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.



Last day in Helsinki – Barbecue and Island

We spent 9 day sin Helsinki and on our last day we decided to go to a another island that didn’t get good reviews on Travel Advisor.  When reading the negative one star comment we realized that the reason they didn’t like it was because it was “just a lot of walking” in the outdoors.  We hit the road running after that comment.  We didn’t need another museum, or exciting place to eat……we needed nature!  We found it.  Check out the photos below.  The island’s name was Seurasaari.


After a long morning walking on the island – we obviously had to have some Texas style barbecue to end the day.


The “B” was a great place for barbecue.  Not exactly Texas or southern barbecue, but pretty darn good.  The waiter proudly noted that the smoker came all the way from Texas, but it’s really from Tennessee. Close enough, as far as they’re concerned. — at the “B” restaurant.  Last photo is of our plates – Brisket and a Finnish-style APA on the left, pulled pork and Frisco Disco Citra IPA on the right.  All and all – a great way to end our trip to Helsinki!

Last day in Helsinki – Barbecue and Island

Old Market Hall by the Sea

Clay and I are staying at an AirBnb just north of downtown Helsinki.  We have a local market near us (Hakaniemi Market), but we much prefer the Old Market Hall by the sea even if we have to ride the Tram instead of being able to walk..  Oh, how I wish I had a market like one of these in Austin.  This is a photo of our favorite – the Old Market Hall

Food Hall

Lazy day on Wednesday, and we didn’t even leave our Airbnb until after 1:00PM. With only a light breakfast and starving – we decided to go to the Old Market Hall  and check out the famous soup stall we had read about. Only 3 soups on the daily menu and we knew before we went it would be the Bouillabaisse. We were not disappointed. After lunch we toured the Hall and I know if I lived in Helsinki I would be a regular.  Check out the photos of the food!

Old Market Hall by the Sea

Another Two Ride the Bus

Maggie and I are hardly novices to public transportation – far from it; we’re big believers and daily users, at home and when we’re on the road. We even got used to the old system in Austin, when bus service was unreliable, the routes changed numbers as they went through downtown, and many bus routes only ran every 45 minutes, even during peak times. The Austin system is much better now: breakdowns are rare, routes don’t change numbers, and the frequency of major routes is much higher.

Good mass transport systems are common in Europe, and the Scandinavians in particular have made public transportation a priority. The concept of loading everybody on the same vehicle, regardless of class, income or title fits in well with their spirit of egalitarianism. They put a lot of effort into making the system easy to use: trams or buses run often during peak hours, usually every 5-10 minutes, so unless you have a specific appointment, there’s no need to pay attention to the schedule – even if you miss a bus, the next one will be there soon. At every stop there’s an electronic sign, updated in real time, that shows when the next bus, tram or subway train will arrive. The systems run on time, almost always. Taking the tram, we’ve made some transfers from one line to another where the scheduled layover was just five or ten minutes, and never missed the connection.

The most difficult system we’ve dealt with is the one in Helsinki. Everything I’ve said about the frequency and reliability of the lines applies here, but it’s sometimes hard to figure out which line or what stop you need.

First of all, because Finland used to be part of Sweden, the stops are labeled in Finnish and Swedish – and since English is so common, a few of the major stops are also labeled in English. You might be looking for the stop that’s labeled Hakaniemi/Hagnäs, or Rautatientori/Järnvägstoget/Central Railway Station. Every bus and every tram car has a screen that flashes up the name of the next stop, but the names are flashed up in each language sequentially, so you’d better pay attention, or know the name of your stop in Finnish and Swedish.

Second, we’ve used the #2 and #3 tram line to get to a lot of places, but by riding the trams, we figured out that the #2 and #3 were really one line laid out in a figure 8, with the middle of the 8 being in front of the central train station; it was the #2 line on the upper left and lower right of the 8, and the #3 on the upper right and lower left. The line changed numbers at the top and bottom of the 8, so riding east at the bottom of the route on the #3, we looked up and the line had become the #2. Confused? It took a while to get used to, but it wasn’t so bad once we did. Except we didn’t figure it out until July 2nd, the day that the routes changed and the previous explanation no longer applied. The new #2 now stops at the park just down the hill from us, so it’s much closer. We don’t know what happens at the top and bottom of the route any more. That threw us into a tizzy for a couple of days, until we realized that we’re still using the old map.

Changes are understandable; routes need to be changed every so often to fit changes in population, and the time to do that is in the summer, when more commuters are on vacation. (A major change is in the works in Austin, so the system will be radically different when we get home.) Not a major problem to us vacationers. It’s just another problem to solve, something new to memorize. All of that keeps the brain pliable, which is a reason to travel in the first place.

Another Two Ride the Bus