Let’s unwind the Seto Külavüü or Seto Village Belt!

The country roads between Setomaa’s villages meander like the pattern on folk costume, from hill to vale and from forest to open meadow. We invite you to discover some of the region’s most attractive places and villages – take a wander down Seto Külävüü! Or, in the Seto language: Läämi Setomaalõ müüdä Külävüüd!

Võõpsu – Võõpso in Seto – is the starting point for our journey and it’s where we start to “unravel” the threads of the journey deep into the fabric of Setomaa. Mentioned in chronicles as far back as the 15th century, Võõpsu is a kilometre-long, picturesque “street village” lined with boat sheds at the mouth of the River Võhandu, which separates Setomaa from the rest of Estonia. The Võõpsu sanctuary 1 is thought to have been established in the late 13th or early 14th century in honour of St. Nicholas. The current Võõpsu tsässon (chapel) was built in 1709.

After you cross the Võõpsu bridge, a road sign points to the lakeshore villages and lake. There lies Lüübnitsa, a village gaining national renown for its onion and fish fair. The golden-yellow onions grown along Setomaa’s lakeshore villages are very popular, and local fresh fish were known as far off as the Petseri monastery, where Seto fishermen were welcome with their catch. The lakeside tower provides a view of the lake and coastal villages. In clear weather, the eastern shore of Lake Pskov is visible.

Continuing along Seto Külävüü inland, our next stop is Mikitamäe. Mikitamäe was first mentioned in the old Moscow records as Nikitina Gora in 1500. The old Mikitamäe chapel 3 is thought to have been built as early as 1694. This makes it the oldest surviving Seto chapel and one of the oldest log buildings in Estonia. In 1960, the old Mikitamäe tsässon was relocated, and after renovation it was re-erected next to the new tsässon in front of the municipality building.

Further on down the road is Värska, which could jokingly be referred to as Setomaa’s “city.” The village store offers snacks and soft drinks, but f For Seto cookery head to the Tsäimaja 6 next to the Seto Farm Museum 2 km outside Värska. The Tsäimaja serves up such traditional dishes as suulliim (a kind of soup), tatipiirak (mushroom pie), paks pudõr (thick porridge), ubinapiirak (apple pie). It can proudly be said that Tsäimaja has been repeatedly selected as one of the best restaurants at various competitions. Either after or before a meal here, we recommend having a look about the adjacent farm museum 7, which preserves a typical smallholding of a well-off Seto family with various buildings and household implements. Most of the museum’s buildings are originals, from the northern part of Setomaa. Besides exhibits, the farm museum has real live barnyard animals – horse, pig, chickens, goats and a dog. Various exhibitions introduce the historical way of life and crafts to visitors. The Setos can to this day proudly show off the work of their forebears, which are tasteful and embody a great deal of mastery and sophistication. And be sure to make a stop at the gift shop to buy crafts by contemporary masters.

Nature has endowed Setomaa with curative mud and mineral water. Mineral water can now be enjoyed by people from other parts – the AS Värska Vesi plant in the small village of Verhulitsa 8 bottles the high-quality natural mineral water known as “Värska Originaal”. Värska Sanatorium 4 is one of the few resorts in Europe to use mineral water in the spa itself. People are drawn here not only by the warm and friendly service but light-filled and clean pine forests with their fresh air and pleasant surroundings.

Continuing onward from Värska toward Saatse, one drives through the “Saatse boot” 10. The area is actually within the Russian Federation, but the old road between Värska and Saatse still passes through the area and no border checks are required. Since the Soviet Union crumbled in 1991, the road can only be travelled on bicycle, car or bus. No stopping or pedestrian traffic is allowed. That is the law of the land in the “Saatse boot”.

The oldest buildings in Saatse include the more than 200-year-old St. Paraskeva Orthodox church 11 with a stone cross from the 15th century believed to be miraculous. The onetime small village school in Saatse is now a museum 12 – besides 20,000 display items, one can listen to Seto singing, view film clips from various periods depicting former village life and meal preparation. The museum includes a forest park with trails. The Russian border lies just a few hundred metres away.

When you reach Mustoja landscape protection area 13 you will find the largest and most prominent kame fields (a glacial feature) in south-eastern Estonia. The stands with birches with their white bark, sand and heather expanses and tall pines give the Setomaa natural scenery their characteristic appearance. The reserve is also a favourite area for berry gatherers and mushroomers. The blueberry is one of the most popular wild fruits, which the Setos have prized since times of old for its healthful qualities. Mushrooms have always played an important part in the Setos’ diet – the traditions of mushroom gathering continues strong here and locals know to appreciate good habitats such as are found in Mustoja.

