Monday, June 4, 2007

Tallinn (the old city)

First off, my apologies to everyone involved with my errors (spelling, ordering, etc). I had hoped not to butcher languages as badly as my dad made a habit of on the trip, but my own phonetic spelling habits apparently don't translate very well to Scandanavian languages and names. Sorry, and thanks to Eija and Vilma for the corrections!

Anyway, Tuesday evening we spent a bit more time in Jyvaskyla, including a great dinner and a trip to the natural history museum. The museum is located in the base of a watchtower overlooking the city and surrounding area (the Kujalas gave us a tour of the city from the viewing deck, which was a nice rest for our tourist legs).

We then hopped in the car and drove to Helsinki (about 2.5 hrs)--I'd tell you more about the car ride, but I slept through most of it. We got to the Kujala's apartment just in time to take advantage of their weekly sauna time (many apartments in Finland have their own sauna--I'm jealous). It was yet another different type, with a pretty large room without windows (it was in the basement) and an electric heat unit (and yes, you still pour water on the rocks on electric saunas, contrary to popular American belief). After sauna, we headed upstairs for a beer or long drink and an early bedtime.

The next morning, we woke up and readied ourselves for the cruise to Tallinn, Estonia. The forecast for Helsinki called for rain, but just clouds a 2 hr boatride south in Tallinn, so Eija insisted that we only bring one umbrella. We got on the boat (about the same size as our cruise ship from Stockholm to Helsinki) around 10:30am and found much of the boat already having cocktails (my parents and I opted for water).

When we got to Tallinn and got through the passport checks (all customs we ran into abroad are far far easier than in the US), we were greeted by our guide- a mid-30s woman who had lived in Tallinn her whole life and proved to be a lot of fun. We got in a van and drove off. The first area we drove through was a mix of old houses--some had been refurbished, others were well worn and showed their age.

Our first stop was at the palaces of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great (known as mini-Versaille). The buildings and surrounding gardens are beautiful and now serve as government buildings (I think one is the President's place).

From there we got back in the van and drove to the amphiteatre, where choruses of up to 30,000 can sing together on stage, and many more thousands can sit on the opposing hill and listen. Singing got Estonians through much of the Soviet occupation, and the tradition continues with a huge choral festival every 5 years (the next is in 2009). The amphitheatre grounds was the site for many moments of solidarity throughout and following the occupation.

As we drove to the Old City, we passed many apartment buildings clustered together--tiny, thin-walled apartments ("renovated" since soviet occupation, but still very sad looking) that provide housing for over a quarter of the city's residents (including our tour guide).

In the old city (where our bus left us), we saw a number of very old churches and parts of the city wall (2/3 of which is still standing, thanks to Tallinn's traditional policy of handing over the city's keys instead of fighting). Aaaaaand is started raining. Hard. We hurried down the path from the upper city (power) to the lower city (merchant wealth), bid adieu to our tour guide, and ducked into a cafe and a brewhaus for some lunch (beer). We debated what's at the end of the universe (Eija says sand, and challenges all to argue against her), then moved on to a couple more sights (yep, still pouring rain) before settling in to our incredible 4-course dinner at a french restaurant called The Egoist (a sign of its class: we were the only diners there until just before we left, when a high-powered exec entertained government officials in the hopes of setting up shop in Tallinn's ports).

From there, we headed back to the ship and headed back to Helsinki. Overall, Tallinn was striking both with its history and beautifully preserved buildings and roads, and depressing with its leftover misery from the Soviet era. It was the first time I had seen the effects of Communism up close and personal, and it was tragic--and it had a profound effect on the people: the guide joked "an introverted Estonian speaks to his own feet, an extroverted Estonian speaks to your feet." It seemed somehow appropriate that it rained there, though I am confident that they can rebuild in the long run.

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