Enter the Baltics- Estonia

What did I know about the Baltic states? I know it’s made up of three countries known as Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania respectively. I know Skype was founded in Estonia. I know they used to be part of the Soviet Union. I also know they don’t have very good football teams. That was about it, but I visited anyway.  Tallinn, the capital of Estonia was a 2-hour flight away from London (90 dollars, very uncomfortable with Ryanair.) This was the first time I went somewhere without really knowing what to expect.

Old town, Tallinn
One of the best preserved old towns of Europe in Tallinn. Crowded with cafe patrons and tourists on a sun-shiny day. The weather plays a big part in my impression of a city.

Doing the bare minimum of research, I found out that Estonia is what they call a “startup paradise,” the Skype thing suddenly makes sense now. Most impressive to me was their e-government, all the bureaucratic bullshit we have to deal with, Estonians do it online. They were the first nation to introduce online voting in governmental elections in 2005 and now they pay taxes through the internet. This is even more astonishing considering they only reclaimed independence in 1991 following the breakup of the Soviet Union. It took merely one generation for this small nation to grow from an isolated post-communist state to a booming tech hub. The iron curtain was raised in an alarming speed.

Despite all this talk of it being the Silicon Valley of Europe, Tallinn’s historic center is one of the best preserved medieval old towns in Europe, rightfully earning a spot on UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites.

Tallinn steps to viewing platform
There is a Bohemian feel about the old town, especially walking up the steps to a viewing platform to the sound of busking musicians.

I stayed in a hostel 5 minutes away from the old town by foot. The early summer weather made it easy to walk everywhere, on good days, the sun would shine so brightly but temperatures would stay around the perfect 22 degree celsius mark. It had all the makings of me falling in love with the city and yes I did. I don’t have anything negative to say about the city.  It’s clean, public transportation is top notch, it’s beautiful, it’s contrasting past and future makes for an interesting narrative, and the growing startup culture is attracting young people to the city.

However, one tiny downside is that people are starting to notice this city, there were multiple travel tour groups from as far as Korea visiting the city. If there’s something that repels me from a city, it’s crowds of tourists. Don’t get me wrong, I am glad the city and country is getting the recognition it deserves.

Market square. Tallinn
Market square of Tallinn. A good point to purchase Estonian souvenir, handicrafts ,and traditional dresses.

 

Dog along the Baltic Coast, Tallinn
A dog owner watches as his two dogs have fun in the sun along the Baltic Coastline of Tallinn. That’s right, if a dope old town, Soviet history or tech startups are not your thing, there is the sea.

 

Brown dog
A doggo having fun in the water. After watching doggos have fun by the sea I visited the Seaplane Harbour of Tallinn. It is a museum that houses old ships from the war and more peaceful times.

Basically, I find Estonia to be at the crossroads of Scandinavia and the Eastern Bloc. Helsinki is a 3-hour ferry ride away across the Gulf of Finland, but the shadow of Russia looms large in the east. Perhaps the longing of some locals for a Nordic identity rose from an urge to erase its Soviet past, still fresh in the minds of some. Former KGB HQs and offices have been converted into museums like their neighboring Baltic nations with the cells intact, everyday commodities of the communist era are preserved in museums, including the Estonian National Museum in Tartu I had the pleasure of visiting.

Old houses of Tartu
Houses of Tartu dating back to around a century ago. I took a stroll around the Supilinn neighborhood (Soup Town.) It used to be a slum for peasants, the streets are named after vegetables; ingredients used to make soup (peasant food.)

 

Estonian open air museum
An exhibit of the Estonian Open Air Museum. The museum is a short drive away from the centre of Tallinn. I very much encourage a visit to this museum. It is a life-sized reconstruction of an 18th century Estonian village. On display are houses from different parts of the country, churches, schoolhouses and farms. The open air museum concept is not exclusive to Estonia as I found out there were others in the Baltics as well as Poland. You can easily spend up to 5 hours wandering here learning about the country’s humble past.

However developed Estonia may be today, the nation remembers where it came from, hard-earned independence taken away by the Red Army in 1940, German occupation and the Holocaust during World War II followed by decades behind the Iron Curtain from the rule of Stalin up to Gorbachev. The will of the Estonian people to put a rather tumultuous past behind and successfully form a strong modern nation is one to be admired.

 

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