Estonia

Trip Start Mar 05, 2008
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Saturday, June 14, 2008

Friday 23rd May: Estonia

The Ferry ride from Helsinki to Tallinn was a pleasant enough trip; I spent the whole time trying to finish the only English worded book I was able to find since leaving Gothenburg. It was one of these Joan Collins type romance novels and it was pure drivel. I don't know how anybody can read the stuff. The story was full of models, actresses, Mexican matadors, and plenty of horns (not just on the bulls either). I tried many a time to throw it away and stop reading it but the thoughts of not having something to read while sitting on the long bus and train journeys was just too much to bare that I always took it out of the bin before I moved on, sad isn't it. To be honest it's the only form of titillation I've encountered since I left Ireland so maybe it wasn't such a bad read in that sense. I had it finished, thankfully by the time the Tallinlink ferry docked and I decided to leave it on the boat in the hopes it might brighten someone else's day. The ferry ticket had cost Eur27 but I could have got it for Eur18 if I went with a company called Eckero lines but they had only one sailing a day and getting up at 6:00am was something I decided id pay an extra Eur9 to avoid. I'm starting to get lazy towards the early mornings. As I dis-embarked the ferry I wasn't quite sure what to expect from Estonia, or the other two Baltic states I would be visiting over the coming days. The limited history I knew was one of occupation by both Germany and the USSR, with brief periods of independence after both world wars, and a ruthless domination of the people during these occupations. Was I going to find a throw-back to a communist era, countries struggling with their relatively new independence and identities, or perhaps more likely, countries rejoicing and prospering from joining the EU and in the mood to celebrate. What ever the answer, as I stepped onto Estonian soil for the first time I was filled with a sense of excitement that I was beginning a journey through a 'New Europe', a meander behind the old iron curtain. I was staying in a hostel called 'the monks bunk' which is situated in the old town area of Tallinn for Eek270 per night. On the walk from the ferry terminal you are passing through Tallinn's 'new town' with its modern city centre, shopping plazas, and even the odd skyscraper or two, and you could be in any city in the world but when you pass through the 'Great Coast Gate' and into the winding cobbled streets of the old town it really is like taking a step back in time. Well, if you take away the throngs of tourists and the few cars bobbling down the streets you could be forgiven for thinking that you had stepped into some medieval time warp. Its visually enchanting and a must see for everyone reading this. In the middle is 'Raekoja Plats' (town hall square) and it has served as the centre of Tallinn life since the 11th century. The gothic town hall dominates the square with an array of cafes and bars outlining the edges, it really is a happening space. After dropping off my bags and a quick stop to the ATM, with the sight of all these bars I was hit with a fierce lip that could only be satisfied by a few pints of the amber nectar. Crossing Raekoja plats I was getting a really great vibe about the place and was thinking that I was really going to like it here. This thought was endorsed as I was passing one of the many cafes and bars. There was a beautiful girl standing in traditional costume outside one of them and she gave me the warmest smile as I passed. Trying to look as cool as possible I returned to her a cheeky wink and grin but as I did so I stumbled on the cobbles, just about managing to keep my feet. I must have been puce as I hurried away from the growing laughter coming from behind. There's something about cobbled streets; I find it impossible to look cool while treading the bumpy terrain. The first bar I hit was one called 'Hell Hunt' and it describes itself as Tallinn's, maybe even Estonia's, first pub but with not much of an atmosphere while I was there I was back on the cobbled streets again until I somehow found myself at the door of an Irish bar. To be honest Tallinn is full of Irish bars so it wasn't difficult, it would be much harder to avoid them, and normally the last place I want to be drinking when I'm away is an Irish bar but it seemed like it might be fate so I ventured it. You know something; fate is exactly what it turned out to be because as I sat flicking through the pages of my lonely planet guidebook I was joined, with an almighty thud, by a group of well inhibrated Finnish guys. Estonia is extremely popular with the Finns and a lot like the Irish bars it would be pretty difficult to spend a few days there and not bump into more than a few. After a bit of a get to know you conversation I discovered that they were the members of a bowling team that had been over to play a match, although I suspect that it was all just a rouse to spend some time away from the wives and let the hair down for a few days. One thing that I've discovered on my travels thus far and it doesn't matter where I might find myself, Kenya, Thailand, India, the Philippines, wherever; football is always a conversational guarantee and this chance meeting was no different. I would advise anybody that is travelling, especially if travelling on their own and even if you don't have the slightest interest in the game, to pick a team in the English Premiership and the names of a few top players and your sorted with the beginnings of any conversational introduction with so many strangers the world over. Luckily for me, Jari, the main English speaker in this merry bunch was a Liverpool supporter so we got on like a house on fire right from the off. At some point in the conversation I must have mentioned that I was Irish because after a brief sojourn to the bathroom I returned to find the table awash with glasses of Jameson whiskey. After one, another, and another after that, the karaoke got underway and although none of us quite made it up to sing all in the bar were entertained by the dance moves of some of the lads upon stage, culminating in the highlight of Jari doing the splits to a 'red hot chilli peppers' number. It was incredible fun and such a laugh and a night that will live long in the memory. A few more whiskey's later, the bar actually ran out of Jameson and not once did the lads let me put my hand in my pocket to pay for any of them, we skipped out onto the cobbles said our goodbyes and danced off into the night. When I got back to the hostel I started chewing the ear of a girl who works in the hostel about my night and my trip for what probably seemed like hours to her before crawling up the stairs to bed really happy with my days work. I think I was already asleep before I managed to lift myself to the top bunk.

