Trip Start Mar 13, 2007
92Trip End Aug 10, 2007
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One of the interesting changes you notice when traveling overland and crossing borders is how abruptly the manmade landscape can change at the border. One aspect of this is the amount of roadside litter. What I'm referring to is not the cleanliness in cities and other places where a lot of people gather but rather the amount of paper and plastic strewn along the highways in the middle of nowhere. I don't know if it's due to ingrained cultural differences between peoples, different political and economic systems, or just different local policies, but the roadsides in some countries are virtually litter free while other countries look as though the dumping your household trash alongside the highway is the normal thing to do. I've found most of the post-Communist countries of Eastern Europe to be a bit on the messy side in this regard (though far better than, say, Egypt), but the Baltics blow my "lingering effects of Communism" theory about trash; Latvia and Lithuania are very clean and Estonia is as immaculate as Switzerland.
The natural landscape changes gradually as you head northwards on the eastern side of the Baltic Sea, from well-populated open farmland in central Poland to thick dark forests pine and birch forests with only isolated farmsteads in Estonia
Old Town Tallinn is absolute medieval magic, a beautiful museum of a town largely dating from the 1200 - 1400 era. The largest church in town, Saint Olav's, is said to have had the highest church spire in the medieval world, and the climb up to viewing platform would lead me to believe it. This being Lutheranland, though, the church interiors are all quite austere and unadorned, but I really love the "Dance of Death" motif of skeletons mixed into the scenes that shows up in so much medieval artwork. Tallinn's Old Town has upper and lower levels and is nearly entirely surrounded by walls with a tower every couple hundred feet. The town walls make me wonder why American real estate developers haven't caught onto the concept yet considering the popularity of gated communities with guardhouses and little entry gates. "Walled town living" could be marketed as the ultimate is secure living for Americans wanting to shut out the outside world.
There's much more to Tallinn than just its medieval core. Armed with my 72-hour Tallinn Card which got me everywhere and into every attraction for a single price, I also checked out the outskirts, including an open air museum showcasing historic houses and rural life in Estonia, Peter the Great's Kadriorg Palace and a few more museums. As in the other Baltic countries, Estonia's "Museum of Occupation" about the history of the half century under Soviet control is a site the locals insist foreigners must see
Estonians are also especially proud of their "Song Bowl" on the outskirts of Tallinn, a huge open air stage where the national song festival is held every four years. Latvia and Lithuania also hold similar festivals which in the late 1980s became the countries' main forum for demanding independence from the Soviets, resulting in the movements being termed "the Singing Revolutions".
Estonian food seemed again to be heavy on the pork and potatoes theme with such showcase dishes as sult (jellied pork), seajalg (boiled pig's feet), and mulgipuder (groat and potato porridge with salt pork). The only real Estonian meal I had was a breakfast of a Baltic Sprat sandwich, spelt porridge with lingonberry jam, and a verivorst (blood sausage).
The big food draw in Tallinn, though, is medieval themed dining. I know this sounds very kitsch a la "Medieval Times", but can be done right. I ate dinner at a place called Olde Hansa in an vaulted cellar lit only by candles with "well-researched medieval dishes" served by wenches in period garb. The main characteristic of medieval food is that it uses only ingredients available in the era; thus, no potatoes, tomatoes, cane sugar, turkey, or other things that were brought over from the new world
My hostel in Tallinn was less than two blocks from the main square of Old Town, sandwiched between a strip club above and a pub below. Being there midweek the week after Easter, however, all was quiet, so much so that I even had the six bed room all to myself for four nights. By Thursday night, though, Old Town Tallinn was filling up for the weekend with British lager louts and booze cruisers from Stockholm and Helsinki and starting to live up to its raucous reputation.