Once visitors pass the large “300” sign marking the anniversary of Kadriorg Palace and park, the paths begin to glow with soft candlelight. The hum of a few drones circle overhead, documenting the light shows below and the visitors flowing in and out of the park on foot. Two young people race around the base of a small pond, relighting the floating candles beneath a glowing spiral structure in the center of the water.

The 13th annual Wandering Lights festival kicked off on Wednesday, September 19th at 7 p.m. Blue skies overhead already felt nostalgic in these last moments of summer. As the evening grew darker, the crowds grew larger and mobile phones in the hands of all ages added another layer of glowing light to the landscape.

Deep inside the park, the rear wall of Kadriorg’s Upper Garden (Kadrioru lilleaed) tells a simple story of silhouettes in old-fashioned costumes floating between two picture frames. Young children stood on their tiptoes, trying to reach their arms high enough to make shadow puppets in the lowest areas of the frames. Older generations jostled for space to pose and take photos of the “Mirage” installation by Estonian video artists Mikk Mägi and Sander Joon. Across the gardens, fire jugglers performed on the balcony of the Kadriorg Palace and small flames danced throughout the candles lining the swirls of the manicured lawns. The soundtrack in this area was quiet, with just the gurgling of a fountain maintaining a serene stream of natural noise.

On the opposite side of Kadriorg Palace, Norwegian video artist Anastasia Isachsen presented a fairy tale installation entitled “Autumn Ball” that was projected onto the façade of the majestic residence. At this family-focused spot, autumn leaves blow softly across the building in between shows. When the music begins (the lights are set to a stately string piece), the images begin to tell their story. Birds sail across the wall, an aristocratic woman with hair piled high on her head twirls around the center, with one of the round windows often hiding her face. Towards the end of the short show, a couple comes together to dance the night away before the tale fades softly into the break, and the leaves begin to blow again as the next crowd gathers.

The largest crowds circle around the musical fountain performances at Kadriorg Swan Pond. Five short songs – from Peter Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker ballet “Waltz of the Flowers” to the operatic classic “Por ti volare” – fill the air as streams of water dance across the pond’s surface. Soft purples and blues, powerful red lighting, or simple white streams of water shoot high above the treetops of the park or spiral into various shapes along with the melodies. Fair warning: those in the front rows may even receive a sprinkle of mist across their faces (or camera lenses). There are 3–5 minute breaks in between each mini-show of one song. Plan to stay for 30–45 minutes to watch the entire selection of songs. Performances on the pond repeat from 7 p.m. until midnight with many crowds moving along after just one song, so it only takes a few minutes of patience to score a great view.

All around the pond, roughly every tenth person (myself included) held a smartphone screen turned toward the show, and this was my most difficult battle. I wanted to capture the scene to share with the readers of this blog, but I found that watching the installations through a screen completely took me out of the moment. Documenting our lives often seems second nature these days, but the moments that I remembered to stop and immerse myself in observing the light completely changed the experience. I went from concentration on framing the shot to immersing myself in the artistic experience.

I ended up spending about an hour sitting on the edge of the Swan Pond, picking and choosing the time to take photos, videos, and written notes, but then putting everything into my lap. Then I simply stared in awe at the fountains in real time as the crescendos of the music surrounded the air around my ears. Now, I’m (obviously) not against smartphones or social media, but I was struck by how powerful these moments become when they felt secondary to being there, and yet photo documentation feels almost like second nature.

The Wandering Light’s Festival continues on Thursday, September 20th with shows in both Kadriorg and Old Town, and the festival closes on Friday, September 21st with installations only in Old Town. Click here for the full schedule.