Friday, July 4, 2014

Tallinn, Estonia

We arrived into Tallinn, Estonia, aboard the Tallink Silja Line ferry from Helsinki at 3:30pm.
Our plan was to check into out Radisson Blu Sky hotel and explore the beautiful medieval old town.

When we arrived, we waited for bus #2 to get to our Radisson Blu Sky hotel, but it did not stop at our  bus stop. We decided to take a bicycle taxi instead. The bicycle taxi $15 euros and it was exciting being driven through the streets of Tallinn on a bicycle.

After checking in to our Radisson Blu Sky hotel, we decided to explore the old town. We first took bus #3 to Fat Margaret Gate (I purchased 24-hour bus tickets for $5 euro each).  The bus was extremely crowded and we barely managed to exit at our designated stop.

According to Wikipedia:
Fat Margaret was built in the early 16th century (from 1511 to 1530) during the reconstruction of the medieval city gate system. The etymology of the tower's name derives from the fact that it was the largest part of the city's fortifications with walls measuring 25 meters in diameter, 20 meters in height and up to 5 meters thick. Apart from being a fortification against would-be invaders to the port of the town, it was also built to impress outside visitors arriving by sea.

We walked through the gate and into the old city of Tallinn.

We continued on our walk through old town, first stopping at St. Olav's Church. I climbed the stairs of the church's tower to the top for some beautiful views of the city. Inna waited downstairs, to avoid the long, difficult climb to the top. It was a fairly claustrophobic climb with very little room to spare.

The top of St. Olav's Church affords spectacular views of old city walls, cathedrals, and the new city.

I took a few photos, walking around the tower.

I came down and we continued the walking tour (based on directions provided by Rick Steves), by following Pikk street. The medieval old town that used to contain blacksmiths and other manufacturers has been replaced with cafes, restaurants, and souvenir shops.

We went inside Tallinn's oldest cafe - Maiasmokk - founded in 1864. It was really crowded inside, so we did not stay long.

The prices looked much less than in Helsinki or Copenhagen (almost 50% cheaper).  We stopped at a Marzipan museum where we sampled some 40% and 60% marzipan. We purchased the 60% marzipan bar and ate it on the way. Alex really enjoyed the Marzipan and wanted us to go back for more!

Eventually, we made it to the Town Hall (Raekoja Plats). It is a large square surrounded by old buildings, including one of the oldest town halls. There was a Antique store that sold old memorabilia. We saw old Soviet and German medals on sale (sad really to see that it has come to this) and some old Soviet propaganda posters - some very funny!

We heard a lot of Russian and Estonian spoken. According to statistics, 40% of Tallinn resident are Russian speaking. There were lots of restaurants and souvenir shops, and tons of tour groups. We walked around a lot, trying to follow of Rick Steves' suggestions. As my iPhone's Google Maps was not working (apparently AT&T 3G data coverage does not work in Estonia), I could not easily look-up reviews of restaurants on Yelp or Tripadvisor - or find directions to the exact location I wanted to go to. Eventually, I was able to connect to Wifi and check for Yelp reviews, but Yelp does not cover Estonia at all.

As it was getting late, Inna found a whole in the wall (literally) restaurant. We went down into a cavern inside the city wall where the main dining room was located.

The FIFA France-Germany game was on TV and we decided to eat here, while watching the game. It was a fun game to watch! We ordered a few salads and entrees and the food was acceptable, but nothing to rave about. On the positive side, it was cheap - about $38 euros. There was a Foosball game machine nearby and Alex played Inna on it, beating her. Then, he played against me. He won 9 to 6 (beating me in a tough game), so he did really well!

After dinner (which was acceptable), we started to walk home. We walked by a beautiful St. John's Church.

On the way back to our hotel, we stopped at what looked like a shopping mall - Solaris. It looked really contemporary inside - with a lot of style and class - much better than even the fanciest American shopping malls.

In addition to having regular clothing stores, it also had a normal grocery store, a movie theater, and many restaurants I have never heard of before. We wanted to find ice cream for Alex, but instead ended up getting dessert at the Lido Bar.

This restaurant had nice looking desserts and the prices were very reasonable. I ordered a regular beer - an A. Le Coq - but did not like it very much. Inna ordered a chocolate dessert called "Ant Hill" which she really liked.

