After my brief but refreshing stay in Helsinki, I set off from the port at Helsinki, Finland to cross the Gulf to Tallinn, Estonia. I have wanted to visit “eastern” Europe for quite a long time (I even considered majoring in Russian studies at one point during my undergraduate IR degree). I made it my New Years resolution for 2018 to visit Eastern Europe, and Estonia (and the rest of the Baltics) seemed like a safe starting point, as Russia was out of the question due to a) traveling alone as a woman for the week and b) the geopolitical relationship between the United States and Russia at the moment. Without having too much of an idea what to expect, I was excited to wake up to a very cold Finnish morning and pack into the ferry terminal to head over to Estonia.
The boat itself was actually a miniature cruise ship, with full amenities and even a shopping and gambling deck. I bought a cup of coffee in order to be allowed to sit in the deck area, and got a window seat for the ~3 hour journey from Helsinki to Tallinn. We passed Suomenlinna Island, which is an old fort which has now become quite the tourist attraction in Helsinki.
About three hours after passing the fort, I arrived in beautiful Tallinn! Coming off of the cruise ship, it’s almost a surreal experience orienting yourself. The area immediately surrounding the ferry landing is quite industrial, but after quickly consulting Google Maps, I realized that the town was within walking distance. I oriented and started walking, and shortly after a roundabout, spotted the castle walls. You literally have to walk through the city walls to enter Old Town Tallinn, and it is a magical experience, stepping back through time (especially for me, as my ‘fun’ degree was in medieval European history). I quickly discovered that the city is rather small, although it never got old wandering the winding streets, looking for new alleyways, small pubs, and shops purporting the “best” Baltic amber wares.
On the walk into town, I stopped by the KGB prison cells which are now part of a residential housing building which has been restored to pre-Soviet facade (it looks beautiful at street level, and then you see a sign which reads “KGB prison” near a small cellar door and descend down into the gloom). The museum, though relatively sparse, provided an interesting introduction to Soviet history, and was about as full of despair as you would suspect.
Then, I continued to make my way into the main town square, looking at all of the beautiful guild houses and medieval buildings which still stand. Basically the entire facade of the city is medieval – it’s incredibly beautiful and unlike anywhere I’ve ever been in terms of architecture and ability to feel as though you are transformed to a different era.
I unfortunately wasn’t able to get into the town hall to see the famous view (they allow you up the stairs on certain days) or the museums (most things, as per usual, were closed), but I did walk around and see most of the sights externally – including the beautiful Orthodox church.
Incredibly, I happened to be wandering around town when I came upon a huge gathering of people, cordoned off by the police. Upon listening to the various languages, I quickly deduced what was happening – the Pope was in town! Since I had little else to do, I stood with the others to catch a glimpse – and got a brief one!
For dinner, I continued the medieval theme at the “medieval restaurant” which was actually incredibly good rather than hokey (from the looks outside, it could have been a Colonial Williamsburg-esque situation (for those familiar with the Revolutionary reenactments attempting to recreate colonial Virginia) where the food looks cool, but tastes just okay). Inside, it was actually incredible and pretty true to what you would suspect a medieval manor would look like, with murals on the walls, tapestries, and “house servants” in garb, and no electricity (lit entirely by candlelight – real candles as I found out trying to move mine). They even went as far as to change the phone ‘ring’ noise to a horse whinnying, which totally worked with the ambiance and medieval music continually playing.
The food is also medieval themed, to the point where they told me not to order certain things since historians had helped them design the menu to be “authentic”- to the point of not appealing to the modern palate (the “house servant” strongly objected to my interest in the spiced wine, as the spices were intended to mask the flavor of wine which, back in the day, hadn’t fared well on its multi-month journey to the dinner table). I had the bear, wild boar, and elk sausages, served with onion jam, sauerkraut, and lingonberries. I also had the creamy mushroom soup – somehow, everything here has cream on it, from coffee to pastries to cocktails. In addition, the “house servant” (they really play up the ruse) gave me a “pepper schnapps” which was sure to “cure all of my bad spirits” at the end of the meal. It definitely was a kick of pepper to the nose and throat, which I guess would make anyone feel more alive.
The following day was a bit of a mixed bag, although still interesting and culturally enriching. I woke up and saw that it was raining quite hard, which was unfortunate and quashed my idea of wandering the open air museum. However, most of the museums in town were still open, so I opted to wander and see some of the things which had been closed the day before.
