the art and graft of fencing

fencing practice in haapsalu

The little town of Haapsalu in North Western Estonia is home to En Garde, a fencing club that, not to mix in too many sporting metaphors, punches well above its weight. Over its 69 year history, it has produced a string of world champions including most recently, Nikolai Novosjolov , Kaido Kaaberma , Heidi Rohi and Kristina Kuusk.

So what is their secret?

I went to find out.

I was invited to attend the daily training session where the club’s junior members were being put through their paces.

fencing in haapsalu

Whilst waiting to speak to head coach Peeter Neelis, another coach (his sister Helen) looked me up and down and decided it was
clearly time for me to learn a thing or two. She put an epee in my hand and took me through some basics.

Before being let loose on an opponent, I was shown how to hold the sword – It’s more of a pinch than a swashbuckling grip. Then I was shown how to stand, which felt like doing karate on a surfboard.

Then I was given my first opponent and it was one I was confident of beating…

After eluding the tennis ball’s defences I managed to stab the board behind. It was time for me to take a step up.

This guy was a little trickier and thankfully I was wearing the correct safety gear or he could have had my eye out.

Then it was time for me to face a real opponent, a 12-year-old girl.

We followed the etiquette of saluting each other before donning our helmets and away we went. Sooner than you could say ‘kebab’, she had skewered me and I was a point down. A few swishes later and I was 3-0 down.

Incredibly, I managed to score the next point, although it would be fairer to say that I was given it by my well-mannered opponent who generously lowered her guard and stood still like a scarecrow.

It was an exhausting but fantastic experience.

While I was getting my breath back and the kids were packing up, Peeter spend some time with me to talk about the club. It’s hard to believe he’s in his late sixties as we discuss a range of topics. He was as interested in my opinions on the UK and Europe as expanding on why his club is so successful.

The club had been started by Peeter and Helen’s father, Endel in 1950. Endel’s story is epic and was made into a feature film in 2015 by Klaus Härö .

Despite the difficulties of Soviet life one thing Peeter was clear about was that it was good for nurturing sports. Equipment had been crude and central planning from Moscow was inflexible, but with few other outlets, fencing was something everyone in town tried and some excelled at.

Makes you think doesn’t it? If you ever visit Haapsalu all the old people you encounter can fence!

Peeter talks with modesty about his own part but he and the other coaches (including his sister) have created an environment which produces champions. So what are the ingredients of their success?

1. Practise the art

Fencing, the most refined of the western martial arts, is often described as physical chess. The parallels are clear. Each opponent plans and executes well practised moves usually in response to their opponent’s moves. Like chess, these moves require practising until they become second nature, and at En Garde, sessions run every day. Indeed, while we were talking one of the youngsters was practising the same parry and thrust again and again with one of the instructors.

2. Put in the graft

The sport is physically demanding. During a training session, a top class fencer will burn 2-3,000 calories. Training in other sports is encouraged to build up all round fitness.

3. Success breeds success?

It’s easy to think that over the years success has bred success and continuing to do so, especially as it also brings in crucial funding. However, even from this brief meeting, it’s clear that it’s the drive of the individuals who have pushed this club beyond the bounds of what could be expected from a small town.

So what of the future? After all, there are more opportunities for young people. More things competing for their attention.

Practice had finished, but several of the kids were still there, laughing and chatting while doing cool down exercises and packing away. Its clear that fencing is at the centre, but it isn’t the only reason the kids are here. In an environment like this, it’s easy to see a bright future.

further info:

En Garde Facebook page

The Fencer movie on IMDB

Saaremaa – Juniper’s Love Island

At a time when juniper is in decline across the UK, mostly through poor land management, for a gin geek like me, a visit to an island where the plant is thriving promised to be quite an tonic.

But as I found out, as well as being a place of conservation, it is every bit a place of innovation. I met with Liisi Kuivjõgi at Orbu farm in pretty Leedri village who took time out to talk me through how they make their special syrup: and it is special. It has a taste and colour most similar to maple syrup but with subtle pine-forest notes, which admittedly doesn’t sound great to anyone familiar with 1970’s toilet cleaner. However, it is great, as are the various sauces and conserves all developed from the same process.

To make the syrup, they take fresh shoots from the new spring growth rather than berries. The shoots are steeped in water for four days then the resulting infusion is boiled down with sugar until rich and gloopy. This seems to give it a much subtler flavour, despite the rather vigorous syrup-making process.

Liisi and her sisters are planning. They are thinking about tapping their own birch and maple trees and seeing what new things they can make.

With a belly full of syrup, I grab some perfectly decent juniper beer made by Pihtla and head to my lodgings at the Aavikunurga Guesthouse in Randevere which are home to a different kind of innovation. As father of the modern Estonian language Johannes Aarvik, who grew up here, sought to standardise the various Estonian dialects. His methodical and open-minded approach included borrowing words from other languages like Finnish. It was readily adopted by the Estonian government and by doing so enabled a nation to be build in the inter-war years.