After filling our bellies with dessert, we continued our walk to our Radisson Blu Sky hotel. When Alex went to sleep, we took the elevator to 24th floor, which has the cool Lounge 24 restaurant and lounge.

 There, we enjoyed the beautiful overlook on Tallinn and the FIFA game was showing on TV. We spent some time here, but I was annoyed by all the cigarette smoking (people in Estonia smoke a lot).

Saturday, July 5, 2014

In the morning, we decided to get our breakfast downstairs in our Radisson Blu Sky hotel. The Seasons buffet was very busy but reasonably priced at $15 euro per adult and $7 euro per child.

The buffet was very extensive, featuring Russian-style crepe pancakes, lingonberries, cheeses, eggs, and pastries. All of the dishes were delicious and we were impressed at the quality of food for such a low price. How I miss those lingonberries!

After breakfast, we hurried to the Tallinn old town (the Tourist Info office), we met up with Linna (the tour guide) and she took us around Tallinn old town and explained the history of Estonia and the important sights to see.

As Linna explained, Estonian has been constantly invaded by different peoples: by Danes, Swedes, Germans, and Russians. The name of Tallinn comes from Danish Towne Linn, which means town. Estonia declared independence in February 23, 1918. It was a functional republic until being invaded by the Soviet Union in 1940 (part of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact between Soviet Union and Nazi Germany). During WW2, Estonia was occupied by Germany, until the end of the war, when it was again re-occupied by the Soviet Union. Estonia regained independence on August 20, 1991, during the Soviet Union period of Perestroika as part of the singing revolution.

There is a large Freedom Monument in the central square, dedicated to the short time that Estonia has been free from occupation.

When the tour ended, we rushed to our hotel to pick up Alex (he did not join us on the city tour) and went back to get lunch at the recommended restaurant - Von Krahil Aed.

I ordered the "Jerusalem artichoke-cauliflower puree soup" and a "Fish with early potato, asparagus, cauliflower cream".

The soup was acceptable - nothing special, but the fish entree was delicious. Inna ordered the "Trout fillet with sour cream, smoked goat cheese and mustard sauce" for appetizer and for main dish,  the "Mushroom salad roasted on courgette pillow with hazelnuts".

She liked the trout appetizer but the mushroom salad was too salty and she did not feel well afterwards. Alex ordered the "Salad with chicken fillet" but complained that the salad did not have enough chicken.

Overall, it was a good restaurant.We would definitely come back again (when we're back in Tallinn).

After we left the restaurant around 2:30pm, we went to the independence square to watch the parade of ethnic Estonian singers march.

Estonian celebrate a singing day once every 5 years and today was the day for the festival.

All of the streets were mobbed with people, as they watched the processions of thousands of singer to the main stadium.

The singers ranged in age from very young (6 years old to very old).

Most were dressed in ethnic Estonian peasant costumes. The procession started at 2:00pm and continued until 8:00pm, when singing would commence (until midnight).

Here is a short video clip of the procession:

Since we wanted to also visit the nearby park and the Estonian art museum, we walked with the marchers until we reached Kadrioru Park. Our plan was to visit the Kadriorg Palace, the Art Museum of Estonia, and visit nearby children playgrounds. We stopped at Kadriorg Palace to get coffee and cake for Alex as he was still hungry and tired.

After walking around Kadriorg Palace and taking some photos (the palace is modestly small, but extremely beautiful), we walked to Kumu (the Art Museum of Estonia), where we looked at some classic and contemporary Estonian art, including paintings and sculptures.

The building housing the museum is very modern looking and the entrance fee is quite modest - $5.50 euros per adult.

I am not a big fan of modern art, but I was interested to learn about Estonian artists and sculptures.
There were a few exhibitions on display. The permanent exhibition - Treasury - focused on classic Estonian painting from 18th century to WW2.

We enjoyed the paintings and especially the progression from classic painting to impressionism and cubism.

There were some interesting and sometimes provocative sculptures.

The second exhibition we saw was of Nikolai Triik - and I did not liked any of his works as they were too depressing. The third exhibition was "Difficult Choices" and was focused about art during  the Soviet time of occupation, when more artists were forced to create propaganda posters to promote Communist ideology.