I started the morning with a stop at the oldest cafe in Tallinn, a beautiful building nestled in the heart of Old Town. I grabbed a meat pastry and a cappuccino and people watched for a bit before wandering back out to the rain.
First stop was the Tallinn cultural museum located in the Guild House, which is right on the main square. Inside is a beautiful collection of artifacts from Estonia, along with interesting historical tidbits. They also have a fascinating collection of Alaskan Aleutian artifacts, which are apparently extremely rare (very interesting things, such as a rain coat made from whale skin, or a child’s “flea catcher”, a piece of fur worn under the clothes to attract fleas away from body hair). They also have a representative “maiden” or the cell where they would throw drunks in the basement for the evening.
The Estonian perspective on its history is that they are a culturally unique group with deep Nordic-European roots, but have unfortunately had to grapple with nature and competing overlords for a significant amount of time. One interesting exhibit also tried to explain some questions about daily life in Estonia over time, although I think there may have been a question-answer format which worked in Estonian / Russian, but which didn’t translate to English as well. For example:
Q: “How old is Estonian statehood?” A: “A headress can say a lot about its wearer”
Q: “How many generations live under the same roof?” A: “A full stomach eases the mind and makes relatives seem good natured”
And my personal favorite: Q: “How did a country yoke become a townie?” A: “Whether you’re from the town or country, rich or poor, you’ll always need good shoes” – can’t deny this one is true!
Anyhow, I then moved on to the Russian Museum, where my day started to take a mild turn for the less fortunate. The museum itself is fine, although a little depressing inside (and smells of cabbage). It turns out that the museum is about the history of Russian schooling in Estonia, which also wasn’t as compelling as what the museum description online offered. However, the stern Russian guide enforced that I watch the 15 minute video and peruse the exhibits regardless, so I learned quite a bit about the history of Russian schooling in Tallinn. Overall, wouldn’t go back, but it was an experience. It was also interesting interacting with real Russians – they do seem stern and don’t quite know how to react to the typical American approach to settling a conflict – lots of smiles, thank yous, and general over-enthusiasm.
Then, I walked to a local Russian restaurant outside of the Old Town, getting my first real glimpses of the town outside of the preserved medieval section. In the pouring rain, I made my way through a small alleyway to Moon, a “Modern Russian” restaurant. Inside it was beautiful, and the waitress was quite friendly. I ordered a couple things to try, although it ended up being a substantial amount of food. I tried the starter share platter, which included sardines, quail eggs fermented in soy sauce, pickles, fermented mushrooms, onions, and lard cakes, along with rye chips and some sauces. Overall, I was really surprised by how much the things on the platter tasted like Korean food, a very similar sweet, sour, salty flavor. Then, I had the borsch, which was quite good. Finally, I had Siberian style dumplings, which also tasting vaguely like Asian food, although the sour cream was a nice addition.
After this, it was back out to the rain, where I walked over to the “Creative City” which is like the Brooklyn of Tallinn it seems. On the way, I passed many residential areas which were much more authentic seeming than what is in Old Town. Still beautiful, but clearly less maintained. Unfortunately just as I arrived at the shopping complex, my host’s very nice umbrella turned inside out and broke beyond repair in a second gust of wind, stranding me in the rain, and forcing me to pay to replace the umbrella (my host was super nice about it, though). Sadly, I also started experiencing pretty intense gastric distress, which my friend James tells me is a common side dish with Russian food (no offense to Russia – he’s spent significant time traveling / living in Russia and Georgia, so I trust he’s had his share of gastric distress!).
The Creative City itself is basically a large outdoor / indoor grocery center, shopping mall, and antique store. Nothing too exciting, but worth the trip if only to walk off the dumplings. I ended up pretty quickly turning back for Old Town, and climbed the Town Hall tower, which was a nice view at the top, although with the gusting wind and rain it was a bit scary (I think they stopped letting people up once I had reached the ground again).
I also noticed during my walk that they tend to dress up their different stuffed dolls (everywhere in the city – they seem to be advertising of some kind) for the rain.
I took some time back at the Airbnb to dry off, and then headed to the beer cellar to enjoy a local Estonian happy hour. Then, read my book at the cafe until dinner time. I enjoyed my dinner at Lieb, a “farm to table” style restaurant – their specialty is the Estonian rye bread, and I also enjoyed incredible chicken and more Estonian home-made schnapps.
Overall, Estonia is somewhere I would return to, despite its small size and relatively isolated location. The beautiful are friendly, the food top notch, and the town absolutely stunning. I’d also love to see more of the countryside.