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krisek Tallinn - A travel report by Krys
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Tallinn,  Estonia - flag Estonia -  Harjumaa
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krisek's travel reports

Bearing the -11C in the capital city of Estonia.

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I waited so long to gather myself to go to Tallinn that November came and for the first time in many years I had to face temperatures lower than -10C. The old medieval town was exceptionally picturesque. Mulled wine and the Christmas market were perfect!

Olde Hansa house and the Townhall tower
Olde Hansa house and the Townhall tower
I had absolutely no idea how exceptionally picturesque Tallinn is. I has never been advertised to be a lovely medieval city with such great number of old buildings and a good length of city walls and observation towers in perfect condition. A word was going round after the Soviet Union colllapsed that Estonia was doing very well and that it was relatively good destination, mainly for doing business. Yet, the beauty of the country as a tourist destination, and in particular Tallinn, was never emphasised. Even the guidebook, I used to get my head round travelling there did not have too many pictures, so when I landed and ventured into the old town, I was flabbergasted. It was such a great and pleasant surprise. I kept snapping and snapping until batteries in my camera decided to go on strike, giving in to the sub-zero temperatures. I heard that November was going to be colder in Estonia than in the UK, but I was so unprepared for -11C during the day. I had gloves and a warm mountain jacket, but my butt was freezing. I eventually had to put two pairs of underwear to prevent my bottocks going completely numb. It was such a strange feeling. I had never experienced anything like that before. But it was good!

Tallinn, apparently, has a long history. Archeologists claim that the spot where the city currently lies had already been occupied by humans 5000 years ago, evidenced in ceramic pottery. Currently, nothing prominent in terms of sights dates back as far. The oldest structure in town are remains of a fort built on the modern site of Toompea, a hill in central Tallinn. It was built in 1050. A tower remains from the old stronghold and the rest of the hill is now built over with more recent buildings.

Although it was really, really cold for me, I look back on this weekend escapade with satisfaction that I did go when a thin layer of snow lied around the town. It made Tallinn look wonderful, fairy-tale like, authentic, and truly medieval.

Favourite spots:
Old Town gate
Old Town gate
The old Tallinn was most photogenic. I cannot decide which was my ultimately favourite spot. I loved the medieval city walls, the old houses in the core centre, the townhall, the observation towers, the narrow alleys.

From all that I think I would pick the main square by the majestic townhall. It was taken over by a truly romantic Christmas Market selling ginger bread, mulled wine, handicraft, and Christmas Tree decorations. The snow was real, and boots were squeaking from cold and snow. The square was surrounded by old, fabulously decorated facades of terrace houses, and the old townhall with its thin and tall tower looked magnificent. As the day was very short, the market was operating in the hours of darkness for a fair bit of the day, and the little lanterns illuminating the wooden huts and booths added even more character to the place. Plus, everyone seemed to have been in a great festive mood.

What's really great:
Tallinn travelogue picture
The preservation of the monuments was remarkable. It was fabulous how the city's structures from the Middle Ages and later ages survived the test of time, and the wars and the Soviet occupation. I was genuinely impressed. Without a shadow of the doubt Tallinn is the most picturesque capital of all in the Baltic states, if not the entire north-eastern Europe.

It was great to get lost in the old town for hours and keep discovering pretty little corners, parts of the centuries old urban fortifications. The old town was compact enough to be covered by foot but large enough to keep one walking and exploring for a few hours.

The frost kept biting, but it felt good and the snow covering the pavements, lanterns, roofs, bell towers and walls added a marvelous ambiance of dreamland, a true gem. A couple of very thin and tall towers belonging to the townhall and churches made the skyline look absolutely stunning, unique and unforgettable.

Tallinn travelogue picture
The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral from the late 19th century, pictured opposite, is one of the interesting sights of Tallinn. Very Eastern Christian Orthodox in its architecture.

Anyway, Tallinn's main historical sites are concentrated in two locations, which once were separate towns. The first one is the Toompea, and the second the walled Lower Town. Other remarkable place to see is the palace and the garden of the Tsar Peter the Great around Kadriorg. Both Toompea and Lower Town were listed by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites in 1997.

