Exploring Tallinn

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July 26th 2011
Published: August 8th 2011EDIT THIS ENTRY

What was interesting was that when I told my close friends that I will be spending a month in Europe, they had initially thought that I would be going to Western Europe, as by all conventions. However, I mentioned that I am going to explore Eastern Europe. Immediately, my friends went, "Seriously? Who goes there anyway? Is it safe there?" To be honest, I have my doubts, but seeing how I am already at the end of my formal education (I am actually having my University Convocation this Saturday, July 30th), I decided that being unemployed gave me the perfect opportunity to do things that I never thought I would do in my life ever. And travelling being my ultimate love - apart from photography - I decided to take the leap and do something about it. Go to Eastern Europe, learn about life during the Soviet rule and experience life on a whole new different level. And so off I left on a journey to Eastern Europe on June 25th, my adventure was to last a month but the memories to last for a lifetime.

I had heard about Estonia - or known as Eesti to the locals - from my dad. He works for a Nordic bank, and he had made frequent trips to Nordic countries. However, he had only ventured to Tallinn once in his career lifetime, and that was when he told me that hey, I could navigate around Tallinn. Navigating wouldn't be a problem because people speak English there. Even the common people you would find on the streets. I was convinced that Estonia would be perfect. Besides, I have always had the 'reputation' among my friends as the travel guinea pig. I would frequently venture to places where people do not really have in mind as their conventional travel destinations. Oh several things come to mind, like Iran in 2009, Morocco in 2004, Kashmir in 2010, etc. So yes, what better way than to live up with my reputation, aye?

So off I departed from Singapore on an 18 hour flight (if you count the waiting times in transit) to Tallinn via Helsinki. It was a long long long flight, and I did not sleep well on the flight. My guess is because I had already slept at home before I left (big mistake), so I spent the time watching movie after movie. Trust me, not fun at all. Luckily I was well-fed. And it helped that there was a really cute-looking Finnish man sitting next to me. Oh well, c'est la vie!

Arriving in Tallinn at 6am in the morning gave me a whole day to explore the city. I've decided that I need to stock up on the essentials since I will be in the city for a week. Off I trooped to Stockmann, apparently it is the local department store. I took a tram from my apartment and stopped at the last tram station, which was Kaubamaja (travel tip: it is always a safe option to stop at the last station if you do not know where you are going). It was apparently the city center. You know the feeling of traveling without a map? There was no way I could do it, but hey I did it anyway. See, traveling without a map that actually contains useful information gave me the confidence to use my peripherals wisely, and to trust locals. Further, my apartment was located at Keemia, which really is in the suburbs technically, and not many people were familiar with that location, but anyhoos, there were some knowledgeable and kind souls.

Stockmann was HUGE. By my standards, of course. Went all the way to the supermarket, and to my surprise, they did not give out plastic bags to contain my purchases! Well, they sure gave out plastic bags like water in Singapore, but hey, in Europe, it's a whole different matter altogether. I had to pay something like 10 cents to get a bag. Or perhaps more, but I vaguely recalled being shocked that I had to pay for my plastic bag. You see, from where I'm from, I consider it my basic right to get a plastic bag to hold my purchases. Oh no no, not the case in Europe. The opposite rings true.

So with a 1.5l, a sack of potatoes, some carrots, a ball of cabbage and some chocolates in my bag, off I went to discover more sights of Tallinn. I was very much jet lagged, and all I wanted was to lie down in my bed and sleep off the jet lag. Note that at this time, I had gone without sleep for almost 24-48 hours. Anyway, snapped a couple of photos of really fascinating scenes, as usual, you get very excited at everything when you are in a new country. Finally, it was time to retreat to my apartment at 4pm, and yup, that was when my day ended. Or so I thought.

I really wanted to sleep, and I was waiting for the sun to set. 7pm, the sun won't set. Okay, perhaps it would set at 8pm. Nope, it didn't. The sky remained bright till 10.30pm, and only the sun set and the sky turned a dark blue tone at 11pm. And stayed that way till the sun rises at 2.30am. It never turns dark black ever. And there I conclude, this is summer, this is how the skies behave in Europe. Singapore has summer all year round, and we have dark nights every single night. Ah well.

The next day, I decided to explore the Old Town, famed for its cobbled streets and restaurants where its employees wear medieval clothes to up the fun factor. And boy were they true! I was amused yet awed by the different scenes I came across throughout my four hour walk around the Old Town. There were so many souvenir shops at every single nook and cranny that I thought to myself that I can potentially declare myself a shopping failure if I do not get any souvenirs appropriate for friends and family back home. A bit of a tragic accident, but hey, it happens to the best of us! 😉

The Old Town was a stark contrast to the landscape in which I grew up in. Where I grew up in, I am faced with concrete, urban jungle. Don't get me wrong. It is nice, but after a while, you kind of outgrew all that concreteness and yearn for something a bit simpler and refreshing. Seeing cobbled stones - and being a huge history buff - and imagining how life must be like in the 17th century sure does wonders to my imagination. I could almost imagine women in typical big skirts ala Catherine the Great's era walking down these cobbled streets and chatting with their girlfriends. Oh on a side note, walking on cobbled streets makes for good feet exercise. You know there is such an exercise involving stepping on sharp stones? Yeah it kind of felt like that. Sharp stones, wide stones, small stones, stones jutting out, you name it, they have it. You are also witness to 18th century graffiti on the walls. For instance, I saw a graffiti which said, "I <3 Savisaar." Savisaar, you lucky man, to have your girlfriend proclaim her love for you in stone and in public. Hehehe...

