Friday, 5 January 2018

Be Charmed - Estonia is enchanting!

Sometimes, just looking at maps or the globe helps in deciding your travels. I was browsing and enjoying looking at the North of our world. It was sheer curiosity that led me to Tallinn. A huge fan of waterways, I checked on the map that Tallinn was just two hours away from Helsinki by boat.

Magnificent choice of ships to Tallinn

So when my trip to Finland was finalised, I decided that Tallinn was a must. It was two hours definitely but not by a ‘boat’ it was a majestic ship!! So it was a cold windy morning when I left my hotel, the Radisson Blu Seaside ( overlooked Terminal 1. The night earlier, from my room that faced the seaside, I could see some ships.  The next morning, I had to go to Terminal 2 to embark on my voyage to Tallinn.

One can take the Tallink Silja Line ships, Viking or the Eckero ships to Tallinn.
 Just this year in February, Helsinki-Tallinn route’s Tallink – opened up a new terminal building at Helsinki West Harbour. I made sure I was well in time, as one needs to check-in (can be done online too), the T2 building is swank, new and once I checked in, I got a ticket with a code. I proceeded to the escalator, scanned my ticket and the waiting area was huge with two restaurants and seating. Being off-season in November, there were not too many passengers but it did get comfortably full at 10 am. The new LNG powered ship Megastar, glided in so smoothly for the 10.30 am voyage to Tallinn.

Once all the passengers Tallin disembarked and we began to walk towards the majestic ship to board. Totally in awe, I stared at the sheer size. Passengers are taken directly to deck 8.

Comfort Class of Megastar

I was booked into the Comfort Class. A pretty lady ushered me in after checking my ticket. I thought I was in some fancy restaurant, only that I was in the Baltic Sea! I walked to the nose of the ship the sea stretched ahead of me. Seating was on comfortable grey chairs with dining tables and if you needed privacy, there were enclosures too. I made myself comfortable and headed to the food counter. Chips, peanuts, biscuits, cinnamon buns, fresh cucumber, cauliflower with dips were complimentary!! Drinks included a variety of coffees, teas and soft drinks. Luxury!! For those who wanted a heavier snack, one could buy a Hessburger (hamburger from Helsinki) and also hard drinks.
At sharp 10.30 am the ship left, smoothly. Since it was a rainy day, it was grey all around. I decided to explore the ship. Walking out of the ‘comfort’ class, I checked the lifts – 8a was business lounge and 8b was comfort lounge. Opposite this class was the regular sitting area, followed by a huge duty-free shopping area like an airport. I went and checked out jewellery, cosmetics, perfumes, clothes, bags .

Then a floor lower was the liquor, the best!! Couples, families with children were shopping to kill time and stuffing their bags with chocolates, wines and snacks. Within no time, we arrived in Tallinn.

Tallinn in two days

Since it was my first time in Estonia, I decided to have a local guide. Maarja Laiapea and Jüri Pokk of Saku Travel (www.sakutravel.eewere both waiting for me. What a warm welcome!! Since it was drizzling, it was great to have a vehicle and warm hosts. We drove out in the comfortable Mercedes van. Maarja was soft-spoken and knew the country really well as she was born here, studied in a town away from Tallinn and then settled in Tallinn. She mentioned that summers in Tallinn are really busy, so for five months they have tourists from all over the world, she even guided some Indian families. Tallinn is a favourite with tourists who are on the cruise liners that come from St. Petersburg. Once the ship docks, hordes of tourists descend on Tallinn and see it in a day.  
Juri drove us to Kalamaja district first and it was just five minutes away. I tried to peep at the city through the rain. Tallinn is bang on the Baltic sea, and the city has a long coastline. Kalamaja is quiet little neighbourhood just outside the Old Town and is eye-catching for its colourful wooden buildings. During earlier centuries, Kalamaja served as the town’s main fishing harbour and was considered as a suburb. The word Kalamaja means fish house. It was in 1870 that Tallinn got connected by train to St. Petersburg and it became industrial and there was a huge influx of workers. After a few years, this area fell out of favour, and it was almost abandoned. With Tallinn’s improved economy in the 21st century, the middle-class began favouring this district and it led to it being revived. Most of the homes have retained their original flavour making it a historical district.

Since I had heard about the Telliskivi Creative city, I had requested Maarja for a quick look. Set up in the old railway area, it is a collection of factory buildings that retain their characteristic flavour. What is innovative are the wonderful restaurants, stores, art shops and when the weather is good there are food festivals too. A must visit is the La Muu, a tiny independent company making their own ice cream from fresh and local produce.
I chanced upon some amazing stores that had leather goods, paperworks, restaurants.

The Sea plane harbour and a bit of Russian history

A short drive on the coast and Maarja pointed out the garages of the Russians, gray with bright-red doors. It was a concept the Russians introduced in Tallinn to have a covered ‘house’ for one’s car. We drove to the Seaplane harbour (even though it is closed till 2018) but I chanced upon one of the oldest ice-breakers!! This ship is called Suur Tõll icebreaker is at the docking port, near the Seaplane Harbour. It is one of the steam-powered icebreakers from the early 20th century and was built in 1914 in Poland.

