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Four Days in Tallinn

This is a narrative of a vacation trip that my wife Frances and I took to the Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) during August 14-28, 2017. This was an independent trip, not a package tour. We are in our early 60s, reasonably healthy, and used to walking. We are Americans, living in Alexandria Virginia. Neither of us speaks any of the languages of the three countries.

Monday, August 14: Alexandria to Amsterdam
We had taken the previous Friday off and thus had a full three days to prepare. Our two cats went to the vet clinic for boarding on Saturday morning. We were well rested and had everything in order. On Monday morning, we had breakfast at Bob & Edith’s, a diner down the street from us. Our final preparations were finished by 2:00 PM. After that, it was a matter of waiting for the shuttle to arrive.

The Super Shuttle was due at 2:48; it arrived ten minutes early. The van was full. We were the last passengers to be picked up. Off we went to Dulles Airport. Airport shuttle drivers are notorious for erratic driving and keeping an eye on several cell phones while on the move, but this one was less distracted than most. The other passengers were quiet.
As we checked in at the airport, the person manning the counter asked where Tallinn was. He had never checked anyone through there before. We explained that it was in Estonia. Airport security was crowded, but it moved along pretty well. I started to get a headache when we reached the gate and took some Advil to deal with it.

In due course, we boarded the KLM flight to Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport. While the boarding process was no more onerous than usual, the plane itself had to wait in a queue before we could take off. At one point the captain said that we were 7th or 8th in line.
As is our custom, Fran and I had seats across the aisle from each other. That way we can see each other but both of us can get out when we want to. It’s usually too loud for any conversation on an airplane anyway. Our seats were near the front of the economy section, just a few rows aft of the forward lavatories. I settled in with my sound-canceling headphones and neck pillow, for the long haul across the ocean. The guy in front of me kept trying to recline his seat into my knees.

KLM’s food is generally pretty good, as airline food goes. Dinner was chicken with rice, salad, cheese, crackers, roll with butter, a little spice cake, and some white wine. I did some reading and tried to sleep. I had the map on the video screen. I got out my budget android tablet and tried to coax it into playing some music.

So engaged with such things, I looked up and noticed that Fran was sitting in the jump seat near the lavatories, surrounded by flight attendants. Something’s wrong here. I got up to see what was going on. She had passed out while in the lavatory. She was still pretty groggy when I got there. They found a doctor, who came and took her vital signs with the equipment in the first aid kit. The flight crew found some open space and blankets at the end of first class where she could lie down. The doctor didn’t think it was very serious but said that we should take it easy. The crew found some extra snacks to boost her energy. I answered a number of questions so that they could fill out their report. Eventually Fran felt strong enough to return to her seat. It was a scary incident, right at the beginning of the trip.

Walking miles: 1.1.

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Tuesday, August 15: (Amsterdam to Tallinn)
The airline crew had told us that they would have a wheelchair waiting for us to take Fran to our connecting flight. Either they didn’t follow through, or we somehow missed it. After looking around for a bit at the gate, we just walked to the Baltic Air gates. It was quite a long walk. That was okay, as we were scheduled for a two-hour layover. As it happened, it was even longer than that, because the flight was at least an hour late. We shared a Clif Bar and waited.
The plane was a two-engine turboprop, with two seats on either side of the aisle. In order to board we had to walk out of the terminal and get on busses that took us out to the plane. Naturally, we boarded by walking up the steps (just like the President). We were seated way in the back. It was crowded and pretty noisy as we droned our way across Europe. Even so, we were so exhausted and jet-lagged that we slept most of the way.

We landed at Tallinn and reversed the process, going down the stairs and boarding a bus to take us into the terminal. The usual rituals of airport arrival went without incident. Our plan was to take the city bus into town. It wasn’t hard to find, as there were a lot of people waiting for it. In fact, it was quite crowded. We paid our two Euros each and got on board.
I am a nervous bus rider. I’m always afraid of getting off at the wrong stop or not getting off at the right one—especially in a country where we not only didn’t know the language but didn’t have any cognates to lean on. Fran is more confident, as she has been riding busses on her own since her age was in the low single digits. As it turned out, our stop was a major terminal, and so most of the other passengers alighted at the same time.

