O.K., I have to admit: when I saw Estonia on our ships’ itinerary, I figured it for a fuel stop. Why would anyone want to go to Estonia? And, where is Estonia? I pictured large Baltic women with headscarves and moustaches carrying baskets and screaming at their husbands.
That vision couldn’t be further from the truth. Tallinn, Estonia is one of the most delightful places I have ever been, and the only place on this cruise to which I would make a special return trip. I’d love to spend a week here. For a good look at Old Europe, Google images of Tallinn, Estonia.
Tallinn is a wonderful mixture of old and new. The “Old Town” is surrounded by a thoroughly modern, clean, and accessible city. Estonia has been an independent nation only since the breakup of the USSR, and they have clearly made an effort to invest in infrastructure and tourism.
The cruise terminal is relatively new, although the port of Tallinn is not. The port of Tallinn was established in A.D. 1154 on the Gulf of Finland. Estonia was ruled by Denmark and Sweden before being conquered by Russia’s Peter the Great. The location of the port made it a rich trading center during the middle ages.
The Old Town is surrounded by the walls of Toompea Castle. The streets and sidewalks are a mixture of cobblestones and cut stones. The streets are narrow, and vehicular traffic is limited. Steep red roofs, “A” style, conical, and onion dome, provide continuity to the skyline. Between the cobblestones and the red roofs are buildings that despite being hundreds of years old, look like they were newly built for Busch Garden’s Old World Amusement Park.
In the center of Old Town is a large market area. A stage had been set up, and an all-girl choir from a local school was performing. Some were in traditional costumes, others not. They sang like angels. Seriously, their music gave me goose bumps. That doesn’t happen often to this musical snob.
When the concert ended, I wandered through the shops. Amber is big in this part of the world, and the artisans turn out some remarkable work. The shops were full of amber: Lampshades, jewelry, tall ships, even a violin (decorative, of course) all made of amber were for sale.
An interesting tourist “trap” was a museum dedicated to medieval torture devices. I didn’t go in, but I found the promotional display simultaneously intriguing and repulsive. What kind of person could willingly inflict such pain on another human being? Thank goodness we are more civilized than that. Wait…is that a water-board? As I turned the corner, I was face-to face with the museums doorman, dressed as a headsman, complete with hood and axe. I can see why such a sight would strike fear into the heart of a condemned man. Fortunately, I was not a condemned man. Besides, he was only intimidating from the knees up. Below the knees, the bluejeans and Nike’s with day-glow shoestrings ruined the overall effect.
Leaving Old Town, I crossed a lovely park toward a tall building that was attracting a lot of people: the shopping mall. What a contrast to Old Town! Visually, it was as if I had time-travelled from the Middle Ages to 2009. The mall was just like American malls: three levels of mostly franchised stores. There were names I recognized: Tommy Hilfiger, Guess, The Body Shop; and names I didn’t recognize that were in a language I didn’t know. One shop that seemed to have great potential was called Wayne’s Coffee. As I found everywhere else in Northern Europe, there are American-themed restaurants. In this mall, it was the Amarillo Restaurant, decorated with Texas flair. The menu, however, failed to live up to the atmosphere on the walls. In spite of the Texas theme, the daily specials were Salmon Soup with Spicy Bread, and Ham and Mushroom Pasta. What, no steaks? Sam Houston is turning over in his grave.
The Estonian people were very friendly, and are very “Scandinavian” looking. One particularly nice fellow in the park outside the mall gave me a book I could not read and spoke to me enthusiastically in a language I could not understand. I think his name was Harry Krishna or something like that.
I’ve now been to Tallinn three times, and enjoyed it every time. And, not once have I seen a large mustachioed Baltic woman yelling at her husband.