Hanseatic Barge Routes

The starting point for cruises on Peipsi barge or lodi in Estonian is Tartu – the city with more than a millennium of recorded history. This hanseatic city resting between Toome hill and river Emajõgi was an important point on the east-west trade route. The goods brought here on huge wagons from Riga and Tallinn were loaded on Peipsi barges and taken down river Emajõgi to the Russian towns Pihkva and Novgorod, the barges later returning with different goods back to Tartu. On the high times over 200 barges stood anchored in Tartu. The golden hanseatic times have left the city with two orthodox churches built for the visiting Russian merchants, also it is almost compulsory to see the restored St John's church proudly exhibiting its 14. century terra cotta figures, the preserved parts of the city wall, the castle hill with lots of younger historic buildings, the Dome Church building, the historic main building of Tartu University and numerous museums. And last but not least Tartu hosts the Emajõgi River Barge Yard where guests can see the building of authentic Peipsi barge and try out various traditional ship building tasks like blacksmithing, board bending or rope making themselves. From Tartu the Peipsi barge can sail in two different directions – east towards Lake Peipsi and upstream to west towards Lake Võrtsjärv.

Hanseatic exploration trip to the villages of old-believers on Lake Peipsi

The hanseatic exploration trip to the little orthodox fisher villages on Lake Peipsi goes along Emajõgi river ('Mother River') – lodi and its new crew will pass many historic manor buildings, old bridges and different landscapes on their way. The guide will enlighten the crew about the hanseatic times, the surrounding nature and more recent history. After several hours of idyllic sailing the barge will reach the center of Emajõe Suursoo Nature Reserve – a kingdom of bogs, mires and little lakes. Here the guests are given an overview of this internationally important Ramsari area and they can walk on the nature trails and learn about the many endangered plant species like Siberian Iris (Iris Sibirica), Greater Bur-marigold (Bidens radiata), Butterbur (Petasites spurius) and Marsh Gentian (Gentiana pneumonanthe). The expedition continues along the small swamp rivers to see the varied nature of the reserve. The many lakes in the area - Koosa, Kalli and Leego together with the reedbeds of Lake Peipsi form excellent nesting and resting spots for migratory birds. Ornithology fans may spot many famous species here – White-tailed Eagle, Osprey, Golden Eagle and Spotted Eagle; Black Storks, Ducks, Swans, Snipes and Corncrakes.

Emajõe Suursoo region, the biggest delta swamp in Estonia, was inhabited already in the Stone age, the oldest is the Akali settlement from the early Neolithic Age. The rivers dividing these massive swamplands - Ahja, Koosa, Kalli, Lagina, Kargaja and Apna have through millennia often been the only transport routes for locals. Also in several places the ancient winter ways are visible, which were used to move over frozen landscape in this wet region. Because the peat is making the landscape rise, the ancient settlements have sunk several meters under ground.

Near Lake Kalli, where the Peipsi barge heads next, is the unique Praaga village. Once a huge fishing village, it stands out because it can only be reached with a boat, from land it is sealed off by swampy brushwood. Here the crew can see odd houses standing on poles and hear about the history of the fisher village, which until 19. century bore the name Praska. On Lake Kalli it is possible to rent comfortable boat houses for accommodation and canoes for shorter trips to explore the narrow swamp rivers.

After an adventurous night on the swamp lakes of Emajõe Suursoo Nature Reserve the barge heads on to Lake Peipsi – the fourth biggest lake in whole Europe. Most of the lake’s 3500 km2 and the 30 islands are owned by Russia. The lake consists of three main parts – Peipsi and Pihkva lakes and the little narrow Lämmijärv uniting the two. The shores of Peipsi are diverse – in parts swampy and covered with reed, around Kallaste they are illustrated by devonian sandstone denudations, and in the north-west around Kauksi lie extensive white sandy beaches. Peipsi is also a good fish lake – altogether there are 37 species of fish here. Besides ordinary fresh water fish one can find Catfish, Vendace, Sparling and Weather Fish. Peipsi is also home to the endemic subspecies Lavaret (Coregonus lavaretus maraenoides). The most popular fish are Pike-perch, Bream and Perch.

For bird watchers Peipsi has the most to offer during migration seasons. The best spots for ornithological observations are near the mouth of river Emajõgi, near Piirissaare island and on Räpina polder. Thousands of Bewick Swans stop here in spring and autumn. Also the massive migration of Mergansers is noteworthy. Waterfowl occupy the rich-in-plants Lake Pihkva. Here the most common birds are Little Gull and Black Tern, on some years even White-winged Terns can be spotted.

