The Dog Sitter Made Me Go To Tallinn

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Jul 17th, 2018, 10:28 PM
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The Dog Sitter Made Me Go To Tallinn

It began innocently enough.

DD was heading to the U.S. for three weeks; and DH was departing for a work trip for four days that did not interest me. DDog and I had big plans that involved sunrise hikes; the dog beach (yes, Vienna has canine beaches); and to otherwise importantly idle away a few hot summer days.

On Monday of the week DD departed her dog-sitter friend messaged to say that she would be in town and available to sit DDog (translation: Teenager needs money) should I want to take a holiday. Suddenly idling away a few hot summer days didn’t sound all that exciting; and DDog would certainly manage with nonstop attention from a fan, so I spent the morning playing the, “Where can I go on the (relative) cheap?” game while poring over trip reports;* and Tallinn came out the winner. A little East meets West meets Scandinavia sounded fun!

(*Thank you to those Fodorites who have shared their Tallinn experiences; and in particular, PaulKilfoil, DMBTravler, and Andrew.)

I rolled my eyes and booked my flight on LOT, Poland’s carrier. Last summer DD and I flew LOT for a Gdansk city break and were a little less-than-impressed; apparently my people have forgotten how to be punctual. LOT was Tallinn’s secondary carrier hub, a point that should mean something, I guess. In rolling my eyes, though, I had missed that the flight was actually operated by Nordica, Estonia’s carrier. Nordica, I discovered is one of those sad carriers that offers food and most beverages for a fee; with an 0915 flight I assumed that I would at least be offered coffee and have a package of crackers thrust at me. All I got was the (terrible) coffee, which, combined with an arm rest-hog row mate who slept despite my gentle nudging for 2 hours and the summer heatwave that was embracing the Baltic upon my arrival, I admit I was not as excited to see the second President of Estonia Lennart Meri’s official Mercedes displayed in the airport baggage claim area as perhaps I might have been otherwise.

Owing to this last-minute holiday my pickings for lodging were slim. A day after I had booked my flights a brand-new AirBnB listing appeared. What could possibly go wrong with a “Luxury Apartment in the Old Town” that had never been reviewed? From the airport I reached medieval Tallinn in about 30 minutes on the tram; and my AirBnB a short walk later. Guess what? The host was waiting for me with a big hug (two hugs, actually), thanking me for being her first listing! And the apartment? Spectacular! A completely renovated and ginormous space decorated with vintage and extremely well-kept furniture pieces; the kitchen, modern in a classic fashion and with high-end electrics; as well as a spacious bathroom and shower. Fresh flowers on the dining table and soft Diana Krall playing through the little stereo was the tonic refresher I needed after my First World travel woes.

Soon I was off to explore Tallinn. Though I had a general idea of what I’d wanted to see and do, I dropped first into the TI office for a map and a look-see at the information on offer. As I was approaching the office, a woman carrying a “Free Sightseeing Tour” sign asked if I had arrived for the tour. Normally I am a do-it-yourself traveler, but the guide was five minutes out from the start of the tour and had no other takers, a point we both felt was odd given the crush of tourists in the area, so before I could stop myself I responded in the affirmative. A moment later a guy from Australia joined, and our little group of three set off. I have to write that I enjoyed this “private” tour. Our guide was interesting; her stories equally so; and I had a nice orientation to medieval Tallinn in two hours. AND, I got to see SteventheSeagull in person! (He is a Tallinn Instagram star.)

Later, “What to eat?” became the question. The high temperatures (29°F+) meant I wouldn’t be seeking elaborate Estonian meals; and being of Eastern European heritage I knew I would be more than happy eating various herring forms for three days, and if I tired of that there would always be another fish to take its place. Reviews at Liisu Juures on the main square (touristy, but not nearly as obnoxiously so as in, perhaps, Prague) seemed to favor the starters and definitely the people watching, and so I requested an Estonian cheese sampler and the marinated and fried Baltic herrings. The server seemed excited that I had chosen the cheese sampler; she first informed me that it would take 6-7 minutes to arrive at the table, and after it arrived, proudly described the Goudas and Atleets I was nibbling, all of which were to my liking. The marinated and fried herrings were quite good, also but would not be for everyone’s palate. My glass of non-Estonian wine equalled that of a decent bottle of Veltliner in Vienna in cost, sigh. Dark bread held a place of honor at the table, naturally.

