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Published: August 20th 2012
Estonia is a small country with a coastline of more than 3700 km on the Baltic sea with a population of 1.34 million people, a large number of them living in Tallinn, the capitol of Estonia. We will be in Estonia for the annual celebration of Victory Day (June 23) and Midsummer Day (June 24). Estonia is proud of its technological advances. Skype was developed by Estonians and Wifi, usually free of charge, is very popular throughout Estonia including buses, trains and even in outdoor areas in the country. Estonia has a strong environmental ethic and is making an effort to become paperless.
Estonia was one of several countries under the control of the Soviet Union. In 1990 I, along with several others from New England, was privileged to be a Bridges for Peace Delegate to the Soviet Union representing the state of New Hampshire. I traveled with a small group of NH delegates to Estonia our “sister state” and stayed with host families throughout Estonia. We met the people, learned about their struggles and challenges, their history and hopes for the future. We also learned how similar we all were in our lifelong desires. My host in
Parnu was Heli Tooman, a bright, strong woman who I am still proud to include in my circle of friends. Heli came to visit me in 1995 and I helped her son Martin go to public school in New Hampshire at the age of 15. I had not seen them since. It was cool and rainy when we left Moscow but sunny and surprisingly warm when we flew into Tallinn, the capital of Estonia.
Heli and Martin were waiting for us at the airport and after picking up our bags they drove us into town to the centrally located City Hotel (now the Center Hotel) near Martin’s beautiful condo. After checking into our room we went to Martin’s condo
perched high above the city with views of the spires of Old Town, the new downtown high rises and the Baltic sea. He is also within a short walk of the lovely Kadriorg Park.
We sat outside on his balcony enjoying the scenery and catching up on our long time friendship. Martin and Heli served us copious quantities of delicious white wine along with plenty of appetizers such as pickled and jellied long freshwater fish that looked like eel,
pickled vegetables, watermelon, sliced Parmesan cheese, tart little gherkins and spicy chopped beet salad. No doubt I was pickled at this point too. The wind picked up and around 10pm we moved inside for an amazing dinner that included marinated and grilled chicken and veal served with a delightful red wine from his temperature controlled wine cellar. With that we had a delicious brown bread, a salad of fresh greens with shaved parmesan cheese, balsamic vinegar and a fabulous blue cheese. To finish our feast Martin made some excellent espresso and brought out an enormous bar of dark chocolate with hazelnuts. How did he know it was my favorite? It was 11:30pm Tallinn time but our bodies were still at 12:30am Moscow time when we finished dinner and I know poor Dave was done for the night. Heli and Martin must have realized we needed to walk off our dinner so they walked us back in the chilly dusky evening light to the City Hotel where we gratefully fell into a satisfied deep sleep. June 15, our first day touring Tallinn
At 10AM there was a comfortable chill in the air but the sun was shinning brightly when
we left the hotel for a walk into the Old Town. I wanted to see the Hotel Viru where I stayed as a delegate for Bridges for Peace in 1990.
It is now a beautiful hotel and has a perfect view of the Old Town from the 22nd floor and, interestingly, there is a KGB museum on this floor that shows the history of this formerly KGB approved hotel. I showed Dave the elevator that is etched in my memory from the time when, after a late evening dinner, my Russian-Estonian hosts in Tallinn brought me back to my hotel, up the elevator and into my room one evening with their never-ending valise of vodka.
We left the Hotel Viru and walked through the old stone Viru Gates, the opening of the old city walls with its 26 watch towers
, into Old Town
for a short walk. The town seemed to wake up before us in the cool morning air as we walked by shopkeepers opening their stores for the day, passing nut sellers handing out fresh roasted samples, and craftspeople selling their knitted sweaters and hats on the narrow Muurivahe Street by the walled entrance to Old Town.
I was tempted to stay but we promised to meet Heli and Martin back at the City Hotel and I knew we would have the afternoon to explore this area more.
