Dramas have been haunting us on this trip so far and we were now on drama #4. Loading up the van in readiness to leave Tallinn we noticed that its side door had been forced, probably with a screwdriver. Luckily, we had taken most things of value into the hotel with us but bizarely, while the binoculars, a laptop, memory stick and the awesome 9-speaker music system had been ignored, a suitcase of socks was stolen!
our trusty transport
We left Tallinn minus the socks and we drove south along arrow straight roads, music blasting out and the sun warming us. It felt so good to be on the road again. The landscape in this part of Estonia is flat, flat and more flat, with tilled fields stretching far out over the horizon and swathes of green pine and juniper trees bunching together with their roots swilling around in peaty bogs and pools of water. We caught up with a convoy of military vehicles who were swaying and bouncing along the highway, each with a soldier on top and a very large machine gun. Overtaking and picking off each truck one at a time, we eventually arrived at our destination of Haapsalu.
The Jahta Hostel, Haapsalu
S had been here in Haapsalu once before for the AuugustiBluus Music Festival. All that I can say is that it must have been a good festival with much beer because he was convinced that it had taken place on an island! It isn’t on an island but water is everywhere in Haapsalu. It sits on a spit of land which juts out into the bay and is next to a saltwater lagoon. There is also a huge castle bang in the old town center which is where the festival happens but for now, the town was deserted.
We pulled up at our planned hotel – the Jahta Hostel – to find that was also deserted; we were just about to leave when Henri the owner found us. He had been down on the jetty fishing, but he broke off from his activity and welcomed us and showed us into our room. S, who had been suffering from the flu promptly fell into bed and dropped off to sleep for two days while I set off to explore the town.
The castle at Haapsalu
Haapsalu is small and is completely dominated by the massive castle. This morning, half of the current population appeared to be sat along the water’s edge quietly fishing, the other half were in the tiny little cafe. I walked and I found a large graveyard with wrought iron crosses instead of headstones, a lady dressed up in a costume in the little museum and a tall wooden birdwatching structure that swayed alarmingly once I was at the top, but which had great views out over the reed beds and the estuary.
The view over the bay at Haapsalu
We spent a lovely restful couple of days at the Jahta Hostel (click here to read about the history of the hotel and what Henri plans to do with the fish that he caught) and we never tired of the views across the bay. You can feel the clear air rejuvenating you as you breathe deeply and the play of the sunlight on the water changes by the second. One morning I woke early and the water was streaked with blood red, crimson and black streaks as the sun rose above the horizon. It looked solid like thick paint but by the time I had reached for my camera it had altered again.
sunrise over the bay
Eventually it was time to leave and so we set off again, continuing south and to the ferry to take us to Estonia’s largest island, Saaremaa. The crossing was smooth and we drove across the island to the only town which is called Kuressaare. En route we paused to take a look at the meteorite crater at Kaali, which was interesting because of how it had been formed but was, at the end of the day, just a large pond of water.
The meteorite crater at Kaali
We found our hostel in Kuressaare which was nothing special apart from Meida the adorable, lovely, wonderful receptionist. The hostel consisted of three available rooms to book within the town’s university halls of residence, although in the summer the whole building is opened up to tourists.
The lovely Meida
And then we had another drama (#5 if you don’t count the flu) when S had a massive toothache which spread to his whole jaw and which necesitated a visit to the dentist at the PolyClinic. A very dour lady dentist agreed to x-ray S’s mouth – once we had got past the language barrier and she realised that he had toothache and was not searching for a solution for alcoholism (by now the combined pain and lack of sleep did give S a slightly haunted look). Massively strong antibiotics were recommended which we bought over the counter without a prescription. Worthy of a mention here is that all of the corridors of the PolyClinic had shoes neatly parked outside each door – where it is polite, necessary and etiquette to remove them before entering.
Leaving the tiny port for Saaremaa
And so S took to his bed again and on a cold, semi-cloudy day I drove the van into town to visit the castle. It was amazing with a magnificent interesting museum inside the very well preserved building. Towers and turrets and interesting exhibitions about the history of Estonia and Saaremaa, the Russian occupation and the very recent re-gaining of independance were all fascinating, but they also coincided with a partial eclipse outside. I took myself out and due to the cloud I was able to watch the eclipse unfold. I may have not had blue skies or a full eclipse but the setting alongside the castle was quite special.
Then the clouds thickened and the blue skies which we had been blessed with so far disappeared and it began to snow.
Read about our lovely little hotel at Haapsalu on the Estonian coast.
We had sunshine filled days in our lemon yellow wooden building on the bay
Click here to read the article
My next adventure is underway. The starting point is Helsinki – the end point…who knows!
And from the very beginning it appeared that things were going to be a bit challenging.
Drama #1 occured as soon as I arrived at the airport. I was met by my fellow traveller who handed me the keys to his large (left-hand drive) transit van and he announced that, due to certain circumstances I had to drive.
Out of Helsinki during the rush hour. Along the motorway which was being dug up and like a slalom course. And directly into the low setting sun and with the sand which had been laid on the icy roads during the winter whipped up into a swirling sandstorm.
