Enchanting Estonia

So we are about ready to bid farewell to Latvia, to journey to Estonia (day-trip to Finland), the return for the airport. Ahead of us is 350km of coastal highway but blocking us is the fact that I have not arranged a hire car! Rewind to the UK, 2 weeks before we left, and I said ‘I want the freedom to choose when we decide to go’. Fast forward and 20 frantic phone calls and visiting at least 4 different rental locations confirmed that almost every small car in Riga has been rented.

We grimaced as we realised pretty much all we could have a VW Passat at €285 for 3 measly days (about 5 times as much as advanced booking). Not one to get flustered, I tried each company from a list of over 20, making my patient way down the list. Sixt rental, based in the RadissonBLU Riga was our saviour. Available, only €84, and free upgrade to the larger VW Golf Estate i could opt for (and did take) the unlimited miles and uprated insurance. Travel tip: book in advance, but pay at station – you can change reservations with Europcar/Sixt/Hertz right up until the last day, so there really was no excuse – do as we advise, not as we do!

Our journey is a simple one – Highway E67 from Riga to Tallinn via Parnu – but beautiful. For the most part, pine trees and forest, with lovely picnic spots just perfect for a quick walk to the Baltic Sea. We stopped at a few, past Saulkrasti, Salacgriva, and Parnu offering us an amazing view and beaches. What struck us both is how many places can you travel where your average picnic rest stop / parking spot is basically a Baltic beach?

A little over 4 hours driving was interspersed with a couple hours stop over in Parnu to explore and grab a bite to eat. As such we arrive around 6pm to the Hotel which was an absolute bargain! The ‘GO Hotel Snelli’ in Tallinn is listed as a 3-star located by the train station. Personally, we found it much better than advertised – it is very close to Old Town, well decorated, an very quiet (but Travel Tip: ask if your room faces the station or Old Town, if they say Station, upgrade for €10 to Old Town as it will be quiet). Distance wise, we ended up just a short distance from where we wanted to go – we cross a 4 lane road using safe traffic crossings, 250m walk to the city gates, then access from any of 3 main ways into Old Town. The views and walk are stunning.

The views are certainly impressive, as is the Estonian sense of Humour. We found a friendly, warm and kind atmosphere with some really good views and great welcome. Okay, so when you walk into a bar you don’t get a greeter, you are often ignored for example, but that seems to be more because they want to only come to you when you want something not incessantly ask if you need another drink or asking for 3rd time if you are enjoying your meal!

I love a bit of architecture, and travelling gives me the chance to see a whole range of types. It can be a bit of a challenge to engage with the local context and the difficult nature of some of the history behind a building but i think that the engagement is part of the fun of travelling.

Walking down the cobbled ‘Long Leg’ of the walls, this was put in to facilitate faster loading of goods from the docks into the city proper. A mammoth grade of incline, and some very uneven cobbles gives an insight into the struggles for some donkey back in 1730 to pull up a cartload of bricks. Just walking it once made me glad that they put in the ‘Short Leg’ purely for pedestrians which is a mercy for the calf muscles, let me assure you.

The variation in buildings, style, colour and access are remarkable and it is clear how this Old Town rivals Dubrovnik, Prague, or Kotor, and how it has a status as one of the best UNESCO Heritage Sites in Europe.

Tallinn at night is a beauty as well – I just didn’t have the camera lenses I needed to show the sights for how they really come over. I can imagine a cold October night with clear skies and the buildings so cosy that there really couldn’t be a more magical place to spend a few hours drinking schnapps and watching the world spin by. You really get a Scandinavian sense of relaxed pace, with the liveliness you still would hope for in a lovely Baltic city.

The beauty of the Old Town is in the history and what it can still tell generations today. Lurking around by the harbour end, stands a lovely old brick building with a very new memorial listing a series of British admirals who gave service in the Estonian War of Independence during 1919. Reading about Rear Adm. Sir Walter Cowen, just as an example, reveals a man who served in every conflict from the Boer War to WW2 and everything in between.

Having served and sailed on wooden ships right to the Dreadnaughts and Cruisers, Adm Cowan was in his late 70’s when in WW2 he joined the Commandos and served in Italy. I choose Adm Cowan as he was the namesake for the latest Estonian navy flagship, and part of this memorial. Amazing that here, in Tallinn, deep in Estonia, 1,100 miles from home, they are honouring a man for whom they hold great respect and yet it is a story we don’t herald back home.

