Old Believers first settled in Estonia in the mid 1600s. Major reforms were taking place in the Russian Orthodox church at that time, and not everyone was on board. Those strongly opposed to the reforms were dubbed “old believers” and denounced by the church. Many fled the religious persecution and sought refuge across the border in Swedish-controlled Estonia. Settlements sprung up along the shores of Lake Peipsi which flows between the two countries. I imagine the Russian refugees looked longingly across the water towards their homeland hoping one day to return, but maybe I’m just being romantic. The Old Believer villages of Estonia still exist to this day. Many are connected by highways and roads that run parallel to Lake Peipsi. My friend and I followed this so-called “onion route” as we drove north from Tartu to Narva.
Following brown highway signs with the word “kirik,” or church in Estonian, we began our self-drive tour in the village of Varnja. As I walked down the street away from the red brick church, a babushka smiled from her front stoop. A table in her yard was topped with onions, potatoes, and pickles, and I regret not stopping to buy some. Peipsi onions were brought over from Russia by the Old Believers and are still cultivated according to traditional methods.
Driving north along the narrow road, we caught glimpses of Lake Peipsi between the homes and fishermen’s shacks on our right. A few residents were tending their gardens, but otherwise we were alone on the road. We passed a large cemetery with brick gates and a mustard-yellow prayer chapel that looked newly restored.
We inched along, admiring how neat and tidy everything looked. There was not even a scrap of litter to be found. A few men were chopping wood to add to their already impressive winter stockpiles. Then we passed three babushkas sitting on a bench and I squealed with delight. My friend put the car in reverse and backed up until we were adjacent to the women who seemed amused by this development. The one in the middle immediately started chatting with us like we were long lost friends. If only we could have understood what she was saying! My friend asked if we could take their photo and they agreed so I hopped out and snapped away. The ladies put on their serious, respectable faces for the camera, so you’ll just have to take my word for it that they were gleeful and blew us kisses as we eventually drove away.
The next sign indicated the Kasepaa Old Believers’ Church was 0.2 kilometers off the main road. The current salmon-pink wood structure dates to 1902, though prayer services have been held on the site uninterrupted since the 18th century. I haven’t a clue how this was managed during the 40 years of Soviet Occupation.
Even though lights were on inside the Kolkja Museum of Old Believers, no one answered when I knocked on the door. We moseyed on to the Suur-Kolkja Church. This sunny yellow 19th century prayer house was damaged by fire but lovingly restored by its congregation. We passed another large Orthodox cemetery, then the Vaike-Kolkja Old Believers’ Church. Amazingly, the small periwinkle blue building serves a congregation of 120 families, many of which have been in Estonia since the 1770s!
At this point we were in desperate need of a bathroom break so instead of following the lake road to the next village of Nina, we took route 242 to the town of Alatskivi. Here we found a very nice woman running a convenience store who told us we absolutely must see the nearby castle. Alatskivi Castle was built in the 1880s as the family home of Baron Arved de Nolcken. The Swedish noble apparently modeled his royal abode on Balmoral Castle in Scotland, where he once stayed as a guest of Queen Victoria. The resemblance certainly is striking!
We continued north on route 43 for about 20 minutes, then veered right onto the local road which hugs the lake. Mustvee is the largest Old Believer village and capital of Lake Peipsi district. We found nearly all of the doors shuttered when we passed through on a Tuesday in October and were completely alone on the public beach. It was incredibly peaceful.
Lohusuu was the final village we saw on highway 3. Its attractive brick-and-stone church was nestled among several well-kept houses. A young girl with a scarf covering her hair peeked out a door and waved hello. Tempted as we were to explore the remaining towns around Lake Peipsi, we also wanted to reach our Narva hotel before dark. Look for details about that fascinating city in an upcoming post!
Things you should know before visiting Estonia’s Old Believer villages:
- Detailed maps are available at tourist information offices across Estonia. I recommend picking some up before embarking.
- The main roads are paved and well-tended. Gravel roads often end next to someone’s shed.
- Toilets are few and far between. The best options I found are a Circle K on highway 3 near Mustvee and a local convenience store in the town of Alatskivi.
- Public access to Lake Peipsi can be found in Mustvee and Kalleste. There’s no need to go running off through the mud like I did the first time I glimpsed water.
- You must call ahead to visit the Mustvee and Kolkja Old Believers’ museums.
- The Kolkja Fish and Onion Restaurant is apparently open every day during the summer, but must be booked in advance from October to March. This is true for many of the cafes in Mustvee as well.
- Most of the churches are only open during Sunday prayer services.
- If you plan to enter any of the churches, please dress appropriately. Women should cover their heads with a scarf.
- Ask before taking anyone’s photo. The folks I met were friendly and generally agreeable. A smile goes a long way!
- Old Believers in Estonia speak their own ancient dialect. We were able to communicate using a smattering of English, Russian, and German words, plus lots of hand signals.