Heli had very thoughtfully planned our day so that we could be chauffeured to the most distant sites knowing we could walk in the Old Town on our own later in the afternoon. We drove first to the amazing, newly renovated 314 m (1,030 foot) Teletorn TV Tower
north of the city. This tower was built by the Soviets for the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics regatta held just outside of Tallinn. Twenty one floors above, on the observation deck of this refurbished tower you can see a most incredible 360 degree view. On a clear day you can see 84km to Helsinki and that is exactly what Estonians did to get a glimpse of the free world when they were behind the Iron Curtain. I stood on a plastic coated circle, pushed a button and suddenly there was nothing between my feet and this clear plastic dome to 170 m to the land below. Not for the acrophobic! Distances and directions are marked on the floor pointing to
the views through the large glass windows surrounding the tower reminding us of Estonia’s need to stay connected to the rest of the “outside world”.
Contemporary spaceman-style structures dot the glass enclosed floor space offering information about Estonian culture and history. Large white futuristic stands with headsets allow visitors to listen to various pieces of music and information about the history of Estonia. I couldn’t pull myself away from the sweet sounds of the Estonian Choir singing the melodic part of the Credo 1968 for mixed choir and orchestra, one of the famed composer Arvo Part’s works (although thankfully for my sensitive ears, they did not include the wild discordant passages.) The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, a year after my visit, and this tower still has bullet holes in its base from a coup attempt.
Leaving the TV Tower we drove along the Baltic passing the site where the Soviet Union's 1980 Olympic sailing competitions were held. Martin then drove us to the stage of the famous Estonian Song Festival Grounds.
Estonia is very proud of its musical heritage that dates back to the Estonian National Awakening in the mid 1800s. The Estonian Song Festival is held
in Tallinn every five years and is one of the largest amateur choral events in the world with approximately 25-30,000 singers participating on stage at the festival grounds. In 1988 Estonians gathered here for the patriotic Singing Revolution that led to the overthrow of Soviet Rule. From the festival grounds we drove a short distance to Kadriorg Park for a brief walk to familiarize us for the next day’s tour in Tallinn. Now this stage sees the likes of Madonna, The Rolling Stones and Red Hot Chili Peppers with an audience of up to 300,000.
We drove north to the other side of Old Town to visit the newly opened Lennusadam Seaplane Harbour Maritime Museum.
This museum had opened less than a month ago and was a first for Heli and Martin as well. The inside of this spacious museum was laid out with seaplanes hanging in the “air” above and many boats below suspended as though they were floating in the sea. Torpedoes hung below large ships and a wrecked ship laying on the "sea" floor with several other sailing vessels “floating” on the various surface levels giving a truly 3-D experience to the visitor. As one walks
along the suspended walkways over and under the several levels of ship displays you get a unique feel for the size relationship to other ocean going vessels. There was so much to explore in the museum but we had little time and yet still much to see, plus it was well past lunch time and, well, there were hungry travelers, so we opted for a lovely lunch of fresh fish outside on the Museum’s protected patio in the warm sun by the sea.
After lunch Martin and Heli dropped us off at Toompea Hill or Cathedral Hill, in the upper part of Old Tallinn where we began our walking tour of this historic city. Tallinn is truly a walkable city both in the new and old sections. If long walks are not your thing, old fashioned trolleys frequent the city streets conveying locals and tourists alike. Old Tallinn, dating back to 1154,
is part of the wonderful collection of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites. We worked off our lunch as climbed to the high walled towers surrounding the old Hanseatic brick structures. We stopped at many walled vistas to enjoy the view of the many sharply pitched tile roofs and
pointed church spires huddled together behind the walls protecting this centuries old town. Most of these openings in the walls provide great vantage points where you could see the Baltic Sea sparkling in the distance. We passed by the Lutheran Cathedral of St Mary the Virgin or as the locals call it, Dome Church, where Estonia’s elite German nobles used to attend services. Its black baroque spire contrasts sharply with the bright white medieval stone church. This country was settled around 8500BC and its earliest inhabitants worshipped the spirits of nature until the Northern Crusades in the 13th century. Now only about 14%!o(MISSING)f Estonians attend church making it the least religious country in Europe but you can still see in today’s Estonians the intense connection that their early Estonian ancestors have to their environment.
