The bus ride to Pärnu (pronounced pear-new) was so relaxing. Our bus was a standard-sized coach with television screens on the seatbacks, wifi, and complimentary hot drinks. It felt pretty luxurious compared to the American buses I’ve been on… The road was lined with thickets of trees and the occasional flash of farmland or open field. It was nice to zoom out and see part of the Estonian countryside. We arrived at 5:00 and made the short walk to our Airbnb to deposit our bags. The apartment was on the second floor of a house and felt palatial compared to our Tallinn apartment. We had three separate rooms – a kitchen and dining space, a bedroom, and a second bedroom/office – with windows we could crack open for the cool breeze.
We passed through a rain shower on the bus but once we arrived in Pärnu, it was cool and sunny. We decided to walk to the beach and search for a meal in the process. Strolling through Pärnu Rannapark (beachpark), we found the KAUSS & Uulits park cafe. Zach got a burger while I ordered the duck rice bowl. Maybe it was my hunger or the pleasant vibe in Pärnu, but the duck bowl was sensational. A bed of rice topped with julienned carrots, sashimi-thin slices of cantaloupe, spinach, and shredded crispy duck all smothered with a thick sauce – it was heaven.
We continued through the park to the beach, which was largely deserted, where a chilly breeze whipped up from the bay. The beachfront seemed primed for summer fun, all it was missing was warmer weather. We walked along the beach to a cocktail bar nestled among the sand dunes – ¿Qué pasa? – where a gleaming Airstream trailer served as the bar and several tables dotted the platform constructed around it. Patrons could also use the complimentary beach chairs to lounge in the dunes with a view of the sea. When we arrived, the atmosphere was lively with a DJ set up in the corner pumping out a steady stream of feel-good tunes and a constant stream of people coming to check out the scene. ¿Qué pasa? specializes in traditional rum cocktails like pina coladas, mojitos, Cuba libres, and daiquiris. With the exception of the Cuba libre, all can have fruit added as an extra ingredient with watermelon, kiwi, and passionfruit among the options. Zach ordered a beer – which is not what you do at ¿Qué pasa? – while I ordered a mojito. Even though it was chilly, it was the perfect welcome to Pärnu.
After our drink, we walked around the town. Pärnu’s city center is charming and small but comes alive at night when revelers pack the bars and cafes. Of course, neither of us had Pärnu on our radar until Zach reached out to a colleague he played with in the Macau Orchestra several years ago who was now living in Tartu. Adam told Zach about the Pärnu Music Festival, a classical music festival that occurs each summer in July and was spearheaded by Paavo Järvi, an internationally-known Estonian conductor. We were going to be in Estonia during the festival, so we decided to add Pärnu to our itinerary and purchased tickets to one of the concerts.
We happened to be in town during a cool front and the temperatures never reached above 80 degrees (F) while we were there. The rain we had prepared for finally caught up with us too. It generally rained each morning, leaving behind some cloud cover, before finally clearing up in the evening. On Sunday morning it was raining when we woke up, so we decided to stay in until we met Adam for lunch. We had lunch on the terrace of Steffani’s, a pizza joint with a large, covered front patio and an extensive menu. Zach and I shared a salad and a pizza – a type of deep dish that reminded us of a Detroit-style pizza with lots of sauce and crispy pan-fried edges. Adam is an affable Australian with a quiver of highly entertaining stories in which he often finds himself in a scenario that seems made for a sitcom. We passed nearly two hours in conversation about Estonia, Covid, America, and the music festival before he had to run off to rehearsal.
Pärnu was a major port city along with Tallinn and Riga and became a member of the Hanseatic League in 1346. However, in the 19th century, Pärnu transitioned to a resort and health retreat and continues to rely on summer tourism as its primary economic strength although smaller industries have been encouraged as well. The spa hotels attract visitors from Sweden and Finland year-round and summer tourists come for the beach, the outdoors, and the summer music festivals. There are remnants of the medieval city Pärnu once was although some seem in need of attention and restoration. After lunch, it was still overcast, but it seemed the rain was mostly gone, so we began a stroll around town before heading in the direction of the Pärnu River.