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Tuesday, August 15: (Tallinn)

There we were, standing on the street with our luggage in a strange city. There is always a moment of panic when we don’t know which way we our facing and the route that looked so straightforward on the map is clear as mud on the ground. We shook that off and started in the direction of Old Town. Fran was handling the map and knew what landmarks to look for. It wasn’t long before we came around a corner and sighted the fairy-tale-like walls and the Viru Gate. The plaza leading towards the gate is lined with little booths, most of which were selling fresh flowers. There were a fair number of persons moving through the gate in both directions, many clearly tourists. This must be the place. Inside the gate is a wide cobble-stone street lined with medieval buildings. Nothing like cobblestones to make you wonder when your roller-bag is going to throw a caster. The buildings may be old, but their uses are modern, and we spotted a McDonald’s, a supermarket, and an Irish pub within a few steps of the gate.

Our first task was to find the Cru Hotel. It is on Viru, a short walk from the gate. We had a little bit of trouble because its unassuming door was disguised by its own dining tables and umbrellas. We were buzzed in through the door. The office was up a short flight of stairs off the main corridor, and so we dragged our luggage up. After going through the check-in process, we dragged our luggage back down the stairs and started wending our way through twisty brick-faced corridors, with a few more sets of steps. Like many very old buildings, the hotel has been adapted for many purposes, leaving its internal layout something of a jumble. However, once we had finally gotten to the end of the trip and opened the door using the great big key, we were very pleased with what we saw. It was one of the biggest hotel rooms we have been in. It had a seating area with a sofa and coffee table, a big wardrobe, and a four-poster bed. The big windows looked down into the hotel courtyard, where the restaurant was.

After unpacking what we would need for our stay, we went out to take a look at the town. The Old Town is very pretty, with many Medieval buildings and squares. It is also very touristy. There were people everywhere. Well, we were there too.

The one “attraction” that we went into was the Hellemann Tower. From the street we could see that there was a gallery running along part of the old wall. Since we have such an interest in castles, we went in to take a look. It wasn’t much. There was a small museum in the tower. The gallery along the wall was more interesting to look at from the street level than was the view downwards. All one could see on the opposite side of the wall was a parking lot. We got some good photos, but I wouldn’t recommend it.

It was getting on towards dinner time, and we started scouting around for a restaurant. There are, of course, many eateries in Tallinn. We always have trouble making this choice—trying to puzzle out the menus, looking at how crowded or formal the establishments seem to be, and so on. We finally decided on La Bogetta, an Italian restaurant. We tend to dine earlier than most people, and so it wasn’t crowded. After we arrived, a large party of Italians came in, which we took as a good sign. I had the wild boar lasagna with sautéed mushrooms on the side. We shared a cheese plate for dessert and had cappuccino.
Although it was still pretty early, we went back to the hotel to finish our unpacking and plan for the next day.

Walking miles: 5.4.

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Wednesday, August 16 (Tallinn)

We slept rather later than we’d planned, but we were still in time for breakfast. The hotel breakfast was not in the actual restaurant but in a little room off to the side. The buffet wasn’t extensive, but it had enough to choose from. We could look out the front windows of the hotel onto the street as the town woke up and got to work.

Our plan for the day was to follow a walking tour in one of our guide books in order to get a more systematic look at old Tallinn. We started at a new spot, Freedom Square, which commemorates Estonia’s 1989 second independence, this time from the Soviet Union. We followed the tour’s directions past the Kiek in de Kok (“peek in the kitchen”) tower and into the Upper Town (Toompea), where we passed the Alexander Nieveski Cathedral and St. Nicholas’ Church. We walked among narrow, winding streets and weren’t really sure exactly where we were, following the guidebook one street at a time.

As we neared a scenic overlook on the city walls, it became clear that we weren’t alone. Wave after wave of tour groups appeared, each following its guide holding up a numbered “lollipop.” It started to get on my nerves, as it was hard to see anything, let alone take good pictures, with all the people in the way. I noted with some chagrin that some of the lollipops bore the Viking logo. We have traveled on Viking river cruises many times (although these groups were from their ocean cruise ships). It gave me a different perspective to see how disruptive one of these guided tours can be. The platforms that offered scenic perspectives were jammed with people holding out phones and selfie sticks.

We eventually outpaced the tour groups and found ourselves in a park area outside the city walls, the site of the Tallinn Flower Festival. This was one of our planned sights. Fran is a professional gardener, and I have picked up a thing or two over the years so that I have some idea what I’m looking at. There were areas planted by different designers according to different themes. They ranged from the picturesque to strange (sometimes both), and they were ranged against the backdrop of the city walls and towers.

