A jewel in amber emerges from behind the former Iron Curtain
06/22/2008 - 06/24/2008 65 °F
I was up at the hostel in Helsinki and down to the Viking Ferry dock this morning for the 2 1/2 hour trip to Tallinn, Estonia. In the terminal waiting for the boat I saw a little girl. It is wonderful to see how children are so similar wherever you go.
One of the best things about the Viking ferry is the incredible Viking buffett, as I have mentioned before. I was really looking forward to breakfast, because I had not seen a scrambeled egg in weeks. I figured that this was my chance, finally, to satisfy my craving. Alas, to my dismay, breakfast eluded me yet again. They instead served an early lunch. Sigh. "Elaborate" scrambeled egg breakfasts really must be one of those uniquely American inventions. So, my breakfast/lunch consisted of this. I called it the "Breakfast of Champions," and my stomach was greatful for a break from convenience store sandwiches and street vendor hot dogs. At least I got some authentic Finnish food in the deal - shrimp, meatballs, and boiled potatoes....
Investigating the ship, I ran into this character.
He said he was a performer on the ship, and entertained in the extensive children's play area. These Scandinavian ferry lines are something else!
The stern decks of the ship were adorned with decorative tree branches, which I found to be a nice touch....
I asked one of the waiters what they were for, and he said that they were still up from Midsummer. It is a Finnish tradition to tie these particular types of tree branches around your door for the Midsummer celebration, much like you put up a Christmas tree at Christmas. When I asked him what they symbolize, he said that it is an ancient tradition and while everybody does it in Finland, he has no idea why! I have since found out that they are symbols of fertility.
Everybody over here travels with their animals, even on subways, trains, and ferries. Viking Line accommodates their pet-crazy customers with built-in animal boxes right on deck!
I arrived in Tallinn, capital of Estonia, and checked into the Hotel G9, which is on the third floor of an office building within walking distance of the old city. It was nice - my best room yet, and it only cost $50 U.S. a night! Tallinn proved to be the most inexpensive stop on my entire trip.
Estonia was totally different from any other stop in my Scandinavian travels in that it had been a part of the former Soviet Union for 45 years. It is probably the best preserved of all of the Nordic medieval cities, with a Nordic Lutheran language and culture combined with a real Russian flavor. It is only 2 1/2 hours from Finland by boat, but it seems very far away. In Finland almost everyone spoke English, but here very few did. I looked forward to the challenge, and was not disappointed. Estonia has only opened up to tourism fairly recently, and thus is "off the map" for a lot of people on vacation in Europe. That makes it a perfect destination for adventurous travellers!
I set off on a walking tour with my trusty Rick Steves' guide book in hand. I saw this great statue in one of the fountains right outside of the old town.
One of the things I noticed in Europe is that people were outside a good bit, having picnics in the park, and generally enjoying the nice weather. In the U.S. we spend a lot more time in our houses, shut away. Sometimes people live for years next door to neighbors they do not even know! Here in Europe, everybody seems to be much more in tune with what is going on in their neighborhoods and towns.
Near the old city gate is a statue called the "Broken Line," a broken arch serving as a memorial to hundreds of people who lost their lives when a passenger ferry sank during a run between Stockholm and Tallinn in 1994. There was a photo shoot going on in and around the statue when I passed.
This is a picture of the entry gate to the old town. Fat Margaret tower, on the left, guarded the gate.
Just inside, I saw this little girl snacking on a sweet bun.
The main street is lined with medieval merchants' houses leading into town. The merchants were positioned near the gate to handle incoming goods for the city. Many still have cranes jutting from the gables, which helped them lift goods to the upper floors of the warehouses.
An interesting house facade along Pikk street. Pikk means "long," as it is the longest street in the old town area.
I met this interesting couple right outside of St. Olav's church!
This is St. Olav's church, which once had the tallest spire in all of Scandinavia.
The interior of the church was quite impressive.
I have never seen televisions installed in a church sanctuary before. It is probably a good way to bring in the Sunday football crowd....
These spiral stairs, all 234 of them, led up to the roof of the church spire. It was an exhausting climb up! And to think it only costs 30 Kroner! Halfway up I began to think that they should be paying me instead!
At the top, in the church attic, sat this guy. He said that it is his job to sit up there all day to make sure visitors make the strenuous climb safely. I asked him if he had a private elevator to get up there, and he said, rather proudly, "No! I climb the stairs every day!" I hope he gets special hazardous duty pay - I can't imagine anyone else who would want to do it!
Once up on the roof, the bird's eye view of Tallinn was absolutely amazing. Here I am standing on the roof's very narrow walkway.
This is the old town from the top. You can see the various churches, the Russian Cathedral with the onion domes, and the city wall, complete with watch towers.
The church steeple, from the roof.
Walking back down the spiraling stairs, I kept encouraging those on their way up. "Almost there!" I would say cheerily, almost feeling guilty about it, knowing that they were nowhere near the summit!
Back down on terra firma, I found the infamous 59 Pikk street.
This was the former local headquarters for the KGB before 1991, while Estonia was still under Soviet rule. It was here that suspects were questioned and tortured using "creative interrogation methods." Troublemakers were sent to the Siberian gulags!
The address now houses the ministry of police. Walking around the building, I had the creepy feeling that cameras were tracking my every move.
I thought this was funny. A taste of Texas - right here in Estonia!
This is the Hell Hunt, first pub in Estonia, established in 1993.
After many windings and meanderings through the old town, I finally emerged into Town Hall Square. In medieval times it contained criminals chained up for public humiliation and knights competing in tournaments. Today it is filled with cobblestones and many picturesque outdoor cafes.
A cool dragon's head on the Town Hall.
The Town Hall spire, complete with dragon's head in the foreground.
A lady in traditional Estonian dress.
