|This past weekend I traveled to a country and a city that I previously knew hardly anything about, and returned with my mind completely blown and my head spinning from one of the greatest travel highs I've ever had. Tallinn, capital city of small Estonia on the Baltic Sea, would probably not make too many peoples' lists of most desired travel destinations. However, this small yet historic and beautiful city should rightly compete with Paris, Hawaii, Ireland, or Australia, because it packs so much history, culture, art, entertainment, good beer and beauty into so small a space. I'm almost happy that I knew almost nothing about this place, because it was that much more of a surprise when I finally experienced it. But I'll start from the beginning.
Friday morning saw me and our group boarding that musty old coach bus at our usual meeting spot next to Kazan Cathedral in Petersburg at a painfully early 7AM. Still exhausted from the night before (which had ended only 2 or 3 hours earlier), I climbed aboard and snoozed as we left the sprawling expanse of the city and drove across the flat expanse of extreme northwest Russia. About 3 hours later, we were woken at the Russian-Estonian border, where we disembarked from the bus, walked through a customs terminal, got our passports stamped for leaving Russia and entering Estonia, and then continued on our merry way. Immediately inside the nation of Estonia, things seemed very different. First, and most noticeably, was the language. Russian and Cyrillic script all but disappeared from signs and advertisements, replaced by the seemingly ridiculous Estonian language, which is closely related to Finnish. I'm sure if I had the opportunity to live in Estonia for a few weeks that I would pick up some of the language, but on first sight this language looks absolutely insane. Though written in regular Latin script, words and sentences looked as if someone had just started pounding random keys on the keyboard. I kid you not, some words had to have at least 40 letters, for example the word for "boat" was something like "kaapeloostrovoodichpoodkoliesseooie". One of my favorites was the word for "store", which was "pood", making signs like "alkogolipood" and "tobakopood" fairly common. In addition to this crazy tongue, almost everything had a fairly decent English translation, a marked change from the country we had just left.
Driving 3 more hours across the top of Estonia, we finally arrived in the city of Tallinn and at the beautiful Hotel Olympia. Though we were still situated about a 15 minute walk from the historic "Old Town", the neighborhood around our hotel revealed how different Estonia was from Russia. Our hotel itself was a beautiful and modern 26-story building, and would seem very much out of place in a Russian city like St. Petersburg, and more appropriate to New York or Chicago. Checking into our 4-star hotel was an experience of complete and total bliss. The staff all spoke perfect English (so we didn't have to further butcher their indecipherable language) and our hotel rooms were like a dream, complete with English-language television (along with Russia, Estonian, and Finnish), heated towel racks and bathroom floor, and most amazingly, drinkable tap water! Flipping on the tube to CNN International (the first English-language TV I had seen in almost 7 weeks), I immediately got caught up on some of the news I have been missing. Because of limited internet access and the overall crappiness and unreliability of Russian TV news, I have been very much out of touch with the rest of world news, especially from out of America. So naturally, I was very shocked to hear about another school shooting, amused that Gore won the Nobel Prize, and interested to hear about relations with Turkey over the fate of the Kurds in northern Iraq. However, my news fix was cut short because we had dinner scheduled at the hotel restaurant. Living on the Leningrad diet has made me appreciate fresh greens and spicy food more than ever, and the meal of fresh salad and spicy beef at the hotel in Tallinn was one of the best I have ever had. Even better were the breakfast buffets each morning, where I gorged myself on smoked salmon, fruit salad, orange juice, and coffee that didn't taste like it was scraped from the sidewalk. The weekend was off to a great start in Tallinn.
