January 12, 2012

Estonia for the Holidays

After reveling in the food and beverage options of Germany, we headed for our holiday destination: Estonia. If you’re not sure where Estonia is, exactly, look at a map of Europe and keep going north. You’ll find the capital of Estonia, Tallinn, just across the Batlic Sea, south of Helsinki.

As many Estonians were all too ready to remind us, December is not an ideal time to visit Estonia. For the purposes of our journey it worked perfectly, as a good friend of mine (Christina's), Liisa, is from Estonia and was going to be around for the holidays and graciously offered to host us. 

Our flight to Estonia was on Ryaniar, a budget airline which saves on operational cost by choosing airports with low or no airport taxes. So, when you are flying Ryanair and your ticket says “Dusseldorf,” for example, your flight is unlikely to be out of the Dusseldorf airport, but a small, former military base a considerable distance from the commercial airport. In our case, this airport outside of Dusseldorf was Weeze. We arrived in Weeze only to find out the hostel we had booked was 700 meters from the airport. There was no shuttle, and it was dark and rainy. Given our early morning flight, we decided to forego the sketchy hostel stay and long walks in the dark and pouring rain, and opted instead for a night in the airport waiting area. We were not alone. By the time our flight departed at 6am the next morning, the waiting area was full of sleeping travelers spread across benches, tucked away in corners and propped against luggage. Perhaps the most notable person in the airport was the late night cashier at the only open café. From the moment of her arrival until she left the next morning, she fed the gambling machine (ubiquitous in Europe).  When the café was empty she sat in front of the machine continually feeding it change. At busy times, she hastily served customers, her eyes fixed on the scrolling images of fruit, gold stars and dollar signs. At one point she became frustrated with patrons who wanted to try their hand at the machine. We only hope she wasn’t using the café proceeds to feed her habit.

We arrived in Estonia at 10am the next morning, exhausted and cramped from our night. Liisa, my close friend from college, met us at the airport and immediately whisked us away to a local café.  We were astonished at the prices.  A breakfast plate of scrambled eggs, bacon and toast only set us back about 4 Euros each. Estonia was going to ease the financial hit we took in Switzerland for sure!

Liisa lives in Tallinn, Estonia the capital and one of Estonia’s three largest cities. Tallinn sits right on the shores of the Baltic Sea and our ride from the airport to her house made of straw (we kid you not), was picturesque.  Tallinn’s city center was quite walkable and after a few days of recovering from our travels and adjusting to the few hours of daylight, we set out to explore. The city center consists of a new city and an old town. Old Town is the remnant of Tallinn’s medieval days, complete with a city wall, medieval towers and stunning churches. Through our sightseeing and conversations with Estonian’s we learned that Estonia has been conquered multiple times by many of its neighbors, from the Swedes, to the Germans, to the Russians. According to some, this history of invasion explains the average Estonian’s suspicion of foreigners, and guarded personality.  It was not uncommon for people to appear shocked at the sight of a brown-skinned person in their city, or for shop clerks and waiters to be distant and less than inviting. Still for most of our stay we were in the company of friends and were wholly welcomed at Liisa’s family and friends' Christmas and New Year’s events. We were particularly grateful to Liisa's parents, who gave us a wonderful cabin to sleep in - complete with cozy fireplace and the standard wood-heated sauna - and who welcomed us into their Christmas traditions, most notably the Christmas Eve practice of performing some sort of act for each gift received. I joined Liisa for a choreographed dance of 'Santa Baby,' Dave and I together gave a candlelight reading of 'A Night Before Christmas,' and then we both sang a round of jingle bells while Dave juggled. They were goofy performances, but they certainly brought a high level of energy to the proceedings, characterized otherwise by most others reciting a piece of familial significance or reading a dirty Christmas poem (these had never happened before apparently, and only occurred this year because Liisa's beloved grandmother had passed away earlier in the year and opened the floor to more salacious offerings). 

Perhaps the toughest part of our Estonian stay was getting used to the short days. On average, there was about 5 – 6 hours of daylight. The sun rarely poked through gray skies and the cold weather made it difficult for us to muster up the energy to hit the pavement the way we have in previous cities. Nevertheless, we managed to visit a few museums, found one of the best bar’s we’ve encountered so far (Porgu... amazing beer selection, amazing wings), take a road trip to Latvia, and make friends with a very talented Swede.

