Given my previous and next destinations, this detour definitely seems a bit offbeat, eh? Plus, I’ve been to Tallinn before on my most recent past visit to Europe, with my family on a cruise/group tour. So why visit again? Well hey, like the rest of most of this trip, a friend (Kaarel, also from my time at NUS) invited me, why else? And even though it’s far…why not? 🙂 It certainly doesn’t hurt that flights aren’t too expensive.
From my impression, it seems that most visitors to Estonia only visit Tallinn (just as I had done previously, around 9 years ago now), which is a shame, because while Tallinn’s famous medieval old town (Vanalinn) is immaculate and really unlike anything else out there, there are so many other sides to this small country that I’m at a bit of a loss how to describe it concisely.
But first, the obvious stuff. After Kaarel picked me up from the airport, he showed me around the old town, which was practically around the corner from his flat. (Jealous!) The details I remembered from my last trip were sketchy at best – some domed Russian church, a public WC that cost 2.5 million crowns, some store in the town square where my mom went shopping, tore a piece of clothing on the rack and got caught – and the worst part was, I didn’t really remember how beautiful the old town was! I was too young. It still is, and that certainly augmented my appreciation this time around.
Oh, also, food is waaaaay cheap here, as long as you’re outside of Vanalinn. I was really quite shocked…and happy about that!
Given that my last visit to Tallinn only lasted several hours, this is where the similarities of the visits end.
A little later, Kaarel decided to call up a few friends of his and go play beach volleyball. It was rather late when we started – a little past 7 pm – and I thought we’d just be playing until the darkness came, which wouldn’t be long. Oops! Didn’t realise how far north we were. We were playing for quite awhile and the sun hadn’t even set yet by the time we had played 5 games and called it a night. (It only got dark-ish around 11:30 pm!)
After that, we headed to his friend Karl’s place for some evening snacks and drinks. Just for the foreigner, they assembled a hilariously stereotypical (read: something they’d never do) table of snacks, full of stuff I couldn’t name, but involving black bread, pate, cocktail sausages, and herring-related products. Ha! The only thing I found somewhat inedible was the dried herring… I had to laugh when they made me try everything first before they dug in, just to see my reaction. (I think this is where what Kaarel described as “typical Estonian shyness” started to melt.) In the meantime, I tried to learn the difference between the Estonian vowels o, ö, õ, u, ü, a, and ä…oy vey! At least e and i are still intuitive.
Oh, and of course, the sauna, a very integral (and also very stereotypical) facet of life here. Probably every house has one! Coming from a North American cultural point of view, I admit that it felt a bit weird at first, sitting in a wood-headed 100ºC room stark naked and sweaty with a few others, but hey, it’s absolutely normal among friends here. Fooled around a bit with the “sauna hat” too, which keeps your head surprisingly cool despite being made of…wool, I think? But the experience in general: sweat for 10 minutes, take a cold shower, relax with snacks, jump in again and repeat. Very relaxing too!
The next day, Kaarel took me on a daytrip to eastern Estonia. First up: Kohtla-Järve, a predominantly Russian city (town?) where we visited an old Soviet-era coal mine. Really cool (and cold), and a stark contrast to the one in Potosi, Bolivia that I visited just a few months ago. At least the working conditions were better, you’re not crawling through tunnels, and there’s heavy machinery. Still, with the stories of incidents and the working conditions…not a place I’d ever like to work in! Later, we found abandoned ruins of what I guess was a building from the old mine. Though crumbling and precarious, we climbed up and wandered around. (Why not?) There were no barriers!…there should have been.
Oh yeah, I forgot about this part – Estonia hasn’t been a country for that long, at least in this era. Independent in 1918, it was occupied by the Soviets, who took over during WWII (the Germans also took over during the war, but only for a couple of years) until 1991, and it’s also the only Baltic country that regained independence without bloodshed. The three countries (+Latvia, Lithuania) really got it going this with the Singing Revolution, which involved singing their national anthems in defiance of the anti-nationalist rules at the time, and the Baltic Way, a 2 million-strong human chain linking their three capital cities! But as such, the country’s still got a lot of Russian influence – Tallinn’s got its Soviet-era trams and fascinatingly ugly Soviet apartment buildings (a very very strange contrast to the ultra-modern, ahead-of-its-time buildings downtown), but the east portion of the country has far more of that, and most signs are written in Russian.
The countryside is quite pretty, and not what I expected. Thin, dark trees everywhere, large expanses and meadows, haybales, and fields of canola. And occasionally to the side, we had the beautiful coast, separated by bogs or forest.
Our other stop for the day was in Rakvere, where Kaarel intended to take me to some castle ruins. Well…we got there, but we certainly didn’t expect to see the amusement park-museum we found! There were costumes- why not? Lots of medieval stuff to play with – a smithy, toys, carts, even all sorts of swords (dulled, of course) you could take from the walls. Fake rooms and fake streets showcased objects, beliefs, orders, and the empires of the past. Some museum staff even marched out with muskets, shooting down a doll from the castle wall.