The Piusa caves are not of natural origin 19 – sand for glass making was extracted there for several decades starting in the 1920s, leaving a landscape of various sandstone columns and arched passages, some up to 10 metres in height. Large bat colonies have settled in the caves. The Piusa caves are believed to be home to the largest bat and butterfly wintering spot in the Baltics, which was the reason for establishing the reserve and interpretive trail here. There is no independent access to the caves, only by arrangement with the visitor centre and accompanied by a guide.

After crossing the River Piusa, one soon reaches the old church village of Obinitsa – the first written mention of the village date from 1763, but archaeological finds indicate the village could be 1,500 years old. In 1904, a school/church unique in the Baltics was built in Obinitsa, called the Setomaa university, as teacher certification was given to students in the respective field. In Soviet times, the school/church became purely a school and the people, led by priest Villiam Talomees, semi-secretly built a new church, the Church of the Transfiguration of our Lord 21. The Obinitsa cemetery was established 1500 years ago, and it is the burial site of the most famous Seto “mother of song”, Hilana Taarka. The shore of the scenic Obinitsa artificial lake has a monument to the most famous of the mothers of song – Taarka along with Miko Od´e and Matrina Ir´o. This is the granite Seto Lauluimä monument 23. If you are already in Obinitsa, pop into Obinitsa Museum 25, where you will see all manner of items from a traditional Seto farmhouse: kitchenware, wooden tools, furniture, bedclothes, decorative towels, icon scarves, tablecloths and Seto folk costume. Various Seto-themed events are held here, storytellers spin tales and Seto crafts are on sale. Arts and crafts – from hand-printed wallpaper to silver jewellery can also be found in the Seto Studio Gallery 24, where Obinitsa artist Evar Riitsaar works. Pearls of traditional Seto culinary culture are offered by the Obinitsa Seto community centre across the road 22.

Our journey continues to meander toward Rokina valley en route from Obinitsa to Meremäe. Soon you will pass old Tobrova village with its Easter tsässon 27, next to which is the 150-year-old fortified Luikjärve farm complex also called Tobrova fortress farm 28, with its bailey-like courtyard and high gates typical of Setomaa. Meremäe is one of Setomaa’s oldest settlements – people have lived here for more than 8,000 years. Today you will find the Setomaa Turismitalo 29 in the village of Kalatsova near Meremäe. On advance reservation you can enjoy there Seto dishes in both a traditional manner and more modern styles informed by the region’s centuries-old culinary legacy. Turismitalo’s windows provide views of the Meremäe hill and observation tower, which is a five-minute walk away and from which even Lake Pskov and the gilded domes of Uspenski monastery 16 in Petseri (the historical, now Russia-controlled Seto capital) can be seen on a clear day.

The Vana-Vahtsõliina bastion – known today as Vastseliina Order Castle 31 – is on the boundary between two cultural areas. The famous frontier fortress from the 14th century has seen Teutonic knights, Swedish and Polish military men as well as Russians and Tatars. During peacetime, important trade routes passed through here.

For some distance, our road crosses over to the Võromaa side of Setomaa's boundary (old Võru County), allowing us to visit Nopri Farm Dairy – the biggest and most important maker of sõir, a local cheese, in south-eastern Estonia. Nopri Talumeierei 35 evolved out of Nopri farm, which has operated on a historical homestead for seven generations. Nopri has a herd of milk cows and makes dairy products locally. They have a good distribution network in place and are highly regarded all over Estonia. Their products can also be bought at the local farm store: sõir, homemade curds, butter and cheese are all made the traditional way…

South of the village of Misso is the largest and most scenic body of water in Misso municipality – Hino lake. Setomaa’s lakes are rich in bird life and so is the Hino landscape protection area 36. Over 40 different species have been found in there. Bird enthusiasts can find great crested grebe, common tern, Eurasian teal, Eurasian coot, common sandpiper, tufted duck, grey heron, common gull and if they’re lucky, the black-throated loon, which is listed in Estonia’s Red Book of endangered species. Besides the picturesque scenery of the lake, the rolling “dome” landscape is noteworthy.

We have reached the end of Seto Külävüü – amid the forests of Luhamaa. Here are hidden lakes, and farms are far-flung, with one small church. The construction of the Luhamaa Apostolic Orthodox Church 37 began in 1929 due to local population initiative. It was planned to build just a small tsässon, but the donations poured in and it was decided to undertake a church. The church stands to this day on the edge of Setomaa.

Let us wind up the Seto Külävüü or Seto Village Belt for this time, as the Luhamaa area is the southernmost part of Setomaa and the final stop on our journey. Every person’s route along this colourful band no doubt had its own unique patterns. Hopefully happy memories and fascinating facts will serve to remind you of the most distinctive highlights along the Seto Külävüü…