Around this time, I looked up into the sky and was surprised to see the distinctive shapes of two American A-10 attack planes flying over the city. After the trip I learned that they were from the Maryland Air National Guard, which was conducting exercises in Estonia at that time, including operating from highways as improvised landing strips.

We came out of the show at the north end of old town, by the Fat Margaret tower. Beyond that was the cruise port. Turning back into the town, we walked down Pikk street, the main north-south axis. We passed the building holding the KGB cells, noting it as a place we wanted to visit later. Then we came upon Hell Hunt, a pub that was mentioned in all of our guidebooks. It was a good time to take a break. We sat on a high table inside and had a small (0.3 L) beer while watching the parade of people outside. The pigeons were also doing a good business cleaning up the leftovers at the outdoor tables.

We continued south into the heart of the old town. We passed Tallinn’s House of the Blackheads. The Brotherhood of the Blackheads started out as a military order but later became a medieval guild for unmarried merchants—sort of the frat house of the Hanseatic League. They were so called because their patron was Saint Maurice, who was African. Back in the day, all of the port cities on the Baltic had one of these houses. The Tallinn version is heavily decorated with (gilded) guild symbols and a bust of their patron.

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Wednesday, August 16 (Tallinn)--continued

By the time we got to the southern part of town, it was getting on dinner time (at least by our reckoning). We went back to our hotel to have a sit-down and work out where we wanted to eat. We settled on Porgu, a brasserie that was described as having Estonian food. You enter through a gateway from the street, then through a door in the wall and down stairs to a barrel-vaulted cellar. The metal chairs were surprisingly heavy. They have an extensive beer list, and so we ordered small glasses so that we could sample more than one. I had the duck fillet with sweet potatoes and dark bread. Duck, as we were to learn in the course of the trip, is a common menu item throughout the Baltics. They prepare it very well.

After dinner we walked around a bit more, just enjoying the evening. We then decided we wanted to get some ice cream. That turned out to be more difficult than we thought. All the little shops and things were already closed. Eventually we left old town and crossed over to the big shopping mall we had passed on the way from the bus station. There we found a modern chain ice cream store and bought some ice cream sandwiches. After that, we returned to the hotel to unwind, plan the next day’s activities, and get some sleep.

Walking miles: 4.5.

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Thursday, August 17, 2018 (Tallinn)

We did a better job of setting our alarm and awoke around 7:00. After breakfast in the hotel, we set out. The plan for the day was to visit some museums and historic sites, but they weren’t open so early. We decided to check out a few scenic overlooks before the tour groups were out. That worked out well. We got some nice views of the cruise port and, in the other direction, the rows of Soviet-era apartment blocks that you see in so many post-Communist countries. That was a warm-up for our first stop, the Estonian Museum of Occupations.

Located a short walk south from Old Town, the museum is housed in a low glass-and-steel building that has an industrial vibe to it. Most of the exhibit is in a space that makes up the ground floor. The museum traces Estonian history from its brief independence after World War I, the Soviet occupation in 1940, the Nazi conquest during World War II, the return of Soviet occupation, and the restoration of independence at the end of the Cold War. The exhibit alternates between display cases of artifacts and video screens which can be set to different languages. As a general rule, I’m not fond of watching videos in museums. I’d rather look at real things than watch TV. However, these told a compelling story. They gathered together the voices of people who lived through the different eras and described what it was like. The displays were an interesting mixture of documents and everyday articles through the war years and the Soviet era. We spent more time than we expected and still didn’t watch every video all the way through.

In the basement of the museum are some temporary spaces. They were hosting an art show when we visited. There is also an impressive bank of Soviet cryptography machines. In a nice touch, a large bust of Lenin guards the restrooms.
After leaving the museum, we went back to Old Town, to the Kiek in De Kok Tower. This tower is also the departure point for the tour of the tunnels under the city’s fortifications. We wanted to make reservations for a tour before deciding on our next destination. As it turned out, a tour in English was just starting, and so we hurried in to join it.

