My guidebook described Rakvere as "set with a magnificent castle - and very large bull sculpture". That's good enough for me.
Those were not the only factors in choosing to visit Rakvere. I was looking for a simple bus ride from the capital, Tallinn, and, with it raining sporadically, somewhere with something to do indoors. There is a regular bus service between Tallinn and Rakvere with the journey taking just under two hours; its not an especially scenic journey, unless miles and miles of monotonous forest floats your boat.
I was pleased to read that this part of Estonia is not much visited and that Estonians from the rest of the country look upon the inhabitants of this area with not inconsiderable suspicion because of the proximity to the Russian border. It just gets better for me - a castle, a bull and lots of "nearly Russians". What more could one want?
Arriving at Rakvere is like approaching any former Soviet city or town with the red and white striped chimneys of factories then the grim tenements where whole families live in two roomed flats. The bus pulls in at a small station in the town centre, surprisingly a busy looking place with several large stores and a supermarket. People are shopping too it seems, another surprise especially in this distant outpost; usually the supermarket is deserted while people are buying fresh produce at the market.
A sign directed us to the tourist information office where two young women speaking impeccable English furnished us with a town plan that marked the main places of interest. It seemed like we were the first tourists to pass that way for many months; one can only imagine how they fill their days.
Below the castle, between the foot of the hill and the new town centre, is Rakvere's small but very pretty old town with pastel coloured wooden houses; one of them houses the Citizen's House Museum and is a mock up of an early twentieth century apartment. In this part of town there are some small galleries and craft shops.
Elsewhere one or two minor things of interest are dotted around town, mainly monuments to the great and good of Rakvere or war memorials and the like. There's nothing to get really excited about but it's still enjoyable to stroll the streets and the tourist office map does mark these sights and explain what they are. Beside each point of interest is a sign with a number and you can use your cell phone (if you have one) to dial for information about that monument. Alas, the leaflet failed to say whether the information was given in English or Estonian.
The town itself can be explored in a day, two if you want to stretch it out. However, there are a number of attractive mansion houses in the countryside around Rakvere and this might be a reason to extend your stay. If you did, the centre has only two hotels but the tourist office might be able to arrange alternative accommodation.
As the main town of this region of Estonia, Rakvere is well equipped with facilities for cultural pursuits (it has an acclaimed theatre though I suspect few plays will be in English) and with eating and drinking places.
Amazingly this little town in the far east of Estonia has a restaurant that serves Thai and Chinese food as well as the ever popular pizza joint which had a steady stream of customers through the doors when we went in while waiting for the return bus. If you're feeling homesick there's an English-style pub the Old Victoria - we avoided it as we usually do on our travels. The highlight, though, was the cosy German style konditorei that served the most exquisite cream cakes and pastries.
While I can't say that people were very interested in us, those people we did have cause to talk to were friendly and welcoming. I had expected to be seeing more signs in Russian or have to communicate in Russian but this was not the case and plenty of people spoke English.
I am sure that Rakvere will become more visited as more tourists visit Estonia generally. It is an attractive town with just enough to do though I suspect it would be more enjoyable in summer. It's charms are understated and many travellers might find it a bit tame but open-minded travellers will find it offers a completely different side to Estonia than the capital and the western side. Maybe a few western Estonians should take the plunge and head to Rakvere too?