Tallinn Was the Plan All Along

Trip Start Jan 31, 1996
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Estonia  ,
Sunday, May 22, 2011


Nature is wonderful. Trees, birds, animals, lakes, streams. No one to harass you. No one wanting to sell you something you don't need. Every time I find myself in a forest, stumbling over jagged rocks and stepping in animal excrement, I tell myself these things. But it never works and I don't know why I keep trying. The fact is, for me there's nothing more wonderful, more magical, than a city. I'd almost always take even an ugly city over a beautiful forest. And speaking of magical, there aren't many cities on the planet that are more bewitching than the one we're in right now.

When Ellen and I last visited the Baltics, we took a pass on Estonia because there wasn't a reliable train service to Tallinn, the capital. I'd been kicking myself for the past five years for stubbornly refusing to go there by bus; I was all trains the first time around. Then the trans-Atlantic boat opportunity came and my little mind began to devise a plan. We'd fly from Barcelona to Helsinki, spend a few days with the Finns, then take the one-and-a half hour ferry from Finland's capital to Tallinn. Ellen was all for it because it would put us in close proximity to Slovakia, her ancestral homeland.

There's true eye candy appeal for the urban hiker once you enter Tallinn. The Old Town is a series of cobble streets, where red and brown tile roofed stores, restaurants and houses stand. Ancient church spires climb majestically above the street level beauty. One of the churches, St. Olav's, was once the tallest building in the world back in the thirteenth century.

Tallinn's Old Town Square is over-touristed, but like any city in a similar predicament all you have to do is walk fifty or so metres away from the crowd and you'll find peace. Just around the corner from the imposing Alexander Nevsky Cathedral a female archer teaches woodsmen and tourists alike, the art of bow and arrow. If you're legs are still holding out at day's end you can walk the streets in daylight until past eleven at this time of year. But don't try and rise with the sun; you'll be pretty damned hungry by the time the restaurants open at 6:30 a.m.

A tip for traveling the Baltics: Don't do it by cruise boat. Tallinn and Riga, Latvia's capital require a minimum of two full days to properly explore. Vilnius, Lithuania's capital, has the largest Old Town in Europe, but it's too far from the sea for boat people to even get to. And finally, St. Petersburg, in Russia, is the Baltic's cruisers most easterly boat stop. It would be a crime to visit St. Petersburg for just a few hours. You could spend three or four days at the Hermitage Museum alone. And that's coming from someone who doesn't care much for museums.

Tallinn publishes a no nonsense shopping guide. Below are a few quotes from it:

On bargaining: “Tallinn is not Turkey and suggesting a lower price than the one on the price tag will get you a curious look in most shops.”

On buying spirits at the grocery store: “locally produced vodka can be both world class and relatively cheap (notice the line of Finns at checkout with cases of vodka in their shopping carts)”

On buying souvenirs of Tallinn: “some of the shops offer creative souvenirs that are perfect for gifts or tokens of remembrance for yourself. There are also a number of shops that offer, to put it politely, a bunch of over-priced crap.”

Tell it like it is, Estonia. No one else does.

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