 I did not like these works but I am sure that artists did not have much choice in the matter. We saw some really contemporary art on the 5th floor of the museum, but I did not like any of it.

Afterwards, we explored the park's gardens outside the museum (some of the roses were blooming), and stopped at the children's playgrounds.

There were multiple children's playgrounds for different aged kids. We found one for his age group and Alex played there for a few minutes, doing monkey bars and climbing. Soon, we noticed some other attractions nearby - one with a ball floating on water in which kids were enclosed. Alex wanted to try it, so we went to try these paid rides.

For $4 euro, I purchased tickets for Alex to try the encased ball ride. Basically, Alex was placed inside a see-through plastic ball, air was pumped in, and the ball was sealed to prevent air/water leakage. The ball was floated on a large, shallow water pool. Alex bounced around in the ball, while floating. Alex really liked this ride - as it was extremely unusual. I have not seen this ride anywhere else in the world.

Here is a video of Alex enjoying his time in the air ball:

On the next ride, Alex jumped on a trampoline. He has done this ride before but wanted to try it again in Tallinn. He enjoyed it but was not allowed to do flips. He had a lot of fun jumping and enjoyed himself.

Here is a short clip of him bouncing on the trampoline:

The next activity that Alex tried was shooting small cans, using pellets. To win a soft toy, one had to shoot 14 out of 15 cans. Alex started really well, but only managed to shoot down 11 cans out of 15. It was a very good first try for someone who has not shot this type of AK47 plastic toy rifle.

We rested a bit in the gardens, looking at the gazebo in the Luigetiik lake which had two black swans swimming. I did not have my zoom lens, but I took some wide angle shots of the swans.

As it was starting to get late, past 7:00pm, we decided to get dinner at the Gourmet Coffee restaurant nearby. We decided to sit outside, as the weather was still very warm and enjoyable (although Alex wanted to sit inside, to watch FIFA Belgium-Argentina game).

For appetizer, we ordered "Bruschetta with salmon and avocado", which was delicious. Inna and I ordered two main entrees that we would share: "Pasta with chicken" and "Salad with goat cheese". Both main entrees were delicious. Alex ordered a "Kanapasta" for his main entree.

For dessert, we ordered a freshly made "Napoleon cake'" and a homemade chocolate with rum candy. Alex ordered a "Sour muffin" for his dessert. For drinks, I ordered an apple cider, Alex ordered a lemonade, and Inna ordered a black tea.

Both desserts were fantastic and the cappuccino and latte we ordered later were great. We really enjoyed our food and dessert and the price was less than half of what we would have paid in Norway or Denmark (we paid $50 euro for everything). The food quality in Estonia is first rate and prices are much more reasonable than other Scandinavian countries.

After watching the last minutes of Belgium Argentina game (Argentina won 1 to 0), we walked back to our Radisson Blu Sky hotel for needed rest.

We went to the 24th floor of our Radisson Blu Sky Hotel to look at the sunset.

Even at midnight, it was still light out. I ordered an Irish Coffee using Estonian liquor and Inna had a Strawberry Daiquiri and hot Jasmine tea.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

After a delicious breakfast at the Radisson Blu Sky hotel, where I ate crepes with lingonberries and yogurt with fruits, we walked to the Tallinn Old Town for a Lahemaa National Park Tour.

The tour cost $49 euros per person for a 9-hour tour.

The tour was going to cover the following:
  • Altja Fishing Village
  • K√§smu Captains Village
  • Vihula, Palmse or Sagadi manors
  • Forest & Bog Walk
  • Soviet Submarine Base
  • Wild Rivers & Waterfalls
  • North Estonian Coastline
  • Lunch at an authentic local village home (10€, not included)
When we arrived at 10:00am,  there were 21 travelers ready for the tour and we divided ourselves into 3 groups of  people and took separate minivans with three separate tour guides.

It tooks us about 45 minutes of driving in a minivan to get to our first attraction - the Jagala-Juga waterfall.

The waterfall is 24 feet high and 150 feet wide. It looks like a miniature Niagara Falls. Some of the water coming down was a bit yellowish - and that was because of the bogs (which were explained to us later). We walked to the bottom of the waterfall and took some photos. Inna was even able to walk slightly behind the waterfall.