If I went to bed happy, I awoke the next morning less so. The throbbing in my head from a vicious hangover was nearly enough to keep me in bed for the day but with all the energy I could muster I managed to peal myself from the shower walls and head out for a days sightseeing. The hostel is one of the best I've ever stayed, there's a really good relaxed atmosphere as its managed and run by backpackers. An English guy Tim manages the place and always has the kettle on the boil, while Gemma was an American backpacker who was doing a few shifts in return for free room and board. If you like a city and want to hang around for a few weeks it's a great way to spend some time while not breaking your budget. Most hostels have plenty of opportunities to do this and if I had more time I might have considered staying for a while, getting to Greece to meet my mate was keeping my eye on the calendar. Gemma was the girl I had kept up the night previous and was reminding me about a show we had been watching on 'animal planet' about bears. Hilariously while informing the viewer about how great bears are the programme cut to some old woman sitting on the porch of her house in a rocking chair, double barrel shotgun in her hands and she says in a real strong hicksville American accent "the only good bear is a dead bear". We were rolling around the floor laughing at this and for the remainder of my stay that became the phrase when talking about anything, "the only good old lady is a dead old lady", and so on. Some hostels you stay in can be a bit sterile, with no charm but thankfully most that id stayed while in Europe were excellent, they seemed to be getting better and better all the time.

In Tallinn the old town is a sight to behold in itself and with the market stalls dotted around it's a really pleasant ramble but other than that there is not a tremendous amount of sights to see. The old town itself is two-tired with the remnants of the old city walls still visible in the lower part of town. A real nice stroll to take is from Toompea and Hirvepark passing a cannon tower, that I believe is called Kick in De Kok, St Olaf's church, the Danish king's tower and Toopmpea castle itself, which nowadays houses the Estonian parliament. I then continued along the outside of the city walls passed Tall Herman's tower coming to a set of steps that when climbed provide great views over the city, it is even more spectacular when viewed at night when the lights of the city brighten the darkened sky. The Pikk Herman 'tall Herman's tower' tops Toompea castle, and the flag on the top of the tower is one of the best-known symbols of Estonian independence. Crowning the hill of Toompea is the Alexander Nevesky Cathedral, the largest and grandest of Tallinn's orthodox cathedrals. Not far from here you will find the Lutheran Toomkirik or cathedral of St Mary the virgin, the oldest cathedral in Tallinn. I had just about had my fill of churches by this time and was choosing to ignore the calls of all the saints and instead answer the call of a different kind for it was the Heineken cup final in rugby and the Munster boys were playing. I headed for the nearest Irish bar and revelled in a fine display by the boys in red. If I was 'doing it' for the Munster boys while breaking through the pain barrier along the west highland way then the lads were paying me back in spades. Needless to say I was again fairly sauced up by the time I got back to the hostel that night but in just enough time to watch the voting in the Eurovision song contest. It was great craic, the looks on the faces of the Estonian's when Russia won was priceless. Unashamdly I admit I've always been a fan of the eurovision song contest and will watch it religiously. To watch the contest in Eastern Europe is a crazy experience, they go mad for it. As the Estonian's were threatening to throw themselves out of the third story window in protest at the result I checked my email quickly before heading for the nest. I was surprised and delighted to discover that Viktorria, a colleague from my old job, was going to be in Tallinn the following day and was eager to meet up for a pint. We arranged to meet in the town hall square the following morning under the clock of the gothic Town Hall; I had a thought of Dublin at that moment and of meeting people under the Cleary's clock in O'Connell St. It might be different worlds but some things will always remain the same.