We went to the torture chamber presentation about torture objects from medieval times, used to get people to confess their sins. Upon the coaxing of the presenter, one person reluctantly volunteered to be put on a bed of (dulled) nails and “stretched” (that is, pulled apart) by a crank that pulled the planks attached to his neck and legs. All in good humour… No one volunteered to put on the dunce bell (a metal cuff attached to the neck, with a bell dangling overhead) normally attached to unfaithful women, or worse, the (dulled, but still quite) sharp spike tied to your neck that would dig in whenever you talk or swallow… And as a finale, all 25 or so of us were put into “hell” for a “spiritual cleansing” – a haunted house of sorts that was actually quite good!
Due to Kaarel’s curiosity, we also went for a private tour of “the street of fallen women”. We had no idea what “fallen” women meant – turns out it’s the street for prostitution! Our guide was detailed and hilariously raunchy (with Kaarel translating every bit for me, no matter how lewd), going through all the things the church of the medieval times allowed and didn’t allow – but the most interesting thing was that the church believed that there couldn’t be a world without prostitution, due to all the female and homosexual abuse dished out by some very hormonal men! Then as a finale, he took us to the barber/doctor and “drained” “blood” from us to cure the diseases one would usually get from visiting prostitutes. I fell for it, ahaha…
The next day, we headed west towards Haapsalu (an area of the country with many ethnic Swedes), but stopped at whatever looked interesting. Go-karting? Why not! I’m still a terrible driver. Kaarel beat my best lap time in his first lap, and nearly lapped me at the end, if it weren’t for the time expiring. 🙂 Still..my times went from terrible to not-*that*-bad; I ended up with a 7 second range between my best and worst laps.
In Haapsalu, we relaxed on the beach for a bit after a nice but relatively stale train museum, then headed to another castle ruin. well, in *these* ruins, we found a rather strange yoga festival going on inside. That’s two for two for castle surprises. And Haapsalu’s nice coastal promenade had another surprise – a fake polar bear on a fake iceberg standing some metres off shore. Whaa?
Upon the suggestion of an info counter lady, we headed off to Silma, a nature trail nearby. (Not before stopping to play with an old Estonian swing, a giant thing where you and up to 7 other people stand up and try to swing all the way around.) Well, we found the trail, but it looked like no one had gone there in quite some time! The whole thing was grown over and quite muddy, and we swept ourselves often for ticks (which Kaarel found). After just about 20 minutes, we were rewarded with a bird-watching tower at the end all to ourselves. Few if any birds, and silence…except when Kaarel started making random gorilla noises. Heh. We spotted an elk wandering around, and one of the few birds we got to see was an eagle. Made the whole thing worth it, and we got a few tiny wild strawberries out of it too.
With Kaarel busy for the remaining two days, I had some time to explore more of Tallinn. Despite some rain, I went to the Open Air Museum, a forest park with many traditional homes and estates moved and reconstructed from all parts of the country. In some cases, it felt like stepping back through time. In other cases, I felt like a giant – those houses are really low.
On my final day, after saying goodbye to Kaarel, I went on a 7 hour walk in nice weather. First, the Patarei Prison – formerly used by the KGB, it’s only recently been open to tourists. There are hardly any signs or directions, but it made it fun and somewhat creepy to wander around the corridors, cells, surgery rooms, and all. Some places were barely lit to the point that I had to use my camera as a flashlight. The walls of staff rooms were often covered in Russian translations of American movie posters, and it was nice to see lots of period material from when the prison closed (2004) and before it. Research tells me you can get a “full prison experience” if you pay €30 – they book you in, lead you to your cell, give you a last meal – but I saw no takers… 🙂
Second was the maritime museum, which housed numerous restored objects, like sailboats, buoys, old mines, even a seaplane and a submarine. What I love about all these museums I’ve encountered in Estonia though… they’re so interactive! You can climb on things and just play with them without barriers. There were some hilarious simulation games as well – shoot down incoming planes with a war-era gun, pilot a life-sized plane, dress up in sailor or military uniform – and they were all free…which meant long lineups. Sadly, I had to give them a skip.
I spent numerous hours wandering around after: the Kadriog park with its Russian palace, parts of the modern new town, and the old town in general. The contrast between all the areas, it feels seamless after awhile.
Thanks again for hosting me and showing me around, Kaarel! I wouldn’t have been able to see so much without you, and I enjoyed it all. (There’s still yet plenty more to see though, which means a return visit is definitely in order!) And of course, I certainly won’t forget all our conversations on those long drives! 😉
For now, it’s time to say goodbye again to Europe, at least for the next few weeks. Next stop: Middle East!