Dan really enjoyed the hotel we stayed at in Helsinki, especially the view from our room and the sunsets (or lack of them probably more on point). This was a series he took that later showed this bright white light appearing, disappearing, appearing again. Never did figure out what it was.
On the last day of our trip, we got up early and left the room about 6:40am. We caught an early tram to get to the ferry by 7:20 for a 7:40 ride to Tallinn, Estonia. Under the heading of things I should probably keep to myself, Estonia is one of those places so not on my radar I wasn’t even sure it was a country when Dan said “we could go to Estonia!” when he first introduced the idea of Helsinki. (I later felt much better when many of my friends weren’t even sure where Helsinki was…) He says “it’s one of the Baltics!” like that’s supposed to mean something. I’ll admit I’ve heard news references to “the Baltic States” but couldn’t tell you which ones they were. (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, if you were wondering.) I get real shaky on European geography once I’m east of Germany, although I can pinpoint Russia and Turkey. Everything in between is a crap shoot.
So suffice it to say, I knew nothing about Estonia other than is was less than a 2 hour ferry ride from HELsinki, because Dan told me that. (All of the locals put the emphasis on the first syllable, as opposed to helSINKi which is how we’ve always said it.)
There are several ferry systems between these two port cities.
This was way more comfortable than I was anticipating. We had breakfast on the ferry, hot ham and cheese on baguette.
The view behind us once we got on the water, crossing the Gulf of Finland. The flag on the left is the Estonia flag. Finland’s is a blue cross on a white field.
We knew Estonia was part of the EU, but thought, like Britain, they had maintained their own currency. We learned when we got there that they’d converted to the Euro in 2011 (although admitted to EU in 2004), so that made it easy. We also understood their language was pretty complex, so were very pleased when this was about the first sign we came upon as we were entering Old Town Tallinn.
Every trip I realize more and more how lucky we are to be English-speaking travelers because, at least in every place we’ve visited in Europe in the last 3 years, we’ve never experienced a real language barrier. We learned that, like we experienced in Netherlands and Belgium, Finland and Estonia both have English taught in school early, and their American entertainment is presented in English with subtitles in their language. Unless you’re spending time in rural areas, it’s unlikely to meet people you can’t communicate with. At least we haven’t experienced that.
There is evidence of inhabitants in this region going back 11,000 years, with the first mention of a civilized Estonia dating back to 3000BC. We really enjoyed learning about the history which was similar to Finland in many ways, although we felt more tragic. Like Finland, Estonia was taken over during the crusades of the 1100’s, only by the Germans where Finland was Swedes. For the next 800 years, there were 10 different foreign rulers of Estonia. They managed to win independence from Russia in 1920, only to lose it again in 1939. Germany took over again from 1941-1944, then back to Russia, who ruled until the Iron Curtain fell and they gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. So in over 800 years, only 40+ years of independence. Can you imagine?
In 1997, UNESCO designated Old Town Tallin – the entire thing – as a World Heritage Site. We really enjoyed spending the day in this incredibly charming little town. It reminded us a lot of Brugges, Belgium, which we had visited in 2013, although we liked this a lot more. This is the Town Hall and main square.
We went to a history museum first where we got a good overview after spending about an hour there. We had a quick lunch at a cute cafe, then went to the Visitors Information Center at Noon for a free 2 hour walking tour. Meet Mart, our tour guide. He grew up here, got an undergraduate degree in political science from Tarvu University, an Estonian school older than Harvard. He did 8 months in the military – a requirement of all males – and is preparing to go on to graduate school. He was incredibly knowledge and very funny.
The memorial of their first independence. He had a lot of funny stories about how the current population feel about this (they mostly don’t like it) but I’ll move on for now…
Old town is mostly surrounded by a fortress of wall and towers dating back 700 years or more. This is still in pretty good shape, from the 1300’s.
This is just to the left of the photo above, a better shot of the wall.
A Russian orthodox church from the 1800s as I recall – relatively young compared to everything else.
Parliament building from the 1700’s, across the building from the church above.
We do love these narrow, curvy streets.
Much of the old wall visible here; the building at the top is government, where the Prime Minister offices area.
This might be my favorite shot of the entire trip.
Just as the walking tour was ended it started to rain. We were prepared with umbrellas so got them out and walked out of Old Town and over to a much newer area of town. There’s a hotel, Viru, completed in 1972 and currently houses a KGB museum because they did some work in that building for a couple of decades. The tour guide was a Tallinn native, certainly older than Mart – maybe my age or older – spoke OK English with a heavy accent and, like Mart, was pretty funny but Very Dry. At the beginning of the tour – which started on the 22nd floor of the hotel – she was showing us these photos from the late 60’s/early 70’s on the wall. One of them was of a fire of the hotel when it was under construction. Without with slightest smile she says in her thick accent something like “of course there’s no record of it because there are no fires in Soviet Union” and Dan, me and one other kid in his early 20’s cracked up. but everyone else just looked at her. I didn’t quite know what to think of everyone else’s non-reaction – it was weird – but as the tour went on more and more were laughing at her Extremely Dry jokes so they must’ve figured it out.
This was written on a window, that’s Old Town you’re seeing through it.
Her name was Tiia and she had many interesting stories about what life in the Communist state of the Soviet Union was like. One little piece that I found fascinating was Tallin in particular had a different viewpoint of the world because they were close enough to receive television broadcasts from Helsinki, so they weren’t that shut out from the rest of the world, and knew that there was more to life than what they were experiencing. They had all kinds of secret things that happened in homes – like celebrating Christmas – because the arm of the KGB only reached so far unless they had reason to suspect you.
These were Communist propaganda papers, each announcing the death of leaders a couple of years apart – the top one Brezhnev in 1982 (above) and Andropov in 1984 (below). She pointed out how, if you look closely, you’ll see it’s essentially the same paper, only the names have been changed. They could get away with it of course “because no one ever reads them” she said dryly. Finally, everyone laughed.
About 60 rooms in the hotel were bugged, and this was the listening room the KGB monitored from. They worked closely with hotel management to get guests they wanted to monitor – celebrities, journalists, politicians – in rooms where they could monitor.
A view onto Old Town from the 23rd floor. That spire to the left is St. Olaf’s, where we were headed next.
St. Olaf’s was built in the 1100’s and had an incredible steep (and narrow) spiral staircase up to the bell tower. Good thing we did this at the end of the day because it was quite the workout. Great views though.
The Viru “KGB” hotel from St. Olaf’s.
Charming, charming, charming.
“St. Catherine’s Passage” was all the rage on TripAdvisor, but a little lost on us. The Katerina Guild was housed there with lots of little arts and crafts shops. Not our thing. It was cute though.
We were pretty tired by 5pm – had been on our feet the better part of 7 hours – so stopped for an early dinner. Dan had the chicken (above), I had the fish, at a cute little place called Pegasus. The waitress’s name was Kroot and was very friendly. We chatted with her quite a bit.
We caught an 8pm ferry back to Helsinki. These were a couple of shots Dan caught from the ferry as we approached the mainland.
The last official picture of the trip. Boy, I do look tired! It was about 10pm.
I’m writing this on Saturday in a British Airways lounge in Heathrow. We have a about a 10 hour layover, of which about 90 minutes was used up just in getting from one terminal to another and security. Will do one more post with final thoughts about this trip.