A few winters back I took a last minute flight to Riga and spent a few weeks exploring the snow-filled villages and towns of Latvia and Estonia. Outside of experiencing a 'real' winter, with its fresh minus temperatures, frozen lakes and snowy landscapes going on forever, the sheer solitude and peace of this region stuck with me since.
Tartu is Estonia's second city and it is tucked away nicely on the south-eastern corner of the country. Very different to it's sister-city Tallinn up north, this is a place less explored by the foreign traveller, and more sophisticated in it's identity. It is - to my mind - first and foremost, a university city. The streets have a youthful, organised character. Toome Hill, the slope-perched park that runs down to a beautifully quaint town centre, is layered with snow. The square is an ice rink. The 'Kissing Students' of Tartu stand in a timeless embrace; legs kicked back for love. Oscar Wilde sits outside a pub for a chat with Eduard Vilde. A replica of this statue also sits in a street in Galway city; sealing a literary link between Ireland and Estonia through these two giants of European literature.
At the bus station, lines run from Tartu out to the 'Old Believer' towns on the banks of Lake Peipsi. It is a relatively short journey to Kallaste. I decided to stay overnight at a guesthouse, commonly used at this time of year by fishermen. The village is practically crumbling under the weight of snow. Fishermen take snow mobiles out onto a frozen Lake Peipsi for ice-fishing. They carry giant cork-screw like instruments on little trailers, to drill through thick slabs of ice.
I shuffled down quiet streets towards the village café and a white cold fog hovers, gradually giving way to more snowfall. The café is homely and cosy. Outside the door I kick the snow from my boots and walk in to get fed. Russian conversations bounce around the room. This 'Old Believer' village grew from a schism in the Russian Orthodox faith in the 1700's, when members of the religious minority fled here to escape persecution. While Tartu strikes me as leaning toward a Scandinavian mentality, Kallaste reminds me of Russian villages in central Siberia - self preserving, proud and friendly, but elderly.
The snow gets heavy again; now well on its way to being a blizzard. Walking on to the local store I pass a statue remembering World War II victims. Behind it a vast frozen Lake Peipsi shines. From Kallaste, looking east across the 150 kilometres of ice, Russia and the town of Gdov sits on the other side.
Pensioners pass on sleighs at a junction ahead of me. Some of their Zimmer-frame-sleighs are parked up outside the store. It is pension day in Kallaste.
Eamonn Sheehy - travel writing with a focus on people and culture.