We followed the path along the river toward the sea. It was quite breezy, adding a slight chill to the air, but we had worn jackets in preparation. The path hugged the riverbank, leading us through the beach park and toward one arm of twin stone jetties. Two, two-kilometer-long stone jetties stretch into the sea where the Pärnu River empties into the bay. They were finished in 1869 and have transformed into a popular walking route, connected to the beach park by a wooden boardwalk. We walked along the boardwalk to its terminus and Zach continued to the start of the jetty. The wind was blowing rather fiercely but it felt appropriately moody to be out on the bay under a cloudy sky. We walked back and continued through the park until we had circled back to our apartment.
We had tickets for the concert that evening and freshened up before walking in the direction of the concert house. We stopped for a small snack and a weak latte to prepare for the evening and then had to hasten to make it on time. The concert hall is a gleaming glass structure, and it sparkled in the evening sun. When we entered, it was brimming with people on the first floor, checking coats and enjoying a pre-concert drink. We found our seats on the second floor of the hall (third floor of the building) and had a nice view of the stage.
The hall felt intimate despite its capacity of 1,000. The opening piece – Musique Funèbre by Polish composer Witold Lutosławski – was beautifully haunting, but the star of the night was Joshua Bell, an American violinist who played Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 and returned with an encore. The final piece of the evening, after intermission, was Tchaikovksy’s Symphony No. 5. The entire concert was superb; it was moving and exquisite, a treat for the soul. Sometimes I lose interest at orchestra concerts, but the pieces were so dynamic and riveting that the three hours flew by. Adam invited us to attend the reception afterward at a nearby restaurant, and we surprised ourselves by staying until early into the morning.
Originally we planned to pair a visit to Kihnu Island with our time in Pärnu. The island is small enough that renting a bicycle at the ferry landing can offer a day’s enjoyment. However, my sprained ankle put that plan into question. Zach was certain I couldn’t ride a bike; I was less convinced. We planned to go anyway until we realized that a ferry directly from Pärnu is only available on Wednesdays. In order for us to get to the island, we would need to take a bus from Pärnu to Munalaid, then board the ferry to Kihnu. This would take two hours each way, and we would need to catch the bus at 7:15 in the morning. Partially due to the commute, partially due to my ankle, and partially due to the weather forecast, we decided not to go. We were both disappointed.
After being out until 2:00 in the morning, though, a 7:15 bus would have been hard to catch. We awoke yet again to rain, but it cleared out fairly soon, yielding yet another nice but chilly day. We stopped for donuts at Sõõrikubaar – which were essentially like donut-shaped funnel cakes – before walking the length of the beach promenade. The sun was out for once, lending warmth to the morning, so we found a bench to lounge on and soak up the rays. There were more people out and about, taking advantage of the sun, and it was nice to relax without anywhere to be or anything to do.
We returned to the apartment to prepare for our departure in the morning and make plans for our next destination (Tartu) before going out for an evening stroll in Vallikääru Park. The park is built around the original town bastions constructed by the Swedes in the 17th century. The bastions were never used, and a public park was created in the 1860s. At one end of the park is the Tallinn Gate, a 17th-century town-wall gate that was originally called Carl Gustav Gate after the Swedish king but was later renamed by the Russians.
We ended the night and our stay in Pärnu with a final visit to ¿Qué pasa?. This time the atmosphere was less energized without a DJ present and more relaxed. We set up chairs on the sand dune and let the breeze wash over us. The clouds had moved in, taking the warmth of the sun away, but it was still pleasant, if slightly chilly. Adam joined us after a bit, and I read while he and Zach went for a swim in the bay. By the end of the evening, the wind had picked up, and the shorts I’d worn were no longer sufficient. We reluctantly packed up and walked back toward town, where we said our goodbyes with the hope that we will meet again somewhere in the near future.
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