Welcome to Setomaa
Värska, the biggest town in Estonian Setomaa (population 1170), has been inhabited for 5000 years. It's known for its mineral water, sold throughout Estonia, and its healing mud. There’s plenty of rural charm here, including a picturesque 1907 stone church and a leafy cemetery surrounding it.
The tiny village of Podmotsa, sitting at the tip of a peninsula northeast of Värska, was once closely linked to the Seto village of Kulje, which stands just across the inlet in what is now Russia. Kulje’s beautiful Orthodox church, which was once Podmotsa's parish church, is clearly visible from the shoreline – as is the border-guard watchtower. It's a surreal experience to gaze across the water, with Russia surrounding you on three sides, and wonder whether you're being watched. The Podmotsa cemetery contains three ancient stone crosses; in pagan times, a holy grove stood nearby.
A few kilometres north of Värska, on the west side of Värska Bay, are a pair of classic Seto villages. There’s not much to see here, but these back roads make for a very pleasant cycle. In Võpolsova there’s a monument to folk singer Anne Vabarna, who is said to have known 100,000 verses by heart. Võpolsova's homesteads typically consist of a ring of outer buildings around an inner yard. The houses in the neighbouring village of Tonja face the lake from which its people get their livelihood.
The village of Obinitsa is a pleasant place to stop for lunch. A sculpture of the Seto ‘Song Mother’ stares solemnly over little Lake Obinitsa, which is dammed at one end and has a swimming platform.