Goodbye Tallinn!

Goodbye Tallinn! Hello Riga, Latvia

Tallinn – you are without question one of our favorite places to have visited. The beauty of Old Town, the well documented history here, and don’t forget the numerous museums and summertime festivals. Ah, lest I forget – the weather. Highs in the 60’s and low 70’s with lots of sunshine for our entire 2 weeks! On to Riga!


Baltics for idiots

Last Meal in Tallinn:

Clay and I waited to the last day in Tallinn to go to the restaurant next door to our building. Our landlady had highly recommended it. We went today for a late lunch/early dinner, and after the most amazing meal – went on Trip Advisor and learned that it is the #5 ranked restaurant out of 780 restaurants in Tallinn – the Vaike Rataslaevi 16.  We were stunned by the food and the value for our money. Wine prices were moderate as well. The service was excellent – Peeter was our waiter, and if you go, you will be lucky person to have him as your server.

Clay had the Braised Elk roast with cauliflower cream, carrot, parsnip, and blackcurrant sauce.  I had the Grilled Pork Tenderloin with broccoli, potato cake, and mustard sauce (one on the right).


For a starter I had the beet soup with elk meat, red lentils, sun dried cherry tomatoes (on right), and for dessert the frozen bluecheese cake with carrot and buckthorn sauce. (on left).

 It was a great way to end our visit to Tallinn!
Goodbye Tallinn!

Tallinn, Estonia

Museums and Festivals

If you have seen our almost daily updates on Facebook, you might want to skip to the next section, because many of the same photos were on Facebook.   With two weeks here in Tallinn, we had a chance to tour many museums and a couple of festivals.

TV Tower and Life in the Soviet Union:

Our last visit to a museums in Tallinn was to the famous TV Tower, which also houses an excellent museum of life in the Soviet Union.  It was billed as a “Time machine” to Soviet-controlled Estonia in the 70’s.  Clay and I agreed that it didn’t look that much different from our homes in the 50’s and 60’s.  I do remember my Mother having a hand cranked washing machine on our back porch in the 50’s, but it was much larger than the one below.

This was a more light-hearted look at their history, to a time when you had to be Party member to buy a car or eat in a restaurant. There were two kinds of bicycles to buy: men’s and women’s. The TV played commercials for products that didn’t exist. The top women’s fashion magazine sold 30,000 copies a month – they could have sold more, but they weren’t allowed to buy more paper than that. The examples went on and on. It was sad and funny at the same time.

Below are a couple of additional photos from the museum.  The first is a photo of “Uncle Uno’s” car. He couldn’t buy a car, but there were no restrictions on buying parts – so “Uncle Uno” made his own car. The body is fiberglass, made in a concrete mold in a big hole that Uncle Uno dug in his back yard.  The second photo is of a homemade motorcycle. Want a motorcycle? Make your own, out of a bicycle, a chain saw motor and some other spare parts.  By the way, the chain saw was invented by an Estonian man while in a prison in Russia as a political prisoner.

Uncle's car



Kadriorg Palace and Park

On a beautiful cool, sunny day in Tallinn, Estonia, and we thought it was a perfect day to visit Kadriorg Park (about 175 acres) and museums. We started first with the Kadriorg Palace, which was built for Catherine I of Russia by Peter the Great. We had lunch at an outdoor café in the park, and then wondered through the grounds. Hope you enjoy a few photos from the day.

Walking back through the park to catch the tram back to Old Town, we heard beautiful music (opera) coming from our left. Investigating, we found it was the start of the annual Flower Festival. Pure luck to find it and enjoy the music, flowers, and people watching – one of my favorite activities.


Some additional photos as part of a slideshow:

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Estonia Maritime Museum (Seaplane)

I swear, we’ve been to so many maritime museums lately, you’d think we were blue water sailors. We’re definitely not, but we are learning a lot – mostly, no matter how big a ship seems in the museum, it’s tiny out on the water.  Below are some photos from our day at the Maritime Museum.

The photo on the left shows the inside of the museum. Looks as if Jules Verne had written Alice in Wonderland.  On the right is me making my way through the large submarine on display there. 