Heading north along the coast of Peipsi lodi will soon reach the village-streets of the old-believers. These people are the descendants of Russians peasants who escaped from the persecution by the church in the XVII and XVIII centuries. The little minority has not integrated to the rest of the society very well and still lives according to their own very austere and sustainable principles. Their main occupation through centuries has been onion growing and fishing. The long street-villages are stretched along the coast with houses tightly packed side-by-side. The villages of Varnja, Kasepää, Sohvia and Kolkja, just north of the mouth of Emajõgi, form an 8 kilometer street-village. The city of Mustvee and Raja village form another almost 7 kilometer strip on Peipsi coast. Of the orthodox villages the crew will visit the idyllic 250 people street-village Varnja, where we will see the 19. century orthodox church, talk about local history and visit the Museum of Live History. In Kolkja the crew can trade with the locals, feast in the famous "Fish and Onion restaurant“ and visit the Museum of Old Believers.

Turning back towards the mouth of Emajõgi the hanseatic barge will reach Piirissaare island, the biggest island in Peipsi, situatued just a few kilometers from the Russian border. Piirissaar, until recently called Porka (‘Zhelachek’ in Russian), which was home to 700 people during the first independence of Estonia (1918-1940), is now hosting only around 100 people mainly earning their living as fishermen and onion growers. The island was inhabited after the Great Nordic War in the 18. century, when Russia persecuted the old believers and many of them fleed west. A lot of people fleed to Piirissaar and stayed here to escape the yoke of czar’s army – the compulsory 25 year service. During the hanseatic times Piirissaar was a popular port where barge captains waited for wind and hid their vessels from storms. Now most of the island is a landscape reserve, which offers a lot to bird fans. The island is well known for its amphibians – for example Green Toad and Spadefoot. From Piirissaare lodi will head back towards Tartu.

Nature cruise to Alam-Pedja Nature Reserve and Lake Võrtsjärv

Instead of east the Hanseatic barge can take its new crew west towards the source of the 100 kilometer Great-Emajõgi river in Lake Võrtsjärv. Departing from Tartu city after a lengthy tour in the old town and the Emajõgi River Barge Yard lodi will sail past the Ropka-Ihaste alluvial meadow. This is a flood plain with very rich bird life, a renowned nesting spot of Great Snipe, Little Crake and others. Nearby lies the Aardla lake and polder with equally rich bird fauna.

A little bit up the stream from Tartu in the river valley lies the 7 meters tall Kalmistu sandstone denudation. Near Amme river, one of the tributaries of Emajõgi, are the ruins of Kärkna monastery. This building constructed by the Cisternian order in the 13. century was seriously damaged in the Livonian war in the 16. century. Kärkna is the oldest Estonian water fort and has also the oldest fish breeding ponds in the whole country. Before the Kärevere road bridge is another important green spot on the map of Estonia – the small Kärevere Bird Reserve, which is an especially valued spot among ornithologists for the numerous population of Great Snipes. It is also popular because as in most places the nesting spots of Great Snipes are restricted areas, here one can get a really close look at this interesting bird – all one has to do is to follow the information stands. Also the 55 stretches of the old river bed are an interesting site to see for they are popular spawning places for fish from Võrtsjärv and Peipsi.

The other side of the Kärevere bridge is where one of Europe’s biggest flood plains and an international Ramsari site - Alam-Pedja Nature Reserve starts. Most of the territory of this varied landscape massive is made up of wetlands, swamps, fens and flood plain, interspersed with swamp islands with primevial forests. The area is in most part surrounded by rivers and streams. During the Soviet times Alam-Pedja was a military bombing polygon for 50 years, but fortunately the landscape was not damaged a lot. Today Alam-Pedja is a partly restricted movement reserve of extensive forest-, swamp- and meadow communities, rare species and habitats. In the spring time the Emajõe alluvial meadow is flooded for 100 square kilometers. During this time the meadow is full of Ducks and Swans. White-tailed Eagle and Osprey are also common here. The forests near the plains are nesting places for many Lesser Spotted Eagles, but one can spot also Greater Spotted Eagles and Golden Eagles hovering over the fens. On the river numerous Great Snipes are nesting. Also many rare plant species like European White Elm, Gladiolus imbricatus and Siberian Iris can be found here.

Alam-Pedja Nature Reserve also hosts Estonian Nature Fund's volunteer nature camps every summer, which are meant for introducing to people the diverse nature of the region and to restore seminatural communities with the help of volunteer work. This way suitable habitats for birds and rich plant life will be restored and people get a wonderful chance to get a break from the routine office environment and help a just cause. In addition to other interesting programmes the volunteers have, they will reach the reserve on the historic Peipsi barge and visit the Emajõe River Barge Yard.

In Rannu-Jõesuu river Emajõgi flows out of Lake Võrtsjärv. Here the crew can rest, make fires and camp. After that the trip continues on Lake Võrtsjärv, along its shores full of interesting sites and history. It is possible to visit the Võrtsjärve kaleship – another traditional wooden vessel with its own routes and stories.

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