The sun was shining on the clay rooftops that were beautifully framed by the brilliant blue sky. The good weather allowed us to take our time climbing down the stoney, steep and narrow Long Leg Street (Pikk Jalg)
to Raekoja Plats, the Town Hall Square, in the lower old town or All-linn. We wandered around the cobbled streets passing the old Guild Hall and
the Holy Spirit Church and into the medieval square filled with craftspeople selling their wares opposite the Old Town Hall with Vana Toomas (Old Thomas) the official town guardian perched on top of the weathervane overlooking the square. The Old Town Hall is the only intact Gothic town hall left in Northern Europe. This square with its colorful old town houses is where the world’s first Christmas tree stood in 1441. Wherever we walked, the tall spire of St. Olav’s Church (the tallest building in the world from 1549-1625) was always in view piercing the blue sky. Thinking we might explore some more of the Old Town (and find St Olav’s Church) we went up the narrow, steep steps on Short Leg Street (Luhike Jalg)
got turned around at the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in the upper town, went back down again on Long Leg where we got lost again, got our bearings and finally ended up back where we started in the Town Hall Square. I wonder if Dave purposely got me lost so I wouldn’t have as much time to shop! But with all our walking (I was glad I was wearing good walking shoes on all those cobblestones),
shopping (peeking into shop windows that featured things like woolen or woven handicrafts and beautifully colored marzipan animals), and always capturing the charm of this old town on my camera, I had completely worn Dave out so we stopped near the bottom of Short Leg Street (Luhike Jalg) to recharge at the sweet Matilda Cafe and ordered the largest lattes we had ever seen accompanied by delicious wild cherry and black currant cheese cakes (our own little high tea.) From our table we could see people walking up the stone steps to Short Leg Street and were glad of the time we took to simply relax and watch passersby. Refreshed by our sweet stop we hiked and shopped some more in Raekoja Plats passing the 13th century Niguliste Church or St Nicholas’ Church with its famous “Dance Macabre” painting, and the Town Hall Pharmacy (Raeapteek), dating back to 1422 and claiming to be Europe’s longest running pharmacy, is still open for business today.
On Heli's suggestion we walked out of the Old Town through the Viru Gates to the new upscale seaside restaurant area of Rottermann Square (Rotermanni) to enjoy the outdoor music and food. We were lucky because
from June 14-16 this area was having a local restaurant competition where you could sample a variety of local cuisines. We sat in some large comfy outdoor beanbag chairs listening to music and watching the world go by as we enjoyed a small part of this three day Restaurant Festival. Two women dressed in “unique” red dresses with bright red wigs walked through the crowds handing out free drinks advertising the restaurant in this square. Along the food stands we sampled some wonderful fruited black bread and a delicious freshly made limoncillo served in an ice cup. We were tempted to sample more but had to draw the line somewhere because dinner was not too far away.
Back in the Old Town, we found the tiny Revel Mocha Cafe
tucked in on a narrow stone alley near the Town Hall Square. This little restaurant offered a wonderful respite for tired and hungry (and should we say grumpy) Dave. We shared a yummy pumpkin and smoked cheese soup followed by smoked salmon and ricotta plemeenid in tomato sauce (mine) and a hearty game stew (Dave’s) with an Estonian beers. I’m not sure if it was the food, the beer or
the delightful waitress but Dave was a happy camper when all was said and done. And I won't need to eat for a week, but then I've been saying that every day as my waistline increases.
