Classic Old Town. The 1st of many
Trip Start Jul 11, 2005
62Trip End Apr 04, 2006
The use of travelling is to regulate imagination by reality
- Samuel Johnson
ˇ Tallinn, Estonia.
ˇ Prague time +1hr
ˇ Days to get to Prague - 6
I'll freely admit I knew very little of what to expect from the Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. And even though I had a guidebook on the area, one I had dragged across the 6 or so time zones we'd traversed since leaving Korea, I had been so wrapped up in Mother Russia for the past few weeks that I didn't even open it until we were stepping off the ferry from Helsinki in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. About all I knew of The Baltic States was that they used to be part of the Soviet Union (and what country in this part of the World wasn't at one stage or another?) and the Irish soccer team always seems to be drawn in qualifying groups, be it for the European championships or the World Cup, with at least one of them. Guess I had a bit to learn about this little corner of Europe.
It's no secret that I'm writing this having left the region. Hey, even with a laptop in tow passing through 3 countries, albeit tiny ones, in 4 days doesn't leave much time for typing up Travelpod entries. So even before I introduce you to the upcoming countries of Latvia and Lithuania, through their respective capitals of Riga and Vilnius, I have to say Tallinn, for me, was the most appealing of the three. No question. All three have something major in common; they all have unique UNESCO protected Old Town areas. But Tallinn's is just that little bit special. It's a beautifully restored 13th century medieval walled town dotted with soaring cathedral spires and sentry towers and linked by a labyrinth of winding cobblestone streets. It has the appearance of a fairytale medieval settlement rather than what it actually is; a modern capital city. And with a blanket of snow covering almost everything, and the odd snow drift here and there to add to the romanticism, I could have been forgiven for thinking I was wandering around a Disney movie set.
The Russians were here
I won't go into the history of Tallinn too much but suffice to say the city has had a storied past. It was built on a vantage point at the opening of the Gulf of Finland and it has, due to its key port position, incited the attacks of Swedish, Danish, German and Russian armies, the latter only a recent departure leaving a legacy of the Soviet years that the country now carries with it into its EU era. The country was part of the Russian empire until 1918 when it proclaimed its independence. During the next two decades it tried to assert its identity as an independent nation, a tough thing to do squeezed between the rise of German Nazism to the west and the dominion of Stalin in the USSR to the east. A big-boys pact between Hitler and Stalin saw Soviet troops arriving in 1940 and once again Estonia was absorbed into the Soviet Union. Resistance, seemingly, was futile. World War II saw fighting in the city between German and Russian forces (so much for that pact) and the inevitable destruction of scores of distinguished buildings. The Nazis drove the Russians out in 1941 only to see them return again in 1944. After the Germans lost the war the Allies took it amongst themselves to carve up of Europe and as a result the Baltic States once again fell behind the Iron curtain under Russian control. That finally came to an end with the collapse of Soviet power in 1991 and after 51 years of tireless determination the Baltic States, led by Lithuania, won their hard fought independence. They were quickly recognized by the world community as independent states and admitted as members of the United Nations.
Tallinn. Our story
As I said we stepped off the ferry from Helsinki, relieved to be out of earshot from the ferry show bands. A short walk away from the ferry terminal and past the broken line monument (a memorial to the 852 people who died in the September 1994 sinking of the Tallinn to Stockholm ferry) saw us passing through the Great Coast Gate in Tallinn's Old Town walls. We managed to get a small but clean room in the even cleaner Old House hostel. Again not knowing too much about the area we had hoped accommodation prices would be lower than in Russia. Not quiet. Although we paid a bit more than we planned on paying, i.e. more than the book quoted, we did manage to negotiate breakfast into the deal in the neighbouring Old House Guesthouse. We were mightily impressed with the standard of the accommodation which even gave us access to a WiFi hot spot enabling me to make a few Skype calls. That may not sound like a big deal but having come from Russia it was huge. Once that was out of the way we did what we do best; hit the streets with our cameras. That night we were introduced to A La Coq, Estonia's best brew, which accompanied our meal in Texas Honky Tonk (yippee-ayo-ta-yay) and 'Hell Hunt', Tallinn's trouper on the pub scene. If you're ever in Tallinn I can recommend it. You won't have any difficulty finding it. I was relieved to get to bed that night. Remember, we had spent the previous day seeing and leaving Finland and the previous night on a bus. So needless to say I was tired. And cold. For some reason Tallinn was a good few degrees colder than what St. Petersburg was.
Anyway, we obviously enjoyed having a real bed for the night because we surfaced late the following morning. Too late in fact to get that breakfast we managed to negotiate as part of our room rate the day before when checking into the hostel. Feeling a bit short changed by the hostel we left the Old Town walls and had breakfast in Café VS, a fancy, fashion conscious place that doubles as a café during the day and a bar/club at night. We then spent the rest of the day looking around, capturing more photographic evidence of our exploits (Kiek-in-de-kok anyone?..... see the accompanying photographs) and wondering, 1 - why all Irish themed bars around the world are called Molly Malone's, 2 - how the Irish government managed to get an embassy right in the middle of town and, 3 - why the girls in the tourist information canter seemed so disinterested in dealing with tourists and why they looked so pissed off with life. "Cheer up girls.... it could be worse.... you could be in Russia... and hey, the Henkster is in town". Funnily enough that didn't seem to cheer then up. So we headed for the bus station and hopped on the next bus for Riga, the capital of neighbouring Latvia, to see if the girls there seemed any happier with their lot. We, or more accurately, Henk was to find out they were. Score. Something tells me Henk enjoyed Riga more than Tallinn (but for totally different reasons of course). Read on.