4:30am and the sun started to rise over the Scandinavian-looking rooftops, igniting splashes of reds, oranges, and purples across the Baltic sky. The muted laughter of tipsy late night revelers echoed up through the narrow streets and off the impressive masonry of the city walls as I sat staring down at the city, taking it all in. It was my first morning in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, and already I had decided that this is one of my all time favorite cities in one of my new favorite countries.
Who knew this place existed? The Soviets kept it under wraps, restricting access to a good part of the strategic Baltic coast for use by their top-secret submarine program. Before that, the nation and its identify was tossed around like a chew-toy between Germans, Swedes, and Russians for centuries. The end result was that Estonia, like its Baltic neighbors Latvia and Lithuania, has only had a few short periods of independence to advertise itself, making it a relatively unknown destination for tourists.
This is bound to change, however, as the country and the city itself has everything you could ever want in a tourist destination…great food, a dynamic nightlife, long summer days and some decently priced and interesting lodging options, such as the 600 year old Hotel Cru, a beautiful old hotel in the heart of Tallinn’s old town and my Estonian bed for the night.
Tallinn is one of those unique cities that managed to retain the majority of its medieval city walls throughout the years, further adding to its charm. Only a few cities such as Bern, Switzerland can compete with Tallinn in terms of Medieval character, from what I’ve seen.
The old thinking of Eastern Europe as inaccessible, with complex visa routines, corruption, crime, and all matter of bad experiences is gone in the Baltics. Estonia is a country that shakes off those stereotypes and is remarkably approachable and easy to travel. English is readily understood in the major cities, the Euro is the official currency in Estonia, and the three Baltic states are now official members of the European Union.
In fact, the Baltics are even part of the visa-free Shengen Zone, which effectively means that you could drive from Tallinn all the way to Lisbon and back without ever needing to stamp a passport!
On the Road in Estonia
As much as I loved my time in Tallinn, I was ultimately here in Eastern Europe on business, and I needed to drive through the Baltics on my way south. My plan was to rent a car from the airport in Tallinn, drive through Latvia, and end up in Vilnius, Lithuania, all subjects of my three part blog series on this trip. From there I would head on to Kiev, the site of my next event and another beautiful city that I discuss in a former post.
In the meantime, however, I was fortunate enough to be able to take my time through the Estonian countryside, exploring this heavily forested Baltic nation and all of its amazing people.
Sights along my route included thick forests, quaint villages, and even the ruins of an 800 year old castle in Lihula.
Ghosts of Soviet Past in Paldiski
One of the most interesting stops on my cross Baltic tour was the former Soviet ‘closed city’ of Paldiski, a top secret Submarine facility during Soviet times located along the Baltic Sea coast.
The draw of Paldiski today lies in the abandoned military facilities and crumbling apartment blocks that were a sign of the former greatness of this fallen empire. It was fascinating to think how secret this place used to be…it didn’t even appear on many of the maps of the time.
Despite the huge drop in population after the Soviet troops left, Paldiski has actually done a decent job fixing up some of the large Soviet-era apartment blocks and some of the main sights in town. So the reality is that Paldiski is nothing like Pripyat, the abandoned Soviet city near Chernobyl. That said, the glory days of this town are most definitely over.
Beachfront in Pärnu
Another pleasant surprise for me in Estonia took the form of a gorgeous beachfront town known as Pärnu. Looking for a place to grab lunch, I rolled into a quaint community filled with colorful wooden houses and leafy tree-lined boulevards. It almost seemed as if it were dropped there from a Scandinavian fairy tale.
Alas, I was only able to spend a lunchtime here in this beautiful seaside town and, after enjoying one last delicious Estonian meal, I drove on to the border with Latvia, a country I cover in my next blog post.
The Baltic country of Estonia has everything a tourist could ever want, with prices that are much closer to earth than that of some of its immediately Scandinavian neighbors. I had a remarkable time exploring the beautiful capital of Tallinn, and had an equally good time driving through the lush Estonian countryside. All in all, Estonia was a fantastic intro to the Baltic States, and I hope to return there sometime soon.