At this juncture, I realized that I have forgotten to mention about the weather. It was a nice cool 12 deg C, with the wind blowing in all directions. Really, you appreciate the coolness of the weather when all you have ever experienced was 33 deg weather all year round.

Anyway, one must not miss going to the Raekoja Plats and just absorb the scene around the main town square. It is where the town hall clock is located, it is where the famous Olde Hansa restaurant is located (which reminds me, I talked to one of its employees and the contents of our conversation were highly amusing, I simply must elaborate more later), and there are many souvenir shops and restaurants located all around the square. One thing that I can recommend is to sit in a cafe, sip some coffee/latte/cappuccino/hot cocoa/whichever you prefer and watch the world go by, observing the antics of the people visiting the town square. To me, that was a luxury because I cannot just sit in a cafe in Singapore to watch the world go by. There really is nothing to see and besides, Singapore has a knack of ensuring that every single minute counts, and sitting in a cafe with nothing to do without your BlackBerry or iPhone beeping with messages from work/school is really a rare thing to happen to anyone. Anyhoos, I highly enjoyed having some me-time, away from interacting with any human figures and even trying to pretend to enjoy a chat with a stranger who is just passing.

St Catherine's Passage is also a must-visit for visitors to the Old Town. I'll let you in on a little secret. It is the most photographic and scenic passage that you can ever get in the Old Town. Woops, now it's no longer a secret! The point is, walk along St Catherine's Passage and you will come across all sorts of human quirks both imaginable and unimaginable. Oh and don't forget to get yourself a painting while you are at it.

I had enough stamina to climb to the top of a mountain to catch an aerial view of the Old Town. How did I get there then? Simple. From Vabaduse Väljak (which roughly translates to Freedom Square), I climbed up the staircase and up a tiny hill. You will see a tower to your right, and that is the Kiek in de Kok tower, used during the war, and there are bastions underneath. Oh by the way, Kiek in de Kok is a great learning experience. Do go to the museum and to the bastions if you have the opportunity to do so. You will also pass the Virgin Tower, and walk straight up to the Parliament House. Make a right there, follow the trail of people and you will be led to the balcony which oversees the Old Town! Ta-dah! It is that simple. However, exercise caution. The roads may have changed or so. But once you get to the top, the view is magnificent. There are also other places to get panoramic views of Tallinn, one of them being the 23rd storey of Hotel Viru from the KGB Museum (also worth a visit) balcony, and another being from St Olaf's Church. You have to pay 2 euros to climb up a dark spiral staircase, about 10 minutes up. Beware, the staircases are steep and high, so if you want an easier option, I suggest taking my first route, but if you are sporty and athletic, by all means, go ahead and explore the hardest option! 😊

If you had the opportunity to explore beyond the Old Town, do head down to the Soviet KGB Prison which was used in 2002. But beware, it is not all fun and happy in there. In fact, I knew that it was going to be a depressing trip to the prison (a prison isn't exactly a happy place), but I decided to go for it because I really wanted to see the place where the prisoners of war were held. And boy, the entire compound of the prison was covered with stone walls which were impenetrable. The fences had barbed wire, and logs from trees were chopped but not done anything with. There was limited lighting in the room, and thankfully I brought my hot shoe along to provide some lighting to my photos. We visited the place where the prisoners of war were kept. There were cells for 16, cells for four, and temporary cells. The common thing that they all had was that it was unsanitary. I do not think I could live in there. I do not think that it is fit for humans to live in there in any case. Walking through the dark prison, in a very cold atmosphere and you could almost hear the cries of help from the prisoners of war, who were waiting for their own death day. I am pretty sure that they felt that death was better than living in the prison cell. I visited the place where they had to bathe before being sent to the guillotine. It was a dark room with cold floors, no curtains to protect your own privacy as you bathe. In short, a public bath, with everything in full view. I learnt about how the KGB officers treated the prisoners of war. It was crucial to learn these little bits of details because it gives an insight into how life was like for these people during the war. They were treated far worse than animals, which really breaks all human rights rules.

And that, friends, conclude all the gory details. I promise you, no more gory details till then! Please make a trip to Tallinn and visit all things necessary while you are there. Indeed, I only found out that only people in Northern Europe visits Tallinn or even Estonia. It may be a small little country but it has lots to offer! I didn't regret my trip there, and neither should you.

Next entry, I will be talking about my next destination, St Petersburg, Russia. Never in my wildest dreams have I imagined that I would actually step foot in Russia, the land where it once had power over the Soviet bloc, the land where stars like Stalin, Lenin and Gorbachev the saviour rose from.

Hold your thoughts! Russia may or may not be what it used to be. Till then, adios mi amigos!

P.S.: If anyone would like to sponsor my trip to Europe or anywhere in the world and want me to take photos and do reviews, I'll be more than happy to hear from you! Terms and conditions apply. :P

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