Travels with V
Estonia & Lithuania
Island of strong women
Estonia part four, Kihnu
You drive one hour west from Pärnu, get on a ferry and after one more hour you’re there. On Kihnu, a small island about 2 kilometers wide and five kilometers long. It’s a world to itself, with flowering meadows, farmland and straight pine forests. It’s like in a movie about eternal summer.
It’s a flat island, good for biking. So we pedal our bikes around and across and talk to people about the extraordinary culture and traditions here. A tradition dominated by strong and willful women. A UNESCO award to Kihnu calls it “A Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity”. Not bad!
The island’s little museum is the hotspot for the living traditions, and here you’ll see plenty of evidence for what has been called “Europe’s last matriarchy”. Here are the ladies driving russian motorbikes dresssed in their traditional striped skirt and kerchief. And old movies show gangs of women drinking homemade beer from the bottle. This cocky female attitude i still noticeable today.
We meet “Kihnu Lina”, who arives on her shining red MC with her logo painted on the gas tank. She runs a small store, works in the restaurant, is caretaker at the camping site, works as tourist guide and has three children. She’s got so much energy she can hardly sit still, and she’s full of razor-sharp sarcasm. I ask her “Is there really a matriarchy in Kihnu?” And she says: “Of course. We can turn the head of any man here”.
Lina’s traditional attire is not her everyday choice, but all Kihnu women has at least one in the wardrobe. They are handmade and how to craft them is taught in courses at the museum. This is very important, “If Kihnu will continue to be the unique island it is, the traditions have to be carried over to the next generation”, she says.
Sirje is a middle-aged woman who lived in Kihnu as a child, but she was later able to emigrate to Sweden with her mother. Every summer she returns to Kihnu, staying on what used to be her grandfather’s land in a village called “Rootsiküla”, meaning “the Swedish village”. People originating from Sweden have lived on these islands for many hundreds of years, and Kihnu even has a Swedish name, “Kynö”. The Swedes often lived in their own communities and spoke an old dialect who is difficult for us to understand today. But after the soviet ockupation almost all of them left Estonia.
Sirje has vivid memories of her childhood on Kihnu and she tells us about how the women handled everything while the men were out fishing. For example she says, the children were gathering herbs and flowers for colouring the garments. And their mothers plowed the land, fed the animals and slaughtered them. And transported the fish that their husbands landed on their motorbikes.
Mare is the painter of the picture of dancing women on top of this page. It’s an illustration of an old legend about fertility rites in a place where a church burned down.
Kihnu is so extraordinary beautiful and biking around in forests and fields and little villages and sandy beaches with grazing cows is an experience for all senses. But there are a few must-see spots, and the little museum is one. On the island’s southern tip there is a lighthouse, Tuletorn that was made in parts in England and assembled here. You can climb it, the views from the top are magnificent.
The one thing that was a bit of a problem on Kihnu was food. There are a couple of places serving lunch, most often the wonderful smoked fish so typical for the Baltics. They are served just as they are, on a sheet of paper, with no additions.
But for dinner there are practically only two or three restaurants open in the evenings. Luckily one of them, Kurase, is surprisingly good. It sits on a crossroads in the center of the island and is a red house with a small food shop and a big restaurant, open until eight o’clock. On weekends it opens again two hours later as a bar (!) and stays open until four in the morning…!
We spend some interesting and lovely days on Kihnu, but inevitably we need to move on. The plan now is to drive straight through Latvia and not stop until we reach Siauliai in Lithuania. But fate hade something else for us…
Top 6 on Kihnu:
- Untouched nature. Apart from the now asphalt coated roads Kihnu probably looks very much the same as it has for a very long time. Everywhere you see old barns and storage houses, hay meadows, crop fields and forests. and sandy beaches facing the Baltic sea.
- The people. The Kihnu women are a bit cocky, I think that’s the most accurate word for it. But they’re also seriously loyal to Kihnu’s “soul”, the dancing, singing and handicraft.
- Kurase. The only real restaurant on the island. Sort of the heart of Kihnu, where people meet, shop and eat. And drink. Always popular and the food is good.
- Rooslaiu & Rannametsa: Two small places where lunches are served. Always try their smoked fish, ca €10 for a whole fish with nothing else. Rooslain is a few kilometers south of Kihnu harbour. Rannametsa is close to the camping grounds on the west side.
- Uibu Talu: This is where we stayed in a newly built row of rooms with private bathrooms. A simple but nourishing breakfast. Other meals can be ordered.
- Tuletorn. The impressive lighthouse on the southern tip. Climb its red stairs and have a great view of Kihnu from above. Coming down you can buy ice cream in a kiosk by the entrance.