Scott in the square. The Town Hall dates to the 15th century.
This is St. Nicholas church, dating from the 13th century. According to Rick Steves, on the night of March 9, 1944, during Nazi occupation in WWII, the entire area was bombed flat by the Russians. Some of the ruins remain behind the church as a reminder.
Part of the town wall and guard towers. The wall once had 46 towers watching over the city. The far tower in this picture is called "Peek in the Kitchen," because that is what guards stationed here could do into neighboring houses! It was once considered to be one of the most powerful towers on the Baltic coast.
This is the "Pink Palace," now home to Estonia's parliament.
Everywhere else on my trip I had no problem getting people to let me take their pictures. In Estonia, though, people were more reluctant. I wondered if this hesitation is a holdover from the old repressive Soviet days. There were some people who didn't mind, however. I met this woman resting on some nearby steps. What a fantastic face. It makes me think about what she must have seen and been through during her long years here.
This is "Tall Hermann" tower, the tallest in the castle wall. During Soviet rule, the USSR flag flew from the tower while Estonians hid their own flags away in dark basements. According to Rick Steves, "In 1987, as the USSR was unraveling, the Estonians proudly and defiantly replaced the red Soviet flag here with their own black, white, and blue flag." The following year 400,000 patriots - a third of all Estonians - gathered at the festival song grounds outside the city to sing national songs. "In 1989, the people of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia held hands to make the 'Baltic Chain,' a human chain that stretched 360 miles from Tallinn to Vilnius in Lithuania. Finally, in 1991, Estonia declared its freedom." What stirring days those must have been.
Here is the fabulous Russian Cathedral, which was built in 1900 by the Russians over the grave of an Estonian national hero, during a period of Estonian national revival. Not a nice gesture, but a beautiful building nonetheless.
Walking up the street I encountered this rather discombobulated knight! Humm...maybe he should have laid off all those meatballs and shrimp for breakfast....
This was a cute pig flower box that I saw on the street.
I ended up eating dinner that night at the Beer House, right off of Town Hall square in the old town. The elk roll kebobs were excellent!
I saw very few other Americans on my trip. I am not sure if it was because of the weak dollar, fear of travelling abroad, or both. On some lonely nights during my solo travels I switched on the television and turned on an American or English show just so that I could hear someone else speaking English. Sometimes I found them, sometimes not. In Estonia, English speakers and even television shows came few and far between. For the first time I gained some insight into what it must be like for an immigrant who doesn't know the language to settle in the United States. It can be tough, even on the most basic of levels.
After finishing my elk rolls, therefore, I was very pleasantly surprised to hear English coming from the next table. I met Ben, Mike and Bethany, three Americans travelling together in Tallinn. They had just come from St. Petersburg, Russia and were on their way to Riga, Latvia and Poland before heading home. They had grown up together in Texas. Ben (left) now lives in Virginia and Mike and Bethany enjoy life in Arizona.
Ben told the story of a Finnish man they ran into earlier in their trip. Fins are famous for being quiet, introspective people, but during the Midsummer celebrations, the man said, "We laugh, we drink, we cry...and then maybe some sausage!" It was hysterical!
Mike, who was in the military, had formerly been stationed in Iraq. He had scheduled leave a few Christmases ago after spending many months away from home, and planned to spend it in Germany with Bethany. All of the sudden all of the communications between soldiers and home were cut off due to the U.S. capture of Saddam Hussein. The armed forces didn't want word to get out through emails from soldiers before they could make their official announcement about this important development in the war.
Bethany, who was stateside at the time and preparing for her upcoming trip to see Mike, had no idea what was going on. It was a real nail biting time for them both. Would Mike be able to travel for Christmas? Should Bethany stay at home and cancel the trip or should she go to Germany anyway by herself, not knowing if Mike would be able to show up at all?
Finally, right before the scheduled trip, Bethany recieved a satellite telephone call from Mike. Due to the tendency of sat phones to cut out at a moment's notice, Mike had to talk fast. He told Bethany what happened and that he would be able to meet her in Germany for Christmas as planned. Christmas was saved, and Mike and Bethany had a wonderful time that holiday season in the country that "practically invented" Christmas. It was wonderful to meet Ben, Bethany and Mike, and it was hard to bid them goodbye that evening. They set off to watch Ben's beloved soccer on TV at the Euro 2008 football tournament as I headed back to the hotel to work on the blog. Good luck guys - it was great getting to know you!
The next morning at the Hotel G9 I spent some time talking to Anika, who worked the front desk there. Anika did an excellent job, was extremely patient and helpful, and made my stay at the G9 very enjoyable. Thanks for everything, Anika!
As mentioned earlier, Estonia was the most inexpensive place I visited. One of the local specialties there is Baltic amber, which is fossil resin between 30 and 90 million years old. It occurs naturally in the Baltic region, and often contains the remains of small insects from prehistoric times. Amber was featured in the movie Jurassic Park, where scientists extracted dinosaur DNA from blood found in mosquitoes from the era trapped in amber. In any event, amber proved to be a good deal, so I did a little shopping. Olesia at the shop helped me out.
I then took one last look over Tallinn from the Patkuli viewpoint. What a magnificent city this is. And how far it has come from the days of the 1980's, when many locals had never even seen a banana or a pineapple except on Finnish television, broadcast across the water 50 miles away from Helsinki! It is astonishing to me what a huge difference those 50 miles can make.
So I set off with a new gem in my heart. Tallinn was easily one of my favorite stops on my trip, and definately the most surprising. How many more places like this are out there - ones that are nearly unknown to most Americans, somehow holding that secret, magical quality that cannot today be manufactured? It is an ancient quality, trapped in amber, glistening when held high in the brilliant Baltic sun.
Next: Oslo, Norway