Category Archives: 2019 01 ESTONIA – Tallinn & Narva

Wintery Holiday: Finale


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 fourth 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 9- 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 January 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.

But, if anyone’s interested, click here for a training video… Just be sure to wear a helmet :)











Wintery Holiday: Part II

Baltic States (continued)

December 20, 2018 – January 2, 2019



Estonia shares a similar history with Latvia, one we saw at the recently expanded and rebranded Vabamu Museum of Occupation. (Vabamu is comprised of the Estonian words for freedom, ‘vadabus’, and museum, ‘muuseum’)

Being high-tech, the museum offered audio guides cued to automatically begin when standing in front of each display; yet, similar to Riga’s museums, excellent English signage practically eliminated the need for it with the exception of four videos describing life during the Soviet rule.

Several rooms highlighted the deportations and life in the camps with artifacts, such as the prisoners’ desire to create a semblance of normal life by making greeting cards out of any scraps they could find…

and a jacket worn by a young boy who worked in a camp’s production shop (the left side of the jacket was worn away by his leaning against his worktable)….

One startling item was a small poison tab appearing in the resistance exhibit covering the partisans forces.

These were used by infiltrators who would slip these into fellow partisans’ drinks in order to subdue them for capture by the Soviets. A survivor explained it best (I apologize for the blurriness): 

Having spent time in Riga’s Museum of Occupation we already had a pretty good idea of the fifty years of misery in these Baltic countries, so it was a relief to read some dark humor shared by Estonians during this period, two of which are below:

“What are the three kinds of victories of advanced socialism? Food is kind of scarce, Queues are kind of long, Life is kind of shitty.”   –   “Who is a communist? The one who has read Marx and Lenin. Who is an anticomunist? The one who has read Marx and Lenin and actually understood them.”


After spending an hour learning about the terror of Soviet rule, we walked into the area covering “The Singing Revolution.”

The name reflects Estonia’s love of song, a trait shared by Latvia and Lithuania. In Estonia the first Song Festival was held in 1869 arising out of the growing sense of patriotism. It was the only cultural activity conducted in the Estonian language (Russia forbade use of the country’s native language during this time). And, if the official program didn’t feature Estonia’s national anthem, the audience would often sing it anyway. 

With Gorbachev’s easing of restrictions in the 1980s Estonians become more vocal in their push for independence. The Estonian National Independence Party is established in 1988. At the Song Festival the same year, special patriotic songs are composed, sung and broadcast live on radio.

In 1989 the ‘Baltic Way’ occurs, a peaceful protest involving all three Baltic countries.

By 1990 the Estonians are negotiating with the USSR to transition to independence. With no solution reached as of January 1991 protests occur throughout the three Baltic countries, with deaths and injuries in Riga and Vilinus (capital of Lithuania) yet none in Tallin. Negotiations begin anew, with Gorbachev holding a referendum asking Estonians what they want. 77.8% vote for independence.

On August 19 a coup begins in Moscow to prevent Gorbachev from signing a union treaty that would make Russia a confederation. Soviet hard-liners thought it would break the USSR into independent states, hence, the attempt to stop the signing. The coup extends to Estonia with Soviets trying to seize power there. The local authorities call for resistance by asking people to gather at symbolic and strategic locations–Toompea (Tallinn’s castle), the TV tower, the radio station:

People! Come to the defense of the TV and radio Building! Leave women and children at home! No pointed tools or uniforms!”

Estonia claims independence on August 20. The next day Soviet troops, without using force, try to take the TV tower but are unsuccessful.

Independence is declared by Estonia on August 21, 1991. Called The Singing Revolution due to the use of patriotic songs during the 1980s in defiance of Soviet rule, all three of the Baltic countries managed to obtain their revolution through non-violent means. By 1994 all Soviet troops had withdrawn from the country.



Although this museum as well as Riga’s provided excellent information regarding the occupations between 1940 and 1991, nothing beats the power of a first-hand account. Which is what we received during our tour of KGB Offices in Tallinn’s Viru Hotel.

Constructed by Finnish engineers in 1972, this Tallinn hotel served as a showcase of USSR to all foreign visitors (the only ones allowed to stay there) and a convenient way to capture foreign currency. It also had a top floor, the 23rd, of which no one spoke but which everyone knew was the KGB’s office for monitoring everything that happened on the premises.

We joined a small tour group led by a knowledgeable and enthusiastic guide. She escorted us to the top floor where we entered two rooms.

The first was the hotel manager’s office with all of the contents relocated from a lower floor and placed exactly as it had been the day he left in 1991. He had a direct line to the KGB office (the faceless one on the desk) which shouldn’t have been surprising considering anyone in that position would be a puppet of the Soviets.

She then ushered us into the actual room used by the KGB. Like the manager’s office, this room remains in the state in which it was hurriedly left.

One exception was a glass case displaying tools of the trade, such as a cufflink microphone.

But, the hotel seemed to be built for microphones as they had been placed in lamps, vases, ashtrays, even inside dinner plates (!). And, of course, the walls had cameras and the floors had hall monitors. In short, the guide’s description matches exactly what you’d find in any Russian spy thriller.

In some instances, the hotel visitors playfully acknowledged the spying. The guide mentioned how one guest checked in, went to his room, then loudly said ‘One, two, three… I’m just giving you a sound test.’ Needless to say, short conversations were the rule.