Enjoy the photographs, captions and movies. 

Pay public toilets are everywhere in Europe. This one was rumored to cost Estonia 60,000 Euros to build. 

As we mentioned, Tallinn is a medieval city and large portions of the city wall that once surrounded the elevated city center are still in tact. Here, Dave becomes the latest in a long line of conquerors. 

Every few years this natural spring erupts. It's a national event in Estonia, and we were there to witness it. 

Christina and Liisa. Liisa drove us around quite a bit and gave us some fantastic tours, as only a local and a friend could do. This was a lunch stop at the Saku brewery. 

A view of Tallinn from a lookout spot atop the city wall. Notice the reflector on David's arm. For obvious safety reasons (i.e. it is dark almost any time you will be walking, commuting, etc) it's required that everyone in Estonia wear a reflector. In the background is the Baltic.

One of our road trips was to Riga, Latvia. Latvia was an interesting country to visit.  Although it is a member of the European Union, it has its own currency, the Lat. Latvia has not satisfied all of the requirements to be a complete member and thus to have the Euro.  The country is currently being supported by the IMF. Although the city center was beautiful, on the outskirts of the city, the countries financial difficulties were evident.
 In this photo, David and Liisa enjoy a happy hour, two drinks for the price of one, special. 

For the holidays we stayed with Liisa's family just outside of Tartu, one of Estonia's other major cities.  David,  curious about a statue in Tartu city center. 

A view of beautiful church ruins in Tartu city center. 

Liisa and her dog Moyna on  walk to the village swing. 

One of our most memorable moments of the trip will surely be New Year's Eve. We were invited to a party in Tallinn's Old Town.  The beautiful apartment, had a wonderful balcony overlooking Tallinn. At midnight the city erupted in fireworks to ring in the New Year. Light snow fell and the sky lit up in colors as we rang in 2012. 

Flame thrower just outside of The Old Hansa - A medieval themed restaurant.  Elizabeth, a friend, sent us gift certificates for this attraction. We had a fun time eating amidst candle light, and taking a trip back in time. 

Entering Tallinn's medieval city gates. 

During our stay we became close with Jimi, a young Swede, who lived in the apartment below Liisa. Jimi was a very talented video artist and had been interviewing for jobs at prized video game companies. Just before we left, Jimi was hired by Ubisoft, his dream company!  The night just before we left, Jimi packed his things and was off to Bulgaria to begin his career as a video game artist. We wish him well and look forward to crossing paths again. 

We departed Estonia under the cover of darkness for a very early morning ferry ride to Helsinki, Finland. We had a day in Helsinki before our trip to Paris and again we opted for an airport stay. This time, the prohibitive cost of hotel rooms and food in Helsinki drove our decision.  The airport had free (though finicky) wifi and we managed to stake out a spot on the couch-like benches of an airport café. We spent the night alternating between sleep, reading and catching up on some email correspondence.

Since we had the day to spare we explored the city of Helsinki, visiting perhaps the most intriguing church we’ve seen yet – The Church of Rock.  This church is built literally inside of rock and from the outside all that is visible is the center dome and the entrance. Helsinki is a fairly small city and we were able to put our bags in train station lockers and then explore the city on foot. We visited a few notable landmarks, sought refuge from the cold and snow in a rather unimpressive bar and ate our delicious sandwiches we packed for our long day. Overall, it was a great jaunt, and a chance to stretch our legs before our long night and subsequent journey to Paris.

Once it was light enough, we ventured out onto the deck of the ferry. 

Our view as we began to dock in Helsinki. 

The Senate building in Helsinki. Despite the cold, there were tour bus loads of people snapping pictures. 

We never understood why there was this enormous Rubiks Cube in the Helsinki Senate Square. At first we thought it was because it's inventor Erno Rubik was Finnish, but it turned out he was Hungarian. Either way, Dave grew up hating that thing and it's thwarting smugness. 

The altar of the rock church. 

A view from the balcony of the rock church. 

The outside of the rock church. Only the dome and the entrance (not in this picture) are visible form the outside. 

A view of downtown Helsinki. An expensive city, but filled with beautiful architecture and a bustling populace.

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