Anytime I had qualms about the second leg of our trip, Bryan kept telling me how much I’ll love Eastern Europe. And as much as I hate to admit it, he’s definitely right. I’m really enjoying the Europe part of our trip so far, and it might even be awhile before I have my next breakdown.
We took a 90-minute ferry from Helsinki, Finland to Tallinn, Estonia. Tallinn may be our new favorite city. It’s definitely the coolest-looking city we’ve ever seen. It’s a mix of medieval, Russian, and German styles. There are huge stone walls and towers. The Aleksander Nevsky Cathedral looks like something you might see in Moscow or St. Petersburg. Tallinn was used as the backdrop for filming many old Russian fairy tale movies. Nowadays the stone streets are filled with plenty of outdoor cafes and restaurants and parks overflowing with vibrant flowers. Words and pictures can’t even capture the charming, unique feel of Tallinn.
If you haven’t heard of Estonia before, don’t feel bad. I hadn’t until recently either. It’s a very young country. Estonia declared it’s second independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Before that, occupation of Estonia went from the Swedish, to the Soviet Union, Germany, and back to the Soviet Union. They went from one controlling super power to the next with the German Nazi Regime and the former Soviet Union. Before that, the Estonians were serfs and peasants for 700 years. The serfs didn’t have last names until someone assigned them, so many Estonian last names are random objects like “bread,” “stone,” etc. There is a huge national monument in a plaza in Tallinn that’s made of glass on the outside and steel on the inside. The glass is to remind the Estonians that their independence is fragile but the steel is to ensure them that they have a strong backbone. Since their freedom from the former Soviet Union in 1991, the country has thrived. Estonia is even home to the developers of Skype.
The other thing Bryan likes about Eastern Europe is that a lot of the interesting history is so recent. We took a KGB tour in Hotel Viru in Tallinn. The purpose of Hotel Viru was to allow foreigners the chance to visit the Soviet Union (which was a tightly closed country). They wanted foreigners to have the illusion that the Soviet Union was a wonderful place so the Hotel was extremely luxurious and offered its visitors the best of the best. Foreigners were not allowed to leave the hotel on their own, and were escorted between the hotel and ferry. Any visitors that were suspected of being spies were put on 13th floor of the hotel so that the KGB could monitor everything they said. The KGB was the department of the Russian government used to spy on and control their citizens. We saw some of the spy equipment that was used to listen in to guest conversations throughout the hotel from their headquarters on the 23rd floor. The KGB wanted to make sure that the Soviet people had no contact with the outside world. Western products like Pepsi and chewing gum were forbidden, as was any foreign currency. To ensure that hotel staff never handled foreign money, the KGB planted fake change purses in hotel room after guests checked out. The staff was supposed to return the coin purses immediately, unopened, to the hotel supervisor. If the staff member secretly opened the purse, it would explode purple-pinkish dye on the staff members’ hands and they were immediately reprimanded. Its crazy to think that these things were happening until 1991.
In Tartu, Estonia we visited the KGB Cells Museum where Estonian citizens were imprisoned, tortured and many times killed in the 1940′s and 50′s. The Soviet government wanted to make sure there were no free-thinkers that might threaten their control, so many people were arrested or deported to Siberia for no good reason. The building appeared to house normal stores and apartments, but the basement was full of dark, ugly secrets. I felt like I could smell the evil that used to reside there. The tiny, dark confinement cells were only a few feet big. It makes you sick to your stomach to think of people being forced to live in the dark in those tiny spaces, fearing for their lives. It was so spooky that I jumped when I walked out and saw the statue of a Soviet prison guard.
But Estonia isn’t just about the past. Tallinn has an awesome nightlife! The bars, pubs, and clubs are filled with locals and tourists any night of the week. We took a free pub crawl with our hostel on a Wednesday night and the places were packed. Even though Estonia has some very good beers, Estonians are serious about their shots – maybe our friend Lani is Estonian, not Filipino? ;-) The locals were extremely friendly and welcoming. They seemed happy to have foreigners interested in their home country. As in Finland, most people in Estonia speak perfect English. Estonian is their official language, which is most similar to Hungarian.
After all the reindeer we ate in Finland, it was time for Elk in Estonia. Bryan had a delicious elk roast for our anniversary dinner. It was super juicy and tender. He also had three elk pies for dinner one evening. I stuck with the vegetables – which were equally delicious in my opinion. We’ve also been frequenting the huge local markets. They have a great assortment of fresh fruits, vegetables, meats, cheeses, and pastries. Twice for lunch we ate strawberries and homemade pickles. They were by far the best strawberries we’ve ever had (we ate 2.5 pounds in one sitting).
Bryan kept teasing me that one of my highlights of our time in the university city of Tartu was when we came across a field of little hedgehogs. Real life Sonics – I was so excited. It was about midnight and the field was crawling with them (they are nocturnal). We did plan our trip to Tartu well (by coincidence) because it was probably the busiest weekend of the year with a music festival, an olden days festival, a physics olympics, and a triathlon. The city was alive with people, music, food, shopping, and activities for all ages.
When most people plan a European vacation or backpacking adventure they typically include Paris, London, or Rome. Rarely, do you hear anyone talk about venturing to Tallinn, Estonia, or the other Baltic Countries, unless they are serious travelers. That’s unfortunate, because Tallinn is a real treasure. This region of Europe isn’t dirt cheap like it recently was, but it’s still cheaper than Western Europe. It’s just as beautiful as the rest of Europe, and rich with recent history. And the summer weather is perfect (low 70′s). Definitely a nice relief from the 110 degree, 100% humidity weather we left in Virginia! I definitely see this region’s tourism booming in the near future. Do yourself a favor – don’t leave Tallinn off your list of must-see spots in Europe!