Monday, September 2, 2013

Tallinn. Day 1. Part 1.

Bro posing with iconic view of Old Tallinn as seen from Toompea Hill.

Today was a very long day, filled with exploring Old Tallin.  In fact, it was such a long day and I took so many photos that I'm going to split this posting into two parts - what we did in the morning and then what we did for the remainder of the day.  What a great day it was!


I woke up this morning to the sound of silence. Despite the fact that Jurgen's apartment is located in the heart of Old Town, it's in a remarkably quiet neighborhood. I had another restful night's sleep.

We managed to cobble together breakfast from what Jurgen had in his small pantry and fridge. We then began our day in the city. First thing was to head to the Information Center to get a map and suggestions for places to visit.  The Information Center was located just a few blocks away from the apartment - probably less than a 10 minute walk.  Along the way, we got our first look at this charming old town.

Bro standing just outside our apartment.

Pretty cobblestone lined streets.

It was early in the morning.  Very quiet. 

I loved the colorful buildings.

We also needed to get our tickets for our roundtrip to Helsinki and back. I had broken up our stay in Tallinn with a two day side trip to Helsinki.

As Bro chatted with the guy behind the desk at the Information Center, I pulled brochures. I also asked the guy about getting the ferry tickets. He recommended that we go to a local travel agency and have them issue the ticket to us. Apparently, they don't charge commission. Sounded like a good suggestion to me so our first order of the day, after we walked out of the Information Center, was to find the travel agency. The street was just located around the corner from the Information Center so we had no difficulty finding that. Finding the agency itself was a challenge. We walked up and down the street with no luck. Then, I saw the small sign hanging above the entry door of a building. The door was unlocked so we entered and followed the sign which led us to a small office in the basement of the building.

The street the travel agency was on.  No, there were no signs identifying them.....at least not one we could easily spot.

There were two women inside and we made our way over to the one who looked like she was ready to help us. We sat down across the desk from her and told us we wanted to buy ferry tickets to Helsinki. From my reading, I knew we would be traveling on a Tallink ferry. Responding back to us in perfect English, with barely any trace of a European accent, the woman read out the Tallinn and Helsinki departure time options. We decided to spend as much time as we could in Helsinki so we would leave Tallinn on Wednesday morning on the first ferry out and would board the return ferry from Helsinki late Friday afternoon. As the woman wrote up our paper work, we got to chatting and we found out that the agency belongs to her family that the she often travels as a guide - taking Estonians to places all around the world. In fact, she had just recently returned from a three week trip to the US and that she takes Estonian tour groups to the US quite often - probably because her English is impeccable.


We paid for our tickets and thanked the woman for her assistance. Finding our way out of the agency was most certainly easier than finding our way in!


We spent the rest of the day exploring the city, including visiting the town's history museum, catching the iconic view of the city from the overlook at Toompea Hill, taking in Alexander Nevsky Cathedral and other sights. Some places were closed as today was Monday so we made mental notes to return tomorrow.

Here are a few views I took photos of as we made our way from the travel agency to town square, which was probably no more than 5 or six blocks away.






The large town square was pretty empty with just a few tourists milling about.  It was still early in the morning.



We really had no specific destination in mind so we just wandered the streets, wherever there looked to be something interesting.  Right off the town square was a small alley.  It was this cute little red building that caught my eye.


I had to peek inside and I hit the jackpot.  I was expecting a gift shop of some sort and instead, I found a coffee shop - a branch of the Kehrweider chain.  But better yet, this Kehrweider sold ice cream!   In addition to the usual vanilla and chocolate flavors, they also had a unique one - sea buckthorn, a native fruit.  I had to try some so I bought a cone.




Sea buckthorn....final verdict.  Couldn't tell much because the fruit was a puree swirled into vanilla ice cream.  Cone in hand, we walked on.


We didn't have to walk afar, across the alleyway to be exact, to find another small restaurant - Saiakangi Kohvik, a small cafe.  This time, what drew our eye to the window was a small tray of marzipan decorations.  Cute little animals and fruits.


Just inside the front door was the pastry counter.  Oh my!  I had to look.  I quickly finished my cone and headed inside.


It was the white cake with the round yellow fruits that caught my eye.  The server confirmed it was sea buckthorn.  I had to get it.  I had to try the fruit....by itself.


We took a table and waited for our piece of cake to arrive.  I have to admit, it was a very pretty looking piece of cake - a slice of sweet cheesecake atop a biscuit base and topped off with sea buckthorn fruit encased in gelée.  Sea buckthorn.  Final verdict.  Looks like a yellow colored cranberry and that's what it tastes like too.  A bit disappointing given my high expectations.

So far, I've walked about maybe 8 blocks and I've already had an ice cream cone and a piece of cheesecake.  Need to burn off more calories so back out on the street we went.
Today was also the second day of school for kids in Tallinn. We passed by several groups as we walked about old town - so cute dressed up in their school uniforms and caps. Apparently, school begins every year on September 1, even if the day falls on a weekend. The tradition is for children to bring flowers to school on the first day and although today was the second day of school, we still passed by quite a few school children holding bunches of flowers in their hands. 


We continued our meandering.  Such pretty streets.


Next thing that caught our attention was a museum.  The Estonian History Museum to be exact.  Our first *real* museum on this trip so we had to go in.  The museum is housed inside a former guild hall.


