December 26, 2018 – January 2, 2019
Deciding to extend our time in the Baltic we researched the best way to reach Tallinn (Estonian for ‘Danish Town/Fortress’), Estonia’s capital and another Old Town jewel. A bus seemed to be the fastest and the easiest, so we purchased tickets and the next day experienced an extremely comfortable, four-hour ride outfitted with reclining seats, plenty of legroom, and individual screens with Wifi.
A 15-minute cab ride landed us in the Old Town
just inside the wall that once circled the medieval city named Reval (Tallinn’s name until independence in 1918).
Our hotel room was small but in a perfect location for exploring the Old Town.
And, like I did for Latvia, I found a British newspaper, THE DAILY TELEGRAPH, listing some factoids about Estonia in a February 2018 article:
- one of the least crowded countries in Europe
- 44% of SKYPE’s employees are in Latvia
- Estonians’ love of chess was evident when almost 10% of the population attended chess grandmaster Paul Keres’ funeral in 1975
- and, the piece de resistance for moi: Estonia has won the Wife Carrying World Championships 11 years straight (1998-2008) thanks to the now-famous ‘Estonian Carry.
I love the third bullet point…
Tallinn also ranks #7 of the least polluted capital cities on the earth according to a 2017 World Health Organization report. In looking into this further I found the “Tallinn Environmental Strategy to 2030”. In skimming part of the document I noticed one of their goals was to make the 2018 Greenest Cities Index. They didn’t succeed but their neighbor, Riga, did. Interestingly, they, too, have a 2030 strategy. Actually, a lot of cities do. The year 2030 appears to be the future litmus test for how we’re doing on this planet. I just wish our country’s executive leadership participated. But, I’m not going down that rabbit hole, at least here.
I discovered another interesting initiative in Estonia when perusing some brochures at the airport. Curious, I picked one up and learned how I, as a foreigner, could open a business whose location is ‘virtually’ located in Estonia. The reason for this? To combat the economic impact of Estonia’s declining fertility they established a program of digital residency.
And, it’s working. Although these E-residents don’t pay Estonian taxes, their companies do add to the bottomline by using local resources (office space, employees, etc.).
Reading about Estonia’s digital leaps over other countries is not surprising when you also discover kids here start learning code at age seven (!).
Okay, enough of economics and technology, back to Max’s and my human frivolous activities…
In spite of being a smaller city than Riga (424k vs 642k population) Tallinn felt larger. The number of other holiday goers also seemed more than in Riga. In asking a local about this she told us the real influx will be right after January 1 when Russians begin celebrating their Christmas (January 7) and New Year’s (January 14). Russia is on the Julian Calendar established by Julius Caesar 45 B.C.E. as opposed to the Gregorian one by Pope Gregory in 1592. Some Orthodox countries, such as Greece, switched to a revised Julian calendar in 1923 to match up Christmas dates, but not Russia.
Visiting the Tourist Information–one of the most helpful representative we’ve met–identified key places to see while here; and, several of them featured a fascinating historical figure: Peter I, aka, Peter the Great.
Being just over the border from Russia (in Narva we stood less than .2 miles from Russia)
this city attracted Tsar Peter’s attention with its valuable access to the Baltic (his namesake city, St. Petersburg, wasn’t founded until 1703). During the Great Northern War with Sweden (1700-20), Peter and his second wife, Catherine I, stayed in Tallinn after he captured it from the Swedes.
They purchased land that had a great view of the harbor and bought a cottage while planning construction of a palace. A museum since 1804, it’s possible to visit this home, one we found fascinating.
Their first house (the ‘Old Palace’) is quite small even after he and Catherine expanded it; yet, reading about other places he stayed (the small two-room cabin in Zaandam), it’s easy to understand how this simple abode suited him.
Some of the furnishings remain from when they lived in it…. his model ship,
a custom-made chair to accommodate his unusual height of 6’7″….
and a complete dining room set,
all added to the awe of actually standing where this larger-than-life man stood.
The house featured portraits of the occupants as well as Peter’s grandfather, Michael I (1596-1645) in 1614:
As the first Romanov Tsar he began the long line of rulers which ended with the assassination of Nicholas II and his family 300 years later.
In 1718 the construction of the ‘New Palace” began, Kadriog Palace (Estonian for ‘Catherine’s Valley‘), a much more regal and palatial home modeled after Versailles.
Surrounded by a park and impressive gardens that Peter left open to the public, many of the Russian rulers summered here including Catherine II (Catherine the Great).
During the Soviet Occupation it served as a main building of the Art Museum of Estonia. After extensive renovations it re-opened in 2000 as the country’s only museum focused on western and Russian art of the 16th-20th centuries.
Even on a drab day, the interior was a true showcase. We walked through rooms gazing around and upwards at the elaborate interior features
and tiled stoves which, themselves, served as works of art.
The paintings didn’t hold my attention but other items did, such as creations by Carl Fabergé (1846-1920). His father, Gustav, moved from Estonia to St. Petersburg in 1842 and started his own company. Subsequently Carl Fabregé expanded his workshops (1870-1917) to Moscow, Kiev, Odessa and London. This museum had a small sampling of his work. If it had more of his exquisite eggs, I don’t think I could have stopped staring at them for even this one kept me spellbound.
A special exhibit focused on two of Estonia’s most famous artists who are considered the founders of the professional Estonian national art: the painter Johann Köler (1826-99). Below is a picture of his birthplace,
and the sculptor August Weizenberg (1837-1921). In this particular work I could just see this child sleepily nestling into the warmth of this gentle lion.
