Blogged by Anne
We chose our destination for this part of our travels by a process of elimination, looking for somewhere:
- reasonably affordable
- unaffected by the Rio Olympics
- doable in the 5 weeks we have available
- with no additional visa requirements
Thankfully we have longish Schengen visas so we booked a flight into Helsinki and one out of Ljubljana and the plan is to make our way from the one to the other going through Eastern European Schengen states (mostly ending in -ia).
We only spent one night in Helsinki in Finland, which definitely fails the affordability test but was easier to fly to than Tallinn. Helsinki is an attractive Nordic city with a pretty waterfront area. It’s main tourist attraction is Suomenlinna which is a sea fortress dating back to the 1700s (but used as late as the 1900s) built over a number of islands. It is a short ferry ride from the Helsinki harbor, and a great way to spend an afternoon, combining history and scenery. Travelling in Nothern Europe is great in July because it stays light very late, extending your sightseeing time quite a bit. We ended the day with a mini-pub crawl (beer is eyewateringly expensive) and a traditional pub meal. The next morning we did a whirlwind tour of some of Helsinki’s other sites (mostly churches) before catching our 2 hour ferry to Tallinn, Estonia.
The Baltics (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) have a a fascinating history, having been kicked around from one occupying power to another for centuries. After a particularly harrowing World War 2 where they were subjected to alternating German Holocaust and Soviet mass deportation and suppression, they ended up as part of the USSR. These days they are independent and relatively prosperous members of the EU. Although the three countries have plenty of similarities, there is a fierce sense of national pride and some good natured rivalry between them.
Tallinn is the capital of Estonia, and is most well known for its medieval old town which is one of the best preserved in Europe. Although the old town does get a bit hell-ish on a big cruise ship day, it is a very worthwhile place to visit with plenty of interesting sights, bars and restaurants. There is a free city walking tour available, but I opted for same company’s paid-for tour a bit earlier in the day to avoid the crowds. The tour was excellent, combining facts and major sites with more interesting stories and tips. On the recommendation of the guide, I also joined an excellent tour of the tunnels under Tallinn which date back to medieval times but were also used as bomb shelters during the world wars and as civil defence shelters under the Soviets.
Because our time in Tallinn was split by a trip to Lahemaa National Park, we stayed in two different places – a good hostel in the old town (http://16eur.ee/munkenhof/) and an excellent AirBnB in the suburb of Kalamaja. I would highly recommend Kalamaja as a place to stay, it is close to the old town but is quite a hip and arty area with lots of less-touristy bars and restaurants and interesting shops. It used to be a fishing village and is full of old wooden houses which are rapidly being gentrified. It is also close to old Seaplane Harbour which is now a museum and the Culture Kilometer, a pedestrian route which goes past a number of the city’s other attractions.
Lahemaa National Park is about 50km west of Tallinn and we hired a car for a couple of days to explore it. It is a beautiful park with a combination of forests, bogs (a bog is much more interesting than it sounds!) and places of historical interest especially some manor houses dating back to the early 1700s. Although it is possible to explore the area by bus and bike, we found it very convenient to have a car – while places are relatively close together (5-10km), there are lots of different places to see. There are some great short hikes which are very well signposted and have lots of information. The park is also heavy on old Soviet buildings because it was an important military outpost. These are mostly standing empty and covered in graffiti and locals are happy to point you in the direction of the more interesting ones. We visited a submarine base close to our accommodation which was (supposedly) the Soviets most westerly nuclear head. In Lahemaa we stayed at a very quirky AirBnB. The couple who own it (he’s English and she’s Estonian) have decided to move completely off grid and live in a cottage in the forest. They started with a basic cottage and are gradually building an outdoor kitchen and living area, ablutions etc doing all the work themselves. They offer accommodation in tents nearby in the forest. It was a an unusual but enjoyable experience.
From Tallinn, we took a 2 hour trip on the excellent and extremely cheap Superbus to the university town of Tartu. Tartu is a small city, with a picturesque centre filled with pavement cafes and riverside bars. There isn’t a huge amount to do there and although it was great to see the less touristy side of Estonia, one night would probably be enough. The town has a lively nightlife, although I suspect it would have been livelier outside of the summer holiday season.
Dave missed some of our time in Tallinn to travel to London for his grandmother’s funeral. Elizabeth was an astonishing women who escaped the Nazis, helped the French resistance, jumped out of a plane at 70, 71 and 72, and self published her memoirs for Kindle at ninety. She was an inspiration for, and avid follower of our adventures and will be sorely missed. Read more about her here http://www.telegraph.co.uk/obituaries/2016/07/22/elizabeth-harrison-helped-the-french-resistance—obituary/ or download her book here https://www.amazon.com/Receipt-Canary-Elizabeth-Lucas-Harrison-ebook/dp/B00EZ7ICKY.
Next stop: Latvia