The cheese plate was quite substantial (I had also been warned of this by the excited server), so armed with a stylishly wrapped partial breakfast I ducked into the local market, Rimi, to cobble together an easy-to-prepare breakfast that would include the cheese, smoked, salmon, cucumbers. And dark bread, of course. If I had to work at this particular Rimi, and overhear some of the conversations of the backpacker and gap-year set I would come to believe the end of civilization was nigh. From the two American-English speaking summa cum laude students behind me: "Is Dallas in Texas?" "I think so. Isn't it one of those border towns?" and from the same two, "Don't waste €0,50 on the chopsticks. We can share."

Why an easy-to-prepare breakfast? I may have forgotten to mention that in my reservation spree I bought a ticket on the 0730 ferry to Helsinki for the following day. The day of the Trump-Putin meeting…
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Jul 18th, 2018, 03:23 AM
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Ah! I suppose one of the joys of living in Europe is the ability to hop on a plane to somewhere interesting for a few days. I cannot imagine what Helsinki was like on the big day.
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Jul 18th, 2018, 04:20 AM
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I love a good adventure! Looking forward to more.
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Jul 18th, 2018, 05:35 AM
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Looking forward to hearing about Helsinki! (May I suggest Riga for the next city break if you haven't already been?)
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Jul 18th, 2018, 09:03 AM
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I'm joining you here. Helsinki with P & T? What joy.
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Jul 18th, 2018, 09:13 AM
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It sounds fun
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Jul 18th, 2018, 11:56 AM
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I love a cliff-hanger too.
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Jul 19th, 2018, 12:00 AM
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Making Helsinki Great Again!

Heck, I might go anywhere if a meeting of Trump and Putin can clear the streets of tourists...

At 0600 I left my apartment and walked the 20 minutes or so to the ferry terminal. “Tallinn is quite pretty in the early morning, when the streets are empty,” I mused, and made a mental note to consider waking early again to photograph the city.

My ticket was on the Tallink Megastar, a floating cruise ship-type shuttle that can carry 2800 passengers and many vehicles. Several restaurants, a business class lounge (which spans the entire forward view), sleep cabins, and a two-level duty free shop rounded out the amenities. Knowing deep down the breakfast salmon smörgåsbord would not happen, though I am very much a morning person, I had also purchased the Megastar breakfast buffet, the rationale being that I would settle in to a comfy window seat with coffee and a big plate of Ebelskiver and stare at the water for the two hour crossing. Alas, my rookie mistake was not placing my bag at said lovely table before queueing at the breakfast buffet, and thus I had to settle for a regular inside table. Live and learn.

To be honest, the two hour transit was about one hour and ninety minutes too long for me, and the trip confirmed that I am not a cruise ship poster gal. For the entirety after breakfast (which was exceptional) I walked around to the various lounges and viewing points (spoiler: the Bay of Finland looks the same in all directions), past sleeping backpackers in corners and under stairwells, ewww; read and reread the information about Helsinki to maximize my time in the city; and otherwise watched the water swish by. Perhaps I saw a mermaid. Perhaps I did not. Not surprisingly I was one of the first queued to disembark. The security officer who opened the doors to the gangway resembled what I imagined to be a brawny Soviet bouncer, and his accented, “Welcome to Finland” made me laugh.

The plan for Helsinki was not ideal because I would have liked to have toured the harbour and enjoyed the popular Helsinki Central Market, both of which were shut down to tourism because the presidential palace, where Trump and Putin met, is also near that location. BUT, because so many tourist gloms were entertained by the street closures, popular sights were delightfully accessible! From the ferry terminal I caught a tram to the Central Station (watched over by Finnish granite men that looked suspiciously like the Tallink Bouncer, just saying), and then Metro-ed to the Hakaniemi Market, where I learned that sea urchin is not only edible (it tastes like oysters!) but that the spiny shell can also be dried and used as a decorative piece. I also discovered that Finnish design really is as striking as it is made out to be; but for as much as I loved everything from the hand-embroidered slippers to the crocheted egg cozies to the luscious sweaters, only a set of sauna towels and eucalyptus branches came home with me to use in our own sauna. And, bonus! There were scant tourists underfoot!

