Baltic Sea

the Cinderella of the Baltic Sea


The tranquil Estonian city of Pärnu deserves its name as the Cinderella of the Baltic Sea – whether you visit Pärnu for a week or just for a day, it will be an unforgettable experience, writes Joubert Odendaal from South Africa.

Estonia is the current world champion in women’s wear, â€the friendly lady told us at the tourist office in Pärnu, Estonia. My wife and I looked at each other in amusement. The lady further explained that this strange competition between European countries, in which the husband has to carry his wife while conquering an obstacle course, takes place annually in Estonia (the competition is from Finland – publisher).

Around 200,000 tourists visit Pärnu in summer – mainly Russians, Finns, Swedes and Germans. It’s hard to believe that it can get so crowded in Pärnu, as the streets were very quiet when we strolled through the city center in May 2018.

Known as the summer capital of Estonia, Pärnu has around 39,000 permanent residents – around 83% are ethnic Estonians, 12% are ethnic Russians, and the rest are made up of other ethnic groups. The city’s river of the same name meanders through the city before flowing into the Baltic Sea. The city’s business district is on the south bank of the river.

We strolled along Rüütlistraße, which is known for its numerous fashion and jewelry shops as well as for interesting restaurants, street cafes and bars. Unfortunately, although Pärnu was founded in 1251, little of its medieval architecture has survived. Not only did Treniota, the prince of Samogitia, burn down the entire city in 1263, but large parts of the city center were destroyed in the Second World War.

Rüütli Street in Pärnu. Photo by Joubert Odendaal.

Fortunately, some impressive buildings and structures such as the Tallinn Gate, St. Catherine’s Church and St. Elizabeth’s Church survived this war. However, many of the existing buildings were not erected until the late 1950s, and some received their last coat of paint late in the Brezhnev era (Leonid Brezhnev, Prime Minister of the Soviet Union 1964-1982 – publisher).

Barbara Cartland would have found her café here

The lady from the tourist office suggested a large selection of top restaurants when asked, and we agreed on Supelsaksad on Nikolaistrasse when lunchtime approached. This restaurant is housed in a 150 year old wooden house and the delicious flavors of freshly baked bread and cake greeted us as we approached the front door.

The place has the vibe of an old world sidewalk cafe while the decor is an interesting combination of blue and pink – Barbara Cartland with her signature pink outfit with blue eyeshadow would have been right there. The menu offered a wide variety of salads, pasta and local meat dishes. I ordered a plaice fillet, my wife’s lamb stew which was perfectly complemented by local blackberry wine.

Café Supelsaksad in Pärnu. Photo by Supelsaksad.

As we walked towards the beach after our delicious lunch, a large and wide park landscape appeared on our left side. We came across various health resorts and a little further away a holiday resort, all of which belong to the well-known health resort.

Historically popular with the Russian intelligentsia

The resort of Pärnu was established in 1838 with seawater baths in winter and saunas in summer. The resort was modernized in 1890 and at the same time it was added to the list of Russian Imperial Resorts. Afterwards, visitors from Moscow and St. Petersburg liked to call Pärnu the Cinderella of the Baltic Sea.

We passed a spa hotel where three men were talking intensely on the veranda, and in my mind’s eye I saw the Russian intelligentsia discussing Marxism over endless cups of tea. Each spa hotel in this district has its own saunas, swimming pools, a wellness area and conference facilities. It is evidently the custom for conference participants to relax together in the sauna after a busy day.

Supeluse Street in Parnu. Photo by Joubert Odendaal.

Between 1940 and 1990, when Estonia was occupied by the Soviet Union, Pärnu was very popular with the Russian elite and known as “the only Western experience within the Soviet Union”. About 300,000 tourists from all over the Soviet Union visited this city annually in the 1980s.

After Estonia restored its independence in 1990, Pärnu regained its status as the country’s summer capital. And a welcome consequence of this was that the yacht club’s marina was the first beach in what was once Eastern Europe to be awarded the European Blue Flag.

So much of who we are is where we’ve been

When we reached the beach some time later, a little boy greeted us with “tere!â€. (“Hello†in Estonian); after going swimming with his mother. We were surprised by the almost reddish color of the sea and the water was surprisingly warm.

Pärnu beach in colder times. Photo by Jacques Bopp on Unsplash.

After I walked almost 200 meters into the sea, the water only went up to my waist. I closed my eyes; I could feel the calming wind blowing through my hair from the direction of Saaremaa Island.

At that moment I suddenly thought of a quote from William Langewiesche (American author and journalist – editor). “So much of who we are is where we have been.”

Cover picture: An aerial view of Pärnu. Photo from VisitPä