The tunnel system was started by the Swedes in the late 17th Century when they fortified Tallinn (then called Reval) against the Russians. This was to no avail, as the Russians took the city at the end of the Great Northern War in 1721. Then they had to build up the fortifications more, to prevent the Swedes from taking it back. In addition to walls, bastions, and magazines, the works included tunnels for communications and storage. The tour runs backwards in time, starting with the post-restoration era, when the tunnels were used by homeless people. In the 1980s they were the venue of clandestine punk rock parties. During the Cold War they were fallout shelters, and they served a similar function against air raids during World War II. In the earliest period, they doubled as a prison for the enemies of the Czar. It’s cold and dark down there. The tour supplied us with blankets to wrap around our shoulders. My low-light photography skills were pushed to their limits—not always successfully. In some chambers there were mannikins of school children sitting on the benches in gas masks, as they did for preparedness training during the Soviet era.

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Thursday, August 17, 2018 (Tallinn)--Continued

Upon exiting the tunnels, we emerged, blinking and shivering. We found ourselves in Freedom Square. We went back to the Kiek in de Kok Tower to see the above-ground exhibits. The tower is about Tallinn history, but the underlying theme isn’t clear. There are exhibits of torture instruments, care for the dead, and seafaring. On the upper floors the displays get more coherent, focusing on the tower’s function as an armory. The displays progress through early gunpowder weapons forward, including the World Wars and the Resistance, all the way to the modern Estonian Army. As a bonus, there are some great views from the upper stories.

As we left the tower we found ourselves at the entrance to another, the Maiden’s Tower. We thought, “Okay, we’ll take a look.” We paid the admission and went in. This was a mistake. While there were some historical displays, it was four or five stories of cafes. In effect, we had paid admission to a food court. Less than gruntled, we left and went our way.

We stopped at a café called Domberg’s for a snack of garlic bread and beer, which was surprisingly satisfying. We sat at an outdoor table and watched the stream of people passing by, some in tour groups and some on their own.

Our next stop was St. Nicholas’ Church, which is now the Niguliste Museum, dedicated to ecclesiastical art. Its most important exhibit is the remaining panels from the Danse Macabre, depicting death leading people of all classes to their final destination. It also has some very find folding altar pieces, which you can view from both sides. The collection rounded out by items from the church treasury, a display of guild badges, and a collection of local families’ heraldic crests.

It was getting late by then, but we stopped at the Tourist Information center to get directions on how to find the city bus that would take us to intercity bus station. Although we had another full day left in Tallinn, we wanted to be sure we knew what we were supposed to do when it came time to leave.

After returning to the hotel to reorganize and rest a bit, we set out to find dinner. We went to Clayhill’s, a gastropub that featured in most of the guidebooks. It was a good choice. Another good choice was sitting inside. It started raining heavily. I used my little backup camera to take a video of the downpour, including the diners trying to stay dry underneath the umbrellas outside. We lingered over dessert. When the rain let up a bit, we got out our own umbrellas and made a dash for the hotel.

Shortly after we went to bed, someone made the odd choice to run a power washer in the courtyard. It was disturbing, to say the least. It eventually stopped.

Walking miles: 5.9.

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Thursday, August 18 (Tallinn)

Our first order of business after breakfast was to find the city bus stop. This turned out to be more difficult than we thought. We had thought it would be inside the bus station where we had arrived from the airport. However, none of the bus bays showed the route we needed. We left the station and started scouting around the area. After going all the way around the block, we finally found the proper stop on the street. After taking a few pictures so that we would be able to find the area again, we went back to Old Town. (It was a good thing that we make this reconnaissance instead of assuming we could find the bus stop in the morning.)

The Fat Margaret Tower is so called because of its squat shape (I don’t know where the Margaret part comes from). It stands at the northern end of Old Town and guards against the dangers posed by the cruise port. Today it functions as a maritime history museum, running from archeological finds to the present day. It has artifacts, navigation instruments, and models of ships and facilities. One popular display includes a hard-hat diving suit and all of the air pump apparatus to support it. The emphasis is on civilian maritime use, although there are a few models of warships. The top of the tower contains a snack bar and an open viewing platform. To reach it, you go up a somewhat unnerving set of metal stairs on the outside of the tower.

After leaving Fat Margaret, we headed south and went into the KGB Cells Museum. These are in the basement of a rather nice looking Nouveau-style building. The cells operated between 1941 and 1950 as a site for interrogation, including torture, before the victims were executed or shipped to the gulag. The current museum shows the cells as they were, plus interrogation rooms and a tiny, phone booth-sized isolation cell. Some of the cell doors have been repurposed as video displays, with the screens set into the holes through which the guards used to view the prisoners. It’s a creepy reminder of what went on during those years when Estonia was behind the Iron Curtain.

We next stopped at Hell Hunt again for a sandwich and a beer. Continuing down the street, we went into the Estonian History Museum. This is housed in the Great Guild Hall, which was the center of power in medieval times. One intriguing exhibit is a large hall filled with multimedia stations that each describe one small part of Estonian life or character. There is also an armory showing the weapons used throughout Estonia’s tumultuous past, and a treasury showing the coins used through the country’s history. One room contains objects connected with famous people. Some highlights include a document signed by Napoleon, a score written by Mozart, and a spoon used by Lenin. There is also a section on the Great Guild itself and how the building functioned when in its original use.

After stopping a Clayhill’s for a cappuccino we went into the Tallinn City Museum, which is in a former merchant’s townhouse.

Some of the exhibits were clearly designed for children, with cardboard cutouts that you could move to chop wood, etc. It, too, had an armory, which featured a large screen TV showing a man disassembling some of the weapons and demonstrating how they worked. There was a room-size model of the city as it looked in 1825. In the basement a room was filled with examples of fine china. I don’t know why.

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Thursday, August 18 (Tallinn)--continued

After this, we returned to our hotel to regroup and look over dinner possibilities. We wanted an Old Tallinn kind of restaurant, but not one as touristy as some we’d seen We finally settled on the Peppercorn. The staff were in period dress, and the menu featured local cuisine, but they weren’t pretending to be a medieval inn. I had pork tenderloin with roasted potatoes and sauerkraut. We dined outside (it wasn’t raining this time), and we noticed that there were a lot of men in uniform walking among the crowds—not on guard duty with weapons, but just guys in fatigues. Our waiter told us that they were soldiers who had been given leave for the weekend and were on their way home or just having a good time.

After dinner, we returned to our hotel and started to pack up for the next stage of the trip.

Walking miles: 5.9.

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Good stuff, thank you (although man, don't wear yourself out typing...).

In late June I'm headed for Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia (in that order, probably the reverse of what you did) so will look forward to the rest of your report (when your typing fingers recover from the last batch of posts...). Please continue when you get time.

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This interests me a lot because my wife and I spent a day in Tallinn earlier this month -- coming and going on one of those cruise ships you're so fond of. We wish we had had more time in that beautiful old city, especially early and late in the day when it would have been less crowded. The lollipop-followers annoyed us on the overlooks as much as they did you. We walked around on our own, with the valuable help of the RS guide to northern European ports. But of course we were part of the overcrowding too.

We especially liked the Nevsky Cathedral and were inside for part of the service. I also found the old church across from the Guild Hall very interesting. Wish I'd had more time for the National Museum, I missed Lenin's spoon! ;-) I did take some pride in getting euros from an ATM in the Town Hall Square, without benefit of an English translation, just guessing what the prompts meant -- seemed like a high-stakes gamble at the time, but it worked.

Looking forward to reading more about your trip, thanks for posting.

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Thanks for the detailed report! I will be in Tallinn 27 June through 1 July, and then in Riga 1 July through 4 July. Your report is VERY helpful. I wish I could have squeezed in Latvia, too, but I cannot take off that much time during the summer.

I'm curious how much time you spent at the Museum of Occupations. it sounds like you found it superior to the City Museum?

I hope the KLM doctor equipment is better than the Delta equipment. I answered the "Is there a doctor on board?" call once on a Delta flight from Atlanta to Las Vegas and was handed what seemed like Fischer Price instruments.

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I'm working on a narrative document for the whole trip. However, it is taking so long that I thought I'd paste in the Tallinn part as soon as I got it done. Riga and Vilnius are coming, but it will be some time.

Yes, I thought that the Museum of Occupations was more interesting than the City Museum. Nothing wrong with the latter, but the former had something to say that you usually don't run into when you visit other countries.

I'm glad some of you found it useful.

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It has been a while but we stayed in Tallinn several days before beginning the RS tour for that area. We loved the city and it's poignant and amazing history. Were you able to go to the site of their "Singing Revolution" ? It (but mostly the story) took my breath away. This is a city I had known very, very little about. The first day we were there, we took a Brew Tour; my husband did enjoy a brew or two :). Lots of fun and a very nice and informative history/city tour with stops at pubs along the way. Our guide was a young woman who grew up in Tallinn and lived (along with her extended family) the history of her town. There were NO tour groups there when we were. Yes, a few years ago....... I am looking forward to the rest of your trip report!

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Thanks for the detailed trip report. I am looking forward to the rest.