Kihnu lies 12 km (7 mi) off the coast of Estonia and is the largest of more than a dozen islands in the reefs and shallows of the Gulf of Riga. It is 16 sq km (6 sq mi) in area with a low ridge running down the middle and only 9 m (30 ft) above sea level at its highest point.
The island farmsteads are enclosed by forest, which prevents soil erosion as well as protecting the islanders from the bitter northeast winds.
Huge broadleaf trees stand like sentinels in the coastal meadowlands that lead to a 36 km (22 mi) long shoreline of dunes and shifting sands where the scent of juniper is everywhere in the air. The island is a nesting place for hundreds of bird species and the coastal reef is home to the last grey seal colony in the Baltic.
The first historical documents relating to Kihnu date from the late 14th century but excavations show that the island was inhabited, at least during the summer months, from around 1500 BC.
It has at various times been under Danish, Swedish, Estonian, Polish and Russian rule, reflecting the turbulent history of the Baltic.
Since time immemorial the men here have been seafarers and fishermen, skilled at woodwork and shipbuilding, while the women are wholly responsible for working the land and keeping alive the rich island culture of music, dance and poetry.
A trip to Kihnu transports you back in time into a fascinating folk culture. The inhabitants speak their own language and wear traditional homespun costume. Each woman makes her family’s clothes with intricately knitted, woven and embroidered patterns symbolising ancient legends.
The islanders are symbiotically bound up with their harsh environment, their survival entirely dependent upon cultural loyalty and community sharing. Against all odds, they have managed to hang onto their heritage at the same time as welcoming strangers to their shores.
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