Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Connecting with My Roots in Estonia (Part 1 of 3)

Although I’d never been to the homeland, I grew up speaking Estonian. But I was always reticent to visit my homeland. Finally, I decided to go.

Entering the medieval Old Town, I was overwhelmed with emotion for Tallinn is one of Europe’s most beautiful capitals with narrow cobblestone streets, church spires, medieval buildings, thick battlements and towers.

Over the next two days my dearest, Allyson, and I
walked and walked, immersing ourselves in the glorious Old Town, which was established in 1219 by the Danes. The town is surprisingly well preserved given the wars that Estonia has suffered. At the centre is the town hall square, which is dominated by a Gothic town hall (1404) and lined with bustling open-air cafes. Patio umbrellas carried the name Saku (the local beer). Throngs of tourists milled in the square for Tallinn is a regular stop for cruise ships.

The Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is actually two towns, each with its own fortifications. The upper one was for nobles and the lower town for merchants. About 2 kilometres of sturdy stone walls and 27 towers are still preserved.

The ramparts of upper Town offer wonderful views onto the rooftops and spires of lower Town. We visited the parliament buildings, the Russian Orthodox Alexander Nevsky cathedral and Pikk Hermann tower, which reminded me of the Estonian flag holder in my parents’ home long ago.

The lower town is full of museums and churches. I particularly enjoyed the Passage of History where plaques in the sidewalk outline Estonian history from 1154 to the present.

Next day, our guide pointed to a stately Gothic house. “That was the former KGB headquarters,” she said. “This street was the most feared place in the city.” As we were to learn, Russia still casts a dark shadow over the land.

Our local haunt became the Hell Hunt bar, on whose window a smiling wolf carries a naked blonde lady.
The beer was delicious and cheap and Allyson and I usually ordered the house light and dark beers. Restaurants and bars abounded for Tallinn has a raucous night life.

My cousins, who I met for the first time, explained that Estonia is a progressive country and has made huge strides since gaining its freedom in 1991. Skype was invented here; there is almost no government debt; Estonia is a member of NATO and the Eurozone; and voting is conducted via Internet. I was proud.

We visited Seaplane Harbour, a brand-new, must-see maritime museum just outside the Old Town. The main building is an immense dome, originally built in 1917. Inside, it is surreal and contains a submarine, the oldest boat in Estonia and much more.

On the fourth day, we rented a car and set off to circle the country. We were entering terra incognita for tourists rarely venture outside Tallinn.

If You Go
Meriton Old Town Hotel:
General information:
Impressions of Estonia, useful book with 124 photos:

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