Tallinn – the beautiful Baltic

Tallinn
Beautiful Tallinn

Tallinn – the Baltic and the Beautiful

Estonia is a fascinating little country with a big heart and equally big ideas.
In my head I imagined Tallin, the capital, might be a bit like Prague with its well preserved medieval city centre, and olde worlde ambiance. 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.

Tallin
The Russians were here!

Estonia is actually more Scandinavia than Eastern Europe, just across the water from Helsinki. It is in quite a strategic position on the Baltic sea, which made it vulnerable to occupation by the Russians, then the Nazis and then the Russians again.

Tallinn – a troubled history

Invaders subjected Estonia to oppressive regimes. They persecuted a small nation who did not have the military resource to combat these mighty aggressive super powers.

Despite attempts to declare independence, Estonia was bullied and its citizens treated very badly. 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.

Tallinn
Glamorous PM

The Prime Minister of Estonia is only 36 – the youngest head of state in Europe. There is apparently an Estonian urban myth is that he was a former sock model. Prime Minister Taavi Roivas has made colourful foot coverings all the rage! Or it could just be the Estonian sense of humour.

He is also married to a pop star who was the runner up on Estonia’s equivalent to Britain’s Got Talent. They also have a daughter called Rhianna. Estonia is very much part of the modern world.

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 celebrated twenty five years of freedom 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!

Estonia goes its own way

Estonia is also one of the countries with the lowest participation in organised religion (14%) in the world. Most of Estonia is atheist. I think they were sick of being told to be orthodox Russian or Catholic by other regimes. People have rebelled against being told what to do and what to think by others.

Tallinn
Monument to freedom

The old medieval town has a large big round tower called fat Margaret. The centre of the city is very pretty to look around and there are some fine buildings. Historically, 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.

Tallinn
Cherry pancakes – yum!

We ate dumplings and gigantic cherry pancakes and elk soup. We went hunting for pickles in the barrel at the medieval pub.

Tallinn
A pickle hunter

Fun things to do in Tallinn

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. They were bugging the conversations of everyone staying there in case they said something against the mighty Soviet Union.

The walking tour was by Tallinn Traveller Tours and is actually completely free! You are asked to donate something at the end and you will really want to as it is so entertaining and informative. Our guide was Heli ‘like the first part of helicopter.’  ‘Thanks parents!’ she said.

Tallinn
Heli conducting a top tour!

She is a typical blonde Estonian – almost everyone is blonde and blue eyed here. In fact there are only about 1 million ethnic 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.

She is a typical blonde Estonian – almost everyone is blonde and blue eyed here. In fact there are only about 1 million ethnic Estonians which makes this a pretty small population.

Telling the Tallinn story

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 explains that although the Russians tried to bomb Tallinn to bits, the city had been helped by the Finnish. They captured some Russian planes and then flew them to follow the first bombers back to the Russian base. This confused the rest of the raid and the city was saved.

Tallinn could have been knocked down and rebuilt a few times but no one ever wanted to spend the money on poor old Tallinn. Consequently 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 liked this attitude – 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.

The Hotel Viru

Tallinn
The Hotel Viru

One other thing worth doing is pay a 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. They set up radio equipment to listen in to guests visiting from behind the iron curtain. Eavesdropping on anyone 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.

Tallinn
There is nothing in here!

The room has been left exactly as it was when the KGB exited in rather a hurry.  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!

Tallinn
KGB typewriter

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. 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!

Tallinn
Baltic in bloom!

The country is covered in forest and the city is surrounded by lovely parks. I would certainly recommend Estonia it for a short break and I would love to return for some further exploration!