So a few weeks ago my friend Monika asked me if I wanted to go to Tallinn with her. She’s a tour guide and has been to Tallinn a number of times but always with a group and there were some things she wanted to check out for herself, some places she wanted to find so she could guide people there on her tours. And there was a Christmas Market, which is always fun.
For me, I wanted to go because it had been a while since I’d left Kaunas (aside from my weekly trips to Vilnius) and Tallinn, which is the capital of Estonia, two countries up from us, seemed like a great place to visit. I’d been there a couple of times but never really as a tourist. The first time was on my big backpack trip of ’08, but by that point in the trip, I was exhausted and wasn’t really interested in seeing anything. And aside from that, it was a stopover for travel to Helsinki or where I went to Eddie Izzard earlier this year. So a nice tourist trip, where I didn’t have to plan anything seemed like a great idea to me.
The plan was to spend two nights on the bus with a day in the city in-between. This is the same way I went to Romania when I visited Brasov and Bran Castle. It’s not the most comfortable way to travel, but it is fun and cheap. Monika is the master at this, having seen quite a bit of Europe through late night bus windows (and I’m sure if I get anything wrong, you’ll be able to check the comments below for corrections). So I put all the planning in her hands, just handing over ticket money when it was requested.
When the day finally arrived, we were going to meet up in Vilnius (I was already there for work and that’s where the bus left from anyway) at 21:00 (9pm) on friday night. I spent the afternoon first in class then at the American Embassy where I needed to have extra pages put into my passport (yup, I was out of places for stamps and I am heading for America in a month). After this I met up with my friends Ineta and Steven (first time I’d seen them since their wedding) for dinner at my favorite mexican place in Vilnius, Tres Mexicanos (to be fair, it’s the only Mexican place I know in all of Lithuania – again, watch the comments for my local friends to contradict me and make recommendations). We were joined by my American friend Lauren who also lives in Vilnius and had a rather nice meal.
Lauren accompanied me to the train station to meet up with Monika. We all chatted for a few minutes, said good bye to Lauren and then headed to the bus station to catch our coach.
Of the ride to Tallinn, there’s not much to report. We “slept” as much as we could and hit the city at 7am, long before the sun even thought of making an appearance. We had a rough idea how to get to the Old Town from the station so we headed off. It had snowed during the night so there was a nice dusting on the ground and, strangely enough for a Saturday morning at 7:30, the place was fairly well deserted. We headed immediately for the Reval Cafe, a place Monika goes every time she’s in town, to have a coffee and some breakfast. Of course, we have to wait until 8 for them to open, so we get to enjoy the quiet of Tallinn old town for a little bit.
After breakfast we headed to the Tourist Information office to ask a few questions and then we were off. Monika is an amazing tour guide and I had a great time hearing stories about the two “legs” and the upper and lower parts of the town. She knew all the best lookout spots for some great views and we popped into a church or two just to say we did (we didn’t actually want to pay to go in, so we just kinda glanced around). We also saw a cool 3D wall sculpture dedicated to the guy who founded the Estonian National Puppet Theatre!
I learned about the “Blackheads” and the guild hall, we found the steepest staircase just past the shortest door in town leading to a fairly non-descript souvenir shop. Monika even showed me her favorite exhibit, a time-line of Estonia which runs along the sidewalk outside the national history museum and extends 400 years into the future! When it was time for a quick snack, we headed over to the 3 Dragons, a medieval tavern kinda place.
The 3 Dragons isn’t very big and while there is electricity they don’t waste it by lighting the interior of the place. Everything is lit by candle and there aren’t even a lot of those. Suffice to say, when you walk in, even on a gray day like the one we were there on, it takes a good long while for your eyes to adjust. The menu isn’t very complex, some pastries filled with vegetables or a variety of different meats (we each got a couple of elk and boar filled) and some juices (lingonberry for us) served in glazed clay cups. We made our way to the back room and stumbled to an empty table where we enjoyed our snack. Next to the doorway leading back to the front room there was a straw basket for patrons to deposit their dirty dishes…well, which ever ones they didn’t steal (or so the sign says). Evidently, theft is a big problem for these cool cups (which, yes, are for sale as well). I felt it was our touristy duty to swipe a cup, just to keep the faith in the evil foreigner alive, but Monika, wisely, said no. So we deposited our cups, threw out our paper wrappers and headed back into the “sun” and on our way.
We had decided to go and check out a new museum in town which had been installed at the old seaplane harbor. I’d never heard of it and Monika knew little except there was a Titanic exhibit. It was a couple of kilometers from old town, along the water, so we headed out. On the way, we made one quick stop at the world’s oldest continuously running apothecary shop. They really do still operate as a drugstore but at the same time, they have a small “museum” in a second room showing displays of scales, medicines and, in one corner, a row of jars featuring things which were once though of as cures – things like dried deer penises, burnt hedgehog and infusion of woodlice. All of a sudden, penicillin doesn’t seem so bad.
