On the Road: Tallinn, Estonia
Tell me something about Estonia.
Not easy, is it? Traveling through Scandinavia shows me the huge holes in my education where parts of the world are concerned. Estonia, of course, sits in one of those knowledge holes.
When we were in Estonia, someone inquired about our trip — where we had been and where we were going. Why, she wondered, would we pair Estonia with Norway and Finland?
There are, I’ve noticed, two main travel strategies. One is to double-down and go deep into one country (or perhaps two), and the other is to sample several. If I didn’t know that I am not someone who prefers to double-down, our Italy trip in December was a good reminder that, unless I have deep and abiding love for a country (I’m looking at you, Australia and Austria!), it’s best that we mix it up.
But before we get to what we discovered about this small Baltic country, let’s talk about the harrowing journey to get from Bergen to Tallinn. At less than 700 miles, this felt about as simple to us as traveling from Seattle to San Francisco. But as we were boarding our flight from Bergen to Oslo, we received a notice that our flight from Oslo to Tallinn on LOT Airlines was canceled.
We landed in Oslo and started seeking out information about our canceled flight. By the fifth counter we finally got some answers. If you take nothing else away from this post, never ever ever ever ever fly LOT! They do not have physical desks in many airports, meaning you must do all transactions over the phone. SAS was the issuing carrier, but they are not allowed to rebook any flights, just take bags and issue boarding passes (and I have to say, SAS didn’t provide warm service either — they were quite rude with us and didn’t even know where to send us — thus the five desks).
Three hours after we landed in Oslo (and five desks later, remember) we finally got our checked luggage! When the bags came onto the carousel I was so excited. Finally something was going well!
What was supposed to be a short stop in Oslo turned into an 8-hour layover. 8. hour. layover. I don’t care who you are — there is nothing interesting enough in any airport, let alone one in Scandinavia, to occupy you for 8 hours.
But it gets better. There were no more flights to Tallin, so we had to fly to Stockholm to get a flight. And, as you might expect, we flew from Oslo to Stockholm on Ethiopian Airlines.
Not even kidding.
Once we landed in Stockholm, we had another two hours before our LOT flight to Tallinn. At this point I was about done with everything, so we waited and waited and waited at the gate for this damn plane.
Of course it was late. But it came, and 40 minutes after we took off we touched down in Estonia.
If you’re doing the math, this is 13 hours to fly 700 miles, or ~53 miles per hour.
If only there was a bridge.
I have no “Yay, we’re here in Estonia!” photos because we landed just shy of 1am. We hopped in a taxi and soon arrived at our favorite hotel of the trip, the Savoy Boutique Hotel. Not only had they given us a very quiet room, as requested, they made sandwiches for us to eat when we arrived. If Tallinn is in your travel plans, you have to stay here! Sandwiches and (wait for it) — a bathtub, which qualifies as an endangered species in Europe.
Needless to say, we missed breakfast the next morning, but we awoke to a nice day and after having lunch, started off on one of our favorite European city activities — The Rick Steves walking tour.
Estonia has an intriguing history. A small nation of about 1.3 million people, Estonia borders Russia, Latvia, and the Baltic Sea. Because of its location, it has been conquered and reconquered and then conquered again by whomever felt like it. After declaring its independence in 1918, it was annexed to the USSR after WWII; during that time period, it was heavily settled by Russians (Tallinn’s population is about 40% Russian). Since gaining independence when the USSR dissolved, Estonia has been a prosperous country, the fastest growing economy in the EU. It’s clean, modern, and tech-friendly.
But when you walk around Estonia, you see glimpses into the country’s past — the medieval walls, built with a hope that they would hold invaders out of the city, as well as art and architecture from its brief period of independence. Like Bergen, Tallinn was also a Hanseatic city, so there were those influences as well.
One place where the German ancestry was evident was the National Lutheran Cathedral. We ducked into it during our walking tour, and as luck would have it, the organist started rehearsing about five minutes after we entered. For just 2 euros apiece, a concert!
The shields on the wall were purchased for wealthy Germans who had died. This church had the same spartan feel of any other Lutheran cathedral in Europe — just one of the many influences on this country!
It wasn’t hard to find the influences of Russia either. Less than 250 miles from St. Petersburg, the Russian influence is clear in architecture.
This influence was also evident in Estonia’s art, which we viewed at the Kumu Art Museum. Confession: Sergio and I don’t always love art museums. I can say with confidence that our least favorite art museum was the Centre Pompidou in Paris, though perhaps this was closely followed by MoMA in New York. But my rant on modern art is for another day.
Outside of the landscapes and pastoral scenes that seem to define Northern European art, there was a fair amount of Socialist art, which was more or less propaganda-art. Estonia was the only Soviet state to experience some of the modern art trends of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, such as pop art. But the penalties for dissidence were steep, and some paid with their lives.
We spent some time at Estonia’s Folk Museum to learn more about folk history. It seems that many “modern” inventions didn’t make it to Estonia as early as other countries. For example, until the early 20th century, houses did not have chimneys!
With the exception of this lovely lady, most of the folks at the museum spoke little to no English (Estonian, Russian, and Finnish, which is closely related to Estonian, were the languages of choice), but thankfully we had been alerted to this fact and purchased a small guidebook that helped the dwellings come alive. It was another reminder that, until very recently, life in Estonia was hard.
One of the highlights of Estonia was talking with everyday Estonians, from shopkeepers to servers in restaurants to folks we met at attractions. To a person they were warm and welcoming, and excited to share about the country that they loved so much. None was more proud of Estonia than Kaire, the owner of Tallinn’s Cider House, a lovely cider tasting room.
Sergio, as you might know, is not only a cider aficionado but a cider fermenter himself. We learned that cider making is not traditional in any of the countries that we visited, but tiny little Estonia has the most cideries of any of them — about 11! Kaire welcomed us into her tasting room for a few hours where we talked not only about cider, but history, the Baltics, traveling in America, and life.
Moments like these make travel truly memorable, and it was warmth and hospitality like Kaire’s that make me excited to one day return to Estonia and continue our Baltic travels into Latvia and Lithuania!
Unfortunately our overall time in Tallinn was short, as we lost more than half a day due to our flight delays. But we knew that we would only get a small taste of Estonia on this trip! And for that taste, we were thankful.
P.S. Last up? Our final stop — Helsinki, Finland! It was a lovely, though very windy, end to our trip!