May 23 – Tallinn
After a long travel day–trains from Riomaggiore to La Spezia to Milan to the airport; flight to Tallinn; taxi to hostel–Gina and I arrived at around 10:00pm. Not that you’d notice. At this latitude, the sun was barely over the horizon at that hour. We toyed with the idea of going out–for about ten seconds–and then fell into (twin) bed(s).
We decided not to spend the money on a nice hotel for this first night since we knew we’d pretty much just sleep and leave in the morning. Good call as it saved us 60 euro, but the cigarette smell that permeated the room worked its way into our clothes, hair and even our day packs. The next morning we arrived at the Merchants House hotel two hours before check-in and were delighted that our room was ready. Showers ensued, followed by fumigation of bags on the large window sills (thank goodness the temperature was just warm enough to have the room opened up).
Estonia is decidedly low-key. I realized today over breakfast–which was a protein feast compared to the bread-and-jam fare in Italy–that there was no passport control or customs to speak of at the airport. We just walked out. Very convenient, certainly, but I really wanted an Estonian stamp on my passport. I wonder if I can get one on the way out(?)
Estonia also seems to be a very young country, and not just because it declared its independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991. (It enjoyed a brief period of independence in the early 20th century as well, but has been part of some other empire for the rest of history.) Every member of the hotel staff we’ve encountered has been well under 30.
This is also one of the most wired (and wireless!) countries in the world, much to Gina’s delight. Wifi is everywhere, usually for free, and seems to be something that the government has decided is a priority. Among Estonia’s best-known exports are Skype and Kazaa, the peer-to-peer file sharing service.
Ironic, then, that amidst all this digital bounty we are staying in a 14th century building that is part of the best-preserved medieval old town in the whole of Europe. The old city wall is intact and the whole place just oozes history. Unlike Dubrovnik, it is not overrun with tourists, but also it is not as touristy itself. There are the usual trinket shops and designer stores, but there is also a strong presence of more authentic wares and everything just seems to fit together well. The character of the town as a whole still manages to outweigh the sum of its commercial parts.
We spent a while on our first real day in a collection of craft shops–textiles, wood, ceramics, leather–that are all heavy on authenticity. Gina bought (her second) coffee mug, but I have to say this one is pretty cool, being made locally using glazes that are specific to the region and having been purchased from the artist herself. She and Gina talked about working with clay, and I was reminded by Gina telling her that we have an ample supply of nearly pure red clay in our yard at home.
We finished up the day by dining at an African restaurant located near two hostels, which I took to provide a good deal of the clientele though there were only a few other tables occupied. The food was great, and cheap, which was nice since we’d spent big on lunch at the restaurant next to our hotel. That place was full-on Estonian (complete with wait staff in traditional garb), and the portions and hearty fare were perfect as we hadn’t eaten anything to speak of for nearly 18 hours. They also had a great “house beer” that was a medium-weight amber.
Tomorrow we’re booked on an all-day tour of a national park outside of town, so we should have plenty to report in the next installment. Today it’s been raining much of the time, so we’ve holed up in the bar/lounge of the hotel with tea and the ubiquitous free wifi. There’s a brew pub across the street called Beer House (love it) that I think we’ll need to check out before too long. They have a marzen on tap, and in fact I think I hear it calling to me now….