As difficult as this is to admit, in my US American mind, the names Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were still shrouded in the dark cloud of USSR days. Thoughts of there being anything worth seeing and doing in any of these places seemed out of the question. However, reports from more adventurous people piqued our curiosity and we went to Tallinn, Estonia. Estonia entered the European Union in May, 2005, at the same time Hungary did.
As noted in a different log, we took the Viking ferry from Helsinki to Tallinn. The comfortable ride was three hours long. We sat in the Lounge and were entertained by a Finnish duo who played and sang ‘Golden Oldies’ (think “Lady in Red”, “Bye Bye American Pie” or any Elton John pieces) while a few couples danced over the sea. A lively MC in white tuxedo was very upbeat as he awarded prizes to ticket holders… we hadn’t a clue what was going on, but the Finns and Estonians were having a ball. We were pleased that Border Control was faster entering Estonia with our US passports than it was in Finland.
Estonia is a tiny country, but size should not be equated with might and a very long and interesting history. There were some major surprises that awaited us. This country did not become a country until 1918 when they declared independence from Russia. However, politics being what it is, they lost and gained their independence until August 20, 1991.
The population of the entire country is only 1,351,000 people. About 1/3 of the country’s population live in Tallinn with a city population to 396,375 people. The ethnic mix are 49.5% Estonian and 40.5% Russian as well as other smaller groups. The language spoken is Estonian, which is part of the Finno-Ugric language family along with Finnish and Hungarian. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Finno-Ugric_languages . Estonians are quick to point out that they cannot understand Hungarian regardless of the language tree associations and there are many words in Finnish, which are the same, but have very definite different meanings.
Although, Estonia is now part of the EU, along with all of the other new members, they are not allowed to use the Euro yet. They are projecting this will change in 2007 at the earliest. Their currency is called the kroon (rhymes with tune) or EEK (!) for short. Euros are not legal currency there, but we found many places would accept them. The kroon is pegged to the Euro at 15.65 kroon to 1 Euro, so you will notice many shops and restaurants with a printed Euro amount next to the kroon amount. The currency exchange you get will be based on current exchanges rates, though, so you need to take this into consideration.
We had booked an apartment (45 Euros a night) with the Romeo family thanks to Chris, a member of one of my travel groups. The Romeo family hotel only has three rooms, but they also have three apartments in the same building. The apartment we rented was in a different part of town and was newly remodeled. Their website is www.romeofamily.ee . I had tried booking through their website, but had difficult, so I e-mailed them directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com . You may also call them at +372-6-444-255 (the extra numbers is not a mistake.)After a couple of SMS messages with our arrival time, Mr. Romeo was waiting for us as we exited the ferry station. The pick-up and delivery to the apartment is complementary.
Our apartment was located in the Old Town area, the most popular part of Tallinn, just opposite famous St. Olaf Church. The flat, however, is not in the downtown area, which made it perfect (Address is Lai 45). Within a two minute walk in one direction, we reached the tram stop where three different lines stopped. In the other direction, we could walk to many restaurants, museums, and the downtown center within 10 minutes. The location was quiet; the apartment was perfect for two people. The Romeo family thought of everything. As you entered the apartment, there is a large hallway with a modern bathroom to the right. To the left of the hallway, there is one large room that has a kitchenette, a breakfast bar, chairs, and the bed with a lamp. A stone fireplace on one wall looks like it has been used, but it was cleaned out. There was no need for heat since we were there in the summer. The tiny kitchen area has a two burner stove, but no oven. The apartment was not only furnished with the usual linens and towels, they had pots, pans, dishes, silverware, coffee maker, hot water heater, toaster, and any cleaning supply you could need. Surprisingly, there was also a clothes washing machine and a drying rack. Be forewarned if you are not European, that a load of clothes can take up to 1 ½ hours to go through all cycles. This was the case with the one load we washed. The only things we had to buy were ground coffee and the food we wanted to prepare for any meal. The only suggestion we had upon leaving was for dark shades for the one window that is directly behind the bed. It never gets dark at night in the summer. I was able to take pictures at 11:30 pm without a flash. The sun starts really shining at 3:00 am. The light in the window will disturb light sleepers and I had to use an eye mask.
To the left and about 30 feet from of our front door was a small Meriton hotel. The hotel was a converted historical building and the old carriage house is now a small coffee and snack shop. We found this perfect since they had outdoor seating, but closed at 10:00 pm. They do not take in their tables and chairs, so we were able to relax outside in the evening sunlight. There was a small cobblestone road that ran behind the apartment but vestiges of the old wall and towers also ran the length of it.