The museum building is a seaplane hanger; built by the Germans, used by the Russians, but now the only seaplane (photo on left) here was built by the British.  On the right is a ship that was built in 1943 in Duluth, MN for the U.S. Coast Guard and given to Estonia in 1997. She’s been a buoy tender, ice breaker (notice the dents), research vessel, training ship, patrol and rescue ship. The old girl’s really gotten around.

Kumu Art Museum:

Another day trip was to the Kumu Art Museum. We got a good feel for what art was like in the various stages of Estonian history. Artists were comparatively free to explore under the Czar; but art of the 20’s and 30’s was filled with foreboding; During WWII there was almost nothing but interior scenes, with a couple of landscapes of devastation. After that, it was all Soviet Realism all the time, except for work that was hidden away. There were a few lapses in surveillance under Breznev, and things loosened up under Gorbachev, but in general artists didn’t get to fully rejoin the world until Estonia regained its independence in 1991. Who knows what the future holds now? Nothing to do but play while you can.  Some of our favorites:

Kumu one

Johann Köler, Lorelei Cursed by the Monks – 1889. Lorelei was a nymph who sang by the Rhine River, luring sailors to their doom. The monks are trying to consecrate the rock to stop her singing, but Lorelei is rescued by other nymphs and the Rhine itself.

Left to right (click on photos for larger image).  1.  Lydia von Ruckteshell, Portrait of a Lady – 1886.   2.  Jaan Vahtra, Self Portrait – 1923.  3.  Elmar Kits and Evald Okas, Estonian Red Army Soldiers with Lenin and Stalin – 1952.   4. Leili Muuga, In a Cafe (The Doubters) – 1956.

Kalamaja Neighborhood:

A walk around the Kalamaja neighborhood – built in the 1920’s for fishermen and their families, it had fallen on hard times until it was discovered by artists after the Soviet Union collapsed. It’s in the process of gentrification now – most of it looks pretty nice, but Clay still likes the grungy parts.  Maggie likes the old wooden houses that have been renovated.



KGB Museum:

The former prison cells of the KGB interrogation center have been opened up as a museum. The actual interrogation rooms have been turned into apartments. The building is nice on the outside, but who would want to live there, knowing the history? So depressing to be inside the cells. Stepping inside I could not bear to shut the door in the closet or the isolation cell where they kept political prisoners. What must have it been like to be there? So sorry that the people of Tallinn and Estonia had to suffer through this period. Whenever I see older people on the street here, I feel such compassion for them, but also respect to see that they survived.

On the left is a closet that they put you in when you first arrive for a couple of days.  There is no room to sit down – you just stand there.  The one on the right you could possibly sit down, but it was the isolation chamber which was used for punishing the political prisoners.

Tall Ships Festival

How lucky can you get.  We arrived in Tallinn just in time! There were sailing ships of various kinds, music, acrobats, and of course food. Fun for the whole family.  Summer fun for the family in July!  Below is a slide show of the activities we saw!

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One of my personal favorites is the concert we attended at the festival.  It was a Polish sea shanty group that sings in Polish, English, Ukrainian, and one language that I (we) didn’t understand. Sitting in the audience in Tallinn, Estonia I couldn’t help but feel part of an world with no boundaries.




Tallinn, Estonia

The Estonian People

Sometimes, dealing with the Estonians is not easy. At first we had a hard time understanding why so many people seem to be so unhappy. They seem prosperous, the weather is nice in the summer time – sure, it gets dicey in the winter, but no worse than Norway or Sweden, and those people are pretty happy, by and large. We think the answer is in Estonia’s difficult history, and how that’s affected the different generations. Older people remember the years of war and Russian domination: from 1939 to 1944, the free nation of Estonia was invaded by the Russians, then the Germans, then the Russians again. During the brief period of Nazi rule, more than a thousand Jews, Gypsies and gays were sent to the death camps. When the Russians invaded again, they stayed for 50 years, doing their best to make Estonia a part of the Soviet Union, indistinguishable from any other part.

