And just like that, we enter the European Union!
After our four days in St. Petersburg, we took an 8-hour train ride across the Russian border into Estonia.
I’ve heard so many wonderful things about Tallinn from friends, and we were really looking forward to visiting this city. We’ve previously visited Riga, Latvia and Vilnius, Lithuania, and were curious to complete our visit of the Baltics and see how Tallinn compared.
The last time we felt like we’d stepped back in time on this trip, was in ancient Pingyao, China. If you remember, we loved Pingyao, but it was in desperate need to ‘coziness’. Somewhere to sit in a warm cafe or pub and soak up the historic atmosphere. Well, Tallinn has Cozy in spades! It was cuteness overload. It’s like entering a perfectly preserved medieval fairytale.
Ahhh, Tallinn is So Cute!
We have a running joke about overusing the word “cute” (started by my dad who really dislikes that word). Well in Tallinn, even Zak found himself saying “Ah that’s so cute!!” when we’d turn a corner. In Tallinn, you really can’t help yourself. It really is straight out of a medieval fairy tale.
(And we keep thinking how amazing it is to travel in the winter when there are so few other tourists! I imagine the cuteness factor is tempered somewhat in peak summer travel season when there are tourists posing for photos everywhere…)
We stayed at a fantastic historic hotel, Merchant’s House Hotel, just steps from the main square. The hotel is a listed building, and it’s a warren of little hallways, staircases and cozy rooms. Part of the building was built in the 1300s and the other part in the 1600s. To get to our room, we had to go out across the inner courtyard, up some winding stone stairs, through a doorway, then down some stairs, then into our room, where we had to go down 3 more stairs to get into the main bedroom. Good thing we have minimal luggage!
Breakfast is served in the basement vaults of the hotel, across a series of three interconnecting stone vaults. You walk through archways into deeper vaults to get the breakfast buffet, and into another for juice and coffee. It’s really fun (oh, AND they have a great coffee machine that also serves a blend of hot cocoa AND coffee – yum!)
One Mug of Ale, Please!
One lunchtime, we stopped into an ancient pub in the basement of the immense stone town hall, which was built in the 1400s.
Yes, this was one of those tourist pubs that has costumed “wenches” serving you ale in huge pottery jars, but it was really well done in this case. It was so dark inside, lit by candles, and you could still see the smoke discoloration on the stone walls and ceilings. We both felt transported back in time and our lunchtime conversation was about what it must’ve been like to be a medieval traveler, stopping in for lunch at a pub or inn like this. Oh, and they had a huge barrel of pickles which are complimentary with a drink. You fish out a pickle using a big stick with a nail on the end – easier said than done. But, pickles!!! I can’t resist.
Our favorite snack from this region of the world is called “garlic bread” – but ooohhhhh they need to export this as a beer snack to other places. We’ve had this in St. Petersburg and here in Tallin on this trip, but also previously in Riga, Latvia and Vilnius, Lithuania, so it seems to be a regional thing. It’s basically dark rye bread well toasted and cut into slices (possibly even deep fried in some restaurants), and then rubbed with tons of garlic. It’s served hot and crispy, and it’s so addictive!
In the Footsteps of the KGB
One of the most interesting ‘sights’ we visited in Tallinn was the KGB museum on the 23rd floor of a hotel. During Soviet times, this was the only hotel where foreigners were allowed to stay – so of course the KGB took over the top floor to keep tabs on all the guests!
Now they’ve turned that floor into a museum. Several of the offices have been left exactly as they were when the KGB departed when the Soviet Union collapsed. Interestingly, they weren’t able to ‘recreate’ the offices as they would’ve been during active KGB use, because no one saw inside these offices when they were being used! None of the hotel employees were allowed on the 23rd floor, so they have no idea what the offices looked like. So they’ve just been somewhat in disarray, as they were when the KGB quickly departed (apparently they “disappeared overnight.”)
They did have some of the original spy equipment, like a camera with a long skinny lens, lots of microphones, and even china bread plates with built-in microphones to eavesdrop on diners. It reminded me of the International Spy Museum in Washington, DC (which is a must-visit if you’re ever in DC!) Really interesting.
Moving Onwards …
We loved Tallinn. Definitely worth adding to your travel list. And everyone spoke really excellent English. It was the first place we felt like we could just normally converse with almost everyone we met — so refreshing after weeks of Google Translate and super basic English conversations. (And if you do plan a trip, Tallinn is just across the water from Helsinki, and there are regular ferries between the two, so you could probably combine both in a short visit!)
Next up, our travel gets a bit less glamorous as we have to take a bus (coach) to Vilnius, Lithuania. It’s hard to believe that we’ve taken trains all the way from Hong Kong, and now back in Europe there are no trains available for this next leg of our journey!
We decided to skip over Riga, Latvia as we’ve been there before, and just go straight to Vilnius. (OK, truthfully we’ve also been to Vilnius previously, but Zak is half-Lithuanian and we really loved the city, so we’ve been wanting an excuse to go back…) So it’s a 9-hour bus ride for from Tallinn to Vilnius for us… It doesn’t sound too bad. Tickets are only 14 Euro each (around 13 GBP or 16 USD) for the trip, and it’s a “luxury” bus with faux-leather seats, TV’s in each seat, WiFi connectivity, toilets and even a “hot drinks dispenser” on board. Fingers crossed it’s as comfy as it sounds…