Estonia and the city of Tallinn weren’t what I was expecting at all, but after my recent trip I now think it is a fascinating little country with a big heart and equally big ideas.
In my head I imagined it might be a bit like Prague with its well preserved medieval city centre, and certainly the crowds of tourists coming off the cruise ships for the day probably didn’t have the chance to scratch beneath the surface of the chocolate box pretty buildings and the expensive souvenir shops.
The Russians were here!
Estonia is actually more Scandinavia than Eastern Europe, just across the water from Helsinki and in quite a strategic position on the Baltic sea which unhappily made it vulnerable to occupation by the Russians, then the Nazis and then the Russians again. And they didn’t do Estonia or Estonians any favours with oppressive regimes and persecution of a small nation without the military resource to combat these mighty aggressive super powers.
Despite attempts to declare independence, Estonia was bullied and treated very badly and this history has had quite an effect on both the national character and the country’s current ambitious determination to be part of a modern Europe.
The Prime Minister of Estonia is only 36 – the youngest head of state in Europe – and an Estonian urban myth is that he was a former sock model. Prime Minister Taavi Roivas made more colourful foot coverings trendy apparently. Or it could just be the Estonian sense of humour…He is married to a pop star who was the runner up on Estonia’s equivalent to Britain’s Got Talent and they have a daughter called Rhianna. Estonia is very much part of the modern world.
Estonia means business!
Estonia has quite a radical parliamentary system and is always run by a coalition. The country is now enjoying the longest period of Independence in its history and will be celebrating it’s twenty five years of freedom later in August 2016. Every morning the national anthem is played from the parliamentary HQ just to remind everyone that Estonia is still free today! Hurray!
It is also one of the countries with the lowest participation in organised religion (14%) in the world. Most of Estonia is atheist – I liked that too. I think they were sick of being told to be orthodox Russian or Catholic by other regimes and have rebelled against being told what to do and what to think big time.
Monument to freedom
The old medieval town with its big round tower called fat Margaret is very pretty to look around and there are some fine buildings to peruse. This hill top area was largely inhabited by the upper classes and the merchants and lower classes got to live at the bottom of the hill in the rest of Tallinn.
I always like to do a few touristy things to get the feel of a place so we went on the hop on hop off open top bus ride. Most cities have them and they are quite a good way to get a visual over view of the place, even if the commentary is sometimes rather dry.
Cherry pancake – bet you can’t eat two!
We ate dumplings and gigantic cherry pancakes and elk soup, and went hunting for pickles in the barrel at the medieval pub. My two favourite things to do were the Tallinn Free tour of the Old Town and the visit to the Viru Hotel where the KGB used to hang out and bug the conversations of everyone staying there in case they said something against the mighty Soviet Union.
A pickle hunter.
The walking tour was by Tallinn Traveller Tours and is actually completely free! Obviously you donate something at the end and you really did not resent doing so, as it is so entertaining and informative. Our guide was Heli ‘like the first part of helicopter’ she said, ‘thanks parents!’
She was a typical blonde Estonian – almost everyone is blonde and blue eyed here. In fact there are only about 1 million ethic Estonians which makes this a pretty small population.
Heli was fascinating – her English was better than many English people I know, and she was very funny and engaging. The stories she told really brought the city, the country and its character to life for me. Estonia is just a little bit out there.
Heli of Tallinn – the face that launched a thousand tours!
She explained that the Russians had tried to bomb Tallinn to bits but the city had been helped by the Finnish who had captured some Russian planes and followed the first bombers back to the Russian base and thus confused the rest of the raid which saved the city. It could have been knocked down and rebuilt a few times but no on ever wanted to spend the money on poor old Tallinn so most of the old buildings survived – happily for us.
Estonians have had it rough. They don’t do small talk or chit chat and can seem quite brusque or even rude. I found it quite funny – the antithesis to the ‘have a nice day’ culture of the states for example. Don’t ask them how they are or they will make sure they spend some time telling you in detail. You need to be concrete, succinct and honest with these people. They are pessimists says Heli through and through. ‘It’s a shit situation but it’s fertiliser for our future.’ is a popular local saying.
One other thing worth doing is paying visit to the Viru hotel. This concrete tower block was a luxury Soviet hotel in the 1970’s where the KGB installed themselves on the 23rd floor with radio equipment to listen in to guests from behind the iron curtain who may have been saying rude things about the Russians. People were told not to go to the 23rd floor as ‘there is nothing there.’ Red rag to a bull if you ask me.
There is nothing in here
The room has been left exactly as it was when the KGB exited in rather a hurry and there is some achingly cool retro equipment left behind including a red phone with no numbers on it which was a direct hot line to communist HQ in Moscow. It’s all very James Bond – but it was real!
Take a letter agent XXX
Estonia is a land of surprises and contradictions. It has a violent and repressed past but it has a refreshing and up and coming feel to it. It’s big in high tech industries. Estonians invented Skype and telephone payment systems and it has more start ups per capita than any country in Europe. It has the best air quality in the world (it was jolly fresh and nice) The country is covered in forest and the city is surrounded by lovely parks. I would certainly recommend it for a short break and I wouldn’t rule out a second visit for further exploration!