From the market I made my return toward Summit Central, en route to the Uspenski Cathedral. The “always-crowded” Senate Square was brilliantly quiet; those tourists who were not hanging out along the police barriers were seeking shade inside the open shops, leaving the sidewalk free for me and others of my ilk. (We lived in D.C. in 2001 and endured soul-crushing motorcade delays; terrorist attacks; anthrax threats; and the snipers. A presidential summit? Yawn…)

Uspenski Cathedral delighted; though Orthodox, its exterior structure reminded me of the Church of the Visitation in the little border town of Břeclav, CZ that we pass on our outings to the northern neighbors. No doubt you all will agree. From the cathedral I backtracked past a “Jesus Loves Trump and Putin” hippie van in order to see the Helsinki Cathedral, sparkling on a beautiful blue sky day, its steps barely filled with lounging visitors.

Walking back along the Esplanade I observed a number of protests, and marveled at how respectful the protesters were to the counter-protesters (a MAGA group in particular), and especially how everyone respected the authorities. At least from my observations the protests were as equally anti-Trump as they were anti-Putin. A good many people milled about, listening to speakers and reading banners, all in an anti-violent and chilled manner, like a civilized society. I grabbed an ice cream (licorice, delish) and continued toward Stockmann, the Finnish department store noted for its high-end delicatessen. The clerks at the Service Desk seemed delighted that someone needed their assistance, and so I had a brief and informative tour of the sweets, smoked meats, and tinned sea life before making selections to bring home. Oh, and I could not resist adding a set of reindeer bells on a hand-embroidered collar to my basket; they will hang nicely in our library next to the alpine cow bells I have been collecting and perhaps inspire me to visit Lapland some day.

Exiting the department store I noted that the crowds had increased along the now-barricaded Esplande and wandered over to see what I could see. I overheard an American-English speaking tourist becoming irate with Finnish authority because he would not divulge the time of the motorcade to her, and she was quite furious with him for having been “standing here for an hour” without information. Imagine.

With about three hours remaining before I absolutely had to check-in for my return ferry I decided to explore the city’s design district, as it was in the general direction of the ship. Once upon a time when we owned our home in the U.S. I spent nearly a decade following its renovation carefully selecting everything from the furnishings to the paint colors to complement the architectural style and period; it was my hobby in between working and raising a family. Now that we are ex-pats in a rented abode, the house is a gloriously eclectic creation of Historic-New England-meets-IKEA, but I do still appreciate a window-shopping occasion.

At some point in my walking I noticed an uptick in police activity and the presence of helicopters overhead: the clue that Something Was Happening. I admonished myself and sought a shaded spot on the street, but allowing myself to waste 5 minutes in the event Something Happened. Moments later, President Putin’s motorcade passed. “Big black car” is how I described it to DH on iMessage. (For those who wonder, the Russian presidential car is an Aurus Senat limousine powered in part by Porsche engine designs. Sounds like Austrian-Russian collusion to me.)

Roughly 3 minutes or so having been wasted, I attempted to take public to the design district, but my efforts were thwarted by some sort of sanctioned catch-all march that had shut down the tram lines temporarily. There were handmaids and hookers; open border and closed border advocates; Stars and Bars and the Hammer and Sickle flags waving; “Vote in the Midterms” alongside “Capitalism will Kill Us,” the latter sign being carried by someone SnapChatting their experience on an iPhone; and basically anyone who had something to say. The dude carrying a blank cardboard sign was my personal favorite, all said. What impressed me again was the peaceful nature of this march.

The tram lines reopened and I was soon on my way. And again, (almost) no tourists! Finnish design is to Helsinki like the Hapsburgs are to Vienna, and the Punavuori neighborhood was a visual feast. Some Jugendstil architecture and plenty of Finnish design treats for the eyes (and the pocketbook!) I was almost not regretting missing the harbour front.

So. All things considered, the day went remarkably well. I caught my return ferry, settled into a comfy table with a salad and a glass of wine from a spigot (do not judge me) and returned to Tallinn. My Soviet bouncer was there with his accented, "Welcome to Estonia." I plated my breakfast as dinner, and made great plans to rise at 0345 to photograph the city at sunrise.

Nope. Didn’t happen.

