A Wooden Eiffel Tower and Self-Built Amusement Park: Entering a Strange New World in Hiiumaa, Estonia

by Thom Brown

While celebrating an ancient Estonian holiday in Hiiumaa, our “On the Edges of Europe” columnist fights boredom by seeking out a nearby amusement park that holds more than a few surprises.

Some say he’s a genius. Others? A madman. All I know is he built a 31-meter wooden replica of the Eiffel Tower in his backyard.

We were celebrating midsummer in the unspoiled surroundings of Hiiumaa, Estonia’s second-largest island. While the hour-long ferry was pretty packed, tourists efficiently dispersed themselves among Hiiumaa’s ample forests and beaches, leaving a quiet land for our group to explore without interruption. Midsummer, known locally as Jaanipäev, is Estonia’s most ancient holiday; a chance to escape modernity for a few days, reconnect with Mother Earth, and partake in rituals that seem mad to outsiders but offer a comforting sense of togetherness.

Staying deep in the countryside – more than an hour’s walk from a proper grocery store – had the potential to become boring and uneventful, so my eyes lit up at the news of a nearby amusement park. More intriguingly, this park was said to have been self-built almost singlehandedly by an islander known as Jaan Alliksoo.

We pulled up to a surprisingly full parking lot where the strangeness was already apparent. Parked among regular vehicles was a decaying convertible badly spray painted to resemble a cop car. Next to that was a mannequin in a hi-vis jacket and long white-haired wig, somehow staring into my soul despite its lack of eyes. By the entrance was a white sign upon which the words “an adventure park for the whole family” were scrawled in orange paint. In direct contrast to the positive message on the sign was an enormous concrete monster, one arm stretched into the air as if beckoning us forward. The monster’s breasts (for lack of a better word) were (for reasons I cannot fathom) supported by a pair of skis.

At the doorway, a circle of wood with a continuously spinning spiral marked the beginning of our adventure. The hypnotic motion felt like we weren’t just stepping into a new physical location, but an altered state of mind. Inside was an empty room filled with drinks and ice cream, but no vendors to pay. We made noises wondering how to pay the €3 entrance fee until a figure emerged from a room on the right. It was unmistakably the man himself: Jaan.

He moved without urgency, his muscles stiff from decades of building wooden structures. Behind him was a room filled with odd trinkets: a collection of plastic trophies, paintings of jungle animals, and stuffed toys. But the background faded into nothingness behind the figure of Jaan himself. In his matching psychedelic t-shirt and pants, it appeared as though he’d turned a kaleidoscope inside out and sewn it into an outfit. The bright patterns appeared to move independently, lulling me further into a hypnotic trance. His smiling ghost slippers somehow elevated his outfit. Yet, this colorful clothing clashed with his dirty, gray hat, pulled down low over his dirty, gray face.

Jaan never looked up from the card reader, his head weighed down by his weathered, wrinkled skin and scratchy beard.

“Do you speak English?” I asked.

“No,” was Jaan’s reply after a short pause.

“You sure?” I asked, only to be met with silence.

“What is this place? It looks crazy!” I prodded in a desperate attempt to garner a reaction.

“No. It’s not crazy,” Jaan responded earnestly.

We bought our tickets and entered Jaan’s surreal, overgrown garden. The entire place was frankly magnificent. There were large, white castles with cone-shaped orange roofs, which, from a distance at least, resembled a fairytale kingdom. There were wicker cars and rooms filled with technology from the Soviet Union. Wonky, wooden bridges over muddy puddles lured visitors to cross but offered no promises not to collapse. There was even an “IQ Test”: a box asking for €5 in return for a test result you’d never receive. This was Jaan’s trickster way of collecting funds for his project. It occurred to me that the amusement park was the unfiltered vomit from Jaan’s mind to the physical world. It was chaotic and dangerous, but beautiful and endearing at the same time. We became children.

