Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Off to the Baltics: A Day in Estonia

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
Tallinn is the unknown gem of the Baltic Sea. Americans don’t seem to know very much about this small country that recently gained independence immediately prior to the fall of the Soviet Union. But maybe that’s why. Estonia’s history may date way back to the thirteenth century when the sea port was a trading powerhouse in the Hanseatic League, but Estonia’s history as a recent independent nation reaches back only 21 years. Heck, I’m even older than the post-Soviet Estonia (only by a month but still). Even though this locale doesn’t seem to hit many Bucket List radars in America, I personally feel that a visit to this Baltic city can not be missed. 

View of Old Town from Toompea Hill
As a Russian major with a particular interest in Soviet Union history, this sea side city did offer some intrigue. First stop: the Tallinn Song Grounds. As the Soviet Union’s time as a united nation quickly dwindled at the end of the 1980’s, Tallinners took to this open air concert hall to sing, hold hands, and unite in defiance against the Soviet yoke. What may be even more interesting is the lesser known Soviet related attraction that still exists in the city- the Sokos Hotel Viru, a 30 floor sky rise in downtown Tallinn. On the highest floor of the hotel remains a former KGB office. Unfortunately, my parents and I were unable to visit the museum due to time constraints, but our table mates at dinner were able to pay a visit. According to our friends, the KGB had the entire hotel under wire tap surveillance. Dinner plates had built in microphones and many of the hotel staff were paid to provide personal surveillance for the KGB. Staffers were told to give any lost items such as wallets directly to the KGB headquarters. Apparently, even though the elevator didn’t reach the top floor and the sign on the headquarter’s door read in Estonian and Russian “There is nothing here,” most everyone knew that the hotel was being surveyed. Our friends really enjoyed their tour of the headquarters, and during my next visit to Tallinn I will have to make sure to stop by to see the remnants of the Soviet Union in the city. 

The highlight of any trip to Tallinn is a visit to the city’s well preserved Old Town. The Old Town is essentially a walled city, and there are even segments of the wall that date back to the 1300’s. Personally I love walking along cobblestone paths in an ancient part of any city, but Tallinn’s Old Town was particularly charming. As we walked along, exploring the cafes and various shops, I could smell a wafting aroma of gingerbread and at times chocolate. I even stopped into a chocolate shop called Annelivik on one of the cobblestoned side streets that wound through the city. There I bought hot chocolate that was so thick that I could almost stand a spoon in the cup. It was so rich and so delicious. I think the waiter literally melted dark chocolate and added about an once of milk. I never thought I would get overpowered by such a rich chocolate, but by the end of my small cup I had enough of that delicious goodness. 

Even though strolling through Old Town was enough to create a memorable day, there were some specific highlights in the region that need to be commended. The first being Toompea hill, which boast fantastic views of the Old Town. The hill is also home to the Russian Orthodox Church called Alexander Nevsky Cathedral and the rose-pink parliament buildings. Alexander Nevsky Church was particularly memorable with its colorful onion domed rooftops and Byzantine style fresco interior. My favorite section of the Old City was town plaza where medieval styled buildings and cozy outdoor cafes completely surround a cobblestoned plaza. My parents and I ate an Irish pub on a patio overlooking the plaza. We enjoyed our food (and I continued to nurse my hot chocolate) as we people watched, soaked up the sun, and enjoyed the eastern European atmosphere. As our day in Estonia was slowly coming to an end, my parents and I walked along the sector of the ancient wall in order to capture our last glimpses of the city. Tallinn was certainly an enjoyable and memory filled day. I can’t say that I loved the city as much as St. Petersburg, but I would most certainly return to the city if the opportunity presented itself. Ideally, I would love to see the city during Christmas Time when Winter Markets and Christmas lights and wreaths make the city sparkle in the snow. 

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