Because I love exploring new places, I decided to travel to London via the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. I almost didn’t make my flight to Tallin due to a harrowing taxi journey that took nearly two and a half hours across central Moscow in rush-hour. We passed five different breakdowns or accidents, and spent half the journey crawling at about 10k/hr. I was glad that I’d insisted that I had to be picked up at least 2 hours ahead of check-in even though the driver had assured the school it would take only an hour.
When I landed in Tallin at about 10pm, it was still light because it was further north than Moscow. I caught the local bus into the centre of the city, and then as often happens, I immediately got lost. I couldn’t get global roaming on my phone and was becoming a little anxious as the sky was darkening slowly.
When I asked a young man where the old town was, he answered in Russian telling me he didn’t know, but would help me. With the help of his i-phone we found my hostel quickly. After dragging my bag up four flights of circular steps with practically no lighting, and going into the hostel, I was given a key for my room. Unfortunately, this turned out to be already occupied. Very embarrassing for everyone as I threw open the door and walked in! Eventually a room was sorted and I was in. My holiday had started.
The Old City of Tallin is gorgeous and definitely worth visiting. It’s a small, walled medieval city with UNESCO heritage status. Many of the buildings date back to 15th & 16th centuries and all are painted in pastel hues. The streets are narrow and only pedestrians or cyclists are allowed in during the day. The city is full of tourists and plays on its medieval theme. Some restaurants and shops sell medieval food, implements, clothing etc., the street entertainment reinforces this theme as does the clothing of the some shopkeepers.
As in much of old Europe, Tallin had lots of fascinating little sculptures with the unexpected at every turn. The locally made clothing, shoes and handbags were creative and original, and baskets of flowers hung everywhere. The sun was shining and the air was warm – perfect really. I had a great day exploring the nooks and crannies of this fabulous little city.
Tallin is split in half, and I got very excited when I saw the harbour from the top half of the city. I hadn’t seen the sea since last August. I also noticed how much fresher the air was than in Moscow, and no-one smoked in cafes or restaurants. Fabulous.
While in Tallin, I got to experience the Northern White Nights. The sun set each night around 11pm, but it never got really dark. Between about 11.30pm and 2am, the sky was a weird greenish half light. Just after 2am, it was properly light again, although the sun didn’t rise for another hour. It was fascinating.
After living in Moscow for 10 months, I was desperate to be in for some wide open outdoor spaces again so I took a tour that went east from Tallin to Lahemaa National Park.
The tour guide, Kaur, was a university graduate who had just completed his MA (equivalent) in English and Spanish. He spoke Estonian because he was born there, but his mother tongue was Russian as was 30% of the Estonian population. They or their families were brought to Estonia as workers during the Soviet occupation. When the Soviet Empire collapsed in 1991, they had the choice of remaining in Estonia or returning to Russia. Many remained, however, in order to gain Estonian citizenship, they had to pass an Estonian language test – with the result that 8% of the population still has no citizenship. I asked Kaur whether he thought of himself as Russian or Estonian – he said he is Russian, but his country is Estonian.
The tour was a day of highlights that I shared with four Germans (who of course spoke good English). First we drove to see the remainder of an old hydro electric dam on a river in the forest. There wasn’t much of the dam or power station left – because when the USSR collapsed, the Russians tried to smash everything they couldn’t take with them, and after they’d left, there was no work or food for many people, so anything that could be dug up and sold was taken.
We then visited a German manor house and estate. These are scattered all across Estonia, which was ruled by an elite group of German gentlemen in the 17th/18th centuries. I learned that during that time, all Estonians were slaves with no rights whatsoever. I found such a situation hard to comprehend.
It was wonderful to get out of the van at a fishing village on the edge of the Baltic Sea and smell the ozone and feel the fresh wind in my face. I could easily believe that during winter the Baltic Sea is frozen over – so thick is the ice in most parts, that it is almost possible to drive to FInland.
We walked through the village, then clambered over rocks by the edge of the sea, and climbed up one or two of the enormous glacial rocks that have made their way from Scandinavia.
While we were having lunch of salmon and potatoes in a private little museum in the village, a man dressed in a short smock-like outfit came in & talked with Kaur. Next thing we knew, we had the opportunity to be the first tour party to take a trip in a Viking boat he’d built to scale. Even though the sea was pretty smooth, we were never going to make it to America like the real Vikings had!!! Our rowing was hopeless, but it was lots of fun, and great being out on the sea again.
Kaur then took us to walk around the remains of an ex-Soviet submarine base. Although it too had been stripped back to its bare bones, it didn’t take a lot to imagine submarines (think Red October) in the pens, with thousands of men working and living on them. It was a real reminder that empires come and go.
The day ended with a hike through a bog-land which contained a string of beautiful small still lakes. Apparently, it had started as a single large lake, but the pines had grown up and broken the lake into these smaller lakes. It was a gorgeous clear sunny day and my camera went ballistic. The one drawback was that the forest was home to the most ferocious mosquitoes I’ve ever encountered – they just licked off the repellent and kept attacking.
The following day, the weather turned and it started to rain, but it didn’t matter as I took a two hour bus trip to Riga – capital of Latvia. The fare cost me the princely sum of 6 euro but I later learned I could have got a different bus for 4 euro. I’d missed out!!!
I had loved Estonia and its people. How would Latvia compare? Next blog – I’ll tell you.