Travels in the Baltics: Tallinn, Estonia

balticTallinn, the picturesque capital of Estonia was the first of three Baltic capitals that we had the pleasure of visiting recently.

The three Baltic countries, Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia, were once part of the Soviet Union but gained their independence at the beginning of the twentieth century. They have become a very popular tourist attraction so we were keen to travel there.

To reach Tallinn we travelled by fast train from St Petersburg (a journey of 2 1/2 hours) to Helsinki, a thoroughly modern city with its glitzy shops and superb design. We stayed overnight.

The following morning we walked for over a kilometre to the ferry building and boarded the Viking Express, a large ferry with many eating places and bars and loads of entertainment for the kids. The crossing was calm and the crowds on board were having a great time. Taking the ferry to Tallinn and back is a popular day trip for shoppers who especially like to bring back alcohol which is much cheaper in Estonia.

On arrival we trundled our suitcases over cobble stoned streets for more than a kilometre to our apartment. A taxi would have been great I thought but my hardy fellow travellers were keen to go by foot. The last straw was having to carry our luggage up five flights of narrow, winding stairs. But once there we were more than happy to find that our apartment was spacious and comfortable,

It was located in the old part of the town which is one of the best preserved medieval cities in Europe with many old churches and merchant houses. These were built during the 14-16th century when it was a major trading hub, and part of the Hanseatic League. In the old market square there is also a great café and bar culture and it was buzzing with tourists.

The next morning John offered to be our tour guide (minus flag). With his Lonely Planet clasped in one hand he led us on an entertaining walk around the city (although we suspected him of adding a few amusing anecdotes of his own to hold our attention).

The temperature was 20 degrees C so perfect weather for a long and leisurely walk around the historical landmarks. There were also attractive and well maintained parks just outside the city walls to wander through. Our tour ended back in the ‘Dragon’s Lair’, a medieval styled restaurant where John and Neil were especially happy to find that they served pies and beer.

After a wee rest at our apartment we went our various ways to explore further. Margreet and Neil climbed up a section of the medieval defensive city wall. Tight narrow dark stone staircases led to the top of each tower. There is only 1.9 km of the city wall and 26 of the original 46 defensive towers still standing. From the top they had a picturesque view of the red-tiled views of the Old Town,

I took my time browsing in a wonderful old bookshop and found a street full of art and craft galleries with locally made pottery, wood crafts, knitting and weaving and a great gelato parlour.

Upon returning to our apartment I somehow managed to turn one of the three door keys the wrong way so there was a panic from my fellow travellers who now found themselves locked in! Luckily a young guy from the neighbouring apartment was able to sort it out.

Early that evening we went to a free concert in Tallinn’s oldest church, the Lutheran Church of the Holy Spirit. While listening to the beautiful singing we were able to admire the exquisite woodcarvings and painted panels. The altar was built in the 15th century and the baroque pulpit in the 17th.

Afterwards we headed for a cosy little restaurant with medieval stained glass windows called Munga Kelder (The Monk’s Cellar). It was just a few streets away from the city square. The prices were very reasonable and the food was delicious. It was lovely strolling home under the evening lights in the city.

The following day, feeling refreshed and energetic, we walked 2 1/2 kilometres to Kadriorg Park. Once away from the historic town centre Tallinn was just another modern city which lacked charm.

Tallinn is often dubbed the Silicon Valley of Europe and is one of the top ten digital cities in the world (it has the highest number of start-ups per person in Europe) and is the place where Skype started.

Kadriorg Park which covers around 70 hectares was a peaceful place to enjoy a wander among the oak, lilac and horse chestnut trees. We passed young Mums pushing pushchairs, and a solitary jogger. It was built for the Russian Tsar Peter the Great in the 18th Century to surround his Imperial summer palace.

I was the only one keen to visit the Kumu Art Gallery in the park, a7 storey futuristic designed building which houses the country’s largest collection of Estonian art and viewed a wonderful temporary exhibition of Victorian Costumes.

Afterwards I met up with John again and we walked further to Peter the Great’s Summer Palace and a Japanese garden. Margreet and Neil had gone back earlier to visit the Town Hall Pharmacy in the old town square. First mentioned in town records in 1422, it is still a working pharmacy. A fascinating collection of old medicines such as medicinal herbs is on display in a small adjoining museum which Margreet, being a nurse, was keen to explore.

That night was our last night in Tallinn. We went out to dinner in a restaurant highly recommended on Trip Advisor to mark a special occasion. Our hostess was very friendly, the service was impeccable and the prices very reasonable by New Zealand standards.

Alongside our meal came a complimentary basket of freshly baked rye bread. Rye bread holds a special place in Estonia’s cuisine. It is served at every meal as a reminder of times past, when there was often widespread poverty and this bread   helped to sustain the population.

Margreet and I especially enjoyed sharing two entrees, exotic mushrooms with a creamy sauce and baked goat cheese with a berry sauce. John and Neil were equally impressed with their main elk roast.

Our three course dinner was delicious and we had a great evening which we all remember as a real highlight of our visit to Tallinn.

By Lyn Potter. Read more here.