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Tall Tales of Tallinn

Tallinn, Estonia

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Baltic cruises, increasingly, are taking in some of the sights of the Baltic states – Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. One of the best things about the cities of these micro-countries, from the point of view of the cruiser, is that they are relatively untouched. A little like Prague, during the years of Soviet rule they did not experience the same economic boom and development as western cities.

So Tallinn, the capital and main port of Estonia, doesn’t look a whole lot different from the way it looked a hundred years ago. Probably the streets were a little less busy back then, and there wouldn’t have been too many motor cars around. But after you’ve disembarked from your ship and wandered around the old town for a while you’ll be struck by the extent you seem to have stepped back in time. The cobbled streets and pointed castle towers seem like the backdrop to a Disney fairytale cartoon rather than the setting for a thriving, modern, European city.

The other thing that makes Tallinn fun to walk around is its geography. Unlike most cities, which are built around a river or rivers, Tallinn is built around a network of large larges. Over the years these have served as a source of food, fresh water and defense for native Tallinners, and these days they’re still at the heart of the city’s economy. Of course, these days the money that bodies of water like Lake Harku and Lake Ülemiste generate is largely derived from tourists and cruisers like yourself, but strolling along their shores – or occasionally, ice skating on them in winter – remains one of the great pleasure of visiting this city.

The heart of the old town, however, is away from the lakes and built up on to the historic hill of the Toompea. For long the religious and administrative center of Tallinn, the hill today remains the seat of Estonian government. It seems a strange place for a national government to take up residence, as the hill with its steep, narrow cobbled streets resembles a small village in some ways, rather than a capital city. The hill is topped off by the sixteenth century cathedral of St. Bruno – one of the many pieces of medieval and renaissance architecture in the city that miraculously survived the Second World War with little damage. That’s amazing when you consider that the city was fought over not once but three times – by the Russians, then the Germans, then the Russians again. During all the shelling and bombing that went on the city’s ancient monuments survived remarkably unscathed.

That’s not to say that Tallinn is just about history, of course: if shopping is an important part of your cruise itinerary you’ll probably want to check out the shops of Viru Street. Starting at the Viru Gate, you can wander around between tiny boutiques and the branches of western chain stores that are springing up in Eastern Europe. Tallinn has always been a meeting point for east and west, but the way western commerce rubs shoulders with stores left over from Soviet days is a strikingly distinctive feature of the city.

If you’re looking for something to eat – or just a coffee or beer to refresh yourself before heading back to the harbor – you should stop off at Raekoja Plats. This square, in the heart of the old city, is a lovely place to visit in itself. It’s eighteenth century architecture is dominated by the massive pile of the Town Hall. However, this isn’t just an area for gazing at the building efforts of Tallinners from times past. The sides of the square are lined with cafés, restaurants and coffee shops, so this is a great place to sample Estonian cuisine. The local cooking, like so much of local culture, looks both east and west – and a little to the north, too. You can pick up blintzes with really cheap caviar, heavier German-influenced dishes and the sort of seafood that is very popular in Scandinavian countries such as pickled herring. The local beers and vodkas are excellent. Be warned, though, if you’re a coffee drinker: Tallinners like theirs strong, and tend to serve it in larger measure than elsewhere. So if you ask for a single espresso you may get what would be considered a double or triple espresso in Rome or New York.

All things considered, Tallinn is a great city to include in your cruise itinerary if you want a taste of several different cultures. This city, at times, can feel rather like the cultural hub of the whole European continent – the center point at which everything that’s good about the surrounding cultures gathers.

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