On my way to meet Viktorria I had to call into the ATM to replenish my ever-dwindling funds only to find that id misplaced my Visa Card. In the midst of a panic attack I had just enough composure to recall the last time I remembered having it was when I took out money on Friday. Since it was now Sunday my loss had gone unnoticed for quite awhile. I was more then a little worried that my bank account might have been cleared in this space of time. Running to meet Viktorria I was out of breath by the time I arrived. I mustered up just enough breath to tell her what id done and that I needed to go back to the hostel ASAP to call my bank. I explained that I most likely left it in the pass machine and she was able to inform me that the ATMs give out the money first and you have to press a button to say no more transactions before you get your card back. With this information I knew that I had left it in the machine, hopefully the card just got swallowed. When I got back to the hostel, Tim was real cool and said I could use the hostel phone for free to call home and sort out the bank. Thankfully there had been no transactions on my card and I was able to cancel it no problem. Luckily I had a MasterCard as a back up so I wouldn't be stuck for cash; it just meant that I was going to have to be real careful with this one. It's amazing but this is actually the second time that I've done this. The last time I was in Bangkok I walked away from the machine counting my money and not realising or hearing the beeps coming from behind me indicating that the card was still there. There is no way you would make the mistake at home because you get the card returned to you first and the whole reason your at the bank in the first place is to take out money so your not about to walk away without it. Unfortunately over there the machines don't swallow the cards and some guy picked it up and bought a couple of hundred Euros worth of computer software. The bank covered it eventually but not before I had to convince them that they could either contact the computer company and cancel the order, or even get the person arrested as the goods had to be delivered to an address. They saw my logic!. I told myself at the time that I got off lightly and it was a lesson learned; 'ill never make the same mistake again'. It seems I have to learn every lesson a minimum of twice. With the panic over I had worked up a little hunger, so too had Viktorria so we went to this place called 'Krompressor', a café famous for these enormous pancakes that are stuffed with any type of filling you can think of. You will be full for the rest of the day after eating one. We then headed to 'Beer House' for some drinks after. The bar is one of Tallinn's only microbars and the beer they serve is fantastic and comes in these massive jugs, you're getting plastered after just two. While chatting to Viktorria about life back in Dublin it was incredible to think that since I began this trip I've met up with so many former work colleges, it seems I can resign from the job but ill never quite be able to leave. It was great to see her and good for me to get an idea of how life has changed for people in Tallinn in the last few years. You can tell from the café culture and the very fashionable Estonian youth that it's a country and city on the up. Back at the hostel that night we cooked up and big feed and watched 'superbad' over a few beers. It's got to be one of the funniest movies I've seen for many a year. Well recommended!