At the center of it all was the main attraction: the 1/10-scale wooden replica of the Eiffel Tower. It was monumental; a pretty accurate copy of the real thing. It was also, sadly enough, the only area of the park with any kind of safety regulations. Visitors were no longer allowed to climb the stairs to the top due to the very real risk that the entire structure could collapse, which, more than anything, would be a sorry sight for Jaan. I was happy to gawk at the tower from the safety of the ground.

Besides, there was plenty to explore, including a life-size replica of the ship that Columbus took to America, which was connected to a spaceship via plastic tunnels. Once more it felt like the physical expression of Jaan’s obsession with discovery and exploration. It made no sense and perfect sense all at once. As grown adults, we squashed and scrambled into the different play areas, forgetting our sizes, ages, and responsibilities if only for a few brief moments.

Inside a large, wooden labyrinth was a series of rooms with no lighting but for the few beams of sunlight that pierced through the gaps in the wood. Every room housed a piece of paper with a question on it. Each question had four answers corresponding to a different door. If you could correctly answer the questions, you’d theoretically exit a door with the words “Here comes a genius” written on it. Fail at any point, and you’d exit a door with “Here comes an idiot.”

The task was made more challenging by the skeletons and monsters that lay within, not to mention the badly translated questions. I picked up a plastic skull for a morbid sense of comfort and found an Estonian to help me navigate the labyrinth. Most of the questions related to animals or the universe, which, beyond carpentry, seemed to be some of Jaan’s favorite topics. We fumbled in the darkness for what felt like hours, at one point getting stuck in a loop between Lake Baikal and the River Nile. We repeatedly tried to find that genius door before choosing to cheat and use Google to see if a route to victory was even possible. It wasn’t.

Was this Jaan’s diabolical trickery rearing its head once more or just a poorly thought-out maze? That was the endless conundrum of the park. It was perennially unclear whether each attraction was deliberately the way that it was or subconsciously so. Either way, it was the very definition of art.

After declaring the labyrinth unsolvable, we headed to the most adrenaline-fueled part of the park: a small lake with floating pagodas and a pathway to an island that was inexplicably named “The Republic of Latvia.” Cycle helmets and life vests hung around the edges of the lake, though there was no mandate to wear them. I put on both anyway, partly for a laugh but also out of a genuine fear for my life.

We entered the lake on a giant, wooden see-saw, which, when the weight was sufficiently shifted, would crash violently into the water, often accompanied by the screams of those who rode it. Someone on a floating island paddled up to the see-saw and helped us aboard, offering a calm spot to rest. We floated over to a large metal slide. I scrambled my way to the top, where there were more colorful castles to explore. Inside was a disturbing number of loose screws and rough wooden floors that promptly popped a splinter into the sole of my bare foot. I went back to the slide and nervously shimmied my way down, conscious of the shallow waters at the bottom.

Keen to stay dry, I returned to the wooden island and paddled it across to Latvia. This was by far the most uninspiring part of the park. It was nothing but unpolished, unsanded, and unpainted planks of wood. From there, I braved the wooden stepping stones back to the mainland, which appeared to be taken directly from the set of a show like Total Wipeout or Takeshi’s Castle. Nevertheless, they seemed stable enough, so I confidently hopped onto the first one. Landing just south of the center, the circular platform began to tip, and my fate became clear: my body slipped into the surprisingly refreshing waters of a makeshift Baltic Sea. Leaning onto my back, I let the life vest keep me afloat and stared up at the cloudless sky, defeated.

Clothes soaked and heavy, I looked back at the mainland to calculate a route there. Stood there, half hidden behind a tree, was Jaan. For the first time that day, he was smiling. It was a subtle, slighting smirk, but a smile nonetheless. In that instant, he appeared to me to be a man who had dedicated a long life to the service of others. He may not have been a people person, but I’ve never met a man who dedicated so much to spreading joy while taking none for himself.

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