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Trip Report Estonia, Finland, and Iceland: Summer 2017

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Tallinn is brilliant under summer sunshine and blue skies, the modern glitz of new buildings encircling the medieval splendor of the Old Town with its towers and churches and red roofs. Even through the welter of cruise shippers and day trippers it’s impressive, and at night the winding streets of Toompea Hill are empty and slightly melancholy under the late setting sun.

I arrived in Tallinn on the Viking ferry FSTR: a quick and comfortable trip of 1 hour 45 minutes from Helsinki. Icelandair now flies directly from Philadelphia, so I flew PHL to Keflavik and KEF to Helsinki. From Helsinki airport the train into the city is easy and cheap (5 euro) and then the number 4 tram takes you to the Viking ferry terminal on the same ticket. I allowed myself four hours from landing, which was more than enough for me to get the 6PM ferry and a rather dreadful sandwich at the ferry terminal. Round-trip ferry ticket was 60E, at that point about $70USD. A taxi to my apartment was only 7E.

My apartment was, in fact, MyApartments on Sakala Street, a quiet street just a few blocks outside of the Old City. It was a great location, with a shopping center including supermarket three blocks away in one direction and Old City about five blocks the other way. Very clean, modern, and useful—there’s even a little washing machine in the kitchen, as well as a stovetop—and reasonably priced. Most of the time that I was going in and out there was no one at the reception desk, but when they were there they were helpful and friendly.

My first full day in Tallinn (the evening before was spent mostly at the supermarket) was a Friday, the 21st of July. I found my way to the Visitor Center and joined the marvelous Henri (and about 75 assorted other people) for the Tallinn Free Tour This was a great way to get oriented in the Old Town area even in the midst of some fairly massive crowds. I can’t believe how he kept everyone together! I used the same company, Traveller Tours, for my trip the next day to Lahemaa, meeting in the same place.

Some of the highlights included the Russian Orthodox cathedral (there are about 25% ethnic Russians in Estonia), Kiek en de Koch tower, and the viewing platform where “hipsters get their Instagram” in front of the “The times we had” phrase in English on the wall. The afternoon found me out again wandering the Old Town and taking in more of the market square with its various artisans, plus indulging in some delicious smelling spicy/sugary almonds. In the evening I found my way to the Sony store for a charger (missing one for my Kindle) and, in order to see more of the city, found my way to the Lush store. (Yes, of course it’s English—it’s just a minor hobby to visit one wherever I can. And the products with the language labels are fun memories.) After dinner in my apartment I went back out to Old City/Toompea Hill for the 10:30 sunset. It was very quiet up on the Hill and lovely and cool. The Freedom monument square had its share of skateboarders, though, and the restaurants seemed quite busy.

Saturday found me in a minibus for a tour of Lahemaa National Park. It was another insanely gorgeous day, sunny and 65F. The varied group of 8 was ably guided by Katlin to sites in the park: first, the “tallest waterfall in Estonia”—a whole eight meters—and then a once-abandoned manor house, still beautifully decaying and reminiscent but being slowly restored, an abandoned Soviet submarine demagnetizing station, a sea museum complete with lunch, a wooden village, and yet another manor house where a wedding was going on, and finally a bog walk which has to be seen to be appreciated.

The submarine station was very interesting if a bit tricky underfoot, and the grafitti created quite a gallery. The bog walk was ultimately my favorite part, but all of the trip was interesting and lunch (an additional 13E over the 55E tour price) was served family style by the unique proprietor of the Sea Museum and was delicious: according to him, the second-best salmon in Estonia. It surely might have been, and if it was only second, I’d like to try the first!

On Sunday I met with a lovely lady lawyer who had been on the Lahemaa Tour for a tour of the Bastion Tunnels…and the two English ladies who had been on the tour showed up too! It’s a small world, Tallinn. The tour was okay, going from their most recent use as a place for the homeless through to the bomb shelters of WWII, but seemed a bit choppy and the alarm bell went off for quite some time without anyone seeming to know what to do about it, but the Kiek in de Kok tower museum that went along with it was more interesting to me (Black Death, city walls done in kids’ blocks, great views.)

In the afternoon I went to Hotel Viru for my reserved tour of the KGB museum on its 23rd floor (“There is no 23rd floor”) which was small but fascinating. There were many stories about the wireless microphones in plates, the red phone line to headquarters, camera with the peek-in lens…Hotel Viru was primarily for foreigners, and the Soviets wanted to make sure they heard everything that happened. During Soviet times the hotel had 1,000 employees for a maximum of 993 guests. There’s a (possibly apocryphal) story about some guests complaining to each other in their room that their was no toilet paper, and a hall lady showing up with some in minutes.

Later afternoon I went back to Old Town for the Guild Hall Estonian History Museum—quite interesting with the best toilets ever, in the atmospheric sense—and then some time in the ca. 1360 Church of the Holy Spirit. I went back at night for the sunset lookout, but unfortunately there was what I can only assume was an Estonian pop trio playing what I can only assume was supposed to be music. I was wondering if I could pay them to stop. I’d been enchanted by various musicians throughout the town at other times, but these guys were super grating. Sooo, not exactly the sunset experience I was hoping for, but interesting nonetheless.

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