How many countries fit into Estonia?

A​t least two. An observant eye will see many more.

For a long time, the Estonian settlement area was divided into the provinces of Estland in the north and Livland in the south. Moving from north to south, the type of landscape changes, the cross on top of the church steeples is replaced by a rooster, red cows appear instead of black and white cattle. What also changes is how the Estonians speak, and according to many, even their world views.

​The differences between North and South Estonia are evident in their capitals – the maritime Tallinn and the midland Tartu. A visitor will certainly be told of the ‘spirit of Tartu’ in that city, supposedly incomprehensible for the arrogant and pragmatic citizen of Tallinn. A Tallinner, on the other hand, might consider Tartu people to be stuck in an everlasting fusty academic complacency.

​But all the more, despite Estonia’s small area and population, the country is inhabited by a surprising number of clearly-defined, divergent regional populations.

The southern part of Viljandi County is called Mulgimaa (Mulkland) and the inhabitants of this region are Mulks. They have always been considered wealthy and enterprising, albeit also priggish and stingy. Despite their arrogance, or perhaps thanks to their doggedness, Mulks played a significant role in promoting Estonian self-awareness in the 19th century and in shaping the nation state. Today’s county town Viljandi and its Culture Academy have become the centres of Estonian heritage culture, featuring the biggest folk music festival in the country in late July.

​One of the most singular parts of Estonia is undoubtedly the Southeast, or Võromaa. The vernacular here differs so much from standard Estonian that it may well be considered a language in its own right. Also the Võromaa landscape, with its plentiful lakes and rolling hills, is strikingly different from the flatlands of Northern Estonia. Võro people have every reason to feel proud of their culture and all the more so after establishing the written standard for their language, coining a number of new words and introducing Võro-based courses to school curricula.

Four parishes in the extreme southeastern corner of Estonia plus certain districts on the Russian side of the border are called Setumaa. Setu people are perhaps the most distinct group among Estonians. Although Orthodox Christians, the Setus retain their pagan traditions and beliefs, such as worshipping their ancestors by eating and leaving food on their graves.

​Another highly unique region comprises the islands of West Estonia. Saaremaa, the largest, is widely known for its post windmills and, so they say, for the best home brewers in the country. The islanders’ life has always been bound to the sea; the resilience of their womenfolk, kept busy toiling the land while their men were at sea, is truly legendary. The dialects of these parts of Estonia have a sing-song intonation, reminiscent of Swedish, which confirms their close ties with lands beyond the sea. The jokes of the folks of Saaremaa and Hiiumaa, the second largest island, may be lost on other Estonians, just as is British humour on the Continent. Befittingly, the islanders claim that there have been only three major sea powers in world history: Inglismaa (England), Saaremaa and Hiiumaa.

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