It was difficult for the Estonians to hold on to hope. In the years following WWII, many of them thought that the United States and Western Europe would come to their aid. There was a rumor that deliverance would come in the form of white ships that would appear on the shores. The Americans would drive out the Soviets and restore the prewar republic. The people lost a measure of that hope when the Soviet army brutally put down the Hungarian uprising of 1956, and the Prague Spring in 1968, and the West didn’t intervene. Still, they had something left. There was still a small number of the “Forest Brothers,” the civilian resistance during the war years, who remained active – not as active as they had been during the war, but still out there. Communities kept up the Estonian tradition of group singing, although they were often forced to sing in praise of the leaders of the USSR. In general, the country was a shadow of its former self. People can’t be productive, creative and energetic when stepping out of line carries the risk of KGB surveillance, deportation, prison or firing squads.

The Soviets were also bent on a policy of Russification, a sort of reverse irredentism. They relocated tens of thousands of Russian citizens into Estonia to make it more ethnically Russian, and so harder to split away again. Today about 30% of the people  identify themselves as Russian or Russian/Estonian.

All of this started to change in the late 80’s, with the general thawing of Perestroika and Glasnost. It came about in one of the remarkable stories of that time: the Singing Revolution, where a campaign of non-violent action culminated in hundreds of thousands of Estonians – a third of the population – gathering  together in the Song Festival Grounds near Tallinn to sing traditional folk songs, Estonian popular music, and especially “Mu isamaa on minu arm” (“Land of My Fathers, Land That I Love”) – the anthem of the resistance movement, banned by the Soviets. Bit by bit,  the non-violent independence movement took over even the Estonian Communist Party. In the face of this opposition, the Soviet government did not have the will to impose itself any more. Estonia was granted independence in 1991, and became a  full member of NATO and the European Union in 2004.

Understandably, there is a real dichotomy in the population. Older people are still feeling the after effects of the years of Nazi and Soviet domination. People born after 1991 are doing their best to be European. Without a personal experience of those dark days, they know only what they read in the history books and what the older generations tell them. They’re not ignorant of their special predicament, of being balanced on the brink between Western Democracy and Russian domination – but it isn’t part of their being, the way it is for their parents and grandparents.

Maggie and I have gotten along well with all sorts of people here, but we have noticed that some people, especially older people, can be pushy. If you’re in the market, standing in front of the tomatoes (as I was), some old lady is likely to try to shove you aside so she can get hers. That happens on the street or the bus, too. At first this was irritating, but now that we’ve learned a little more, we can see how all those years of scarcity may have affected people’s personalities in ways that don’t change easily with the times. We look at the care and worries that old face has borne, and our attitude is immediately changed. We have no idea how we would have responded in similar circumstances, but we would have been hard pressed to respond as well as the Estonians did.

The Estonian People

Various subjects – all about Tallinn

Here are some random observations we’ve had in our first week in Estonia.

Information, Please…

There isn’t the same level of customer service here that there is in the U.S. That’s not just our observation. In the essay, “100 ways to know that you are from Estonia,” Number 22 is, “You are used to customer servants looking at you as if they wanted to give you a good slap.” Maggie and I haven’t really seen that. We’ve found a couple of examples, all older people: an old guy who worked in the tourist office told us that there were no ferries leaving from Tallinn to St. Petersburg – we found out on our own that the ferry goes from Tallinn to Helsinki, then St. Petersburg and back to Tallinn, but that apparently was too much trouble for him to explain. The woman at the information desk in the Peter the Great house had an answer for everything: NO. There was no map of the museum, no free lockers and no, she wouldn’t give us change for a €5.

Other than that, everybody has been friendly, welcoming and able to deal with our utter inability to speak Estonian. We’ve had several conversations with waiters, baristas, and vendors on the street. For the most part, even if their English is limited or non-existent, they smile and at least try to communicate. We talked about the very informative waitress in an earlier post. There was a young man in the ferry terminal who asked if there was anything we wanted to know. I looked at the enormous hickey on his neck and wanted to ask if it wasn’t wonderful to be young and good-looking, but just said no, we were OK.


