Seto Kingdom Day Setomaa Estonia

Day 172 August 5th 2017 Kingdom Day

As we continue to expound the wonderful service of Tourist Information Offices across the world – we find another standout. This time – Setomaa more precisely the town of Värska – which lead us to a unique day in the South East corner of Estonia.

We learned along the way that the history of Setomaa like many other early cultures, suffered from the recent arbitrarily drawn borders. Across the world these drawn borders have had a catastrophic impact on many traditional cultures – the Setomaa community was split and separated when borders were drawn between Russia and Estonia.

Seto Kingdom Day – an annual event and it was recommended we change whatever plans we had to be there. As we became increasingly excited about the event we were also thinking we would be too far away. We realised we had the coming Saturday without a plan and the drive from Narva – while covering the length of Estonia North to South – was still only 4 hours.

In short – we did it. Was it worth it? Absolutely.

Apparently modelled on a day in Finland each year in Setomaa they elect an “ülemsootska” – a spokesperson for their ancient king Peko for the coming year.

The elections take place on Kingdom day along with the selection of the most skilled craftsman in the region including: cheesemaking, singing, dancing, beer brewing, musician, bread baking. From what we understood these people then become the congress advising the elected ülemsootska for the year.

It was a fierce stormy sky when we arrived for the 2017 Kingdom Day. The venue a large grassy hill covered in colourful tents with wafting smells of food and beer bubbling everywhere. The crowds were filled with colour as the men women and children arrived in Seto dress. The woman often laden with silver necklaces, medallions and large silver plates. All denoting a status and handed down from generation to generation.

Storm clouds gathered but the singing continued

Immediately after the entry there was a small stage where Choral groups were singing – small groups with unusual harmonies all in traditional Seto dress singing Seto music. The video and information in the site HERE about Seto Leelo, Seto polyphonic singing and history of Seto is an excellent introduction – including traditional music and gathering at graves to picnic and chat with the dead.

After a time listening to the music, hunger set in – off in search of food. We spied a tray of what looked like deliciously decorated cake yet on close inspection the decoration included pickled cucumber. As we watched people eagerly buying them. We asked – they were tuna sandwiches, the likes of which we had not seen before – coated in a sour cream mix and begging to be tasted. It was delicious. We continued with small tasters until momentarily sated. Stalls served the local cheese, bread, home brewed beer and a range of craft products.

We then referred to our event sheet for the day finding it was all in Estonian – or maybe even Seto. We found no joy with Google translate (it has not been so useful for Estonian). Eventually decided we needed to sit with the crowd in the open theatre and just wait out what happened.

I was fascinated that from children to the older people everyone sat in the theatre and when the heavy squalls of rain came through they merely put on plastic ponchos, put up umbrellas and stayed on.
We sat through what appeared to be duelling musicians, singers and dancers. Through speeches where we understood not a word, yet we felt the humour, commitment, pride.

Thankfully we had been told by Elin (at the Tourism Office ) about the process of the day so could follow without needing to understand. It was incredible to spend a fascinating and fun filled day and at no stage did we understand a word of what was being said.

Supporters of Seto ülemsootska canditates

As we sat the crowds built up. A backdrop of a large tree was hung and a poem read in which we understood “Peko”  and assumed it was reminding us of the who the Seto King represents. Finally three large tree stumps were lifted onto the stage and three people – two men and one women were introduced and stepped up onto a stump from which each made a presentation.

Canditates for ülemsootska

A string was passed out from each candidate and voters lined up along the piece of string for their candidate of choice.

As the ‘votes’ were counted each candidate had a group of singers around them eagerly singing up support. Finally great excitement – particularly amongst the young women near us – the person elected was not the King but a Queen.

Following the announcement of the winning candidate and congratulatory speeches the presentations were made for the craftspeople. My favourite dancer was successful– an older woman, much older than her fellow competitors. Not understanding we made guesses as to who was the cheese-maker, the beer brewer, the baker etc. A lively Cossack style dancer won the male dance competition.

Best Male Dancer Chosen

At the conclusion of all this hunger again drew us away – this time to a plate of smoked pork ribs, sauerkraut, fried potatoes and salad. For Chris – minus the salad and add Kransky style sausage and fried bacon and potatoes! As we finished we heard rousing sounds from the hill and headed up to find crowds lining the entrance. For a barely 5 footer it was almost impossible to see but the 6 footer took photos and explained – it was the military parade. It seemed a tongue-in-cheek presentation to the new Queen of her forces again filled with humour.

Finally – enough excitement – as the young geared up for a night of celebration we headed for our bed in Voru.



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