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New Europe

Day Eighty-six: Tallinn to the Latvian border

The Setu people 
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My day with the Setu people of south-eastern Estonia. Behind me the wonderful Singing Grannies and, kneeling, King Ritzier.
Michael Palin - New EuropeWake to a re-run of the scene from The Godfather. Bloodstained duvet and a thick, dark wodge of dried blood on my T-shirt. Look round for the horse's head but mercifully I'm alone. In the bathroom I gingerly begin to peel off the dressing, but gingerly clearly isn't going to shift Lyudmilla's industrial sticking plaster so eventually pluck up courage and rip it off with one sharp tug. An ear-splitting noise as if my entire stomach had opened up and I'm left holding the mobile equivalent of 300 millilitres of blood. In my side are three small purple circles with black puncture marks in them, blood still gently seeping from one of them. Tidy up as best I can and feel quite glad that I shall be checking out of this charming hotel this morning and should be well on the way to Latvia before the blood-soaked evidence is discovered.

From well-trodden Tallinn we turn our backs on the Baltic coast and head south and east to the less visited end of the country, near to the Russian border. The road, never busy, takes us through the town of Tartu, Estonia's second city, whose 370-year-old university became, in the nineteenth century, the focus of that upsurge in Estonianism known as the National Awakening, when many of the cultural foundations of present-day Estonia were laid.

We take a coffee break at the self-consciously literary Café Wilde, named not after Oscar but Peter Wilde, who published the first medical textbooks in Estonian. This doesn't stop them having a bronze sculpture of Oscar Wilde, seated on a bench outside. The current owner of the café believes that the Irishness of Oscar Wilde resonates with Estonians. Both countries are on the edge of the continent, both love singing and mythology and both have been transformed by the cyber-revolution.

An hour's drive through uncut meadows carpeted with wild lupins brings us to the secluded little town of Värska in an area settled by a few thousand members of the Setu people. In a sense the Setu are victims rather than beneficiaries of Estonia's independence, as a third of their land is in Russia and, Estonian-Russian relations being what they are, many families are separated. The culture has been kept alive, rather successfully, by a group of older women, uninventively dubbed the Singing Grannies, who preserve their traditions through folk songs and costumes hundreds of years old.

These Setu matrons, with more than a touch of the Women's Institute about them, are tougher than they look. Marshalled by the formidable Vera, whose powerful features radiate a mixture of stern discipline and timeless patience, these mature ladies, some of whom can only get into the room with the aid of a stick, don traditional headdresses, complex necklaces and heavy silver breastplates to sing sweet harmonies, quite beautifully, without any accompaniment.
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  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day Eighty-six: Tallinn to the Latvian border
  • Country/sea: Estonia
  • Place: Tartu
  • Book page no: 206

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