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Two Years & Twice Around the World...  
Raekoja Plats, Tallin, Estonia
COUNTRY FACTS Pop: 1,324,333 Area: 45,226 sq km Gov't: Parliamentary Republic Religion: 13.6% Lutheran, 12.8% Orthodox, 1.4% Other Christian View Map
Raekoja Plats, Tallin, Estonia, September 6-11, 2003  

Estonian Flag ESTONIA


September 6. TALLINN  The bus to Estonia was a comfortable double-decker Eurolines bus.  It left early but was smooth and so much better than many other bus rides we had experience in recent months.  The trains in the Baltic Region were built to serve the Soviet Union and don't offer convenient transport between the capitals of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.  Our guidebook warned that bus travel was not the most comfortable way to see the region but the easiest.  But it all relative and compared to our 23 hour sleeper bus through the Taklamakan Desert this bus was the lap of luxury! 

The weather was beautiful and the view from the top level of the bus was an added bonus.  The landscape changed little as we crossed from Lithuania into Latvia and the border crossing was painless.  In the bus they just collected all of the passports in order and returned 20 minutes later to redistribute them.  Since the Baltic countries have mutual agreement we only needed to go through one checkpoint.  The bus stopped briefly at the Riga bus station where there was a fiasco over seats.  Someone boarding the bus was trying to claim a seat already occupied by another person since Vilnius.  Both had valid tickets for the seat but the newcomer still seemed to think the existing passenger was at fault.  It was comical to watch since the bus driver and both passengers all spoke different languages, making it necessary that they all struggle with English to communicate.  Often humbled by the polyglots of Europe I found this comforting.

From Latvia to Estonia the border was again painless and before long we found ourselves arriving in Tallinn.  It had actually been ten hours but it had gone by surprisingly fast.  Our dormitory in Tallinn was some distance away from the city center and bus station so we were faced with figuring out the public bus system.  After failing to find the necessary bus we were tempted by a taxi but it was too expensive and persisted until we found the right bus stop.  It was a good half hour ride to the college dormitory but the newly redone facilities with a free 10-BaseT connect were worth the extra effort.  We had a two room dorm that shared a kitchen and bath but the other room never filled up.  The bus connections to downtown were also better than to the bus station route so we were able to get to Tallinn's old town in about 15 minutes. 

September 7 - 8. TALLINN Our first stop as we entered the tiny walled area of Tallinn's old town was the tourist information center.  With some maps and recommendations on good cafes we went in search of a decent breakfast.   We ended up at a sun drenched cafe on the main square (Raekoja Plats) called Cafe Anglais.  The weather was spectacular and we found ourselves soaking up warm rays of sunshine and lamenting on how much rain we had seen during our travels.  Breakfast consisted of two of the largest slices of tart that I have ever seen.  Mine was a delicious pear tart and I savored it well with two cups of coffee.  It was hard to be in any hurry to do anything with such an idyllic spot so we didn't.  Slowly the square filled with more and more tourists and the sun shifted to enlighten more of the square-side cafes.  This far north it was still chilly in the shade and the sun played an important role in the economics of these cafes.  They filled as the sun engulfed the outdoor seats and once popular spots fell dead as the sun started to set.  

The debate over the best old town in the Baltic Countries meets with little consensus since each is quite different but more than a few people had told us Tallinn was their favorite and in terms of location is got our vote as well.  Strategically positioned on the northern coast of Estonia the small walled medieval town looked out onto the deep blue waters of the Baltic Sea.  The gloriously good weather that we experience only helped to enhance this key feature of the city, enjoyed particularly well from Toompea, the elevated part of the two-tiered old town.  Toompea is home to the old castle and was the seat of power in its day with the sprawling lower town fanning out below.  The views from lookout points in Toompea allowed us to see Tallinn in all directions.  Bolstered by economic relationship with nearby Finland the city was doing relatively well.  Outside the walls of old town the new Tallinn was modern looking and much more appealing than the still Soviet looking areas of Vilnius.  However, the areas nearest the old town had their dingy element and as a tourist we felt little inspiration to explore the commercial side of the city.  The city also suffered from more tension between its sizable Russian population and the ethnic Estonians.  A complex problem that especially hurts the pre-Soviet Russian immigrants whose descendants are still Russian speaking.   Many were Old Believers that fled to the Baltics to escape persecution in Russia.  However, due to the recent history of Soviet occupation and oppression there is a marked bitterness towards the Russian speaking population.

We arrived in Tallinn just as the Estonia was getting ready to vote on joining the EU.  Posters were tacked up all around the city.  The Estonian Prime Minister, in his official capacity, could not campaign for or against joining the EU but as a member of his party he was the post boy for the "yes" vote.  The young bespectacled PM sat confidently in these ads underneath a resounding "Jah".  In contrast, those lobbying for the "no" vote tried to revive fears from Soviet period.  A firm handshake with the Soviet Union was underscored by an uncertain hand stretched towards the EU.  The tag line read something like "Do we really want to do this again?".  However, on September 10th the Estonian population voted in favor of joining the European Union.