Last edited by fourfortravel; Jul 19th, 2018 at 12:03 AM.
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Jul 19th, 2018, 12:18 AM
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Thank you, everyone. I hope my Helsinki reporting was not a letdown...

tripplanner001, with joy comes sacrifice. I relinquished a career, albeit willingly, to become a Trailing Spouse. DH and I consider these outings equally as important to our collective happiness.

thursdaysd, Riga remains on the list, along with Vilnius. For this impromptu outing I did give consideration to adding either Riga or Vilnius, but we depart in a couple of days for 9 days in Tirol (reserved and paid for back in February, when we knew DD would be heading to the U.S.) and I could not fit either destination into a workable itinerary. There will always be a next time.
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Jul 19th, 2018, 09:21 AM
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We took viking line ferry to Tallinn and back the same day you crossed from Tallinn to Helsinki.
Two very different perspectives. Will start new thread today and add photos as well.
Arriving back in Helsinki at 8:30 PM or so, we were hit by traffic, street closures and had a miserable time finding our way to our hotel in Espo. Just another reason for how I feel about both Trump and Putin.
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Jul 19th, 2018, 01:37 PM
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Always enjoy your reports, fourfortravel.
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Jul 19th, 2018, 04:37 PM
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What a great report! I love your style.

As a former trailing spouse myself, I so get it.
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Jul 19th, 2018, 04:51 PM
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Envy you the Tirol. If you have any interest in Art Nouveau definitely visit Riga. Seems that sooner might be safer, alas.
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Jul 20th, 2018, 03:42 AM
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The German-Pole Sightsees in Tallinn

Much of my time on this short holiday was spent in a traveler’s haze, never really knowing what time it was. Tallinn is only +1 hour from Vienna, so, no jet lag. The it-never-gets-dark business was of little issue (I could sleep standing up in a Bombadier lavatory on a turbulent flight. If need be, of course.) So why the grogginess? With our older child, DS, in return for funding his lifestyle during his undergrad days we expected updates on the various road trips and holidays he was enjoying on our Euro. These usually came in the form of a trip report after he had enjoyed said experience.

We reminded DD of the same expectation when she departed for the U.S. DD is apparently our overachiever in that regard. 0049: The shells on the beach? Must send Mom a photo. 0312: The cat with two different colored eyes at the farmer’s market? Must send Mom a photo. What Mom of a 17 year-old daughter would “Silence” her phone for the sake of uninterrupted slumber?

All of this, and a long previous day in Helsinki meant that I slept in until the late hour of 0630 on my last full day in Tallinn. Coffee and breakfast in my luxe apartment while sifting through headlines and social media came first; commenting on aforementioned cat and sea shell snaps followed second; and eventually I walked out the door around 0830. Balti Jaama Turg (Tallinn’s farmer’s market) was my first destination, a few minutes outside of the medieval center. The tour guide had mentioned that the Telliskivi neighborhood had gone hipster, but I was not prepared for the groovy mashup of Estonian grandmothers selling moose meat alongside a man-bunned produce hawker, with a hefty dose of ost-algia paraphernalia for sale on the upper level of a beautifully-converted warehouse, all of which was balanced by the Babushkas selling housedresses and Harley-Davidson/Eagle freedom tee-shirts side-by-side. In short, phenomenal.

I chatted with a Babushka Butcher who recommended two of her favorite smoked sausages, both of which she said I, “could easily take home to Poland.” To pair with the sausages I popped into a sleek cheese shop where the 20-something shopkeeper (no man-bun, though) was happy to tell me stories about the Estonian cheeses on display; in particular the ones that had been aged with spruce needles and clover. The wheels sat on a shaded shelf almost like a fine jewelry display. I sampled both and purchased a small wedge of each, which were vacuum sealed for me, “to take home to Germany.”

My mistake here was not first visiting Kalamaja, the nearby fisherman’s district, so I had to make a quick return to the apartment to deposit the cheese and sausage. The turnaround cost me less than 30 minutes, that is how compact Tallinn is. Back to Kalamaja I trammed, to wander its pretty streets of shiplap homes, many of which are now historically protected. I am not certain if this neighborhood receives much tourist attention, for I did receive a few looks when I pointed my Canon in one direction or another. There is a fish market and the remnants of an Olympic venue in this neighborhood, too, but the market only opens on Saturday and I wasn’t interested in wandering to the harbour to climb upon an abandoned setting, so from Kalamaja I trammed all the way (15 minutes) across Tallinn to Kadriorg Palace.

