Last summer, I visited Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. It’s just 50 miles across the Baltic Sea from Helsinki, Finland and only 90 minutes by hydrofoil.
The buildings in Tallinn’s old town are older than most of what survives in Helsinki by several centuries and are in amazing shape.
Much of the medieval city wall surrounding the old town
still stands – high, thick limestone with unusual cubbyholes along the base. Several towers are also scattered around the old town.
A bus transferred the ferry passengers from the dock to the main bus stop a couple of blocks outside the old town. There were no signs telling us which direction to walk and the bus stop bordered a large swath of park, so I made an educated guess – it was hard to tell where I was when I looked at my map, not least because Estonian looks like Finnish, which is to say impenetrable and words are long, compound affairs – and headed for the tallest church spire I could see. Another couple who had gotten off the bus asked me for directions to the old town and I told them which way I planned to go and why. Turned out to be a good guess. The first hundred yards or so took me past a 20th century shopping area but just as I started to think about checking my map again, I saw a tent offering walking tours and populated with several young hippie types. This was the starting point of the Tallinn Traveller tour, the ‘unofficial’ tour of Tallinn recommended by Rick Steves in an article on Tallinn a couple of years ago. The walking tour had just begun, so I joined the group; the tour was free, but there was a donation jar in the tent, along with a guest book for people to comment on the experience; both were pointed out at the end of the tour.
The streets of old Tallinn are cobbled. This means that hiking up the steep streets can leave you slightly lame as well as breathless. Our Tallinn Traveller guide seemed aware of this and adjusted the pace according to the terrain. She also stopped frequently near different sites to relate additional details about the tower or house or other attraction we were viewing. Her storytelling style was amusing and lively while still factual, a refreshing change from some of the drier styles on tours I’ve taken in other places. She was young and blond, dressed in a short, thin white dress over black tights, short black boots, a
black vest and wore a hat that looked as if it had once been owned by John Lennon. I wish I’d remembered her name.
The topography of Tallinn made me think this was another European city built atop a volcanic base but this part of northern Europe was actually carved out by a series of glaciers that came and went over a period of more than half a million years. The highest point in the city, Toompea Hill, is the site of the main castle – now stone, originally wood. There is a stunning panorama of the rest of the city from the castle ramparts.
Not only are the red-tiled roofs of the old town visible, but also the new glass and steel office buildings. The harbor area on the Gulf of Finland was visible off to the side.
The tour lasted two hours and included all of the important areas in the old town. In addition to the castle on Toompea, we saw the (pink) Parliament building, the Russian Orthodox church of Alexander Nevsky opposite the Parliament, narrow lanes, some with mature trees where the lane widened to take in a church and churchyard. Shops were identified by modest, non-electrified signs, some hand-lettered, in keeping with the ancient flavor of the old town. Some people, dressed in folk costumes, roamed the streets offering foods or flowers and herbs as they might have done when the buildings were new and the city was part of the Hanseatic league – an international trading association in Northern Europe in the 14th century. Not to worry, there were vendors selling all the modern snacks and drinks as well.
Near the end of the tour, we walked down a street with a large, anonymous-looking building of more 20th century vintage; it could have been an office building or something similarly official. Our guide asked if we noticed anything odd about the building. The answer – the windows on the lower levels were blocked from the inside. Until this was pointed out, it was not especially noticeable to me, not having grown up in a totalitarian state. The building had been the headquarters of the KGB in Estonia. Interrogations, surveillance, disappearances and executions, all under one roof. Jolly, no? Also, thankfully obsolete since Estonia broke free of the crumbling Soviet Union more than 20 years ago.
After we had strolled across the town hall square, our guide gave us a recommendation for the least expensive place on the square to get a meal and the outstanding Estonian beer (Molly Malone’s). The sign for the place was easy to spot, but it was hard to tell if any of the outdoor seating was part of the same place. As it happened, I sat outside at a different cafe, had a tired chicken sandwich – tired because it was limp and not very flavorful. The beer made up for it, though. It was very, very good. The brand, Viru, is one of several in Estonia. I had the dark beer and wished I had more time – I could have easily had a second beer, even though these were full liters! That beer went down a treat, the perfect drink on a sunny summer’s day.
Since my visit last summer, Estonia has adopted the euro, so there is no longer any need to exchange euros for Estonian currency. Last year, though, I did need to get some Estonian money and the regular tourist office pointed me to a hole-in-the-wall place in the old town that had the best exchange rate (I checked the rates in other windows there and back).
I still had an hour or more to find some souvenirs (a fridge magnet, some postcards and a small watercolor by a local artist) but, as I trudged up the streets towards the square – did I mention that the streets are cobbled and steep?? – suddenly the skies opened up and it started to POUR! Luckily I was near a cozy coffee bar, so I ducked in there for a pastry and espresso while I waited out the rain. The coffee was good, but the pastry looked better than it tasted. I think Estonia needs to improve its food quality; I’m hoping things are better now that Tallinn is one of 2011’s European Capitals of Culture. The water cascaded down those steep streets, turning them into temporary waterfalls. Gargoyle-y downspouts diverted jets of rain out into the middle of the street and the splash pretty much went curb to curb. Cheap way to clean the streets, but unpredictable.
OK. By now it was time to figure out how to get back to the ferry port to get the hydrofoil for the return trip to Helsinki. I walked back to the bus stop where we were dropped off but there was nothing to indicate any bus, public or otherwise, that went to the ferry terminal. I tried asking a bus driver but he spoke no English so I just apologized and thought about a plan B. The harbor area is less than a mile from the old town, but there was no walkway or sidewalk linking the two. There was a snack shop nearby and the girl at the counter told me there was a taxi rank around the corner. Sure enough, I found the taxis and a cabbie who knew enough English to understand where I wanted to go and tell me what the fare would be. We had an enjoyable if somewhat basic chat in English. The fare ended up costing more than I had in Estonian, so I paid in euros. I’m sure the guy made out on the deal, but I figured the money would go further for him than for me. I don’t see any point in getting stressed out with occasionally overpaying for something when I travel. I just try to make sure I’m not overpaying a whole lot and doing it only rarely. And I like to KNOW that I’ve done it.
Postscript on transport – there is a public bus that goes to the ferries, but because it’s not a dedicated bus, it may take a long time to get to the port unless you get on that the right stop. Still, something to check out next time.
There was a small duty-free shop inside the ferry terminal. The various flavors of Estonian fruit liqueurs were more tempting than the chocolate or vodka or cigarettes but I passed on all that. I didn’t really want to spend that much and a large bottle of alcohol might not travel well in the suitcase. Instead, I bought something to have while watching TV back in Helsinki – a can of Le Coq, another brand of Estonian beer, some Estonian bottled water and a packet of garlic crackers so strong that I think they repelled the vampires as far away as Romania! How did I know they were garlic? Because of the cute little picture of a garlic head on the package. I want to figure out how to make these crackers at home. I just looooove garlic! The beer was a lager, so it ranks below the Viru dark I’d had earlier, but not bad.
The view of Tallinn from the upper level of the hydrofoil showed mostly the weedy ground around the concrete bunker of the terminal and, in another direction, a long phalanx of newish apartment buildings. The church spires and medieval towers were not visible, but I know they’re there and I want to visit again, to see more of Tallinn and to get acquainted with other parts of Estonia.