Toompea, the oldest part in Tallinn, has the tower of the former fort, the grand building of the Estonian Parliament, the Nevsky Cathedral and a number of little buildings scattered around the hill.

Lower Town, one of the best preserved medieval towns in Europe, has the 16th century Townhall, the city walls with gates and towers, a 124m tall Saint Olaf Church, and more.

Kadriorg is a lovely palace with an over-the-top garden. It is now an art museum.

City walls
City walls
I stayed at Hotel Reval, about ten minutes walk from the old town city walls. 'Reval' was Tallinn's Hanseatic name. The hotel was modern and very comfortable. The rooms were splendid, had all the amenities of a mid-range hotel geared for both tourists and business people alike. The staff was professional and very helpful. Downstairs, in the lobby, there were free internet terminals - very handy for those web-based emails and catching up with social web-networks, including GLOBOsapiens.

The hotel offered free maps of the town, which was very helpful, and the receptionists were able to provide directions to some less visited spots in the city. They also had good recommendations for public transport and places to go out and eat.

The hotel had a restaurant on site, but I did not try it for meals other than breakfast, which was excellent, and inlcuded in the price of the room.

Christmas market on the main square by the townhall
Christmas market on the main square by the townhall
Tallinn's nighlife has become one of the capital's key attractions. The city boasts a good number of cafes, bars, pubs, dance-bars, disco-clubs, nightclubs to meet expectations of the heaviest of the heavyweights. Many of them are based in the old buildings with fantastic decor and unforgettable atmosphere. Some are decorated in the rustic medieval style and many are modern, shic and trendy.

I loved the bar in the cellar of the townhall. It was one of the rustic ones. They served mulled wine and the ambiance was incredible. It was totally packed with the locals catching up on their gossip and exchange ideas for Christmas presents. The subdued lighting of the place created mystical atmosphere in this incredible venue.

The best places to go out are withing the medieval walls in the old town, but there are a few other big disco places in the new town, which attract mainly very young crowd, particularly on weekends.

Tallinn travelogue picture
The hills of Toompea are the best wander around and admire magnificent views of the old town and the Baltic from above. There are a few small parks with benches on the hill, right by the old walls and usually near the churches. They are great for hanging around and admiring the magical magnetism of the place. As the hill is beyond the walls, it offers spectacular views of the old town surrounded by the defences, including a number of gates and watch towers sticking up in the air above the houses of the old town. The spires of the churches and the townhall shooting even higher into the sky add great shapes into this unique skyline.

There are about four or five spots on the hills allowing to see the views. I caught myself trekking back and forward between them to catch the perfect glimpse of the panoramas and take some photographs to treasure for years to come and show my friends.

Tallinn travelogue picture
The first restaurant I tried in Tallinn was the one in the Olde Hansa. As expected, it was decorated in the medieval style. Actually, everything about it was medieval. It was based in one of the oldest buildings in the old town, the personnel wore robes from the Middle Ages (they even spoke with presumed medieval intonation), the menu was printed stylishly, the dishes were described in a humorous way, included game and rustic cuisine and were served on old pottery. I drank unfiltered dark beer from an old looking clay jug. In fact, I tried all their own unfiltered beers. It might have seemed a little corny, but I loved it. It was in the right place and it almost felt like being teleported a few centuries back. The food was fantastic!

While wandering about the old town the next day, I stumbled across one of the other few traditional restaurants serving food in a great setting. Amongst traditional Estonian fare (super yummy rustic bread), they served delicious pizzas.

Other recommendations:
Tallinn travelogue picture
A significant population of Estonia is Russian, both ethinically and nationally. They remained in the country after the split of the Soviet Union. So, rather addly, Russian language is heard everywhere, in shops, bars, restaurants, on the markets. Whereas Estonians effortlessly switch to Russian language, the Russians struggle with Estonian. So, if one knows a few phrases in Russian and wants to practice, there is plenty of opportunity in Tallinn. However, the young population is also fluent in English, just in case.

I went in the winter, when the days were really short. In the summer, however, it does not get completely dark at night, which gives plenty of time to keep exploring, almost 24 hours a day. Of course there is no snow in the summer and there is no frost to bite one in the butt!

Published on Tuesday December 16th, 2008

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