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Meet the Ever So Charming Tallinn, an Estonian Gem

05/09/2013 12:30 pm ET | Updated Jul 09, 2013

Finally I make my way to the growing in popularity city of Tallinn, Estonia in Eastern Europe. From afar, it sounded like an Eastern European city modeling itself after Prague in order to attract tourists to its borders and yet, after seeing the new Prague (a year and a half ago) and the old Prague (25 years ago), it couldn't be any further from the truth. Tallinn doesn't come with overly commercial trimmings, yet it boasts five star hotels, spa experiences and chefs who can compete with the best in Europe.

When I arrived, I did what I always do -- set off on foot, with map in pocket and a general direction in my mind, but without a set agenda. Not having an agenda is always one of the best ways to discover a city because then the experiences have a better chance of surprising you rather than you molding your experience into a box, the one that tells you the top five things you must do in Tallinn.

That doesn't mean I wouldn't recommend a few "must do's" such as the Sokos Hotel Viru otherwise known as the KGB Hotel just outside Tallinn's Old Town. There's also the forts of which there many entries, from Fat Margaret's Tower (Great Coastal Gate), which was built in 1511, Kiek in de Kok, the museum of the town's defenses, the Loewenschede Tower build in the 1370s and the Maiden's Tower, built around the same time. If you're into ancient cultures, then you'll be a giddy child taking in everything from ghost stories to historical relics.

Did you know that the Swedes ruled Estonia from the 1500s to the 1700s? I didn't before I arrived and yet I don't get the feeling that much of their heritage remained, at least not in the same way that colonial empires left their footprints in Africa and India as an example.

Not far from the first hotel I stayed at in Tallinn (Telegraaf Hotel, which was once a post office, lies the town square. Like most European cities, bars and restaurants line its edges and outside tables with yellow umbrellas create an almost summer holiday-like experience even amidst the cool temperatures of Eastern Europe in April. It's much easier to get away with given the narrow alleys which stem off from the main cobblestone area, loaded with cafes, chocolateries, woolen shops offering hats, gloves and socks, and trinket shops for those who need to go home with a coaster, spoon, glass, flag or porcelain doll that plasters the name of Tallinn upon it.

Here, I took in the Europe I knew best... the one with bistros which would deliver me fabulous dark beers (the one time I appreciate drinking beer, being much more of a wine lover), traditional shops with materials and more materials and of course the others which carry quirky items to remind you of their thousands of years heritage, one which the yanks can't touch. If I go back in time for a meander, I'd rather it not be solely discovered in a book or a relic I can purchase at a shop however old... I want some mad scientist historian to take me back in time so I can get lost in his facts, figures and stories so deeply that I forget where I am.

Generally people are proud of their heritage and I find this to be more true in Eastern Europe than the West. The Estonians are a proud people and more reserved than the Russians, the Germans and the Poles, close in nature to Scandinavia and the Finns than the rest of Eastern Europe.

Estonia is a puddle jump for the Finns, making it easy for romantic weekend getaways and longer family holidays in a land not too far away from home. I ran into two Finns who live in a place called Åland, a self-governing archipelago of islands off the coast of Finland where Swedish speakers constitute a majority. The conversation went something like this: So, you're Finnish says I?

Yes, they say. I'm curious about the Finnish language, I say. He says, well it's my second language. Huh, I say? He tries to explain as I follow him to a street I want to take photographs of just outside of Tallinn's Old Town....he says he'll bring me 80 percent there with his map in full view while mine lay buried in my pocket, as always.

Swedish is apparently the mother tongue of about 275,000 people in mainland Finland and of about 25,000 people in Swedish-speakers comprise 5.5 percent of the total Finnish population or about 5.1 percent without Åland. This Åland place has me intrigued as I think about it (and them) after once again trekking off on my own.

I learn that the Old Town is divided into two sections: Lower Town and Toompea Hill and then later discovered from yet another Finn, not a map, that the the streets which divide these two areas are Pikk Jalg (Long Leg Street) and Luhike Jalg (Short Leg Street). I climbed up the Pikk Jalg by foot, though it was once notorious for carriage traffic heading to and from Toopea. Here I ran into an adorable Estonian artist who wanted to do my portrait while I wanted to shoot him drawing anyone except for me. He marveled at my camera while I marveled at his chalk colors and sturdy canvas which was a quarter of the price I paid for the same sized one in the states. From there, I ventured north, climbed a leg of stairs, passed a few artistic shops and faced one of the most haunted buildings in the city head-on, a tower which was built in 1456 and has many a' story to go along with it.

I meander my way further north without looking at a map and come face-to-face with another turn of the 15th century church. As I continued to migrate from cobblestone to cobblestone, square to square and hill to hill taking photos of weathered buildings, corners of buildings, and historical monuments, I relished in Tallinn's charm, history, culture, the loveliness of its people and its flavorful cuisine.

From the charm and attention-to-detail outdoor cafes to historical landmarks, there's a lot to take in during a meander through Tallinn. If you're into medieval arms, venture over to the Epping Tower, a six-story tower where you can man-handle replica swords, or the Hellemann Tower for a walk through a 200 meter stretch of the wall that dates back to the 14th century.

The Bastion Tunnels is a quirky tour that takes you underground via a slow moving train where you see the tunnel's past and its possible future into several decades from the city's current reality.

Old town runs deep despite the fact that the town center is fairly small. There are plenty of galleys, alleys, corner streets, pockets and corners you can explore all of which deliver a delicious cultural and historical past.

 

Aside from history, culture and alternative art is plentiful. From cars, buildings and colored herbs to ceilings, building edges and off-beat art galleries, creative faces and voices shine amidst Tallinn's walls.

 

I was told by the local who found me in the alleyway that the structure in and around this doorway dates back 1,600 years or so.

There's another side of Tallinn which the tour books won't lead you to: the outskirts, where people live. Buildings are not renovated, partially because there isn't the budget for it and partially because they might choose the structure to maintain its historical untouched self, corners peeling away or not. There seems to be a juxtaposition of burying the past (and the less than happy Soviet times that went along with that past) and applauding it, to ensure their children and children's children never forgot.

As you venture out of town, you see gray and white-washed buildings, then, leafless Birch trees with spiked offshoots amidst pines the further out we go. There's a McDonald's eyesore on the way and I wonder what year it was brought in, as IT lie woven into other shops and eateries alongside a petrol station and a red and white striped smoke stack.

Then, a main drag which passes a body of water on our right, white caps brewing despite muted winds....a reminder that we aren't always in control. In between IT and us lay a gray washed concrete divider which blocked off anything and everything else except a strip of a flat, farming area with saffron yellows as its main reward. The brush overwhelmed as there were few houses and only a few medium sized pines which stood proudly together yet condensely crowded, begging for more space. I learn that the area is the first permanent settlement in Northern Estonia and the fields are nearly 9,000 years old. On the right are stone graves which were part of the first permanent village, hay stacks scattered throughout its valley.

History is in abundance inside the city's walls or within an hour or two's drive, making it an ideal location for exploring the country.

All photo credits Renee Blodgett.