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Don’t Forget About Estonia!

Don’t Forget About Estonia!


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!

  • Mama Waugh

    Looks wonderful, happy you are enjoying such a beautiful place, but I am still missing y’all. Love ya!

    …and little sonic looks like Erik’s little friend that he had for a while. 🙂

  • grandma

    I really never heard of Estonia,but it sounds like a great place to visit.I’m with you Kristin I think I would pass on the elk.
    Much love,Grandma

  • Ian Waugh

    As always very pretty pics…. Love the first few 🙂

    • Bryan Waugh

      Thanks Ian!

  • Sofia Hart

    Hey Kristin and Bryan, so glad to see you on the road again! I love your blog! Estonia looks so beautiful, and the hedgehog is very cute.

    I’ve been wandering around the U.S. – am in Santa Barbara, CA now, and headed to Albuquerque/Santa Fe next. In advance of a likely trip to Southeast Asia via Brazil and maybe Africa, I wanted to ask you experienced travelers a couple questions (esp. since you were so helpful with my ipad question a few months ago).

    1. What do you guys do, if anything, about cell phone usage abroad? Maybe you just make-do without one?

    2. Bryan, your photography is really amazing. Do you mind telling me what kind of camera you have? I think I may have looked at it in Maranhão, but don’t remember.

    Happy travels!!!

    • Bryan Waugh

      Great to hear from you!
      1) For S.A. we didn’t use anything. Just skype on the computer. For this part of the trip a friend of ours gave us her iPhone3. We subscribed to Google Voice (you need a Gmail account), which assigns you a phone number (you get to pick from a long list of numbers). You should do this in the U.S. though, b/c it needs to be tied to a “real” number and it will call that number with a secret code when setting it up. Basically, we can now call any U.S. number for free, text for free; and receive texts, voicemails, and calls for free when we’re in a WIFI zone. You can do this all by computer as well, but we have an APP (Talkatone) setup on the iPhone that allows it to work like a normal phone in WIFI. It’s a pretty awesome setup, and all FREE!
      2) I have a Nikon D90 with a 18-200mm lens. Honestly though, I’d be looking into a smaller camera for extended travel (like a Canon G12). My camera is just kind of too big to carry around with all the other stuff we have. My camera’s 3 years old, so I know there are newer versions out there too.
      Hope this helps!

  • Dad Munch

    Interesting contrast between the beauty of Tallinn and the ugliness of previous KGB activities there. I think you’re right about the future increase in tourism in the region.

  • Mama Munch

    Sounds like you are definitely enjoying this leg of the trip much better already. Fascinating blog. Daddy liked all the KBG stuff since he is the orginial “International Man of Mystery”. Now I want a hedgehog. Excellent photos as always, Bryan. Miss you guys. Love you.

  • Ashley

    We’re bummed to not make it to Eastern Europe on this trip, but after seeing your last few posts we definitely need to make it happen in the future!

  • Anna Anthony

    Estonia has definately been added to my travel list. Thank you guys for sharing your experiences ; )

  • Leslie

    I’m an American with Estonian, Lithuanian and Italian heritage. I have only been to England and Scotland and am hoping to get to the rest of Europe soon. Italy has always been on the list, but Estonia and Lithuania have been drawing me in as I learn more about them. Your posts have made me very excited about these places. Thank you for this great blog. I have added you to my Google Reader!

  • iolanthe

    Glad you enjoyed the place, it was a highlight of our European trip. I couldn’t quite work out whether you were serious when you said “If you haven’t heard of Estonia before, don’t feel bad. I hadn’t until recently either.” Surely this can’t be true?

    • Kristin Waugh

      Well, I’d heard of it before but really never thought much about traveling to the small Baltic countries. Estonia’s only been independent since 1991 so it’s a relatively young country. I’m definitely glad we went.

  • Ted

    Hi Kristin,
    Two years ago I visited Russia, Finland, Estonia and Sweden. I liked Estonia and its people. Tallinn is a beautiful city. In Tallinn I remember visited Rusalka, interesting monument commemorating 165 Russian sailors who perished in 1893 on the Baltic Sea during a terrible storm. I’m sure you enjoyed visiting this interesting city. Keep up the good work. Ted

  • Erin Wederbrook Yuskaitis

    I have a lot of catching up to do! Sorry I’ve been MIA with reading and commenting on your posts. Estonia looks just beautiful, and I’m so glad you were there on such a bustling weekend. I love all the architectural shots, Bryan!

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