Thursday, December 18, 2014

Tallinn Visit -- Part 1: Old Town Views

My parents were Estonian by birth and ethnicity, and my mother, aunt, and maternal grandmother all lived many years in the old town section of Tallinn, the Estonian capital. As a child growing up in the home of my immigrant parents in North America, I occasionally received gifts (mostly children's books), photos, and letters from my grandmother and aunt who remained in Estonia. Though the books were beautifully-illustrated and I still cherish them, all the family photos we received were black and white. In my child's mind, Estonia was the place my family came from that was lived in shades of grey, black, and white.  Reinforcing that notion,  the talk amongst my parents and their friends often included the words "behind the Iron Curtain"  to refer to life in Estonia. I didn't understand what that meant exactly. All I knew was that we couldn't go there to visit our family, and our family couldn't visit us. Fortunately, times and situations change, and Estonia is a free and independent country again now. I can visit family there and they can visit me.

When I first visited Estonia as a free nation a few years ago, I was enchanted by the colorful, picturesque, beautiful old town. Now, I no longer see Tallinn as grey and bleak. Being there is like stepping back in time, but to a vibrant, color-filled past. How different the buildings there are from the massive cement buildings of the communist era. Since that first visit, I've longed for a few days to just walk those streets as freely and as long as I wish and for the chance to experience a little of what my now-gone family members experienced when they lived there. In the past month, Sten and I had three wonderful days fulfilling that dream. We   stayed in the old town and walked and  explored to our hearts' content. It was such a treat.  Our hotel, The Three Sisters, is just inside the city wall and dates back to 1362.  It's beautifully renovated for a comfortable stay, but keeps the old charm as well.

The towers along the city wall all have names.  The closest one to our hotel was called "Paks Margareeta" which is translated Fat Margaret.  It's the largest and most rotund of the towers, as you can imagine.

After we were settled in our room, we were served cups of the steaming hot traditional Estonian Christmas drink (spiced juices/wine with raisins and nuts).  Interestingly, the same or very similar drink is claimed as the traditional Norwegian Christmas drink and the traditional Swedish Christmas drink also. I guess it's "Nordic" in the broad sense.  We enjoyed it then and many other times where it's been served at Christmas in these Northern European countries.

The hotel lobby had a real wood fireplace.  Very cozy and warming.

Five minutes' walk down the cobblestone street was the "JĂľuluturg" or Christmas Market in the town hall square. Since daylight fades around 3:15 p.m. this time of year, we first saw it in the dark.  After we had our dinner, the stalls were closed for the night, so we didn't explore until the next day. I'll post about the market and shops in the next post.

The Estonian parliament (Riigikogu) and government buildings are on a hill called Toompea, some 30 meters higher than the rest of the old town. The parliament building (below) is in one wing of what used to be Toompea Castle.  It faces the Russian Orthodox Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. 

From Toompea, there are several places where one can get a beautiful overview of the rest of the old town looking towards the harbor on the Baltic Sea. We were there as the darkness came on and the lights came up in the town.

We went back the next day when the sun was shining and the sky was blue just to see it in different lighting. A scene from Disney, only real.

Some old town streets are made from flat bricks, but many are natural rounded stones. All are well worn from centuries of traffic -- foot, horse, cart, and now car.


So, there you have it: a little slice of Tallinn.  The lanterns  in the next two pictures are everywhere -- an icon of Tallinn's old town.  Aren't they beautiful?

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