First of all – do not even think about having a car here!  Getting around old town is primarily best on foot except for the delivery trucks and cabs, and a few adventuresome souls.  The bus/tram system is easy to use and cheap.  It costs 6 euros for a 5 day pass which you only  have to “tap on” once.  Getting to Tallinn from Helsinki on the Viking Ferry was only 37 euros each.  Just booked our bus from Tallinn to our next stop (Riga, Latvia), and it was only €9.80 (about $11) each.  Be warned that it will be slightly more for you “younguns,” because Clay and I get the pensioner’s price.  That trusty old map is getting lots of use.

There is even a “driverless” minibus that just started this year.  Neither Clay nor I have felt a need to check it out.  Regardless, Estonia is miles ahead of most large US cities with mass transportation.


 Food and restaurants

The quality of the restaurants we have tried in Tallinn have been outstanding.  We have been very pleased with our trips to local places.  Below are some of our favorite meals… far.  Will be adding more since we have another week here in Tallinn.  Also, it is cheaper to eat out here than in Austin, so no complaints from us.

Another bargain here are the buffet lunches.  We just happened to walk by a local restaurant, and noticed the buffet lunch sign, and could not believe the price of €4.75 (all you can eat, too).  In we went to investigate, and it was great food at moderate prices.  Clay had the salmon, which is always good here in the Baltic region, and I had a vegetarian dish (stuffed eggplant) which was delicious.  Lunch for less than €10.00!

buffet lunches

Grocery store prices are very low compared to U.S. prices.  However, compared to Sweden, Norway, and Finland, it is much cheaper in Tallinn.  Nice to have a few weeks in the Baltic region to compensate for our spending on our first stops.  I have included a few photos from our local farmer’s market for comparison.  Take that, Whole Foods!


The prices for the berries are in Euros/kilogram, so dividing by two gives you the price in dollars per pound.

Various subjects – all about Tallinn


Hell to heavenWe arrived by ferry from Helsinki five days ago in what will be a two-week visit to Tallinn.  Tallinn is Estonia’s capital and located right on the Baltic Sea. We didn’t know a lot about Tallinn, but the few people that had visited here before were raving about this city.  They get a hearty amen from us.  Our first observations about the city:

Tallinn’s Old Town is one of the most beautifully preserved old cities in the world.  The cobblestone streets make Maggie happy that she brought some good walking shoes.  Its Gothic Town Hall was built in the 13 century, and the very building we are staying in was built in 1343.

Photo of Old town

The cost of everything here is so much cheaper than Finland, Norway, & Sweden, that we were almost giddy with delight.  After paying up to $12.00 for a pint of beer (typical was $10.00) in Norway, our first day here we sat down at a neighborhood patio bar, and paid $3.00 for a pint of local beer.  Now that we have settled in we realize that most beers are actually in the $4.00/pint range for a pint. Take that Norway!  (We loved Norway –  everything but the prices, that is.)

Being a people watcher, I have observed with my own eyes that the people, while polite are simply not as happy as people we have observed in other cities. A recently published report shows Estonia ranks in the middle grade of happiness: ahead of Belarus, but way behind Western Europe. (Countries are ranked according to six criteria: GDP per capita, social support, life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, generosity, and freedom from corruption.) There was a display in a local history museum that partly attributed Estonian unhappiness to the winter weather here – but Finland, Norway, Sweden and Denmark have winters that are just as bad or worse, and they are habitually counted among as the happiest countries on Earth.

The museum itself gave us some clues to Estonian unhappiness: in the past, Estonia has been a part of Sweden, Russia and Germany; whenever they go to war with each other, Estonia has been trapped in the middle. Estonia has only been an independent country for the twenty years between the two world wars and the thirty years since the collapse of the USSR. Russia continues to be a looming presence in Estonian life. During the Cold War, the USSR tried to “Russify” Estonia and the other Baltic countries by relocating Russians here to thin out the local ethnic unity. Even today, the ruins of Soviet building projects and nuclear plants are scattered around the country. A waitress had some time to talk about her country and unwittingly gave us another clue: she is among the 30% of Estonians who are from Russia. She said she didn’t feel either completely Russian or Estonian. Her political leanings were definitely pro-Putin, putting her at odds with the official stance of her adopted country, which leapt on EU membership like a drowning man on a life raft. When you combine the Russian presence with ongoing Russian interference in Baltic politics, and the fact that Russia doesn’t rank highly on the happiness scale, you get a clear picture of the source of Baltic unhappiness.