On the way to all of these destinations, we sat in the 2nd row and we could barely hear the driver talk. The minivan did not have working air conditioning, so it was a bit stuffy and hot inside. I wish the guide explained where we were going and what we would be seeing there better. The tour could have been a lot more interesting.

From here, we drove to an old, abandoned Soviet submarine base. This base was literally falling apart.

It was used by the Soviets to de-magnetize their submarines, so that their magnetic signature could be erased. Other than colorful graffiti, there was not much to look at.

After this, we drove to the Altja fishing village, where we walked to the beach to look at some rocks. On the way there, it smelled like rotten-tomatoes (sulphur like) - and the guide told me that the smell was caused by the vegetation. There was not much to do there, other than to climb some small rocks.

Then, we drove to Kasmu Meremuuseum, where we ate a lunch of homemade baked salmon and potatoes in a large fishing boat. The salmon was delicious and Alex entertained everyone with his questions to one of the tour guides. I did not realize he could be so funny! He was asking one of the tour guides whether or not he had a girlfriend - questions that are not usually appropriate :-)

 There is a large guard tower in the middle of the village, and we walked to the top to have a good look around, as this used to be one of Soviet's old installations that monitored Estonia's coast for intruders.

The museum was tiny and was just a collection of boat parts that were lying around. Two cute dogs were sleeping in the house and both Alex and Inna enjoyed petting them.

Then, we drove about 30 minutes to get to a natural spring, to refill out water bottles. There was not much to do here other than to get free, fresh spring water.

From here, we drove the long bog hike. The hike was a 90 minute walk through multiple bogs (over wooden planks), which cover this part of Estonia.

The bogs are created by rain water that does not drain, and trees and plants grow in the bog. The bog is not stable and stepping on it could result in suction and quicksand. Alex especially enjoyed walking here. There were some interesting plants growing in the bog, like the lingonberry plant. We saw a few of these on the way though the bog.

In the middle of the bog, is a large overlook platform, which we climbed to get a look around the area. Bogs and small lakes stretch for miles across. Some people were going to swim in one of the bogs, but we were not interested in this idea.

There were many different berries growing in the bog.

We made it back to the minivan by 6:30pm and then drove back to Tallinn's old town, arriving around 7:00pm. It was a long and tiring day trip.

When we returned, we were a bit hungry and decided to eat at the Russian Troika Restaurant recommended by Rick Steves.

I ordered "Siberian Pelmeni" which came in a pot with horseradish and sour cream.

Alex ordered a Russian-style "Kotleta" (hamburger). Alex really liked his lamb hamburger (he said it was better than mom's) and I liked my pelmeni.

 Inna ordered blintzes with sour cream. They were delicious.

 The Russian food we pretty good at Troika, but a bit expensive and the portions were small.

Since desserts were very expensive there, we decided to grab dessert at the Lido Bar (inside the Solaris shopping mall) on our way home. Thankfully, it was still open and we managed to purchase a few delicious desserts before closing.

I had an apple cider and Inna a cappuccino, while Alex enjoyed a hot chocolate. We had a few chocolate desserts, like the "Ant Hill", which Alex really liked. The cost was a reasonable $10.45 euro (much cheaper than anywhere else).

We were going to take the elevator to "Lounge 24" for our last night in Tallinn, but we were too tired and went to bed instead. It was a very hectic, but productive day.

Monday, July 7, 2014

This was our last day in Tallinn, as we had to catch an overnight ferry to Stockholm at 6:00pm on the M/S Baltic Queen.

In the  morning, after a delicious breakfast of yogurt with fruit and lingonberry pancakes at our Radisson Blu Sky hotel, we packed our bags and put them into storage, while Alex played his Clash of Clans game at the hotel.

We went to look inside the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. It was already crowded with tourists around 10:30am but we went inside anyway. It was well decorated inside, but not as lavish as I expected.

Afterwards, we toured the nearby souvenirs shops, looking for something memorable for Inna but did not find anything worthwhile. She did have her mind set on one amber stone for a necklace but we were not sure of its worth.