Just beyond the entryhall where we bought our tickets was the first exhibit, which was actually quite interesting.  On the wall were monitors of different sizes and each was displaying a different set of images and video clips as the narrative of the history of Estonia was sounded out over the speakers.  Estonia has only been an independent nation since 1991.  Through history, it has been occupied by the Germans, the Danish, the Swedes, and the Russians.  It''s not been an easy time for this country.



The next room, which is the Great Guild Hall itself, exhibited items from the museum's small collection - a lot of things recalling medieval trade in Estonia. Though all the items were described in English, I really wasn't in the mood to read anything so I just looked around - hence, I can't provide any descriptions here. :-)





Headdress?

After the Great Hall, we thought that was it so we headed back out towards the entrance.  That's when we spotted the stairs heading down.


So, we took them.  In the lower level was another exhibit room, this one primarily focused on battle related items.




Not sure what this item was.  Perhaps a war ship bow decoration?

Oddly enough, there were also a small collection of clothes and housewares from a tribe living in on the Kamchatka Peninsula which is nowhere, nowhere near Estonia.



I wasn't much interested in the displays.  I think Bro and I spent no more than 10 minutes in this exhibit room.  On the way out of the museum, the unusual door lock caught my attention.  I couldn't figure out how it worked but I'm sure it was a secure lock.  I thought it was pretty cool looking.


Back out on the street, we resumed our wandering.  Move views of cobblestone streets and lovely buildings.  Even the overcast skies could not take away the charm of this place.

By now it was mid morning and the streets were crowded with tourists - most likely from village sized cruise ships docked at the pier just a short distance from Old Town. I told Bro if that was indeed the case, the place would be empty by dinner time as most folks would retreat back to their respective ships to eat as their meals are already paid for. Only a few tourists would be around.  We just have to wait til evening to have some peace.

Rataskaevu, the street we drove past on our way to the apartment.

Walking along Pikk Jalg.  Our apartment is just on the other side of the archway.

We had a few landmarks to cover and followed the street signs to get there.  Our next destination was Toompea Hill.  Our walk took us by Alexander Nevsky Cathedral which we would visit later.  As you can see, sections of the exterior are under repair or maybe just renovation.

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral

We also walked by St. Mary's Cathedral (simply called Toomkirik in Estonian).  Originally established by the Danes in the 13th century, it is the oldest church in Tallinn and mainland Estonia. We made another mental note to visit the church after our stop at Toompea Hill.

St. Mary's Cathedral

We enjoyed our stroll to Toompea Hill, warding off a few souvenir vendors along the way.  Overall, I must say, the vendors here are not at all annoying.  They rarely approach you and if you walk away, they never come after you.  So very civilized.

The most iconic view of Old Tallinn is the one seen from Toompea Hill.  We knew we had arrived when we saw the small crowd ahead of us.

The tall buildings of modern day Tallinn can be seen in the far distance.

Everyone politely takes their turn. 

We waited our turn to get to the retaining wall, gently pushing our way forward.  The lovely view of the church spires and terracotta roofs was worth the wait!




Poor guy.  Always stuck as my photo muse.  Every now and again, he gets a bit campy :-)

We didn't hang around Toompea Hill long.  After all, there was an endless flow of tourists behind us and it would have been rude for us to spend more time than necessary to take a few photos.

By now, lunchtime was approaching and neither one of us was that hungry - having had and ice cream cone followed by a piece of cheesecake just about an hour earlier did fill the belly.  So, we decided if we found a place that we really wanted to eat at, we would stop.  Otherwise, we would keep going.

We couldn't have walked a few blocks from Toompea Hill when we heard the strains of a violin.  It was a sad song that was being played.  We decided to try and find where it was coming from.  Down a small street, we spotted the strolling musician - a woman, dressed in traditional Estonian dress.  She was standing just outside a local restaurant.  We stood for a few minutes to hear the music before moving on - neither of us wanted to approach her to check out the restaurant.  Neither hungry nor curious enough.


The tourists were indeed from the cruise ships.  They moved around in groups - some were equipped with headphones so the poor guide doesn't have to shout.



The doors to St. Mary's Cathedral were open so what the heck, we decided to take a quick look see inside. You can climb up the church's tower for a view but I opted out.  Bro wasn't interested either so we just stayed on the first floor.  The interior of the church is very simple.  The most interesting were all the coats of arms hung up on the walls.  Apparently, they belong to prominent German families - a reminder of the time when Estonia was under German occupation.






Next, we made a quick stop inside Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. It's a pretty Cathedral on the outside.  Very Russian in architectural style.



Surprisingly, at least to me, this was the only place we encountered anyone begging.

It's amazing how sightseeing and walking can sap the energy out of you.  We needed a break and decided to head back to the apartment.

Tallinn is one of those small, but very walkable, very attractive old towns.  Up until now, every place we had been to in Estonia was flat in elevation.  Not the case with Old Town Tallinn - plenty of hills to walk up and down.



It's also that kind of place that you are so certain is so small that you can easily get around without a map.  Well, that would be the case if the streets were laid out in a grid and/or you knew where you were going.  Took me a while to get the layout of the town in my head. Luckily, Bro has a much better sense of direction than I do :-)



Back in the comfort of Jurgen's apartment, we only took a half hour off but during that time, we grabbed a quick bite and I got the address.....well, rough address, of a supermarket.  That would be our destination for the afternoon. 

It's been a sight filled morning.  We have more to go!