The main museum is housed in a strange looking building in dull grey with three domes. Very close is the formidable sea-fortress prison all on the shore of the Baltic sea.
We left and proceeded to check out some royalty. Since Estonia was under the Russian rule for many centuries, the Russian royalty had some favourite locales and Kadriog was one of the much loved places. Kadriorg is famous for its small but beautiful Baroque palace. Russian Tsar Peter the great built the palace for his wife Catherine the first. The palace has a well-manicured garden and the gardener lived in a charming cottage outside the palace, surrounded by the woods.
After a brief glance at the Museum of Modern Art, a truly modern structure, we drove out to the famous Song Festival Grounds at Lauluvaljak. The structure is unique and magnificent. It was the first modern post-war construction in the city, that was completed in 1960.
Song Festival and it’s fabulous stage
In 1869, Johann Jannsen established the Estonian Song festival, aimed at bringing about a national awakening. The first stage was built by Karl Burman and had space for 15,000 performers.
Later, a bigger stage was designed by Alar Kotli, Henno Sepmann and Uno Tölpus, the slope was used wonderfully, where people would be seated. Today, the Song Festival Grounds are a popular venue for events. It is best known as the place where every 5 years the Song Festival is held, in which nearly 25,000 singers take part, attracting an audience of nearly 100,000. 

On top of the natural limestone slope sits a bronze monument to Gustav Ernesaks, Estonian composer and 'father of song'. His statue, that is almost 10 feet in height, is placed as if he is listening to the concert. It’s a great place to click a photo and a memory of Tallinn.
We moved from the famous song grounds stage to St. Bridgets’ Convent. It is a deserted site with beautiful ruins, a medieval convent destroyed in 1577. History goes back to 1407, when it was built as part of a Swedish religious order. It was the largest convent then and today the modern building of the St. Bridgettine Order makes a stark contrast to the ruins.

The Old Town of Toompea and Steven - the local celebrity

Driving along the coast, we entered the Old Town in a few minutes. And the only way to explore the Town is on foot. It’s best to wear comfortable walking shoes as the pavements are in cobblestone.
Juri dropped us off at the Toompea castle. A short walk down takes one to a huge gallery that looked down at the old town with red roof tops, modern structures on the right and the Baltic sea in the distance. Known as the Kohtuotsa viewing platform, most tourists love to stand here and relax. One side was the modern Tallinn. Tourists from the cruise liners were all around. And as I tried to get my share of space on the gallery, amidst umbrellas and people. Besides the fantastic view, even though it was a rainy day, I chanced upon a celebrity!!

A Seagull!. It seems, later I found out, is called Steven. He wasn’t frightened at all. In fact, he was posing for the camera. Grey and white, with a yellow beak, he kept moving on the ledge, extremely comfortable with the crowds.
Just below the viewing gallery is the Danish King´s Garden. As we walked up, unfortunately for me, St Mary’s cathedral was closed on Monday. But a little away is the St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, an eye-catching structure, opposite the Parliament. No photography is allowed inside but the structure is so beautiful even from the outside that I didn’t mind. Inside, beautiful portraits in gold, the ‘onion’ towers that house huge bells made this building a memory to cherish.
Tiny souvenir shops with Russian dolls and Estonian handicrafts made out of wood dot the entire Old Town. Maarja particularly pointed out to one called the Little Red House Full of Bright Ideas.
We walked down to the Great Guild Hall where a permanent exhibition, entitled 'Spirit of Survival', covers 11,000 years of Estonia's history with interactive displays and text in Estonian and English.
 It was time for an early dinner. Maarja made a reservation for me at the Von Krahli Aed. A small but very charming restaurant with a great host who helped me choose. I settled for the vegetarian meat loaf, that came plated beautifully.
I stepped out and took a taxi to my hotel the Radisson Olumpia ( . I was given a voucher for my welcome drink and checked into my room on the ninth floor – it said business class and it was sheer luxury!! A welcome snack awaited me – humus with crispy bread and chips! The bathroom was super in white with a lovely tub and large countertop. The bed was so comfortable that I slept a deep sleep in Tallinn.

Kalev Marzipan Room and shopping in Tallinn
Next morning, I decided to explore the rest of the town and do some retail therapy too.
Next morning, post an amazing breakfast, I decided to explore the sauna and swimming pool located on the 23rd floor. The view was breathtaking more so it was a bright sunny day!

My touring started with the Kalev Marzipan Room. An charming store that sells marzipan, it also houses a cafe and a museum, and the mascot of Kalev who had a makeover over the years. Check for workshops if you want to see how the marzipan is painted and do it yourself.
I visited the Town Council´s Pharmacy that exists from 1422 and is now a great stop for all tourists. It has some interesting exhibits and stories on how ‘folk medicine’ was made. A short walk took me to the  Viru gates and I also had a look a few typical medieval merchant´s houses.
I took a quick look at the Börsi Passage where Estonia's history is set in the stone path.
I decided to visit Stockmanns to check out the collections and it was time to bid goodbye to Tallinn, but not before I visited the new departmental store Nautica at the quay. A spanking new mall, it has some amazing stores and coffee shops. Make sure you reach the harbour at least three hours early so that you can do full justice to the stylish stores housed in Nautica.