On the way to the museum, we decided to take the coast route, so we walked along the cruise ship and ferry harbors and over a building which seems to have once been some sort of concert hall and now, if the kids in Tallinn were anything like the kids in America, probably played host to a number of underground raves. By this time, also, it had started to snow. Not light, fluffy snow mind you, but small, hail like snow. It wasn’t too bad as long as you kept moving. And moving we were, walking along the “Kulture Kilometer” which, in point of fact, was more like 2 kilometers and really didn’t have much culture along it. During the summer, if they’d set up booths and manicured the gardens, it might have been a nice walk, though.
By the time we reached our destination, there was a huge line snaking out of the building like an extruding tongue. We stood in line, in the snow, for about 5 minutes and decided we weren’t staying. Instead, we figured we’d walk around the building, see what we could see, and head back to town. But then we had walked all the way out there, and really, how long could it possibly take to get inside?
And another 20 minutes once we were inside to get to one of the two people manning the registers (and of the two, the girl was great and fast and knew what she was doing while the guy… not so much). We bought our tickets for the museum with the Titanic add on (as well as the Fat Margaret – which was basically free – more on this later), dropped our coats in the non-secured coat check and went off to explore.
The museum itself has almost nothing to do with sea planes. Instead, it’s devoted to Estonia shipping and sailing history on the first level and explosive sea mines on the ground floor. One of the coolest things, though, was when you walk in they give you a plastic card with an RFID chip in it. As you walk around and explore the displays, the computer monitors give you the option of sending the information to your home computer. The first time you put in your email address and then you just hit a button, hold your card near the reader and viola! At the end of the experience you drop your card in a box and then they email you everything you’ve requested. While there wasn’t a lot we were terribly interested in, we did have a ton of fun playing with the machines and we both thought about how cool this would be at a different museum.
The also had a submarine there, the Lembit, built in 1936. And you could go inside! Not just one room with everything roped off, nope, the whole kit and caboodle was open for playing! You could walk from one end to the other and spin nobs and pull levers! You weren’t supposed to sit on the beds, but that was okay. The whole boat was outfitted in brass and enamel and felt like a steam punk dream! It was SO cool! I’m very glad Monika suggested we go inside (and that she suggested the museum in the first place).
More wandering and we found ourselves at the Titanic Exhibit. Like the one in Vegas, this one is a lot of history and things to read. Our tickets were literally tickets, giving us a name and class assignment. I was J. Bruce Ismay, owner of the White Star Line and obviously a first class passenger. Monika was also in first class, Mrs. Nella Wiggins from Paris. It was a nice display but a bit long… as you wound around the maze-like path it was impossible not to get a bit tired. At the end, we discovered we both survived the incident and, being in Estonia, there was a small Estonian connection in that two of the crew members were allegedly from the small Baltic country.
After that, there wasn’t a lot left so we finished up and headed back to the old town. On the way, we stopped at Fat Margaret (remember, entrance to her was included in our ticket price). Fat Margaret is the low, squat tower which stands guard at one of the two remaining gates in what’s left of the city walls. Of the original 3.6 or so kilometers amazingly 2.5ish still remain –along with two gates. Fat Margaret protects the coast gate. Today, she houses the Estonian maritime museum, which was very cool, especially the display of hundreds of ship’s postcards. For the most part though, we were tired and hungry and didn’t want to see much, except to find out if the roof was open. It was so we went up into the now dark night sky (it was just past 16:00 (4pm) afterall) and had a great view of the lights of the city.
Dinner at Estlandia was to have followed except for one thing – Estlandia was closed. Since this is where Monika had been planning on us eating all day, it was a slight wave in our smooth sailing. In the end, after much deliberation and gnashing of teeth, we ended up in a place called Old Estonia which, to be perfectly frank, kinda sucked. The food was expensive and not good, and our waitress could not have cared less. But it was food so we were fine.
We were also at the town square, which housed the annual Christmas market so off we went to explore the wares… of which there wasn’t anything spectacularly cool. Just standard Christmas market stuff: lots of food, hot wine, fur lined warm things and souvenirs. Typical.
What to do now? It was after 6 and our bus didn’t leave until 10:30. We hit the local grocery store to buy some stuff we could have paid twice as much for at the market and then decided on a sit down coffee at the local mall for a figurative and literal recharge.
Monika o the rescue! She pulled out her map and found some sights she’d decided we should see, despite it being dark and they were a couple of kilometers away! Off we went, into the night. After a long walk… one where, I’m not ashamed to say I thought we might have gotten lost, we found a really cool statue. A monument to the Russian warship Russalka (Mermaid) which had sunk in 1893. Monika had seen it before on tours, but not at night and had never walked there. From there, it was across the street to a park built by one of the czars, intended to be part of his summer grounds. Now there was a Japanese garden there, which we found but was covered in snow so not much to see. The czar’s palace was nearby. He had it built but never used it (he died) so now it’s an art museum (and one time presidential palace). The current Presidential building is actually just behind the palace so we walked by there as well, as we tried to find our way to the bus station.
Eventually, we got back to where we started, with only a relatively short wait for our bus to take us back to Vilnius and then the train back to Kaunas.
36 hours, give or take, to see a foreign capital, explore a submarine, eat wild game, get lost in the snow and have a generally great time with a good friend… not a bad way to spend a weekend!
And if you want to see the rest of the pictures, there’s a set here.