The tour of the streets unveils pretty churches, spires and tatty doors in equal measure and still more lovely cobbled streets which just seem to ooze with history and photographic opportunity.

I have a special section on my Flickr for graffiti street art and this piece above is a great example kept tastefully to a meter box tucked up a side street. It is this kind of cheeky, harmless nature, that we see coming out when we talk to the initially quiet but ultimately lively locals. The real draw for me is how down each side street more stories are told and the more at home we feel. We feel it literally, as a place we could settle outside the UK, feeling both safe, warm and welcome.

There is a real medieval feel to this Old Town, Tallinm, which was exploited to excellent effect by the Olde Hansa restaurant (https://www.oldehansa.ee/) serving a massive selection of old-style medieval treats, including Wild Boar, Elk and Bear, along with Honey beer and shots of homemade moonshine! Our meal was a delight – the food simply the best we have had (not just Estonia, but the whole trip, and honestly some of the best I have ever enjoyed in a themed restaurant).

Our server was in full character, the tables full of people from countless nationalities over 4 stories of the most beautiful approximation of the original style of cook-houses from 1540 you will ever see. I am pretty sure there are not many other places where you can see Norwegians dancing on tables as I, a daring Brit, take on an Estonian in a drinking game where you have to stand on one leg, hand on head, shot-glass between thumb and little finger and shout loudly as you tip back the triple measure of Pepper-schnapps. Naturally, to follow such a stunt, I felt it only suitable to regale the crowd with rugby limericks like Wild Rover and such folk classics as Bohemian Rhapsody, as we finished our meals and very unsteadily headed home content and happily singing!

As we draw back up the streets, the following day, we pass by a lovely church built so discreetly into a side building you would easily miss it. This is for the very small Ukrainian Greek community settled now in Estonia. The small interior, its prayer box, the way the community polished and cleaned each part, all made this so intriguing and if there was anyone there to ask I would have wanted to know – why here, why such a specific community, how did this all become to be. But alas, i shall have to find new ways to find out such answers.

The city walls seem to have a dual purpose with the old streets that would have housed goods or services, now used as shelter for the homeless and the streets meticulously cleaned with pride. You will hear about Estonia being the poorest EU member, and its smallest at 1.3m, which i found both unfair and untrue. How could a country of 1.3m, over 450k of whom live in Tallinn, ever generate a GDP higher than say the UK at 70m people? And poor is not how i would describe a city so vibrant, so clean and so well organised. With 6.5% unemployment, it isn’t doing bad – France struggles with 9% unemployment after all. And most impressive is the 99.8% literacy rate – one of the highest in the World. I would say this is a very European forward nation.

So it was nearly time for us to leave, having spent 3 days in Tallinn, we had decided that some Estonian-Italian food would make us happy. At the GalloNero we ate lovely panini and cheese selection whilst reviewing how we found the trip. We are absolutely settled on a return to Estonia, and it really has lived up to what we hoped for. This was a city that was alive but free of too much crowding, people who were friendly but happy to stand off and leave you be, and a place which rejoiced with song and dance after meals just because it could.

We headed back to the train station to collect our car from the car-park and decided to take a picture of the old train left as a reminded of steam travel. I have no idea what it is, why it is there, and again as with a lot of our trip would love to know more but alas we had no information and no time to learn.

Again, our scenic stops between Tallinn and Riga kept us amused. I was a knight in shining armour for saving Kat from walking into the worlds biggest (maybe not) spiders web between two pine trees. We didn’t venture far into the woods, after that episode, and for the fact we figured this would be a really crap place to break a leg without travel insurance!

More hidden sand dunes and beach lay ahead which left us with an oncoming storm, beautiful scenery and a quick opportunity to leave our mark.

As with all journeys, they must come to an end, but we rejoice knowing we had great fun, lots of good food and drink, and didn’t break our budget. For the whole honeymoon, we kept to €1,800 including all flights, hotels, hire cars and meals. That somehow even included the shots, beers, wines, and huge cocktails. What is best of all, that is now country 46 for me 24 for Kat. Travel tip: budget, budget, budget – and always keep a spare bit extra for the odd treat. Don’t be afraid to have a night or two in the hotel with Netflix and some wine you buy from the local off-licence / market shop. If you feel guilty, buy local and it will be supporting the country anyway! We will post soon on how to pack and travel light, keep entertained, and keep to a budget to help those interested in seeing the world without feeling the bank break.

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