Back in our room, around 11pm the sun was beginning to set and I started to fall asleep to the intermittent sounds of three wheelers and motorcycles drag racing on the street below. About ten minutes later I heard drilling and hammering from some construction nearby on our floor! This went on intermittently until I must have fallen asleep around midnight. Shortly after 12:30am I woke from someone pounding on a nearby door, then I heard spurts of loud music, shouting and more door pounding as people moved between the two party rooms near our door. There was no phone in our room and I did not want to have to get dressed to go down to the lobby so I was forced to scream QUIET! every 15-20 minutes but it never made a difference. It was likely that I could not be heard over the loud din. Despite my anger and astonishment that people could be so inconsiderate, I must have fallen
asleep around 3:30am but it was not a refreshing sleep at all. At least there were no bed bugs. June 16
Beautiful sunshine greeted my sleep deprived body but a cold shower was all that was offered (there was no hot water last night likely due to the hotel's renovations.) In addition to the noise of the wild party, the elevator down button did not work on the 4th floor so we had to walk down the back stairs through the previous night's construction debris. The hotel manager was very apologetic for all of our problems but we received no compensation for our troubles. We made the best of the situation and had a very hearty breakfast of blood sausage, vegetable meatloaf, hard boiled egg, herring, kefir, berry pastry and lots of much needed strong coffee. We left our bags with the hotel manager and set off for the ten minute walk to beautiful Kadriorg Park
, the Kadriorg Palace and the award winning Kumu Art Museum, the Art Museum of Estonia.
Roses were in bud, lilacs and pink hawthorn were in full bloom and we were wrapped in the sweet smells of spring. Lovely paths lead past
ponds with fountains and tree-lined alleys while broad expanses of lawn dotted with tiny English daisies spread out on either side. We stopped first at the pink and white baroque Kadriorg Palace,
founded by Peter the Great in 1718 in honor of his wife Catherine as a Baltic retreat from St Petersburg. The palace is now an art gallery displaying old Russian and Western European art. There is very little furniture in the rooms but you could still get a feel for what once was grand by standing in the white ballroom, more peaceful to me than the opulent golden rooms in the Russian palaces. Lovely gardens surrounded the "backyard" of the palace flanking yet another fountain water feature.
The Estonian President's home, resembling Kadriorg in style, was situated just beyond the Kadriorg gardens and was surprisingly unprotected by any visible means of security in this very public park. The small unimposing cottage that Peter the Great built was the next building we see before the contemporary structure of the award winning Kumu Art Museum
. This museum was voted the best in Estonia in 2006 (the same year Heli was voted best tourism expert in Estonia) and in 2008
the Kumu was voted best European museum! The exterior of Kumu resembles a bow of a ship sailing out of a hill towards the visitor. Along side the formidable entrance are several long rectangular glass and steel structures that recede into the limestone terrace giving you a hint of the enormity of space you are about to enter. There are five floors (including the ground floor) that meander in long narrow rills and without a portable floor plan it is easy to get turned around. The third floor houses my favorite Estonian art giving a cultural vision of these beautiful people. An engaging young Estonian art teacher
was introducing her young students to the history of the paintings through her enthusiastic storytelling. In fact she was so engaging I found myself coming back to her often even though I could not understand the language. Her young students were equally attentive which says a lot! Mixed in with the Estonian art, I found some Russian paintings reminiscent of those I saw in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. The Soviet era paintings told much about the Stalin myths of happiness and the real suffering of the people during that era. The fifth
floor was, in contrast, very stark and contemporary. I went into a yurt-like structure and laid down on an inviting coiled mattress wanting to never get up again. In another room I sat down to watch a slowly changing black and white drawing of a facade with Doric columns as it decayed under the stresses of time. I could have spent the rest of the day here but I knew Dave needed some lunch and I needed a nap (and couldn’t stay on my museum display mattress) so we left the museum, walked through Kadriorg Park passing picnickers, women strolling with baby prams and teams of adults playing a sort of bowling game with wooden pegs.
The Park Cafe overlooked a large pond with fountains
, a white gazebo and a swan lazily floating by giving strollers and diners a bucolic setting to relax by. We sat outside enjoying our lattes, vegetable quiche and raspberry torte before walking back to the City Hotel (renamed the City Center that day) to wait for Martin to pick us up for the bus to Parnu.
As much as I love Tallinn, it was nice to relax on the bus and watch the
lovely countryside pass by. So much of the Estonian landscape reminds me of New Hampshire. I saw large stands of birch and pine in the forested areas and small wooden farmhouses with outbuildings nestled into high earthen embankments with stone walls surrounding the few farms that I saw. A man and a woman pushed and pulled on a double ended plow while further on a couple walked out of the woods on a grassy path carrying a bouquet of blue and white wildflowers.
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