Sunday, April 17, 2011

Estonia, where is that again?

It's Pesach (Passover) holiday in Israel.  While some are observant, this is still high season for family vacations.  Ben Gurion airport was packed to the gills with outbound travelers when we left.  After a four hour flight to Munich, we flew two more hours.  Then we landed in Estonia.

Would you be able to point out Estonia on a map?  I knew it was in northeastern Europe near Russia, at least.  But I couldn't have told you the name of the capital (any guesses?)  It's Tallinn.  The whole country is only 1.4 million people.  And they've had it rough.  They spent most of the 1900's under occupation never mind the last 800 years) and only got their independence in 1991 from Russia.  The Russians were here most of the time, but the Nazi's took a run at the place from 1941-1944. 

They have a beautiful old city with a mixture of Russian, German, Swedish and Estonian influenced architecture.  They have some of the oldest medieval structures in the world.  We took a 2 hour walking tour of the city today, seeing most of it, and hearing stories from the perspective of a college student who was clearly influenced by the history of her homeland, providing a humorous, ironic, athiest and skeptical take on the authorities who have ruled her country, under occupation as well as as a free state. 

We passed by the old KGB headquarters, where the street level windows had been filled in with bricks to block the screams of those being tortured inside.  The building is now empty, and they have plans to renovate it into apartments, which are controvercial, with opinions depending on how you feel about the process of moving on from the autrocities of history. 

Dinner was at the Olde Hansa, a restaurant in the old town that has researched and replicated medieval dining.  They pour water from a pitcher to wash your hands when you come in, light by candles at the tables, and theoretically serve food in period style.   Huge rich portions meant our simple soup and two dinners were a two hour excursion, requiring a few more hours of walking and digestion afterwards.  We were seated on the third floor, where a group of 35 local middle-aged Estonians came in for a "feast" about the same time we did.  Within 15 minutes they had broken out in song.  You're probably reading this and thinking what a nightmare.  But as it turns out, Estonian's are known for their singing.  They say they "sang" their way to revolution and freedom.  These guys were in perfect harmony.  And if that wasn't enough, a stag party of six men (on the older side) sat at the table next to us, in full pirate costumes.  It was an entertaining meal. 

Our second day in Tallinn we wandered an old neighborhood of stately wooden homes that ended up in a state of disrepair during the years of occupation, but interest and investment is starting to return it to the upperclass neighborhood that it once was.  It is near a large park which is across from the Palace build by the Russian Tsars  (for the Russian Tsars) as well as the current President's home.  They also recently built a beautiful modern art museum which we wandered in for about an hour. 

For lunch we headed back across town north of the old city, to a little place called Cafe Moon, where we satiated our empty tummies with outstanding fish soup and borshe soup.  Then we shared a salmon pie which was equally delicious.  We didn't think another meal could top lunch, but dinner of venison medallions and butter-seared halibut did.  All in all, Tallinn exceeded my expectations.  That's partly due to not really having any, but I would recommend it if you ever up in north eastern Europe.  Just don't go any earlier than April.  It still required my snowman coat. 

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