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June 15th 2014
After traveling to Finland a number of times I was overdue to jump on the Viking ferry and head to Tallinn, Estonia. I knew virtually nothing about this country of 1.3 million people (including the population) but now I want to know more. I spent just three days in Tallinn and one in Haapsula and then moved on to Riga for three more nights. In sum, great people, food, green landscapes, chocolates, and history. Moreover, although I opted for public transportation on this trip, I wouldn’t hesitate to rent a car on a return journey to explore either country in more depth.
There are many similarities in Estonia to their neighbor across the bay (Finland) but with a fifth of the people and lower prices – a benefit to visitors. On this trip I was fortunate to have an insider in Tallinn help me out and that made a world of difference in experiencing the country. The ride over on the ferry can be easily arranged by buying a ticket online with departure in downtown Helsinki. I chose the Viking Line over the faster hydrofoil to ensure a smoother ride. Luckily onboard there was wifi as it was a bit chilly on deck so I escaped inside and caught up on things online. As soon as I arrived my friend whisked me off to the Gallery of Food Expo in Tallin. I was quickly introduced to kama, a milled flour food that is unique to Estonia and Finland. I ate it mixed into liquid white yoghurt with some raspberry jam included on top. Being not much of a yoghurt eater myself I was shocked at how well I liked it (note: a couple bags included for the trip home). The food expo included food stalls from various places around Tallinn and also a contest that offered 5 different dishes that people ranked order in terms of preference with the winner to be selected to represent Estonia at an international food expo next year in Milan. Not surprisingly I ended up eating the local brand of ice cream (La Muu) first followed by a huge burger with some sort of white cabbage topping and cheese.
I found Tallinn to be a nice city for museums, walking, parks, history, and food. The central focus of the downtown is the Old Town that reminded me of Prague’s historic district. It’s a great place to whittle away a couple hours navigating through its crooked streets, colorful buildings, and main square. Given that I grew up during the end of the Cold War and the subsequent changes that took place with the Soviet Union I was particularly drawn to the KGB museum and also the Occupation Museum. The KGB museum is housed on the ‘unofficial’ 23rd floor of the Sokos Hotel Viru. This hotel was the only option for foreign visitors when it was built and quickly became wired from bottom to top so that everything could be monitored. The 23rd floor is only accessible through the guided tour that shows the rooms from where the KGB worked and also some of the many listening devices that they used. One such example was what looked to be a typical coffee saucer that had a microphone discreetly inserted into the middle. The staff who worked at the hotel were under strict orders to report things that they learned and to return items that were found. The KGB would even test the loyalty of the workers at various times – for instance leaving a small pocketbook on a restaurant table that would spray the person who opened it in the face with red dye that would last for two weeks. The Occupation museum, while a bit difficult to follow at times, brought to life the true horrors that the Estonians endured under Communist, then Nazi, and then back to Communist rule after WWII. I also enjoyed the Seaplane Museum that sits at water’s edge just down the coast about a mile from the ferry dock. I was hesitant going in but ended up being quite impressed with the sheer construction of the museum itself. It was a huge (and expensive) undertaking to create the building that is lit with dark blue lights and has scores of boats, planes, and even a submarine hanging from its ceiling. I particularly liked the opportunity to walk through the submarine as I had never been in one before. The museum sits next to the prison that was used during Soviet times and it is also open for tours. I wanted to go but decided that after seeing the KGB museum and Occupation Museum that it could wait for the next visit.
Kadriog Park is definitely something not to be missed. Its a great place for a walk (or possibly
run) and is a short cable car ride from the Old Town area. It includes both classic and modern art galleries and also the president’s mansion. I was pleasantly surprised by both the quality and affordability of the food in Tallinn. I would highly recommend Neikid especially for lunch as they have daily three course offerings – and the price was 10 euros when I visited. Clayhills was also a nice place to get a desert and a hot chocolate while escaping the chilly nights if you are doing a walk in Old Town at night. Also make sure to go to a store or chocolate shop while in Tallinn to try out the myriad of chocolates and sweets made by the Estonian mainstay Kalev. I tasted many and took more for the journey home. Finally, I found it generally interesting to see the leftover buildings and monuments from the Soviet era scattered around the city. For instance down the coast are the leftover facilities from the 1980 summer Olympics hosted in Moscow. Of a number of cities that I have visited that were formerly under Soviet rule I think Tallinn has shown the most progress in transitioning from that phase of their history.
