short while later and a few miles away, after a hearty meal of stew and more delicious black bread, I was snuggled under soft sheets. I enjoyed a sound night’s sleep, waking the next morning from a peaceful dream about a wish coming true.

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