Protest in Tallinn, Across from the Russian Embassy

This has been an eye opening experience for us, and we are looking forward to more days here to discover Tallinn.  More photos and descriptions of life here on the way!


Backward Through the Fog

Maggie and I thought we were starting to get a handle on Finnish history, at least the 19th and 20th centuries. We had it down that Finland was part of Sweden until 1808, then it was ceded to Russia. We thought we were ready for the next level. We didn’t know what we were getting into. The 18th century and before saw one murky scene after another, punctuated by broken alliances and treacherous dealings, as various kings and dukes tried to work out Finland’s place between the much more powerful kingdoms of Sweden, Denmark and Russia. From time to time some clarity would emerge, such as when Gustav Vasa, king of Sweden, solved his kingdom’s financial difficulties by nationalizing the assets of the Catholic church and declaring Sweden (which included Finland at the time) to be a Lutheran country.  That all fell apart when the king died and his sons took over, starting a long series of internal and external wars, made worse by periods of unbearable cold, causing famines that devastated the Finnish population.

A visit to Turku Castle helped to make sense of all this, but there’s a lot more to learn. The castle itself is well laid out, with exhibits on the history of the castle itself, life in the castle, and how all that relates to Finnish history. There are directional signs to  point the way throughout, and guides in period costumes to unravel things when the signage isn’t enough. All in all, it’s a productive visit, with things to do and learn at many levels. I think the fact that we came out feeling a little more enlightened and a little more confused shows that Maggie and I made an honest effort to comprehend the ins and outs of life in the old days of Finland.


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Backward Through the Fog

Museum Day

Every city in Scandinavia seems to have a maritime museum. Most of them follow a formula: some history of local mariners, a room of ship models, maybe a couple of videos to watch and so on. The ones that stand out have their own unique feel: Stockholm’s Vasa Museum, dedicated to the ship that sank in the Baltic Sea 400 years ago.  the Fram Museum in Oslo is devoted to Arctic explorers,  especially the Norwegian ones.

The Forum Marinum in Turku has its own idea of what a maritime museum should be. You want ship models? Got ’em. Rooms and rooms of them, from old sailboats to modern super-sized cruise ships, all replicated in exquisite detail. Since the museum is built next to a working shipyard, they have a selection of real ships that you can go out and crawl around on, ranging from a three masted square rigged sailing ship built in the 1800’s to a modern shore patrol boat, guns and all. Someday there will also be the barque Sigyn, which is currently under renovation.


In the basement there’s a display of ship building through the ages, from wooden ships to present day. There’s a video of the building of the Royal Caribbean Lines’ Oasis of the Seas, built right across the way in the Turku shipyards. At over 225 thousand tons, it’s over four times the displacement of the Titanic. Watching it being built is an amazing sight, worth the € 5 admission price (for seniors) all by itself.

There’s even a section for fishermen, with a room of flies and lures of all descriptions, plus what may be the only one of its kind: a room that’s three stories tall and ten feet wide,  with hundreds of outboard motors mounted to the walls. The floor is covered with inboard motors. I suppose that’s one of those things where if you have to ask why, you won’t understand the answer.

Between the ships and the museum building, there’s a giant daisy lying on its side for the kids to play on if it’s sunny. As museums go, this is definitely one of a kind.


Museum Day

We love you Turku

We arrived in Turku for a week’s stay and have not been disappointed.  It is a smaller city than some of the other places we have been in Scandinavia.  Turku’s population is around 175K.  Turku is in on the southwest corner of Finland, and it straddles the Aura River.  We are staying at an Airbnb on the southern side of the Aura River. (Called täl puol jokke, “this side” by the locals. They call the other side tois puol jokke, “the other side,” no matter which side they’re on.) We are only 2 blocks from the river in an lovely Airbnb apartment.  Restaurants boats line the river near our apartment.  Also, it is a very short distance to buses that take us all over Turku.   There are fewer museums than some of the larger cities, but they give a very interesting and thorough history of Turku.