The next day I headed to the main town on the island, Kuresaare, for another meeting with some more innovators.

In the old electricity generating plant in Tolli Street, I met with Lisa who now brews Poide beer with her husband. With little experience but full of can-do spirit, they started brewing beer at home in Poide before up-scaling operations at their new building in Kuresaare.

Among a range of great beers, two stand out: The imperial brown ale and the rye beer which is like eating a slice of rich rye bread.

But leaving myself little time to linger, I went to visit another local produce provider. I met Maria and Inge at Idea Farm who have used their knowledge of food technology to grow the fruit, vegetables, herbs and spices on a small-holding surrounded by beautiful woodland of pines, birches and of course juniper.

They make their own products which are available locally and through a little bit of personal exporting, also in Marlborough, England. Anywhere else, their small-holding with it’s neat rows of crops, would seem like a rural idyll, but on Saaremaare it’s just normal.

After grabbing a picnic, I headed for the beach, which meant walking through woodlands mixed with juniper. The sound of birds preparing nests and gentle waves lapping the shore while you can almost see the new juniper shoots pushing their way out a little further all serve to slow time down.

Sitting by the shore, nibbling some dried fish (I like it, but not to everyone’s taste), it’s a chance to reflect on what makes Saaremaa special. It is a beautiful island where juniper thrives. But what makes the island special is that it’s people have taken what nature has given them and made new things, all with a little love.

Useful links:

24 hours in Sillamäe – The push-pull of an open-closed town

Sillamäe is a small town in Estonia near the Russian border with a complex layered history, much like the shale it is built on. But what remains of the past and what does the most recent layer look like?

I went to find out.

After being destroyed in the Second World War, it was re-built as a town with a vision where its inhabitants would not want to leave, even if they could.

Built by gulag internees and POWs, this town had an urgent purpose. To supply uranium for the Soviet Union’s nuclear program and help it catch up with the USA which had already demonstrated its capabilities at Hiroshima.

Closed to outsiders and removed from maps, to most of its inhabitants, this little town would have been a whole world.

Wandering around the neoclassical apartments, concert hall, and other municipal buildings, it has an eerily familiar feeling, at least for fans of The Prisoner. Perhaps it should be twinned with Portmeirion.

Having said that, my very first impression of Sillamäe during a torrential downpour wasn’t eeriness but queasiness from an overwhelming smell of gas. It would be easy to assume this is a bad sign for visiting this former Soviet nuclear town with a large tailing pond full of nuclear waste nearby. Making this pond safe and preventing spillage into the Baltic was a priority for the European Union on which work was completed in 2008.

One person who also felt the strange push-pull of the place was film director Roman Baskin who used it as the setting for his Estonian cult movie Vernanda a curious film that plays with the idea of being trapped in a town facing imminent doom.

Taking a wander down to the sea front, a must at any seaside town, offers a view of the Baltic and the port. Unsuccessful attempts have been made to run commercially viable ferries to Finland but the main hope still lies with heavy metals. Now the work is to extract niobium for mobile phones rather than uranium for weapons, which is progress.

As well as neoclassicism, the town also has a somewhat faded collection of grey brick Khrushchyovkas as well as a set of Brezhnev era panel-build flats which may be the most recent soviet relics, but also the ones apparently most in need of maintenance. The three sets of buildings each in its own distinct part of the town are like layers of Soviet history. Grand vision, shoddy improvement and shoddier decline.

The scrappier buildings have a smattering of graffiti, mostly in Russian with occasional bits of English and offer a reminder that at least 90% of the town’s inhabitants are native Russian speakers. Given the tensions between Russia and the West, what do these walls say?

Most comments are about Julia’s love-life. Lucky Julia…

There is a determined effort to make sure this town is on the up. Whilst the authorities are renovating the main thoroughfares and have added an eco-bike trail to the parkland. It’s the inhabitants who are taking the lead.

Sillamae Museum founded by two local artists provides both a look back as well as community activities. They have their work cut out for them as so much of the past is undocumented, but it’s their energy that makes the Sillamäe compelling and the museum a must, albeit with Google Translate.

As for where to stay, there’s the hotel – Hotel Krunk. Built as part of the neo-classical layer, it makes little of its architecture, but instead relies on serving passing trade with cheap beds. Reasonably priced food and drink are served at the attached restaurant accompanied by a continuous medley of Russian pop classics and a whirring glitter ball.

And with a full tummy, what better way would there be to cap off an evening than with a stroll around the neoclassical streets as well as let your ears – if it wasn’t for the smell of gas.

useful links: