If you lot have been listening to me recently, you’d know that I spend Monday to Friday last week in Estonia. If you’re a bit sketchy on where it is, it’s on the East side of the Baltic sea, looking across the water at Finland, with Russia to the East and Latvia to the south. A former part of the Soviet Union, it declared independence (again) in 1991, became a member of the EU in 2004 and adopted the Euro in 2011.
While many relics of the Soviet Union linger around the country, and a quarter of the population come from Russia, Estonia seems keen to establish itself as a forward-looking nation. Its connectivity to the internet is prized, to the point that Estonia declared connection to the internet as a basic human right by law in 2000, and it has some of the fastest average connection speeds in the world. The figurehead of this movement was the majority of the development of Skype by Estonian programmers in Estonia. Bam!
But enough facts, I just wanted a holiday. I’ve always been a bit intrigued by that corner of the world, and while I’d never dream of going to Russia on my own, the good reputation of Estonia as a safe Baltic nation calmed my nerves. I mean who wants to lay on a beach for a week, I’m not THAT desperate to read, or expose my permanently white bits to the public. I stayed in the Hotel Metropol, about 5 minutes walk from Tallinn’s Old Town, a UNESCO protected part of the city, dating back over 700 years.
The hotel was fine for my needs, i.e. it was cheap without being dreadful, no complaints there (except maybe the breakfast left a bit to be desired, but whatever). It certainly put me right where I needed to be to explore Tallinn. I pottered around for the remainder of the Monday, a little aimless but still enjoying the old but well-kept style of the historical heart of Tallinn. Free WiFi in loads of places too, bonus!
I had been saving myself though, because on Tuesday I joined Traveller.ee‘s free (free!) 2 hour walking tour. It took in loads of the main sights of the Old Town, including the spectacular Russian Orthodox Alexander Nevsky cathedral, the extensive city walls that surround the old town, the Kiek in de Kök tower, Freedom Square, and a few viewpoints to get a great view of the city. The tour was great in itself, but would’ve been nothing without the expert commentary and enthusiasm our tour guide Karoli.
As the tour covered so much ground, I had lunch in a nice little cafe. I thought I was being all cool and going to this little independent place, but later I saw a bunch of Reval Cafe shops quite close together, maybe it’s like Starbucks or something. I spent the rest of the afternoon exploring some of those places touched upon in the tour.
St. Olaf’s Church was once the tallest building in the world (apparently) mainly by virtue of its huge spire, patchworked with vert-de-gris panels after several lightning strikes. Inside is fairly unspectacular, but climbing the 200-odd steps gives a great view of the city. There are plenty of interesting historical sights in the Old Town, so I suggest taking that tour for some inspiration, then having an explore.
Traveller.ee (I swear they didn’t sponsor this blog) took care of me for the whole trip really, as the other two days were spent on their day-trips. Wednesday involved a trip to Lahemaa national park to the East of Tallinn. I’m sure it’s lovely in summer, but for me Autumn was the perfect time to visit. The temperature held at a reasonable 5-10 degrees all week, and the overcast mornings were eventually broken up each day by gorgeous blue skies. The forests were just turning golden brown, really beautiful and the real spirit of Autumn for me.
The national park itself involved a number of nature walks, including a beaver trail and a leisurely walk around a recently-renovated area of bog-land. Doesn’t sound too romantic but the surroundings were tranquil and untouched, with the clear skies making it a great trip. But nature was only half of the tour.
Just as interesting were the glimpses of Soviet relics left behind after independence, particularly a side-trip to an abandoned nuclear submarine base. Really interesting stuff that you’d never had seen on your own. Fortunately I had another knowledgeable and enthusiastic guide, Jevgeni. His knowledge of the sites we visited was amazing, but even just chatting in the car about all sorts of topics gave an insight to Estonia that I doubt I would have got any other way.
From the cultural side, we visited the Sagadi manor house, a well-preserved estate deep in the countryside with the house itself acting as a time capsule full of extravagant furnishings. There’s a hotel next door now, and a small nature museum too, but a lovely interlude to the trip. Another small museum (I’m not sure of the name) provided us with a lovely home-cooked salmon lunch before we admired the maritime paraphernalia.
My last main day was yet another Traveller.ee day trip (these guys must’ve been sick of me), this time along the West coast of the Baltic sea to the delightful coastal town of Haapsalu. Quite unassuming on arrival, we had a nice (and very reasonably-priced) lunch, and explored what turned out to be a very impressive castle in the centre. Haapsalu was the main course, but the side-trips either side were perhaps even more interesting.
Our guide Mart – yet another bright and funny guide with boundless energy and knowledge – took us to more Soviet relics; we took in a disused military bunker, an airfield and even nuclear missile storage hangars. Very creepy to explore but so interesting, and unlikely to be found on your usual bus tour!
As well as some pristine Baltic coastline, more old buildings got a look in too: an abandoned monastery; an enormous and desolate manor house that last saw use as an orphanage (complete with scary stories); and a stunning shell of an old castle.
I thoroughly enjoyed the trip, and I’m so pleased I had a chance to take them. It sounds like I’m just sucking up now, but the Traveller.ee trips really made my holiday, and I would recommend them to anyone who will listen. It’s little wonder that they are the top-rated attraction on Tripadvisor. OK now I’ll stop, I’m laying it on a bit thick…
Oh and the airport! How lovely that place was, it’s almost like they WANTED people to be comfortable when they waited for their flights, imagine that! The food was reasonably-priced (again, I’m amazed) and free WiFi everywhere. Incredible!