Turku dates from 13th century and it widely known for the Turku Castle which is a medieval fortress with a history museum.  It is at the western end of the Aura, perched at the river’s mouth.   Turku was the capital of Finland when Finland was part of Sweden, but the capital was moved to Helsinki when Russia took over Finland in 1808.  Finland gained its independence from Russia in 1917, so they are celebrating their 100th anniversary as an independent country this year (2017).

The museums are covered separately on our blog, but here are a few photos to give you a look at this sun worshiping part of Finland.


……and then Maggie really likes daisies.


The weather has just been lovely.  Highs in the 60’s and 70’s, but we must look odd to the locals wearing our hats and walking on the shady side of the street, while they’re all on the other side, soaking up all the sun they can get.  That’s what we do in Austin in the summertime.  Old habits are hard to break.

We love you Turku


Beer is big in Scandinavia. I suppose it helps make those long, dark winters go by a little easier. We’re not here in the winter, though – summer is in full swing, and the beer is flowing in celebration. There are festivals large and small everywhere we go, and beer is a big part of the festivities.

On a summer’s day in Turku, the banks of the River Aura are one long festival: there are old sailing ships tied to the dock, every one turned into a floating restaurant/bar, where everyone is welcome to find the one that fits them best. We went for the Esposito, a suitably decrepit old scow, and placed ourselves in among the  locals, the first tanned people we’d seen since arriving in Scandinavia. We looked over at the guy sitting at the next table: he was a biker, head to ankles: black hat, leathery face, black leather vest, black jeans and slip-on platform clogs, two sizes too small. He was drinking his beer though, so I guess his biker cred was still somewhat intact.

There’s a long history of beer in the region. The brewing of ale and mead goes back at least 1000 years, before the first runes were carved onto stones; beer brewing goes back about 500 years, with the importation of hops from Germany. I was told by an amateur historian that Leif Ericsson left Greenland for the New World when the weather turned too cold to grow barley; they couldn’t import it from Denmark fast enough to keep the colony supplied with ale, so they sailed southwest in pursuit of a warmer climate.

All alcohol sales are made through a government agency; you can buy beer in the grocery stores up to a certain percentage alcohol (from 3.5% in Sweden to 4.7% in Finland), but for anything else, you have to go to a bar or a government monopoly store. The hours of the government monopoly stores are limited: depending on the country, stores close at about 6 most days, mid-afternoon on Saturday and not open at all on Sundays. Prices and selection are the same everywhere. (Small stores carry fewer brands, but those brands will all be available in the larger stores.) Bars have to buy through the government monopoly too, so there’s not a lot of variety there, either.

Prices are kept high to discourage drinking: in Norway, a pint of beer can cost $12 in the monopoly store; prices in Finland are about half that; still high, but much more reasonable. We wonder if that’s because Estonia is so close – Tallinn is just an hour and a half from Helsinki by ferry – so Finland sets the price high enough to limit drinking, but not so high as to encourage black market selling. By contrast, wine prices are pretty reasonable. French, Italian and Spanish wines are about the same price they are in Austin. We found wines from South America, California, Australia and so on, but they’re not as good a deal as they are in the states – so we drink pretty good European wines for the same price. For hard liquor, you have to ask somebody else. We’re not the experts there.

Because of the government controls, beer brewing is a big operation. Most of the beers we see are major local brands: Carlsberg, Hansa, etc. They’re good – definitely better than the major U.S. brands – but it makes us miss the medium-sized American brands, like Shiner, New Belgium and Stone. So, we’re encouraged to see that there is a small but growing craft beer movement. We’ve found local beers by the bottle in some bars, and we helped Helsinki  celebrate its second annual craft brew festival. There were traditional Nordic beers, which tend to Pilsners, as well as  wheat beers, lagers, porters, stouts and even IPAs (pronounced EE-pa here). We did our best to encourage them by trying as many as possible (one time when it’s good to have a small glass) and didn’t find a bad one.  We learned to say Kippis instead of Skål , and met several interesting people, who contributed to the research for this piece, whether they know it or not.