The compact size of Tallinn's old town made sightseeing a leisurely activity.  In just a couple of days we had covered every cobble stoned road and alleyway with in the walls. And, unlike the lived-in old town of Vilnius the old town in Tallinn was very much the enclave of tourists.  It was packed with restaurants, cafes, museums and souvenir shops and everybody got into the action of providing an authentic medieval experience for the tourist population.  Even a cart selling sweets did it in an authentic way with costumed staff.  For all of the old town's charm and scenic beauty the absence of any modern every day living made it feel a bit Disneyland-esque at moments.  It was preserved to re-create another period in time.

Taking advantage of some free entertainment we spent one evening listening to a violin, piano, and cello concert at Holy Ghost Church.  The beautiful interior of the church with wooden pews and seats throughout provided a great venue and the acoustics were good.  The event was only compromised by a group of grammar school age boys that persisted in talking during much of the performance.  A couple of irritated glances only yielded snotty faced and continued talking.  Why they decided to attend was a mystery until I noticed the group of grammar school aged girls also in the pews.  If you need a place to get away from an annoying bunch of boys from school I guess dipping into a concert would do.

We visited two museums during our stay, a small State History Museum housed in the old Great Guild building (1440), once the meeting place for Tallinn's most important merchants, and the very well done Tallinna Linnamuuseum, Tallinn City Museum.  The State History Museum was more of a special exhibit and turned out to be an unexpectedly bizarre assortment of items collected by a one time resident of Tallinn.  The items varied widely but represented all corners of the world from the Far East and South Pacific to closer geographies.  In today's terms it wouldn't be so noteworthy but given the time during which the items were collected it was truly remarkable.  How do you suppose that a merchant in old Tallinn came to own a shark tooth sword from Kiribati?!  This exhibit filled the main hall in the guild building and a smaller room held a collection of coins from Estonia's history of minting money.

The Tallinna Linnamuuseum was housed in another old building that was carefully converted to retain the traditional architectural features of the old home and modernized to creatively display a detailed history of Tallinn.  Dating back to 784 the city has seen much history and is unique to this day in that is holds the only surviving Gothic town hall (1371-1404) in Northern Europe and the oldest continually functioning pharmacy in the world (1422) and by the same family!  The museum provided a chronological history of the city with emphasis on its roots in the Hanseatic League, a medieval network of merchants guilds or trading associations organized to secure greater safety and privileges in trading, and Estonia's singing revolution and independence from Russia.  It is difficult to reduce this city's history to a summary but these bullet points give some idea of Estonia's myriad of influences throughout time:

  • 1219-1346 Danish Rule - Toompea castle - Hanseatic League
  • 1346 - Sold to Teutonic Order of German Knights
  • 14th - 15th c. Golden Age - Tallin was one of biggest towns in northern Europe.
  • 1561-1710 Swedish Rule
  • 1710-1917 Russian Tsarist Rule
  • 1917-1940 Independence
  • 1940-1941 Soviet Rule
  • 1941-1944 German Rule
  • 1944-1991 Soviet Rule
  • 1988 Singing Revolution
  • August 20th 1991 - Independence from Russia

Ironically Nazi Germany was looked at as liberators in 1941-1944 by many Estonian people.  The Germany committed acts of atrocity as well but relief from Soviet/Russian rule made German occupation preferable.  This long history with Russia provides some addition perspective to the complex relations between Russians and Estonians today.  Of Tallinn's 410,000 people, 50% are Estonian and 40% are Russian.  Even as a tourist it is difficult not to notice a division between these communities.  The young Russian men, in particular, were easily recognized by their crew cuts, Adidas sweat suits, Nike tennis shoes, and brand name plastic bags, similar to their counterparts in Mother Russia.  The challenge of managing delicate ethnic issues is certainly not a problem unique to Estonia, only careful attention and time can help these communities learn to coexist. 

By day the old town of Tallinn became packed with tourists, and probably nothing like it would have been during the peak tourist season.  There were loads of day-tripping Finns, Germans, and uniformed Russian sailors (St. Petersburg lied only 300km away).  Raekoja Plats was the place we found ourselves coming back to again and again, partly because every street in the old town lead us back there but also because it was the liveliest spot to people watch.  The old gray town hall stood austerely on the Eastern side of the square with the Old Toomas weathervane spinning on top.  The legend of Old Toomas was of a poor city boy who won an archery contest and became a city guard.  His likeness is a kind of symbol of the city. 

By night Raekoja Plats became quiet as the tourist retired to their hotels or returned to Finland.  Sitting outside was a bit chilly but the calm quiet square made for peaceful dinners at Cafe Anglais and Molly Malone's.  The food in Tallinn had really been quite good.  And, the soft glow of the yellow lights on the empty cobblestone square gave the most genuine feel of another time.

LITHUANIA Vilnius Aug 30 Aug 31 Sept 1-2 Sept 3 Sept 4-5

ESTONIA Tallinn Sept 6-8

FINLAND Helsinki Sept 9

ESTONIA Tallinn Sept 10-11

LATVIA Riga Sept 12-13

LITHUANIA Vilnius Sept 14-15