Estonia is a hidden gem in the world of European tourism lying amongst the Baltic States on the Gulf of Finland. Formerly part of the Soviet Union, the country is coming into its own and travellers are starting to take notice of this small country neighbouring Russia.
Its capital, Tallinn, is a mix of medieval and modern. A small part of the city known simply as Old Town is surrounded by fortified walls and houses a multitude of historical buildings laced with cobblestoned streets. This is in vivid contrast to the rest of the Tallinn which is emerging as an independent city eager to cast off its Communist past and enter the world arena.
The majority of places to check out are in Old Town, although you could also visit the beach or some of the city’s beautiful parks if you venture far enough. Within the historical walls though there are many nooks to explore. I came across an old Dominican Monastery down one small street. The moss-covered stairway crept up to the door along the side of a wall lined with oil lamps.
Inside it was floor to ceiling stone with various artefacts scattered about. Down a candle-lit stairwell we came across a subterranean cellar, down another hallway we found an old altar and through a tiny door, the monastery’s old library filled with ancient texts. We were the only people visiting the monks’ residence and on our way out the lone staff member gave us tiny copper medallions with ‘Nil Sans Deo’ written on them, Latin for ‘not without God’. In the courtyard outside there is also a small, quaint art gallery run by a local artist.
With directions from a Lonely Planet book we found what is supposed to be a former KGB headquarters. The non-descript building looks like any other but we played tourist and took photos anyway.
There are also many craft markets scattered about. Knitted clothing from the wool of various animals seemed to be a local specialty although I ended up purchasing 2 small watercolour paintings of Old Town scenes instead.
On a guided walk we were shown old Russian onion-domed churches and a lovely pink palace that now houses government departments, before wandering into the central town square. The café lined square is quite colourful with each building taking on a different pastel shade. In one corner we were shown the oldest pharmacy in Europe while another side of the square housing the Town Hall.
Behind the Hall was Olde Hansa a restaurant catering for the tourists with waitresses dressed in traditional costume and little, white bonnets. Here you could sample wonderful local cuisine such as elk jerky and even black bear. We dined across the road at another traditional restaurant called The Peppersack. The pear cider on the menu was a favourite of mine. We were treated to a bit of restaurant theatre in the likes of sword fighting and belly-dancing, which I somehow don’t think is Estonia’s national dance.
I found the food in Tallinn to be meaty and hearty, another night we visited the Beer Haus where I had the unhealthiest meal possible of fried cheese, fried strips of garlic bread, bratwurst and potatoes washed down with local beer. It may have taken a year off my life but the taste was worth it! We left here quite late but the midnight sun was coming into effect with a permanent state of dusk overnight which was a bit of a novelty for the first few nights.
Tallinn is very charming in its quaint way and is almost like stepping back in time once you cross the road into Old Town. It was wonderful to be able to explore a city that isn’t overrun by tourists like Prague can be. Sometimes it’s better to visit a place you don’t know everything about; things seem to be more interesting when you just stumble upon them.