In addition to Tallinn I wanted to venture out of the city so I chose a quick visit to the Baltic coastal town of Haapsula. While there is not necessarily a lot of action to be had there I found the quaint town to have a special feel to it. I wished I had spent another day or two longer there. Walking around the historic area of the town that is overseen by a castle you get the feeling that you are walking a town that has seen its prominence in bygone years but is now more laid back and impresses in a different way. I just enjoyed walking around the unique houses and, of course, eating. First on that list would be Muuriaare Café. There I had one of the best lunches in recent memory that included parmesan-crusted chicken with chili and orange flavor along with amazing mashed potatoes on the side for 7 euros. The other thing that I appreciated about Haapsalu was the long seaside promenade for walking and the trails for biking and running just on the edge of town.
My final quick stopover in Estonia was in the seaside resort town of Parnu. In a number of trips to Finland I have never seen a moose either hiking or along the road so I was excited to see one in a field near the road on the way to Parnu. I mostly stopped in Parnu for the pizza at Stefani’s - something of an institution in the area. I ordered their deep dish with a couple types of cheese and pepperoni but it was a bit greasy for my taste and would probably go with the thin crust and different toppings on my next visit. The city of Parnu is mostly a beach resort but it also has a fairly small Old Town that you can visit.
I then continued down to Riga, Latvia by bus. I enjoyed seeing the endless forests that we drove through along the way and later learned about Latvia’s extensive logging history. Unfortunately, the weather was largely cold and rainy while I was in Riga. However, I did get a sunny day trip to Sigulda. Interestingly, I also took in the KGB prison and Occupation Museum in Riga. So, by the end of two KGB museums and two Occupation museums in Estonia and Latvia I had a good feel for challenges (and outrights terrors) faced during Soviet rule. In Riga the former KGB prison is a rather large but somewhat nondescript building on the corner of a downtown block. However, as you take the guided tour and walk through the rooms, cells, and interrogation chambers the harrowing feel is ever present. It was ironic to learn that the people actually cheered the change in power when the Nazis invaded the city during WWII. The Occupation Museum is even a little more difficult to follow than the one in Tallinn but was free and still an interesting learning experience.
The 'unofficial' 23rd floor of Hotel Viru in Tallinn from where the KGB watched
Riga’s central focus is the Old Town and is particularly known for it’s art nouveau designs from the early 20th century. They also have some nice parks in the downtown next to Old Town, however the riverfront seems to be de-emphasized and could use some attention. I really didn’t eat out much or get a very good feel for the food. Similar to Estonia they have their own national chocolate company called Laima. I didn’t like their chocolates as much as Kalev (Estonia) but did like their Laima clocks standing in both Riga and Sigulda.
The tourist information center is housed in the interestingly designed Blackheads House that was rebuilt according to its original specs in the last century. Just outside of this building is the spot where the first Christmas tree was decorated in 1510 by a rowdy, drinking crew of the Blackheads fraternity who thought it would be good to both decorate and subsequently burn the tree in the same night. Similar to Tallinn you can see some existing remnants of the Soviet days like the huge Latvian Academy of Sciences building just down river from the Old Town that was known as Stalin’s birthday cake in the 50’s. Another big draw in Riga is the indoor markets that I actually skipped. Unfortunately I did get to experience a few of ‘interesting’ characters who hang around that area while walking to my hotel from the bus station and also back and forth to the Old Town area. The Old Town area is worth spending some time wandering around but I didn’t find it quite as impressive as the one in Tallinn.
I was really looking forward to going to Sigulda with the chance to escape the city and do some hiking. In fact, I had planned to stay there instead of Riga but I am glad that I changed my mind. While the setting there is nice and I saw some interesting sites my expectations might have been a bit inflated. I was underwhelmed with the town itself with a lack of interesting stores or restaurants – I tried four different pastries from two bakeries and didn’t finish any of them. I also did a lot of hiking and found the trails to be poorly marked at times with the worst being the promoted trail that leads up a busy highway to get to the castle. In all my hundreds of hiking trips I can’t really recall a ‘trail’ that goes up a two lane highway with no shoulder. In addition, the most promoted site, the Turaida Castle has been largely rebuilt in recent times. I did find the Krimulda Palace to be an interesting stop. The Gutmanis Cave was worth stopping along the way to see the graffiti that’s been carved into the rock walls for the past 400 years but it wasn’t really the must see billing that it was given in the town’s promotional materials.
All in all it was a nice introduction to the Baltic nations. I must say that I enjoyed this particular trip in Estonia more than Latvia but a number of factors contributed to that.