After settling in, we immediately went to the town square to visit the tourism office. We were fortunate that this particular weekend was the Estonian Handicrafters Association festival. The entire square was covered with booths of homemade crafts and foods for sale. All crafters must have the mandate to wear old traditional costumes, because everyone was dressed in this manner. It was like walking into the familiar Renaissance fairs in California. The tour office is one block off of the main square.
We chose to purchase the 72 hour Tallinn card (www.tallinn.ee/tallinncard ). It is available for 6, 24, 48, or 72 hours. With this purchase, we were given a complimentary copy of In Your Pocket – Tallinn (normally 35kr), a very nice set of postcards, and a booklet of all the card would do for us. The card is good for free transport on all buses and trams throughout the city, free admission to almost all of the museums, a one hour bus tour of the city followed by a one and a half hour walking tour of the upper and lower old town area. The bonus with the 72 hour card is a free four hour rental of a self guided audio tour with a headset.
Old town dates back to the 13th century and is divided into two parts: Toompea Hill and Lower Town. Most of the sights any tourist will want to see are in the lower portion, but there are some great vista points (Kohtuotsa and Patkuli) and churches on the hill. One word of warning: the majority of the streets are cobblestone, which can be murder on your feet without the appropriate shoes. After an hour of wearing my Birkenstocks, I had to change to sneakers for comfort. Points of interest on the hill: the Estonian Parliament building – it has a 20th century Art Nouveau façade built on the structure of a medieval convent. We did not tour inside. The Russian Orthodox Alexander Nevsky Cathedral completed in 1900, is well worth a visit. The Dome Church or also called St. Mary’s church is the oldest church in Estonia dating back to 1219 by the Danes. The Kiek in de Kök (Peep into the kitchen) is a cannon tower built in 1475. The old joke of the soldiers who used it was they from their vantage point, they could peek into the residents’ kitchens, hence the name. It is now a tiny city museum and free with the Tallinn card, but only of minor interest to us.
The lower town is where most of the museums, restaurants, shops, and other things are to keep the tourist happy and satiated. Town Hall Square is the main court of the downtown area. It dates back to medieval times and has been the heart of the city for over eight centuries. There are a number of restaurants along this area, but if you are budget traveler, it is best to find restaurants away from here. We went to a garlic restaurant and for a simple meal without a starter or salad, but one small beer each, the cost was 30 Euro. Elsewhere, we were able to eat better for half that price.
The museums in Tallinn are small. Some are as small as two rooms. It was possible to spend all of the time we wanted to in a museum and still go to five to six museums in a day. The one perk we always find with city cards is that we usually see museums and sights we normally would not pay for, but if it is free entrance with the card, we do just for the heck of it. One example of this is the Health Museum. As quirky as it was, there were some interesting displays that caught our attention. Some displays had English, but not all. The Estonian History Museum – The Great Guild Hall (there are two history museums) is located in as the name indicates in the guild hall dating back to 1407. The explanations were in English, Estonian, and Russian. Near the Town Hall Pharmacy is a Marzipan Museum. The pharmacy is where marzipan (pan martii- the bread of Martin) was invented by the local pharmacist who used it as a treatment for different illnesses. The card gives free admission to all of the museums and none of them are a far walk from each other. It is possible to visit three or sometimes four museums in one block. The architecture all around the city is diverse and amazingly beautiful.
For a bit of relaxation, the parks are wonderful respite spots. Most of them are well maintained and lovely. There are coffee shops everywhere and it is possible to get a beverage to sip on while resting on a park bench or the grass.
We are always interested in churches. Tallinn has a large selection of historic churches to venture through. Many of the churches were once Catholic and then changed over to Lutheran during the reformation. The Holy Spirit Church, 13th C., is a fascinatingly different Baroque style, with intricately wood carved interior, the choir stalls and pews in a horseshoe shape, with wonderful preserved oil paintings above each stall… they depict major Biblical scenes, from Creation to Pentecost. The altar sits before a monumental gilded triptych with scenes of the life of Christ.
We also visited the old Dominican Convent and Monastery, 13th C., and the still functioning Sts. Peter and Paul Roman Catholic Church. The docent was an older man who spoke no English, but was charming in directing us by pointing to the chapel and chanting “In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritu Sancto” or pantomiming reading a book and pointing to the library. Our apartment was across the street and about 30 feet from St. Olaf’s Church. The church dates back to 1267 and at one time, it was the tallest building in Europe. If you like to climb, the Tallinn card allows you free admission to the tower. We also were impressed with St. Peter’s (Niguliste) Church, also 13th C., now an art museum and concert hall. The jewel is Bernt Notke’s 15th C. masterpiece Dance Macabre, a heroic size painting (about 3 X 15 meters) that depicts Death warning the King and Queen, Burgemeister, Cardinal and Pope to mend their ways before it’s too late.