But before that I made time to cause a mini-scene at the big Rimi. I dropped in to purchase a bottle of water and thought I’d make-like-a-local and use the self-checkout. Except. The self-checkout is so modern that the registers only accept Maestro (no cash), and only above €1 purchases. When I realized I could not use my card for my €0,89 water I picked up the bottle and started toward a clerked-register. Of course I set off an alarm. Of course everyone in the store looked at me. And of course a clerk arrived and said to me in her best former-Stasi-guard tone, “NO CASH.” Of course this little German-Pole gal was embarrassed.

But on to Kadriorg. Peter the Great built the pretty little summer palace (in comparison to Vienna’s Schönbrunn) for his love, Catherine. The approach is through a park that at any other time would be serene, but not so on my visit with renovation works in progress and the aroma of freshly poured asphalt on a 30° day wafting across the senses. I toured only the collection of Russian and Netherland art on display in addition to the open rooms and garden, and was impressed not only with the art, but especially with the Marquetry Roomand its detailed wooden panels. There are also Faberge pieces in the collection, but they are the gilded platters and serveware and not the more recognized eggs.

Back to the medieval center once again, for lunch and more sightseeing. I fell for a sign at a Thai restaurant that read, “The Chef is from Thailand!” and its shaded outdoor tables, and ordered a lime soda and a spicy, cold rice noodle salad with chicken that was exactly the taste and flavor I desired; the people watching a gratis side.

The balance of my afternoon was spent revisiting the locations of the first day’s walking tour with my real camera: St. Olaf’s church, the Burj Khalifa of medieval Tallinn’s days; climbing to Estonia’s highest peak (300m?) at Toompea; snapping Alexander Nevsky Cathedral and its gilded interior; the pretty diplomatic quarter and its pastel residences; Freedom Square (a little imagination is needed here to fully appreciate the events of the early 90s); a drop-in at Europe’s oldest continuously-operating pharmacy (since 1422!), which also houses a small museum telling the history of the apothecary; waving to Thomas at the Rathaus; taking a peek inside the Guild; and walking along an open section of the Tallinn walls. Estonian handcrafted wool clothing caught my attention at a number of shops in the city; eventually I convinced myself that I “needed” a couple of pieces. In between I watched those tourists used to an air-conditioned life huff and puff and guzzle water while examining their perspiration-smudged maps for orientation.

The heat on this final day had begun to bum even me out around dinnertime, but then the gentle aroma of tandoori revived me like a smelling salt. An Indian restaurant on the town hall square (Yes, yes. Touristy. I know.) called to me and I sat for a more-than-respectable Murg Tikka; the people watching a gratis side once again.

Determined to snap Tallinn at sunrise before my departure I declared an early end to my day. At 0345 later that night (?) I rose; messaged DD (but of course!); grabbed my camera and greeted the brand new day from the overlook at Toompea. Despite the early hour I was not alone. A couple of drunk guys were asleep on the plaza to my left; and a young couple making out was on my right. SteventheSeagull, though was nowhere in sight. I roamed about and snapped the narrow lanes just filling with the morning sun; snapped the morning rays on Alexander Nevsky Cathedral and the town walls; waved to the crews picking up the night’s detritus; and then tumbled back into bed for a couple of hours.

My buzzing phone woke me around 0700, but not because DD was sending photos of the artisanal bagels she was eating from a Chicago street stall. LOT had failed me once again; my two-hour flight home was now delayed by one hour. Sigh.

Thank you for reading.
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Jul 20th, 2018, 03:56 AM
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otherchelbi, I look forward to your impressions of Tallinn; it is too bad that you did not enjoy Helsinki. Though I had overlooked the Trump-Putin summit when making my Helsinki plans, the wisdom of Edna (Incredibles) is always a saving grace: “Luck Favors the Prepared!”

Adelaidean and Melnq8, thank you for reading.

thursdaysd, I am afraid there will not be a Tirol trip report. "We hiked. We sauna-ed. We napped. We ate dinner." repeated over nine days wouldn't make for compelling reading. There is brewing, though, a possible occasion to drop in on St. Petersburg in autumn; perhaps I will divert myself through Riga then.
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Jul 20th, 2018, 08:23 AM
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Thank you for writing!
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Jul 20th, 2018, 08:57 AM
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strange, fodors just imposed it's new video on me without my doing anything. Very annoying.

Anyway, thanks Fourfor for encouraging me to visit Helsinki, should I ever find myself in Tallin.
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Jul 20th, 2018, 10:08 AM
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Thanks for your fun report.
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