Following dinner, we went on a walking tour of the lower part of the Old Town, a cluster of medieval squares and cobblestone streets, which was first built in the 11th century. I don't think my jaw closed once as we wandered the twisting streets, crumbling walls, and 900 year-old buildings that now held souvenir shops and beer-houses. The only way to describe this amazing place is that its like Busch Gardens or Epcot, except real. These improbably pitched roofs, and crooked lanes were not the idea of some set designer or theme park director, but are the result of a millennium of life, work, war, commerce, peace, and history. Every corner looked like it came straight out of a fairy tale, with steep narrow streets, crooked stone towers, and castle walls that rose high above pastel-colored, warped and twisted shops. Standing in the Raekoja Plats, or Town Hall Square, it took a lot of effort for me to really believe that the amazing scene before me was not built for a movie or something. After the tour, we headed out for the night, making our way to some great cafes and taverns, meeting friendly Estonians, checking out the Finnish fast-food joint Hesburger, and capping the night off by a trip to the top of the Castle Hill, called Toompea, where a beautiful view of the city awaited us. Standing above the red, crooked roofs and steeples of the Old Town and looking past it towards the half-dozen modern skyscrapers and beyond that the cruise ships in the Tallinn harbor, I was blown away by the sheer vibrancy of the city below me. This city had all the efficiency, cleanliness, and infrastructure of any American city, but was also home to a millennium-old walled city of authentic winding lanes and crooked towers.
On Saturday morning, we met up after breakfast to check out the upper hill of the Toompea, walking past the Estonian House of Parliament, a beautiful Russian Orthodox church, the King Arthur-ish Danish Fortress, and more spectacular views of the city. Hopping back on the bus, our guide took us to some sights further outside the city. We passed by the spot where this past summer's tiff with the Russians occurred over the removal of a Red Army monument outside the National Library. Then, we proceeded on down the coast, driving through small suburban Estonian neighborhoods, and arrived at the absolutely massive band shell at the Singing Festival field. This band shell was gigantic, and is home to the Estonian National Choir, which numbers almost 30,000 voices, especially significant when considering the entire population of Estonia is only about 1.4 million, about half of Connecticut's. We then went to the modest (especially when compared to Russia's grandiose palaces) home of the Estonian president, a small unfenced pink manor which was guarded by only two Estonian soldiers. When compared to the inconceivable amount of security that Bush and Putin get, the presidential residency of Estonia seemed almost laughably unprotected, but then again, from what I had seen this past weekend, what do you need to protect yourself from when you live in a utopia? Coming back down the coast towards the downtown, we stopped at the memorial for the ferry disaster that killed over 500 people about 15 years ago, and stopped to put our feet in the frigid Baltic Sea. Arriving back at our hotel, we rested up for our second night on the town, in which a few of us found ourselves in an authentic Eastern European club experience, complete with loud techno, strobe lights, fog machines, go-go dancers, and the feeling that these people wanted to make up for 70 years of missed partying, also known as Soviet Communism. Called "Club Hollywood", my guidebook describes it as a "multilevel emporium of mayhem". I couldn't disagree.
On Sunday, we feasted for one last time at the hotel breakfast buffet, before boarding the bus for the city of Narva, back on the Estonian-Russian border. Founded by the Swedes originally but now part of Estonia, this city was the site of one of the most epic battles of Russian history in which Peter the Great's armies battered the forces of Charles XII, the boy-king of Sweden, in 1709. We climbed to the top of the Narva castle, a suitably medieval-looking bastion, which looked out across the windy Narva River towards the Russian side and the city and castle of Ivangorod, founded by Ivan the Third. After a short lunch at the castle restaurant, we crossed the border back into Russia and cruised down the dark highways of rural Russia, following the lighted haze in the sky above the metropolis we called home. Arriving back in good, old, loud, sprawling, rusty, peeling, sometimes smelly St. Petersburg, I realized that these were qualities that I actually like about the city, a feeling which was further enforced by a weekend in the sublimely clean, green, quiet efficiency of Tallinn. Tallinn and St. Petersburg are six hours and a world apart. However, as far as Tallinn goes, the place is absolutely amazing, and I sincerely hope that I can return someday. The fairy-tale streets and Scandinavian-like efficiency offer a striking comparison to the brashness, disorder, and liveliness of a Russian city like Petersburg. On its own merits though, Tallinn takes one of the top spots in my list of places I've been and I am happy to have so unexpectedly experienced its charms and beauty.