Estonia – land of the tall, blond men, or so it seemed. Estonia is the northernmost of the three Baltic countries, interestingly, it’s also the most expensive. I found some prices comparative to London, which seems odd, considering the vast difference in the worth of the ‘krona’ versus the pound. It reputedly has the highest suicide rate in Europe as well – with a claim like that, you’d expect to see maybe lots of poverty and unhappiness, but it’s not the case. ‘Healthy’, ‘young’, ‘vibrant’, ‘out-going’ – these are the sort of words I’d use to describe Estonia.
Arriving in Tallinn via ferry from Stockholm
Sitting atop Latvia, with Russia to its east, and Finland an hour north by boat, Estonia is a prime location for both its port/shipping, and for land travel. I arrived by boat myself – from Stockholm, Sweden. There is a regular passenger ferry that sails most days, and it’s a comfortable trip that leaves Stockholm late afternoon and arrives in Tallinn by 8am the following day. Sometime in the 80s one of these very ferries sunk in the middle of the Baltic sea, many people drowned – morbid I know, so imagine how I felt when I saw that my bed was in a small room, down numerous flights of stairs, at the end of a long corridor, under the water line of the ship – not even a window. Such is the ‘fun’ of travel; I put it to the back of my mind by spending hours on the passenger decks, where I was befriended by a group of Swede’s. Not only could they not believe I was from New Zealand, but I was on my own?!?! I was taken under their wing – to dinner, which included a crash course in drinking Schnapps. They all got a lot messier than me, it was a work do for them, a night ‘on the tiles’, so when I was tired enough, I made my way down to my room in the bowels of the ship, safe in the knowledge that I’d go straight to sleep anyway, and deal with a sinking ferry if and when needed.
Russian Architecture is very prominant through out Estonia such as this Orthodox church
Before I knew it, we were coming into the port of Tallinn. Wow, first impressions; it’s incredibly medieval looking. It was a beautiful, clear mid-summers day, and I had a Russian friend waiting to meet me through customs.
I’d spent some months training (for bike racing) in Spain, and met the Estonian Triathlon Team, they had been staying at the same hotel as me. Needless to say, friendships were formed, which is how I ended up staying in Estonia for a month – one week with my Russian friend, in the ‘Russian quarter’ and the rest of the time on the outskirts of Tallinn, with another triathlete and his family.
Russia and Estonia… they don’t really get on, thanks to history. It’s complicated…most Estonians seem reluctant to use the Russian language that was forced on them. The Russians speak Russian. The Estonians do their signage in Estonian, even though a large part of their population is Russian… conflict continues to this day. One census claims there are 109 languages spoken in Estonia, with a large 83.4% of Estonian citizens speaking Estonian and 15.3% Russian speaking. Only 83.6% of Estonian residents are actually Estonian citizens; take my Russian friend – when the Soviet Union fell, his mother was banned from entering Russia, because she was living in Estonia at the time. Only because of her son’s athletic prowess, has he been given Estonian residency, a passport and freedom to travel.
The ‘Russian quarter’, where I stayed, about 20km from Tallinn was like something straight out of any other eastern European country I’d been to; blocks and blocks of flats of identical build, the soviet stamp of the past. Nothing flash, nothing fancy. I remember even the local supermarket was fairly sad looking – fresh produce was limp, wilted and wrapped in plastic, it was hard to tell what some of the foodstuffs were.
The wall and bastions that surrounds the old town
When I went to my other friends’ house, in Tallinn, it was easier to get around and explore, and I was a lot closer to town. Although his parents’ didn’t speak English, the warmth and hospitality were still there. With them I witnessed the typical summer electrical storms, explored Tallinn and surrounding areas, learnt about tradition and days gone by, and had a tour of what remained of the ‘Red Army’s Headquarters’ not far from the house – my friends father served in the Soviet army, he’d been based at that same headquarters for a brief stint. He even got his projector out one night and showed me slide after slide of him doing a kayaking trip in the former Soviet Union, amongst other adventures.
Estonia’s flat – its highest ‘hill’ is 300m, I’ve been over it! I remember the country’s roads being wide, straight and long, but in good condition – so easy to travel on, whatever your means of transport.
Not normally a museum person, I’m not sure why I went into the ‘Maritime Museum’ but I was mind-blown when I got inside! It has the most amazing collection of information and artefacts. Located in a 16th century bastion, one of a half dozen or so that still stand, it oozes history and culture. The brick walls in between the Bastions are still a border around the old town itself.
In Tallin, check out ‘St Olaf’s Church’ – easy to spot with its high tower – 123m. It has stunning views from near the top. It used to be 159m, but its lost height after being hit by lightning 8 times, and burning down to the ground and being rebuilt some 3 times. Also worth a peak is the Russian Orthodox Church, in the heart of the old town. That is if it’s still standing. I heard when I was there that the Estonians were going to pull it down, thus getting rid of another piece of evidence of the stronghold Russia had over them previously.
The old town of Tallinn is wonderfully preserved
I visited Tartu, 185km from Tallinn – a university town. On the way we picked up a hitch-hiker, not an unusual thing to do in Estonia; people hitch with their briefcases, on the way to work, with their groceries etc, and Estonians stop and give lifts. No-one gets murdered, and no one’s paranoid, it’s just a normal part of Estonian life, like saunas, and showers with no base – so that most of the bathroom floor gets wet.
I didn’t use any form of traveller accommodation while I was in Estonia, but if the rest of Estonia is anything to go by, I’m sure it would be fine. They’re a modern, open nation. They joke about the Finns coming over by the boat load to drink, where it’s cheaper than home. I never saw it, but with boats everyday to and from Tallinn and ‘expensive Helsinki’, why wouldn’t you!
Take in the old town of Tallinn, with its cobbled streets, cafes and shops. Ride on the trams that run throughout the city, visit the museums and drink the coffee! A lot happens here, despite it being a ‘faraway’ place. And if you’re lucky enough to be travelling through by land, take your time. It’s worth spending some time there.