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Trip Report Four Days in Tallinn, Estonia

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In August, 2012, we traveled for 4 weeks in Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. Before we left the US, we watched a Rick Steves video of Tallinn, Estonia, and decided to add it on to the end of our trip. It turned out to be a great decision. Tallinn has a beautiful Old Town with 15th century architecture, twisty cobblestone streets, and many historic attractions. We flew from Stockholm on Estonia Air for the 40 minute flight. We bought a Tallinn Card at the airport for 40 Euros, good for 72 hours, and the girl selling us the card told us how to use it for the public bus ride into town. To ride a taxi is about 10 Euros from the airport to Old Town. The bus stopped within 1 ½ blocks of our hotel, the Nordic Hotel Forum. We really liked the hotel: it’s a 4-star with a good breakfast one block from the entrance of Old Town. We paid $112 USD a night through Octopus Travel.

The first afternoon we took the 2 ½ hour Tallinn Official Sightseeing Tour which was on the Card. During our time in Tallinn the Card really paid for itself. Most of the sights are on it. In this instance, the tour would be 20 Euros without the card, which covered half the price of the Card already. It was an excellent tour, both bus and walking.
It started with the bus, which we picked up across the street from our hotel, and took us to sights out of center. We didn’t need to reserve the tour. We were the only people who showed up so we had a private tour. The bus part lasted about 1 hour. Then the last 1 ½ hours was a walking tour of Old Town. We had a wonderful guide named Eha Org, org@uninet.ee. She not only showed us the sights but told us a lot about Estonia’s turbulent history and Estonia today. She even recommended some good restaurants where the locals eat. Our first stop out of the center of town was the large amphitheater where the Song Festivals are held. The Song Festivals are an important part of Estonia history and are attended by about 100,000 Estonians each festival. Estonia was occupied by the Russians from 1939 to 1941, the Nazis from 1941 to 1944, and the Russians again from 1944 until their independence in 1991. During World War II, Estonia lost one fourth of its total population. Over a five year period in 1986, hundreds of thousands of Estonians began to systematically and repeatedly gather at the amphitheater and other public venues to collectively sing illegal patriotic songs, declaring their desire for national independence. Our guide told us about the excellent movie, “The Singing Revolution” which documents this period.

From there we drove to Kadriorg Palace set in a beautiful park. It was built by Peter the Great and now houses the National Art Museum of Estonia. Unfortunately, it’s closed for renovation in 2012. We did see Peter the Great’s cottage nearby which he used while Kadriorg was being built.

The bus dropped us off at the Old Town which is made up of two parts, upper and lower. Our guide told us that after World War II Russia wanted to demolish Old Town and put up Soviet buildings. Luckily, they didn’t have the money to do it, so the beautiful Old Town survives. We started at the upper town, called Toopea and saw the squat Fat Margaret Tower which guarded the entry gate of the town in medieval times. We then saw Pikk Hermann Tower, also called Tall Hermann, which is part of Toompea Castle and next to the Parliament building. We passed by several churches and went inside the beautiful onion-domed Russian Orthodox Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. We also visited St. Mary’s Cathedral from the 13th century (also known as the Dom Church) which was Roman Catholic until it became Lutheran in 1561. We later attended an organ concert there. Eha told us some things about Estonian life today. The GNP went up 2% the past year and they seem encouraged about their economy. People earn an average of 900 Euros a month and after taxes it’s about 700 Euros a month. Included in the taxes is mandatory health insurance and pension insurance. There’s no additional charge when people go to the doctor or are hospitalized. University education is free but there is very limited space so only about 20% of the students qualify. Others must pay for private colleges. Around 50% of the residents of Tallinn are Russian. After World War II, Russia moved a lot of its citizens to Estonia which the Estonians call “Russiafication”. Even though they get along superficially, there is still a rift between the Estonians and the Russians. For example, the Russians have their own schools and teach in their own language. The Estonians invited them to join their school system which is taught in Estonian, but they refused. Only in recent years has the Estonian language been taught in Russian schools. We said goodby to our guide and had dinner at Kompressor, which she recommended. It specializes in stuffed pancakes and we had large delicious pancakes of mushrooms and brie (enough for a full meal) for 4 Euros each.

We started our second day in Tallinn by walking part of the city walls. They date back to the 1300’s. About 1 ¼ miles of it are still standing. After our walk we visited the KGB Museum on the 23rd floor of the Sokos Hotel Viru, across the street from our hotel. The museum was opened in 2011. The hotel was built by the Russians in 1972 and the KGB had a secret office on the 23rd floor until Estonian independence in 1991. The elevators of the hotel only go up to the 22nd floor. From there, it’s a door leading to a staircase up to the 23rd floor. The KGB office has been left as it was, along with their spying equipment and makes for an interesting tour. When the Russians occupied Tallinn about 60 of the hotel rooms in Sokos Hotel Viru were bugged. When foreigners came, or other people the Russians were suspicious of, the hotel would assign those rooms to them. Also, there were microphones hidden in the ash trays, plants, and bread plates in the dining room. Outside the elevators were little old ladies sitting at desks and they would record the time that every guest went to their hotel room, who they were with, and when they left. That job was coveted because the ladies would arrange for foreigners to bring them black market goods. After the museum, we visited St. Michael’s church which has the only surviving medieval “Dance of the Macabre” painting. Our last place to visit was the Museum of the Occupations which had some interesting videos of both the Nazi and Russian occupations.

We had reservations the third day for a tour of the tunnels underneath the Kiek in de Kok tower. They were built in the 1600’s under Swedish rule and were even used in World War II as bomb shelters. 1,000 people were in the tunnels when the Russians bombed the city in 1944. The tunnels were last used by homeless people when the Communist regime fell. We next went to the City Museum which had history from the 1300’s to the present. We had a good Estonian dinner at Van Krahli Aed. Our guide the first day had suggested we visit Patarei Prison which had been used by the Nazis and Communists and later the Estonians, up until 2005. After independence, only the newer part of the prison was used, which we did not see. The prison only has group tours but we emailed them at info@patarei.org. and they let us join a group. It’s located out of Old Town but is a short walking distance. The prison is unrestored and gave us a look at dreary soviet-era prison life. We saw some of the old cells and even the execution room where some 2,000 people were killed, many being political prisoners.

For our fourth and final day in Tallinn we wanted to go out into the countryside. Before we left on vacation, we booked an all day tour with EST Adventures, www.estadventures.ee. We chose the Lahemaa National Park tour, which was 50 Euros per person and lasted about 9 hours. Our excellent guide was Andrew, who is the owner of the tour company. We were taken by mini-bus with 3 other people. We first stopped at the Rebala Heritage Reserve which has an ancient burial ground with stone graves from the Iron Age. We continued on to the cute Kiiu Tower which they call the smallest castle in the Baltics and we climbed up the tower. Next we walked an hour in the Viru Bog in Lahemaa National Park. There is a boardwalk that takes you through much of the park and it’s very scenic in a different sort of way. From there we stopped by the Palmse Manor estate, a baroque mansion inside Lahemaa park with beautiful grounds. We also saw the tiny Altja fishing village with its thatched-roof huts and the Jagula Waterfall.

We really enjoyed our 4 days in Estonia. Tallinn’s Old Town is a delight and we were able to walk everywhere. Although English is spoken wherever we went, we heard very little English being spoken by tourists. It seems that Tallinn is a gem still to be discovered by many people.

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