We have both been to Estonia before. It was almost 20 years ago, whilst we were studying in Finland. The temperature had dropped to -25’c and then stopped there or lower for most of the last two months. The Baltic had ice thick enough for cars to drive on near the edges if you were careful and the car not too new or your Dad’s.
The ferry cut a channel through the ice all the way from Finland to Estonia. It is a strange and wonderful experience sailing through ice. The boat is so steady that you could be in an office block or hotel, with a pavement of ice passing slowly by the other side of the window. As a rubbish sailor, who found out a couple of years ago that I can get sea sick whilst swimming, it was sailing bliss, difficult to arrange, but to be recommended.
I was travelling with Marco, a Finnish antiques dealer. I told him about my poor sea legs and he called the ships doctor for tablets. The Finnish sense of humor is tangibly different. Marco laughed until he had to wipe tears from his eyes. He remains to this day, the most wonderfully excentric person I have ever met.
It was a time of disorinetatingly rapid change in Estonia, with a power vacuum left by the Russian withdrawal. Bombs were still going off in Tallinn as a new democracy struggled with picking up the pieces. Marco was exploiting the instability to smuggle out antiques, which is I guess, is almost understandable. Being Marco, it was much more complicated than that. He used the money to help families in Tallinn and put some of them through university.
I saw Marco use one passport to enter Estonia and a different one when we came out. He handed me his glasses one evening, ” Anything strange about them? ” Looking closely you eventually realised that they had plain glass in them rather than lenses. ” I don’t need them. I think I look better in glasses don’t you agree? ”
We stayed with the families that Marco was helping. At each, he bought food and beer with us for the evening. I remember one stay in a block of flats on the outskirts of the city. It was grim indeed. There was almost no furniture in the flat except a solidly built dark wood chest of drawers. It was, as you may have guessed already, the family heirloom, rather beautiful, and unknown to them, rather valuable. We sat on cushions on the floor and the bottles of beer were passed around having first been opened by hitting them solidly against the edge of the chest of drawers. Marco winced with every bottle opening.
We rode towards the ferry terminal in Helsinki, on a bright Sunday morning. The ferry had been booked and an internet deal for a hotel near the old town in Tallinn sorted. The city is now a popular destination in the way that Prague was a while ago. Still cheap enough to attract hen-parties and stag-weekends from across Europe, it has the most perfectly preserved Medieval centre in Europe. In the same way that you promised me that you would all visit Cordoba, now add Tallinn to that list.
Up until Finland, we could make an educated guess at the shop signs and menu. That had changed in Finland and now, with Estonian, it takes a quantum leap towards the unfathomable. Here is a quote from the Lonely Planet: ‘ If you’re keen to tackle the local language, bear in mind that Estonian has 14 cases, no future tense, and no articles. And then try wrapping your tongue around the following vowel-hungry words: jäääär – edge of the ice, töööö – work night, kuuuurija – moon researcher, kuuüür monthly rent ‘.
Go away now and look up a bit of history about Estonia, you will be glad that you did. Unless you live in North Korea, you will be very grateful that you were born exactly where you were, and not here. It has been fought over and conquered more than anywhere else in Europe.
Today it is peaceful enough, but retains something of an edgyness to it. It is heartbreakingly photogenic in any direction you look. You will see things that amaze, but also disturb; the big black cars, the droves of identically tall, and breathtakingly stunning women and the scattering of impossibly expensive designer shops. You could take a ten day trip here, and do nothing else but walk from one glorious cafe to another, and still not have visited them all.
We are having a couple of days here, and have walked around taking photos of what we see. Mercifully, enough people have put the time in, and learned English. Here in the city and it is the default language of tourism. As soon as we are on our way we know that even the signs for hotel or campground are likely to be a dyslexic jumble. We have been looking forward to Estonia from the very moment we set off from Portugal at the start of this year. From all the research that we have done for our route, it should be stunning. We will let you know.