Tallinn is a medieval capital city that captivates the first time visitor. In fact, we were so enchanted that we scoped out several apartments in the city when Becky was ‘forced’ to spend a month there for work! Estonia is a wonderful country, full of surprises and breathtaking scenery. Unforgettable images include sitting in the town square with frothy beer and a plateful of killer garlic bread, basking in the midnight sun in the middle of the summer, and meandering through the old town’s mazelike alleyways. Visit enchanting Estonia for yourselves and you’ll be hooked!
Tallinn, Estonia is a mere stone’s throw away from Helsinki, Finland but a world apart in terms of costs. We decided to visit both in June 2004. Becky was already in Tallinn for the week performing a network test (for an upcoming military exercise in July) but figured that she could wrap things up in time for Robby’s weekend visit. Tallinn is a visually stunning city with a dramatic landscape and beautiful people. The city itself is dominated by Toompea Hill and is broken into two sections: an upper half where the parliament resides and a lower half where the touristy kitsch and restaurants/bars are located. After Robby flew in Thursday afternoon, he had a few hours to explore on his own and wandered from the Reval Olympia towards the old city center. That evening, we went to the city’s best Russian restaurant, the Troijka, conveniently located on the town square. The food here is fantastic as is the atmosphere. Upstairs is the drinking area but downstairs is where mouthwatering cuisine is served in a cellar hall. The waitresses were dressed in traditional Russian costumes and greeted us by serving chilled vodka (expertly poured with raised outstretched arms that accurately aim for our goblets below). We wondered how much vodka is wasted this way but apparently, the staff has perfected the art of pouring without wasting a single drop! The food is truly amazing and apparently the Troijka’s good reputation has gotten around since it was fully booked and we were lucky to get some “no-show’s” table. Live music and dancing is performed several times throughout dinner and diners who are inebriated with vodka join in merrily with the singing and clapping…Robby was pretty satiated for his first dining experience in Tallinn! After dinner, we enjoyed the extended sunlight hours and marveled at how light it was despite approaching 11pm. The next morning we planned on getting up early and hopping on a 90 minute ferry to Helsinki.
Returning back from Helsinki, the rain relented and we enjoyed a brief respite from the constant downpour. Tallinn’s inhabitants sensed the nice break in weather wouldn’t last long so everyone rushed outside to enjoy the end of the day’s sunlight so we joined throngs of people wandering the cobble stoned streets of Tallinn. We decided to grab some munchies and beer at an American-Mexican style bar in the old city center and were surprised at how good the guacamole & nachos tasted. Beer in Estonia is excellent and we hung out for hours people watching and getting a bit tipsy before stumbling back to the Olympia.
We had no idea what we were in for today on 12 June when we decided to visit the Rocca al Mare Open Air Museum. Apparently in June, the open air museum puts on Memme-taadi days, with hundreds of locals dressing up in traditional Estonian costumes to folk dance, parade and sing. The colorful traditional costumes worn by hundreds of participants were the highlight of the day since we quickly realized this was not a show put on for tourists but the locals actually reveling in capturing and sharing age-old traditions. The costumes were extremely varied and we guessed that each town or district had their own unique pattern and designs. The ladies were wearing colorful skirts, topped by embroidered blouses and shawls. They also wore fanciful headgear ranging from colorful scarves to intricate pillboxes. The men were wearing more practical outfits of black pants and embroidered or plain white shirts. We were amazed to see over 40 different costumes proudly displayed during the parade. Little kids joined their parents and grandparents in dancing traditional folk dances and old ladies sang traditional songs as they paraded from the entrance of the park down a rainy and muddy 2 km path. We were oblivious to the rain and oodles of mud collecting on our boots and jeans as we scrambled after the participants to witness their 12 June extravaganza.
Becky supported the local crafts fair by purchasing several pieces of handmade lace and marveled at how inexpensive everything was. Handmade blankets, tablecloths and lace work were all bargain priced in comparison to the souvenir shops in Tallinn who were charging about 10 times the prices for goods at the local fair.
After a few hours of traditional folklore immersion, we decided to make a break for a change of scenery at the Pirita harbor where we were told we could partake in an old Estonian submarine tour. However, the submarine was undergoing renovations and we were unable to see it so we swung by Kadriorg Park to admire the creation built for Russian tsar, Peter the Great. The streets surrounding the park were lined with beautiful old wooden houses that we admired and wondered how old they were and how much longer they could last without extensive renovations to preserve them.
We ate a late lunch in Tallinn center and then spent a few hours sightseeing around the city. Our first stop was at the town hall, an old seat of power in medieval Tallinn. The minaret-tower was beckoning so we made our way up the narrow steps for a birds eye view of Tallinn’s city square. Wandering through the narrow cobblestone streets, we found several buildings with apartments for sale and considered purchasing them as we found Tallinn’s charm mesmerizing and addictive. Because climbing the town hall tower wasn’t enough exercise for the day, we also made our way to the top of Oleviste Church’s 124 meter tower. The view was even better than from the town hall and we were able to fully appreciate Tallinn’s intricate layout.
After exploring lower Tallinn, we climbed to the top of Toompea hill to explore the upper town. At the Russian Orthodox Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, a beautiful wedding was taking place. The bride and groom were whisked away by a red rose decorated horse-drawn carriage and were happily waving to picture-takers. The views of lower old town from several lookout points were amazing and we decided to end the day relaxing in the city square with some beer and garlic bread, served Estonian style (dark, hard pumpernickel type bread, served with whole garlic cloves that you can “grate” onto the bread)…our advice is to ensure that everyone else around you is also a garlic lover and partakes in at least one slice as this is one of the strongest garlic breads we have ever eaten. Hours later, armed with sufficient quantities of Tallinn beer and cloves of garlic to keep away an army of vampires, we wandered back to our hotel and crashed for the evening.
Last day in Estonia! We both woke up early and climbed to the 26th floor of our hotel to swim for an hour followed by a nice steam in the city’s best sauna. The vistas overlooking Tallinn were a perfect way to sweat in peace. Becky soon found out that Estonian women are not bashful in the buff and they will rub up their naked bodies on complete strangers. The women’s sauna is pretty compact yet women piled in and shifted around accordingly to make room for everyone. “Asses and elbows” were the only two words she could mutter to Robby after escaping 20 minutes later. Becky had an earlier flight home to Stuttgart and left Robby in the city for further exploration on his own. He wandered through a few city museums and bought a set of 10 Russian commemorative coins from a street vendor before catching a cab to the airport. Becky changed her mind about Riga being her favorite Baltic city and now voted that Tallinn is the best of the Baltic capitals….amazing views, wonderful people and great food! We definitely recommend this city over Riga or Vilnius if only one Baltic capital can be visited.