To work here provided benefits for the locals. Of the 1,000 employees for the 839 guests, the floor monitors made out the best. They managed to trade with the guests and received ‘gifts’ to look the other way. Yet, an atmosphere of fear pervaded the hotel. Which is expected considering the unmentioned occupants of the 23rd floor.

But, what truly made this tour exceptional were the anecdotes shared by our guide. She told us how her grandmother as a young mother was arrested for singing a song and sentenced to 15 years forced labor in Siberia (the family was relieved it was ‘only’ 15 and not the the typical 25 years). With the death of Stalin she along with others received amnesty and eventually was able to return to Estonia.

Another example of Soviet rule was the story of a young girl who wore white socks with blue and black stripes, the three colors of the Estonian flag. The school sent the girl home and called the mother into a meeting to be interrogated about why she let her child wear those socks. They questioned the mother’s ability to properly raise a child; and, since all children belonged to the state, she easily could have lost her daughter. And, this occurred when our guide was attending school in the 1970s.

We asked our guide afterwards if she had been able to participate in the Baltic Way, the human chain of 2 million people that ran from Tallinn to Villinius via Riga. She said she had had a unique opportunity to travel to Helsinki and was unaware of the plan, but her parents did manage to join the line. Wondering how 2 million people knew about this plan, the guide said work places spread the word and assigned groups to specific locations. People without an assigned location travelled the line until they found a gap to fill.

When we asked if anyone was afraid to participate in these demonstrations, our guide said by then the Soviet reins were loosening, emboldening people to speak out. 

We wish we had been able to take her out for a drink because we had other questions we wanted to ask. One being was she worried about Putin annexing parts of Estonia like he did the Crimea in Ukraine. We felt she would have given us an honest and unfiltered answer. Something she couldn’t have done 35 years ago.

Tallinn’s KGB CELLS

We decided to do a quick visit to the cells where Tallinn’s KGB held its prisoners 1941-50 opposite its headquarters.

Located in the basement to muffle sounds of interrogation (i.e., torture), five or so cells including some isolation ones served as a temporary prison where those incarcerated were either executed or sent to Siberia.

Very little information was presented, although I was fascinated by a video with a sand painter depicting Soviet imprisonment.

If short on time, I wouldn’t recommend this site due to the scarcity of information.


One we would definitely add to anyone’s visit to Tallinn is the two-part Memorial to the victims of Soviet occupation. ‘The Journey’ represented by a long corridor banked by brutally stark walls listing the over 22,000 who died under the communist regime.

‘The Garden’ places you in a peaceful setting surrounded by apple trees and bees, the latter referenced in an inscribed poem on the wall referring to Estonians returning like bees to their hives.

Ironically the new memorial is located right next to anther one, part of it pictured at the beginning of this post: the  Memorial  to the Fighters for Soviet Power raised during the Soviet Occupation and now left to deteriorate.*

*Tallinn may not incur the expense to remove it. In 2007 a night of rioting occurred with the removal of another Soviet memorial (the Bronze Solider depicting a Soviet Warrior with 13 Red Army graves). Erected in 1947 it commemorated Russia’s victory over the Nazis. With over 25% of Estonians being of Russian ethnicity, it became a rallying point for youths to protest. 


To complete our immersion into Estonia under the USSR, we travelled to Narva, the most northern and easterly Estonian city that faces Russia across a narrow river.

The cold weather and gray day made a perfect backdrop to view this city. Being a Sunday most places were shuttered, which only added to the gloomy atmosphere. As we traipsed block after block of stark buildings, the city lived up to its reputation as a ‘good’ example of Soviet architecture.

Our one tourist attraction was the castle built by the Danes in the 1370s.

Narva’s fortress faces Russia’s Ivangorod Fortress across a narrow stretch of the Narva River. Gazing across Max mentioned this may be the closest we’ll ever be to Russia.

We paid the small entrance fee then dutifully checked the few rooms of exhibits, one featuring huge cannon balls…

another, casts of Peter the Great’s face (the white one being his death mask), which actually appear to make some of his protraits accurate depictions…

and climbed the 51-meter tower where we saw views of the Estonia-Russia border crossing and Russia in the distance.

Completing our tour of the fortress we began making our way back to the train station. The cold only enhanced the depressing feeling when walking in this city.

The one feeling of warmth was our welcome at the Tourist Information Office. Other than that and a few smiles from some of the employees at the fort, Narva was a destination we were looking forward to leaving.

The grim train station reinforced this feeling. I wish I had snapped some shots but I didn’t, so here’s one grabbed off the Internet:

As the third largest city in Estonia one would assume the station would be manned on a Sunday  and have a semblance of comfort. Wrong. The only people at the station were either dour passengers or family/friends of passengers. And, in spite of being a gray day, no lights were on in the one waiting room. Furthermore, the short hallway into the restroom had been haphazardly boarded off with a half-sheet of plywood. Welcome to Narva.

Adding to my level of concern was the atmosphere in the waiting room as more and more people began to position themselves to be the first to run out on the platform as soon as the train arrived. Not having return tickets with any guarantee of seats and now knowing the only way to get one is on the train itself created a bit of anxiety as neither of us relished the idea of a night spent in Narva.

Some brisk, impersonal shoving began as the doors opened as we joined the dash to the train. Yet, once aboard we looked around and saw plenty of free seats, which only made us wonder what the rush was all about?

And, that was a perfect ending to our exploring how life during the Soviet Occupation had affected Estonia.

Coming up… holiday festivities begin…