Saturday, 20 July 2024
Estonia Unveiled: My Eye-Opening Trip to the Digital Heart of Europe Mark Thomas

Estonia Unveiled: My Eye-Opening Trip to the Digital Heart of Europe

Written by  Jun 30, 2024

Last week was a week of firsts for me. It was the first time I had visited a Baltic country, the northernmost I have ever been on the globe, the first time I had visited Scandinavia and the first time I had ever tried rhubarb wine!

I escaped the heat wave and chilled my bones with 20 degree temperatures, heaven on earth. “Once a year, go someplace you've never been before,” once said the Dalai Lama, I’ve certainly ticked that box.

“So was Estonia as you expected it to be?” asked one of my hosts as we sat in a traditional restaurant in Tartu on the last day of a four-day trip. Although I had done a little research I kind of half expected a Soviet-style country, complete with dour architecture and boring functionality, that was still trying to escape from the claws of communism. I was wrong, totally wrong!

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My reason for visiting Estonia, or more precisely the 2024 European Capital of Culture – Tartu, was as a project for the EU connected with digitalisation and remote working, indeed I was to be the host of a podcast.

Maybe you aren’t aware but Estonia is very much the tip of the spear in a digital life.

And this was highlighted when I was on a 2-hour bus ride from Tallin to Tartu, as sitting opposite me were a couple in their mid-seventies who spent the whole journey surfing, video calling and chatting on their smartphones.

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Estonia seems to have started their digital journey twenty years ago and literally live and work online. “Almost all of the city council works remotely,” explained the deputy mayor. In fact, I would say that three things really hit me – the digital transformation, the green and sustainable lifestyle and the emphasis on mental health. And all of these points are handled superbly.

Now I enjoying being shocked culturally, if everywhere and everybody were the same life would be tedious. But one thing that took a lot of getting used to was the sun, or rather the almost never-setting sun.

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“For three months we have extremely long days,” said one local.

We left one restaurant at 10 at night when they were closing and stepped outside into bright sunshine and children playing on scooters and families going for strolls. Your body feels tired but can’t work out why it’s still broad daylight. Dusk is a long process and almost collides with dawn, with true darkness from 11pm to around 3.30am.

Of course on the flip side the winter is almost a blackout.

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And Estonians make the most (to the extreme) of these three months of sun. Whereas the Dubrovnik group were wrapped up the locals were exclusively in shorts and T-shirts.

One afternoon the heavens opened and rain hammered, however the Viking blood of the locals shone through as they mainly walked without umbrellas and were soaked, but smiling. “Oh, what is the temperature in Dubrovnik?” asked a local organiser and was shocked when I said mid-thirties. “Like our saunas,” she smiled.

I can’t state this enough – Estonians love saunas.

“We even have one in our office,” added the young lady. I didn’t meet anyone who didn’t go to a sauna at least once a week, and many (many) went four or five days. “We go every Sunday with the whole family,” said another local.

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I soon realised that saunas are more of a social event, with family, friends and food and wine. And to add to the “bonding” it appears that full frontal naked saunas are also the norm!

And on my travels I dig to find local gastronomic treats. “Do you guys make wine?” I quizzed. “Well, not from grapes but from other fruits,” she answered. And one such fruit is rhubarb. Strange but true.

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For three days I asked and asked to try this unique drink and on the final day one of the organisers turned up to a meeting with a chilled bottle. I am going to be diplomatic and say that it was a distinctive taste.

But to be fair my whole Estonian experience was far from what I had expected. A country that in many ways is so far ahead of the bigger players in Europe and yet still mainly undiscovered.

Estonia – I will be back.

Read more Englishman in Dubrovnik…well, if you really want to


About the author
Mark Thomas (aka Englez u Dubrovniku) is the editor of The Dubrovnik Times. He was born and educated in the UK and moved to live in Dubrovnik in 1998. He works across a whole range of media, from a daily radio show to TV and in print. Thomas is fluent in Croatian and this column is available in Croatia on the website – Dubrovnik Vjesnik


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