This time we are heading northwards away from the sun, sea and sand (much to the relief of David) and towards a cooler climate and somewhere quite different.
We are on the road with our great travelling mates David and Judy which always makes it a lot of fun.
First stop is Tallinn, capital of Estonia, and we found a great apartment quite close to the old town in some renovated warehouses. Big, solid, airy warm with lovely high ceilings and ultra comfortable although as you looked out the window you felt you could have been in a large prison block. If you turn right on leaveing the building within 20 metres you have the nicest surprise. A great cafe/pastiseire which served its own handmade chocolates free with every espresso - think that should be compulsory the world over.
Tallin has a population of about 400,000 people, much the same as Christchurch, so tis pretty easy to wander around most of the main sights without using the trams or buses. But tired feet did see us hoping on board and testing out the public transport system.
Tallinn is the worlds second larget city and first capital city to instigate Free Public Transport to local residents. This was introduced January 2013 and seems to be working well with some great results eg a 15% reduction in serious traffic accidents and over half of the population taking advantage of it.
Check this out - imagine the positive spinoffs if we could make this work in Christchurch - Sustainablecities.eu
The city feels like it has a vibrancy about it, younger people and certainly more of a Scandanavian feel than a Russian feel to it. Although in saying that we did find the Balti Jaama Turg, just behind the train station. It feels like you are stepping back into the Soviet era in a flea market jam packed with all the junk you could possibly want from cheap food, cooked or raw, second hand clothes, machinery parts, soviet memorabilia and leftover medals. Even in this mild weather there were men huddled around the their bowls of hot soup and dry bread and older women dressed in layers of clothes. I can't imagine what a grey, cold, desperate spot it must be in winter but the locals seem to frequent the place.
We took the Free Walking Tour, which is always worth doing if you can track it down. Harriette put us on to is a couple of years ago and if we have time we always try for them. They vary somewhat depending which company you use and your guide but this young fellow certainly earned himself a good tip! He was a proud Estonian full of energy and hope for a bright future.
The cobbled stoned streets of Tallinns medieval Old Town were certainly the main attraction for us, even though we were only a stones through from the thriving business centre you were never aware of this. Lots of small cosy cafe's, where all the young seemed to speak good English and offered great service. The place seems well preserved with some wonderful medieval architecture, church's, warehouses, barns and some large merchant houses.
Once surrounded by the large defensive city wall it managed to help protect the city over the years. Now only about 1.70 km's remain but still 20 towers and 4 gateways are intact.
The War of Independence Victory Column
The whole idea of creating a memorial was first conceived in 1919 when over 4,000 Estonians were killed as they fought for their independence. In 1936 they passed a law to erect a monument but all was halted during the Second World war while the country was occupied by the Soviets. Finally in 2009, after the country had regained its independence in 1991, they erected this pillar in Freedom Square. After all this the guide told us that the monument was still not popular with anyone.
The magnifent Kadriorg Palace was well worth the walk, taking us to another part of the city. This baroque palace was built by Peter the Great in 1718 for his wife Catherine 1. Designed by an Italian architect with some beautifully manicured garden surrounding the place, its a good example of the extravagance the Tsar's were renown for. It is now home to the Art Museum of Estonian which we sadly only poked our noses into but it was all quite decadent and grandiose. While next door there is the presidential palace, on not such a grand scale.
Despite centuries of repression, tyranny and foreign occupation the place gives off a very different vibe. The Estonians are a softer type of people and have tremendous pride in being a go ahead young nation and feel they have alot to offer the world. A highly tech savvy country they are one of the most connected in the world, successfully introduced online voting in 2005 (why haven't we in NZ followed suit) have high tech education available at a very early age. Estonia has one of the highest literacy rates in the world, standing No 2, with a rate of 99%.
Estonian programmers were responsible for the invention of Skype and this is still a source of national pride for everyone.
They adopted the Euro at the start of 2011 and have managed to go from strength to strength.
Even though we heard about their enterprising spirit you still get the feeling because of the history they have with Russia they continue to live with fear. There are over 200,000 Russians living in Estonia who are stateless citizens. Because one of the requirements for statehood is to learn the language and these people haven't done anything about it. Thus they remain without a country and are not progressing in the same direction, are pro Russian, could easily be manipulated and remain a threat.
We've been so lucky to have wonderful weather, as the locals remind us. Best not to be here in winter as they say it's not uncommon to go as low as -40oC!!!. But on the plus side, middle of summer could give you a delightfully lengthy 19 hour day to play in.