Like the Fabregé egg I morph into a-deer-in-the-headlights around most sculpture as I did here.
More art awaited us since KUMA, Estonia’s largest art museum, lies in the same neighborhood a quick stroll away.
Our visit introduced us to a special exhibit recently on display at the Musée D’Orsay in Paris. It featured symbolism used by Baltic artists in the late 19th century into the 1930s. Titled ‘Wild Souls’ the work reflected the artists’ blend of the contemporary European movements with emerging Baltic nationalism.
We joined other museum-goers as we followed a path carved by temporary walls in a cavernous room. Some art seemed as if it came from a storybook, such as Bernhard Borchert’s (1862-1945) watercolor ‘Mermaids’
and Janis Rozentāl’s (1866-1916) chalk/indian ink/gouache ‘Archer’.
While others were more abstract in their meaning: Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis’ (1875-1911) indian ink ‘Dark night will fall’
Quite a few caught my attention, such as Stanisław Jarocki’s (1872-1944) oil ‘Sacred Samogitia’
Vilhelms Purvītas’ (1872-1945) oil ‘Winter’,
and Pēteris Kalve’s (1882-1913) Indian ink ‘Landscape’.
However the biggest take-away for me when I see special exhibits is always the same, which is the cliche ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’. And, how capricious fame is with regards to this creative force.
We had several more floors to peruse, which we did quite hurriedly as time was running out, and our energy as well. But, I did see more of Köler’s paintings, such as ‘A Girl at the Spring’.
And, whenever I see a women’s name amidst all the male-dominated walls, I take notice. Sally von Kügelgen’s (1860-1928) portraits caught my eye. Here’s a pensive one titled ‘Portrait of a Lady’.
One of the most intriguing displays covered ‘Soviet Hippies’. In the 1960s the Baltic youth learned of the ‘Make love not war’, rock ‘n roll culture through foreign radio broadcasts and in Estonia, on Finnish TV. Soon hippies and bohemians created their own ‘free world’ network, called ‘Sistema’ (an underground system connecting like-minded individuals).
The authorities were inconsistent in their treatment of hippies: sometimes arresting them, sometimes forcing them into the military, and sometimes leaving them be. But, there was always the possibility of harassment and the threat of arrest.
With that we were ready to walk back out into the cold to our bus stop and our hotel.
Each day we continued discovering more sites, some based on getting lost and others actually following a map. Which is how we climbed to the upper level, Toompea, where The German Knights of the Sword (later merged with the Teutonic knights) constructed a stone castle (1227-29). Perched atop a limestone cliff, the castle now houses the Parliament with embassies and private homes lining the streets.
Expansive views overlooking the newer part of the city are available… when the weather is clear, which wasn’t the case most of the time we were there. Matter-of-fact, I think we saw the sun one day out of the two weeks we spent in this Baltic region.
Of course Tallinn offers an array of churches, with the 13th-century Niguliste Church being my favorite due to its contents and explanations of their religious art.
A huge candelabrum greeted us when we entered. It was donated by Hans Bouwer, a merchant and member of the Brotherhood of the Blackheads.
The church also displayed a 24-foot remnant of a purported almost a 100-foot (!) 15th-century ‘Dance of Death’ by Bernt Notke, a famous northern European artist of the late middle ages. This is the only remaining medieval ‘Dance of Death’ painted on canvas.
What I really enjoyed was the museum’s presentation of some of their art: using numbers (see below) corresponding with descriptions, it was like having a ‘Religious Art for Dummies’ manual. Hugely appreciated on my end.
Another day we took one of those free walking tours with an exuberant young guide who promised us a lively history lesson on medieval Reval (Tallinn’s former name). He definitely entertained us but, when the promised one-hour tour oozed into 15, then 30 minutes more, the cold began to creep in and all we wanted was for him to S.T.O.P.!
Since we’d only booked through December 30 at our initial hotel, we had to find another place for our last two nights covering New Year’s. We managed to locate an apartment that looked perfect, and it even featured a washing machine, a coveted amenity after washing clothing in small bathroom sinks with make-shift plugs.
The woman checking us in at the modern and elegant office welcomed us with smiles. Yet, once in our apartment it became apparent the pictures were of a different place. But, it was a relief to make our own meals AND do a wash.
We stayed put until 11:30p to avoid the frigid temps as long as possible, then were drawn to Freedom Square featuring live music and a growing crowd.
Waiting for the clock to strike 12, we were approached by a couple asking if we spoke English. We laughed and said ‘yes’ then realized they had also been on the freezing medieval walking tour with us.
The four of us added our voices to the countdown, then stared entranced at the bursting pyrotechnics overhead.
After the dawning of the new year everyone headed for one of the exits where a make-shift barrier funneled a large knot of partygoers (some drunk) to a narrow stream of impatient humans. Shoving came into play, some more forceful than others. Holding Max’s hand and glueing myself to his back we finally made it out, ending the night-morning with a celebratory drink at a small and, thankfully, peaceful hotel bar. A wonderful way to end 2018 and begin a new year.
The day after, one more activity remained before we left to head home, something I had announced to Max we HAVE to do while in Estonia: The Estonian Carry.
Yes, we did it. No, it wasn’t pretty, especially the unceremonious dumping of my body onto the bed.
And, No, in spite of the opportunity to win my weight in beer and 5X my weight in cash, we won’t be competing in Sunday River’s 20th Annual North American Wife Carrying Championship October 12.