We kept seeing signs for a concert by The New Amsterdam Choir. It was being held at St. Michael’s Swedish Lutheran Church. The church was difficult to find and we had gone early in the day to see if we needed to buy tickets, but it was closed. We ran into some others from the US at the church and they as it turned out were part of the choir. The said their concerts are usually free. We thought it was the “NEW” Amsterdam Dutch chorus, but the choir was from New (Amsterdam)York City… Manhattan actually. When we returned later that evening, the concert was indeed free and there was a good size crowd. The minister of the church started out with a prayer first in Swedish and then in English. He explained it was the only church for the Swedish minority in Tallinn. The concert first started with the choir of the church singing in Estonian and Swedish, and then The New Amsterdam Choir sang in English and Estonian. Finally, both choirs sang together in Estonian. The finale included an anti-war song “Johnny We Hardly Knew Ye” and several Black Spirituals. It was a marvelous experience.
Outside of the city center, we took the tram to the park outside of Kadriorg Palace. This is the palace of Peter the Great who had it built as a gift for his wife, Catherine I in 1718. This is also the Foreign Art Museum on the same grounds. The card gets you free admission to both. Also on the outskirts of the city is the Estonian Open Air Museum, which has about 100 farm building replicas from all over Estonia, depicting rural life during the last two centuries.. Although I was not appreciative of the buildings, the park itself is beautiful, on the seaside, and there are many trails to follow. The ‘farm boy’ enjoyed the history, and was able to manage the climb down the cliff to collect a few shore mementos… he also took the opportunity to go barefoot, lie on the sun-warmed bank, twiddling his toes in the cool grass. There are a number of picnic tables for a lunch out in the fresh sea breeze. In the distance you can enjoy the sight of the towers of Old Town across the Bay.
For food, our favorite Happy HAPPY (the beer is strong) Hours and restaurant turned out to be (no groans, please) St. Patrick’s. We stumbled on one of their three locations when we were hot, tired and thirsty. The snacks we had were delicious and very inexpensive. We decided to return for dinner one night and were so satisfied with the portions, the quality of the food and the cost, we went two different nights. Locations are Vana-Posti 7, Suur Karja 8, and Párnu mnt 20. Each location has a unique decorated style, but all are pleasant. In one, there is a modernistic mural of the Saint in full regalia, tipping a beer, with a brightly hued angel holding a scroll reading “Welcome to Estonia”. They have Happy Hour from 5:00 to 6:00 pm with two for one price Saku beer, an Estonian brand that is very flavorful. The second favorite restaurant was the African Kitchen. The food was excellent and their roof top terrace is lovely in the warm weather. Don’t order the fish though. The people at the next table ordered before us and were still waiting as we were leaving. We overheard the waiter say it took special preparation and he had warned them when they ordered.
Since we had a kitchenette, we did some grocery shopping. In the basement of their modern and large mall, there is a wonderful supermarket. There we were able to find many cooked items in their delicatessen section to buy and heat up for dinner later. The mashed potatoes and carrots were particularly tasty with the stuffed cabbage rolls. The bakery section has many types of breads, rolls, and sweets both pre-packaged and baked fresh. Surprisingly, they stocked many American brands of food we are not able to get in Hungary. We also brought back about 10 pounds of cheeses that are difficult to come by in Hungary without paying an outrageous premium. There they were inexpensive.
If you leave the supermarket and go out the door on that level, there is a bus terminal on the other side. On that side, there are a few shops also, but most importantly, there is the least expensive Internet café in the city. For approximately 2 Euro, you can surf the net or check e-mails for one hour. The connections are super fast and there are a plentiful number of computers. Most other places are much more expensive.
One of the shopping surprises was that there have been a number of Estonian authors translated into English. This is true for adult literature as well as for children’s books. Other shopping bargains are the hand painted silk scarves and decorative hankies, beautiful handcrafted ceramics, linen shops everywhere, and hand knit sweaters and socks. I found bleached linen embroidered gift bags with ties of linen for 1.50 Euro and unbleached linen wine bottle bags for 1 Euro each. We did a great deal of shopping and were thankful we had brought our nylon collapsible bag to bring the entire haul home. Amber is also prevalent, but we heard most of it is imported from Poland. If you do not care and do not plan on getting to Poland, it is a bargain here.
We were in Tallinn for six full days and had thought we would take day trips outside the city. However, the tours offered from the tourist office looked uninspiring and were 56 Euro a person and up. Nothing looked that appealing to spend that much money. We were never bored and filled each day from 9:00 am until 11:00 pm or later without much rest time other than a lunch or coffee break. Having so much light and never any real darkness helps one forget the time. It is almost impossible to walk more than 30 feet in any direction without finding something to catch your attention be it a museum, a shop, or just fantastic architecture.
This last picture was taken at midnight without a flash.