The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

October 25, 2013

Medieval towers stand beside modern touches in Estonia's capital

Dave Zuchowski
CNHI News Service

— Several years ago, while visiting Costa Rica, I ran into a chap from Britain who led tours all over the globe. I asked him what his favorite destination was. Without blinking an eye, he spurted Tallinn.

I was visiting Helsinki this July when I discovered that Tallinn, Estonia's capital, was but a two-hour, 50-mile ferry ride away. I booked a round-trip excursion across the Gulf of Finland to the the walled Medieval city that's comparable to Krakow with the flavor of Prague.

The oldest capital in Northern Europe, Tallinn started as a fort in 1050 and first appeared on a map in 1154. The Danes took control in 1219 but sold their holdings to the Teutonic Knights little more than a century later.

At a strategic crossroads of trade, Tallinn's defenders built a 4.7-kilometer stone wall around the town, along with 46 observation towers and seven gates, including the main Sea Gate, constructed in the 16th century.

Of these, nearly two kilometers of wall remain, along with half the original towers.

My first view of the city was something of a disappointment. The area around the port is not all that attractive, due to construction and a mishmash of modern buildings.

It wasn’t until I got close to Old Town - a few blocks away, within the old ramparts - that my interest spiked.

Twisting cobblestone streets, gabled houses, rustic lanes and iron street lamps remain within Old Town, forming the fairytale core of a UNESCO World Heritage Site that attracts hundreds of thousands of tourists each year.

The Finno-Ugric ancestors of modern Estonians, Finns and Hungarians all moved into the Baltic Coast as early as 8,000 B.C. Today, all three nations share the same root language.

Nevertheless, I was surprised to find so many people speaking American English - the result of U.S. films and television programs, I was told. (Films and television shows are spoken in English with Estonian subtitles, which makes learning easier for those who want to speak English, as most of the youth I encountered did.)

The tiny Estonia - about the size of Vermont and New Hampshire combined - has nearly 1.3 million inhabitants. Of those, about 430,000, or nearly 30 percent, live in Tallinn.

Estonia declared independence from the former Soviet Union on Aug. 20, 1991, two years after the "Singing Revolution" of 1987-88, in which traditional mass singing events turned into a protest against Soviet rule.

Twenty-two years later, the country surprised me with its sophistication and modernity, which exists beside the Medieval architecture and infrastructure of Old Town.

Free, wireless Internet is available almost everywhere. Car parking can be handled by mobile phone. A sign of its "with-it" pulse, Tallinn is listed as one of 10 digital cities in the world. It was named European Capital of Culture in 2011.

Tallinn is easily accessible to Helsinki, as I learned when crossing on the Tallink Silja Line. The line's massive ferries - with a cruise ship ambiance - cross the Gulf of Finland seven times a day. It’s even possible to complete a round-trip excursion between the two capitals with enough time left over to explore Tallinn.

The line also offers cruises, some overnight, to other Baltic ports including Stockholm and Riga.

Waiting in the Helsinki terminal for the ferry, I was lucky to have a great view of the tall ships embarking on their Baltic tours. Once on board, I enjoyed the spacious lounge in business class, along with a copious complimentary buffet that included wines, liquors, cocktails and beer.

On the trip over I discovered Vana Tallinn - a delicious, rum-based, Estonian-made liqueur flavored with cinnamon, vanilla, citrus oil and spices. I liked the liqueur so much I picked up a bottle in the ferry’s duty-free shop.

In no time at all it seemed, the ship had docked in Tallinn, and I was joining hordes of other passengers plodding through immigration and customs, before setting out on my three-day visit.

Dave Zuchowski is an independent travel columnist. Reach him at owlscribe@yahoo.com.