It was about 7:00am the next morning when the bus pulled out of Tallinn station, an early start but one that was necessary for the day trip I was embarking on. Viktorria had given me a travel tip to take a trip out to Saaremaa, an Estonian island on the west coast. It would be an 8hr round trip so to have any time to explore the island I needed to leave early. She had mentioned that its something she and her mother like to do when she is home and when she also mentioned that it's also off the tourist trail somewhat I was eager to go. Once negotiating our way out of Tallinn, the bus took a southwesterly route towards Virtsu where we had a short ferry ride (30mins) from there to the island of Muhu, which is linked by a bridge to Saaremaa. If I was in any doubt as to whether the trip would be worth it that doubt was quickly expelled as the drive passes through some of the country's most beautiful scenery. The stretch of road from Muhu to Saaremaa is the most impressive where some traditional windmills dot the landscape. The capital of Saaremaa is Kuressaare situated on the Gulf of Riga coast. It's a small quaint little village that is easily accessible on foot, or more popular is to rent bicycles, to see the sights on offer. The most important sight is the Episcopal 'Bishops' castle situated within the town park and surrounded by a mote. Its was a fantastic day, I couldn't have asked for any better, and it was great lying out on the grass immersing myself back into nature having spent some much time in cities since leaving Norway. There are some great forest trails with an abundance of wildlife and flora; it's a real nature lover's paradise. If your not into nature then perhaps you will be interested by the islands other claim to fame, beer. Through the years the islands inhabitants have always been great beer brewers and drinkers and the tradition lives on with a number of home produced beers. Tehumardi is a strong beer but one id recommend. I sank a few while sitting out around the grounds of the castle bathing in the warm sun. I returned to Tallinn that night feeling refreshed and energised and with the feeling that it was time to move on. I would leave for Parnu in the morning and stop while on my way to Latvia.

Parnu, about 2 hours by bus from Tallinn Eek95, is Estonia's leading seaside resort. It's a magnet for spa-seeking Finns and party loving Estonian's all attracted to its 1km long beautiful white sandy beach, the health spa's, casinos and other pleasure amenities. Although the weather was excellent the holiday season had not yet kicked off so it was fairly quiet and the hostel where I stayed, the 'Louna hostel' Eek200 per night, was almost completely empty. Still I didn't let that stop me from enjoying my time taking full advantage of relaxing by the beach. The beach is beautiful and one of the best I've experienced in a long time. I can see why it would be a hot spot during the summer season. No matter what the time of year if I'm at the beach I cannot resist a swim, I just love the water. I remember I went to Goa in India with a friend of mine once, Roie, and we were staying in a little guesthouse right on the beach. We could just fall out the door in the mornings and we would practically be in the water. The day would start with us laying out the towels on the beach and I would say that 'I'm just going for a little swim' more often than not that little swim would see me coming back an 1hr to 2hrs later. I had already had a swim in Gothenburg on this trip and it was quite a cold experience. Almost a month had passed since then so I felt confident that the sea would be a bit warmer now, actually who am I kidding I didn't even think about the temperature of the water, it never even crossed my mind. However it probably should have because the water was f...., let's just say it's not called 'the Baltic sea' for nothing. After 10mins of torture I was thinking that it might be time to get out before any extremity decided to drop off when I noticed a few people standing around my things. Thinking that they might like the look of my clothes or ruc-sac I quickly left the bitter cold of the water and made my way to my things. When I got there an old Estonian guy said something that I didn't quite catch and when I asked him to repeat it he said 'are you crazy??' replying that I wasn't he shook his head and replied 'me thinks you are crazy' and pointed to the water quivering. After satisfying himself that I was in fact crazy he bid farewell and walked down the beach with the others in his group. Watching them go i was thinking that he might have been a bit loopy himself until I noticed that as far as the eye could see, in both directions, there wasn't one other person in the water. Touché, I thought...one-nil to old Estonian guy. Besides the beach there is not a great deal of other sights to interest the tourist in Parnu. There are some nice parks and in the centre of town is the 'Independence Monument' where Estonia first declared independence in 1918. The monument is a glass rendition of the balcony where the independence treaty was signed along with a replica of the declaration itself. There is a massive monument at the gate to the cemetery on Riia mnt that was erected to commemorate the 'heroes' who fell in defence of Parnu during the World War II. Now the monument itself is pretty non-descript but it's worth a visit after being told a story about the whole event from a guy in a bar later that night. The battle was a tug of war between soldiers of the Soviet Union and those of Nazi Germany. Local legend has it that the 20 or so Soviet soldiers who died forcing out the fascists, and whom the memorial commemorates, actually died after drinking something left behind in a tank by the retreating Germans that smelt like alcohol but wasn't. The hilarity of the Estonian people, all hail the conquering heroes, except Soviets! I think that story is a great way to leave Estonia, I was still laughing as the bus set off for Riga the next morning.
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