We went to look at some of the best overlooks of the medieval portion of Tallinn and took a few photos. Afterwards, we returned to the Tallinn Town hall, where we wanted to get lunch.

We decided to try a medieval cafe called "3 Dragons". It was one of the oldest eateries in Tallinn and tried to be as authentically medieval as possible.

There was no menu - you could look inside to see what was available. All of the signs were in chalk and inside it was very dark - as all light was from candles only.

The restaurant is located in one portion of the the Tallinn Town Hall and it looks like a cavern with uneven stones.

Prices were very reasonable but there were only a few items on the menu: cow pies, pork pies, soup, beer, apple cider, and pickles which you had to fish for yourself out of a barrel with a long fork.

I ordered a cow pie, an apple cider, and soup. The beef pie turned out to be very delicious and apple cider was so good, that Inna drank all of it. There were not utensils provided - this is how medieval people ate - and you were asked my the waiter to clean up after yourself when you were finished.

I did not like the soup (you had to drink out of the bowl without a spoon), but Inna liked it.
Since one pie was not enough for us, I ordered another, and fished two pickles out of the barrel. Overall, this was a unique, and interesting culinary experience.

Finishing lunch, we walked back to our hotel, with the hope of taking Alex to the park, where he could shoot his bee-bee gun (in the hope of winning a prize), and riding inside a see-through ball on water. We got back around 2:00pm and too Tram #1 toward Kadrioru Park. After a couple of stops, we got off and walked inside the park.

Alex first rode the see through-ball on water - this is called "Akvasfaar" in Estonian. He really enjoyed climbing and falling in the ball on water.

After this, he shoot the bee-bee gun at targets. To win a prize, one had to shoot 14 out of 15 cans. On his first attempt, Alex short 13 out of 15 cans - but this was not sufficient to win a soft toy prize. He did worse on his second attempt, as he got frustrated at missing some targets.

Since we had limited time left, we decided to feed Alex lunch at the Gourmet Coffee restaurant. We ordered pasta for Alex and Inna ordered some pastries and cappuccino for herself.  Alex wanted to drink lemonade but ordered Amber water from Denmark - but he did not like it. Inna ended up getting two delicious pastries: "Kristina kupsis" and "Krista truhvel". She really liked both of the chocolates.

After lunch, we got back to our hotel, got our bags, and took the taxi back to dock D, for Baltic Queen sail to Stockholm. The taxi was much cheaper than I expected - only  $6 euro took from the hotel to the dock!

We got on board quickly and got to our room. We dropped off our bags in our tiny stateroom (Alex said it was the smallest room he has ever seen), and went to explore the ship.

We saw lots of different bars: Sevillar Bar, Sea Pub, Cigar Club, and Manhattan Piano Bar. and Tango Lounge.

There were also a couple of entertainment places such as Starlight Palace (which played some 3rd rate acts) and Ibiza disco on the top deck. What surprised me was that this ferry also had a grocery store.

After Alex discovered that a Kidz Club was here, he wanted to spend all of his time there. First, we had him eat dinner in the Cafeteria. He ordered Swedish meatballs with cole slaw. The entree was not particularly good, but Alex ate in anyway.

At the Kidz Club, Alex played the Foosball machine, the air hockey, Xbox 360 games, and horsed around with other kids. We played a couple of matches of Foosball against each other and Alex beat me both times.

Alex really enjoyed his time at the Kidz club as it gave him time to unwind and to play!

We had made reservations to eat dinner at the Russian A La Carte Aleksandra restaurant. The decor of the restaurant was very rich, and the menu had many various types of red and black caviar.

Inna ordered a Chicken Kiev entree (recommended by the waitress) and I ordered the Fried Fish of the Day entree.

Inna really liked her Chicken Kiev but I did not care for about fish entree. Also, the hot tea we ordered seemed to have a weird taste - like the water was not the best. The cost was rather high for this meal ($50+ euros) but the quality was lacking. Eventually, we realized that most of the food on the Baltic Queen is mediocre.

Baltic Queen is a very fancy ferry - much closer to a cruise ship than to a ferry, but it does lack some of Cruise ship niceties, such as better quality food and entertainment.  However, my ticket price was very reasonable and I enjoyed one day of sailing from Tallinn to Stockholm.