This year we have spent a lot of time in Western Europe and especially Spain but in December it is time to go East and visit a Christmas market and despite being disappointed in previous years on visits to Slovenia and Austria, which had been full of cheap trash from the far east, we remembered that the market in Riga in Latvia had been very good so we chose to return this year to the Baltic. Having visited Riga several times in recent years we looked this time for an alternative destination and settled on Tallinn in Estonia.
When the Baltic States of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia made their accession into the European Union in 2004, few people were even remotely aware of where the mysterious sounding capital cities of Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn actually were. Up until the end of the 1980s, and the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, these countries were subsumed in any World Atlas into the smear of scarlet that represented the USSR and these once great cities had been hidden behind the Iron Curtain for so long that they had disappeared from the consciousness of many of their Western neighbours.
Even after they were restored to independence the view of most people was that many years under the jackboot of communism rendered them greyer than an Old Trafford sky on the first day of an Ashes Test Match and they didn’t feature on many travel itineraries. But Estonia has caught up quickly, it has more internet access than any other EU country, is the birthplace of the internet application Skype and in 2009 it was ranked sixth in the Press Freedom Index, which is an annual ranking of countries, compiled and published by ‘Reporters without Borders’ based upon an assessment of press freedom records.
Estonia is located in the North East of Europe (the most Northerly of the three Baltic States) and South of the Gulf of Finland, which separates the country from Scandinavia. It has nearly four thousand kilometres of coastline and one thousand, five hundred and twenty islands in the Baltic Sea. It is one of the smallest countries in Europe (148th in the world), and although it is larger than both Belgium and the Netherlands the population is a little over 1.3 million.
Whilst Estonia is a member state of the European Union it hasn’t met the economic criteria to join the Eurozone and this is a country that makes financial transactions in thousands rather than tens of units so for the first time since Croatia in June we had a wallet full of unfamiliar notes and were enjoying the self deception of feeling like millionaires. The currency is the Krone and is represented as Eeks so Christine was probably going to have more fun than usual!
It was a mid afternoon flight to Tallinn, which meant with the two-hour time difference that we didn’t arrive in Estonia until just after seven o’clock. Because we were flying due east we had flown deep into the night and once outside the cabin there was an icy blast from a spiteful wind that was blowing sub-zero temperatures around the Lennart Meri Airport (named after the second President of the Republic) that made us securely fasten our jackets and pull our hats down over our ears.
Thankfully it didn’t take long to get through passport control and the attentive police sniffer dog and make our way outside of the small airport building to find the best way of getting into the city. It wasn’t any warmer outside the arrivals hall as the wind forced its way under the canopies and sent the cold air searching into every corner. As we wanted to get there as quickly as possible it was a bit late to queue for a bus so on this occasion we broke one of our normal travelling rules and took a taxi for the four kilometre journey to the city and to our hotel the Von Stackelberg just on the edge of the old town. Two taxis for the eight of us because this was a holiday club trip, which was sadly one member short because Micky had had to cancel due to family business. Fellow founder members Sue and Christine were in the group and so were Mike and Margaret who had been with us before (Salzburg) and there were two new faces this time, Mike and Helene.
Our Taxi driver understood and spoke perfect English and he gave us a brief history of the city and the tourist industry, made some dining recommendations and gave us a weather forecast all in the space of fifteen minutes until we arrived at the hotel. The Von Stackelberg was an old building that had been completely refurbished and the reception was cozy with a bright modern style. After a complimentary drink we found our superior Zen room on the third floor and were delighted with the view from the window of the city and the floodlit castle. Although it was cold outside the room was warm and comfortable and so too was the basement bar and restaurant where we reassembled together after a few minutes of unpacking for a first drink in Estonia.
The waitress was keen that we order food but we didn’t have time for that because we wanted to go to the city for the market and some sightseeing so we explained this to her as best we could and then set off into town on foot. We passed underneath the floodlit walls of the Toompea Castle, the home of the Estonian Parliament, and then below the tower of the Aleksander Nevski Russian Orthodox Cathedral and on to an elevated part of the town where there were viewing platforms that looked out over the northern half of the old town, the city port and the Gulf of Finland beyond that. It was half past nine and the place was strangely deserted, perhaps because it was Sunday or maybe because it was just so cold but there were no signs of any restaurants and as we weren’t sure just how to get to the middle of the old town we worried about running out of time so all agreed that we should return to the hotel and eat there. A couple of years ago we arrived late on a Sunday night in Riga and everywhere was closed like this so this seemed like a good idea.
Back at the Von Stackelberg the friendly waitress in the black uniform that matched the contemporary hotel décor was pleased to see us and after preparing a table took our orders and served us with beer and wine. The food didn’t take long to come and it was tasty and filling and we congratulated ourselves on a good decision to return to the warmth of the hotel basement rather that wander about aimlessly in the chilly back streets and alleys of Tallinn old town.