Prague to Tallin

Trip Start Oct 20, 2003
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Trip End Dec 22, 2004


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Thursday, July 29, 2004

We thought that since southern and central Europe are warm during the summer we should try going north for cooler weather. Well, it was a good thought. We booked a cheap flight to Tallinn with an itinerary of three nights there and three nights in Helsinki.

The flight to Tallinn is full. We are surprised. Typical of CSA we have a full lunch during the 2-˝ hour flight. Also, typical of CSA, we are on time.

Tallinn and Helsinki are one hour ahead of Prague, are about 600 miles northeast lying on opposing sides of the Baltic Sea's Bay of Finland, and are on a parallel equal with Anchorage, Alaska. (They are the farthest north and east that we have been.) Both cities are famous for their "White Nights" during June and early July. "White Nights" are that period of the year when the sky really doesn't get dark. We don't experience this phenomenon, but the sun still shines brightly at 22:30 and daylight comes before 04:00. Finland is on the Euro but Estonia, even though it is an EU member, has its own currency, the kroon, known as the EEK. The currency relies heavily on notes rather than coins. Estonia's language is akin to Finnish and Hungarian. All three languages have their bases in language brought by the seven Magyar tribes from Siberia, so they are not Indo-European. Thus, the only words we can understand are borrowed words like "computer."

We arrive in pouring rain and decide to take a taxi to our hotel. After incurring the wrath of one taxi driver because we feel he wants too much for the trip and being told, "Take a bus!" we agree on a price with another driver. He is one of the better drivers we have had in our travels.

Our hotel lies about 1km from the center of town and fortunately is on several trolley and bus routes. (Like so many cities in Europe, Tallinn, a city of 400,000, has an excellent public transport system of trolleys, trams, and busses Unfortunately people don't like to open the windows, so it gets very hot and steamy inside the busses and trolleys.) The room is fairly large but is on the front side of the hotel. Without air conditioning, this means that we get a fair amount of traffic noise. The hotel has some interesting features like an on site dentist, a health clinic with therapy and massage treatments, and a free morning sauna. We try the hotel restaurant for dinner and are anything but impressed. The dining room is very interesting, though. The hotel building is several hundred years old and this is the original tavern part of it. Lots of rough wood and stone with a rough-hewn wood plank floor. The chairs are so heavy that we can hardly move them up to the table. The breakfasts are pretty good. They serve several cold cereals and warm oatmeal, warm sausages, sliced, cold sausage, sliced cucumbers, sliced tomatoes, boiled eggs that are peeled and halved with a white sauce over them, bread and bread rolls, delicious home made strawberry preserves, juices, and coffee. They will also serve you, for a price, your morning glass of cold vodka. We see one man start his day with this and can't help wondering.

Our first morning there, we go to the information office and buy two-day Tallinn Cards. This turns out to be a very good deal because we get a free two-hour bus and walking tour of the city, entrance to several museums, and unlimited use of public transport. After buying the cards we rush across town to catch the morning tour of the city. The guide is full of information. She told us the 2/3 of Estonia is forested. The country was not free of Russian domination until it declared independence in August, 1991.

The bus portion of the tour takes us through some of the near-in areas where many of the wooden houses escaped the Russian bombing of 1944. They are very interesting and most are undergoing some form of restoration. Unfortunately lack of maintenance is taking its toll. We go out past the Catherine Park to the Songfest grounds, a large theatre on the side of a hill. The audience portion seats upwards of 200,000 on a huge lawn. The stage holds 26,000, or more, performers. Most are in bleachers behind an orchestra area. We the Songfest grounds we travel around the base of the town past the harbor area with its four passenger-ferry terminals to the top of a hill just outside the walls. The rest of the tour is on foot.

We climb to the Upper Town to the beautiful 19th century Alexander Nevsky Greek Orthodox Cathedral. We are allowed inside. It is so beautiful we decide it is worth another visit. The inside is awash in gold and silver icons, hanging candles, and has lovely intricate painting on the walls. We also like the Onion Domes on the exterior.

In the Upper Town we also pay a visit to the 13th century Dome Church (actually the Lutheran Cathedral now) and the Parliament. After a look out over the Lower Town and the Bay, we walk down an ancient winding stairway, through the walls, to the Lower Town. From the lookout we are amazed by the mass of steep roves covered in orange tiles. The buildings are so close that we can't see many streets or even where the streets are. We hear another guide talking in English. She is bemoaning the modern buildings that are visible from the lookout. She point to one in particular, a large, contemporary, glass structure, and says that the locals have named it "The pain in the glass."

By now it is off and on rain. The guide takes us down a narrow walkway that goes trough the walls into the Lower Town. We end up at the Town Hall Square. The Town Hall is celebrating its 600th anniversary in 2004. The top of the Town Hall tower has a famous weathervane called Old Thomas. (The one there now is a copy, but we did see the original in the museum in the Town Hall.). The majority of the buildings surrounding the square are from the 15th century. In the middle is a huge market. Unfortunately it is raining, so the stalls are all covered in plastic. One was rather ingenious. The display was like a tepee, so the owner wrapped plastic around it from the base to the top. The open top was covered with an umbrella.

We are fascinated with how well preserved the walls and towers are. Unfortunately you can only walk on a small portion. We are expecting something like Chester or York, but not so. We do walk what portion is available and climb up into one of the towers.

After buying our ferry tickets to Helsinki, we walk from the dock area to see "Fat Margaret" a huge circular cannon tower that faces the harbor and really is the edge of the Old Town. It has been everything from a cannon tower to an ammunition storage facility to a prison to a museum. From here we walk up Pikk (Long Street). Pikk is lined with original 15th and 16th century houses. One of the highlights is the 16th century home of the Brotherhood of the Blackheads and St. Olaus Guild. The Blackheads were a group of unmarried merchants and this was their "club." St. Olaus Guild is the oldest, 13th century, in Tallinn. The doorway is beautifully painted and studded with large iron nails in a design. Further along we come to the 15th century building that houses the State History Museum. We enjoy the museum and the building itself as much of it remains as it was almost 600 years ago. The display traces Estonian history from pre-historic times to the 19th century.

It is fun to tour the oldest pharmacy in Europe, 1422. There are still some of the original frescoes on the walls and the beamed ceiling is beautifully painted and gilded.

The 15th century Holy Spirit Church with its beautiful clock on the outside is interesting. On the inside the pews are the "Old North Church" style. The walls surrounding them seem so high and the seats so low that we can't imagine anyone sitting in them being able to see the altar. They would have great sight lines for the pulpit, however. Because this church was originally Roman Catholic, there is still a large crucifix on the cross beam between the nave and the sanctuary.

We are surprised at the cost of things here. We expect restaurants and lodging to be quite cheap and they are exactly the opposite.

We do enjoy the food. There is one soup that is particularly good: a creamy, pea, potato, and smoked meat concoction that is so thick the spoon can actually stand up in it. We have this in a restaurant called "Molly Malone's." It is raining hard outside. We are lucky to have a table in the window and we can look across the Old Town Square to the Town Hall and watch the water come pouring out of its two garishly painted gargoyles. Another day we have what the waiter called a "cheap lunch." We stopped at a small outdoor café about one-half a block from the Town Hall. It is also a microbrewery. Fred feels like sausage, so we each order a sausage with kraut and a house beer (we end up having two). A very meager lunch. The sausage is actually meant to be a warm "starter." The upshot is that this "cheap lunch" is about $10.00.
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