Our ship pulled into its berth in Tallinn, Estonia, at around 9 AM this morning, after a smooth trip from Stockholm overnight. The weather conditions continue to be chilly in the morning, but reach the 50s by afternoon, with blue skies and sunshine. It seems we've left our weather woes behind us, at least for the moment. The Baltic Sea conditions during the first few days of our cruise have been unbelievably calm. Tonight, as we cruise to St. Petersburg, Russia, it looks like a sheet of glass.
The shore excursion planned for today departed from the ship by 10 AM, when we boarded a bus with a tour guide (Anne) who would prove to be a real gem. What a difference from yesterday's experience in Stockholm! She is a native Estonian, educated in Britain, in her mid-40s, and a teacher at the local college. Throughout the day she was able to give a sense of historical and cultural context when explaining sights and important events. In addition, she was an excellent communicator with a great personality, so we thoroughly enjoyed the tour.
Tallinn is the capital and largest city of Estonia, with a population of about 440,000, and
is located on the northern coast of the country, on the shore of the Gulf of Finland. After becoming an important trade hub between Russia and Scandinavia beginning in the 13th-century, Tallinn fell under the control of foreign powers such as Germany, Sweden and Russia. As our tour guide explained, each of these powers exerted powerful cultural influences upon Tallinn (and Estonia) that remain to this day. More sinister consequences befell Tallinn during the Nazi years, and then as a satellite state of Russia following World War II. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Estonia regained its independence, and ultimately joined the European Union and NATO.
We made a brief stop at the Tallinn Song Festival Grounds that is the site on which the Estonian Song Festival is held every five years. In 1869 Johann Voldemar Jannsen established the Estonian Song Festival while the nation was still a province of the Russian Empire. This festival was considered responsible for fostering an Estonian national awakening. After that, the new tradition was born and the festivals are still held every five years. According to our guide, the songfest tradition is much revered by Estonians, for whom it has become a
symbol of independence and nationalist sentiment, especially during the years of Soviet domination.
The tour bus then dropped us off near the upper Old Town area, where our guide led us to several notable sites: the Toompea Palace, now the home of Estonia's Parliament; and the imposing Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, a Russian Orthodox church. We then walked to an observation terrace with a panoramic view of the lower portion of Tallinn's Old Town, which is one of the best preserved medieval cities in Europe and a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Before winding our way downhill on cobblestone streets to reach the lower town (and our luncheon venue), we toured the so-called Dome Church (officially St. Mary's Church), an example of Northern European Gothic, dating back to the 13th-century (but rebuilt after a fire in 1684). Once the church of the local German-speaking aristocracy, it's filled with more than a hundred coats of arms inscribed with German tributes. As we walked around inside, the choir and pipe organ were practicing, which added a nice background touch to our visit.
After an excellent lunch of pork and sauerkraut, which is too often a forgettable experience when part of a
guided tour, we reached the Town Hall Square, site of the 15th-century Town Hall. Once upon a time, this square was a thriving marketplace and the focal point of the Old Town. Today it is surrounded by quaint buildings, cafes, tourist shops and cruise-ship passengers such as ourselves. Still, there is a medieval flavor to this section of Tallinn, and we enjoyed the walking on this gorgeous, sunny day.
We returned to the ship around 4:30 PM, had some drinks, and then ate dinner at the buffet. We've more or less settled into a shipboard routine, with continental breakfast delivered to our stateroom early in the morning before heading out on the shore excursions. The excursions themselves are proving to be tiring for us, and it would be more manageable if we could take a rest day between them. However, there is no rest for the weary, because bright and early tomorrow morning we'll be in St. Petersburg, Russia, with a daunting all-day tour agenda in the offing. Stay tuned!
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