The only thing that I can say about that white knuckle ride was that the sky ahead of us resembled nothing that I had seen before – it was pure molten gold and more beautiful than any sky that I had ever seen.
I had been in Finland during winter once before when I had visited Tampere – you can read about that experience here
The frozen fjord at Espoo, Finland
But we survived the journey and the next day we spent a half a day walking around Helsinki which is an OK sort of a city, but it is very spread out. The highlights are the Uspenski Cathedral with its red brick and green onion dome roofs and the fantastic-from-the-outside-but-plain-inside white Cathedral.
Drama #2 began after we had booked a night in an apart-hotel in the dormitory town of Espoo over the internet. The hotel had no receptionist present at any time. When you are sitting in your vehicle and you have very intermittent internet access and no Finnish SIM card and you have paid for the night over the internet but cannot open the email which contains details of your room and the key code, you cannot even begin to express your frustration. But eventually we sorted that problem out and got into the hotel.
On day 3 we were back in the van for another white knuckle ride back into Helsinki for the ferry port. Dodging the trams I was quite proud that I only managed to jump one red light – I didn’t notice the junction let alone the traffic lights – but I was just relieved to reach the terminal in one piece.
And then there was drama #3. Two very large border guards were cruising around the queue of cars when they pulled up alongside us and studied us intently. We KNEW that they would be interested in us and then they were asking for our papers. While everything was in order things were not straightforward (but not my story to tell at this stage here) and then I was being asked to blow into a breathalyser and I had the cells from my tongue scraped for a roadside drug test.
When everything came back negative (alcohol, marihuana, opiates and amphetamines) the border guards lost interest in us, allowed me to take a photo of the drug test and decided that they didn’t need to pull everything out of the van. And so I drove us onto the MS Finlandia for the 2.5 hour trip across the Gulf of Bothnia to Estonia.
Beach huts on one of the islands as we leave Finland
If driving in Helsinki was nerve wracking I almost had a complete meltdown in Tallinn. Driving off the ferry I was horrified to discover that here there were trolley buses, which instilled fear into me as unlike trams they were perfectly capable of veering off their tracks and EVERYBODY was driving at twice the speed limit (at least) and they are, I think, probably the second most aggressive, fast drivers in the world – after those in Bahrain.
We tracked down our hotel for the night which was in an old stone building that was once a sauna complex for the town, and from which we could see the large castle which dominates Tallinn.
Part of the castle at Tallinn, Estonia
On Sunday morning we set off on foot to explore, wandering around the little winding streets although it was next to impossible to get lost as the tall spires of the various churches which rose above the walled city acted as good orientation points. Tallinn has an incredibly well preserved wall surrounding much of it and little streets which are a charming mix of the traditional wooden houses and the modern. The old town square was picture postcard perfect in the warm winter sun and we were lucky enough to bag a table outside one of the little bars and rest for a while.
The town hall in the Old Town Square, Tallinn, Estonia
We visited the Orthodox cathedral which is up near the castle complex. The inside was atmospheric with the smokey haze and scent from the candles and the incense rising high up into the onion dome. Pillars were painted with flowers and swirls and there was constant movement as people flowed between the various icons and altars, many stooping to touch the floor and some even kneeling to kiss the floor in front of some of the relics.
The Orthodox Cathedral, Tallinn, Estonia
I had really enjoyed learning Spanish when I was travelling in South America and now on this trip I want to learn a musical instrument. Many travellers have guitars or drums but as I desperately need to reduce the weight that I carry, I opted for the harmonica. Back at the hotel that evening S, my fellow traveller who can play many instruments very well gave me my first harmonica lesson. I thought that it went rather well, and rather easier to learn that Spanish but some of the other hotel guests may argue otherwise.
The following day I went out alone to explore Tallinn. I found the ‘Knit Market’ where rows of stalls are set into arches underneath the town walls and ladies sit knitting and selling their woollen socks and jumpers. I found the ‘Cat Well’ where in the olden times people would throw the stray cats (dead and often alive) as a sacrifice to ensure that the water to the town wouldn’t run dry – never mind about the risk to the public health from the decomposing bodies.
And I saw St Olaf’s Church with its slender spire and which was once the tallest building in the world, although it and all of the other museums were closed, either because it was Monday or the ‘wintry season’ or both so I was unable to climb the tower and look out over the red roofs of Tallinn.
Castle and town walls in Tallinn, Estonia
I was stood in the street studying a map when two young men approached me and asked if I needed any help. Forty five minutes later we were still chatting by the side of the road. Andri, smart as a pin in his blue suit and Gunner a teacher, both spoke excellent English and had a cracking repartee of anecdotes and observations on life. They were hilarious and I was sorry to have to move on and to say goodbye to them. And a little later in the day they emailed me to tell me that just after we had separated they had been fined for jay-walking!
Andri and Gunner
Estonia, like many places that I visit, has surprised me. I try to travel without any pre-conceptions and always with an open mind, but you can’t help but absorb information which the media decide should shape your view of the world. I have always thought that it is so important to watch the news and to be aware of what is going on in the world, but as I travel, I am more and more disillusioned, not by the news itself, but by the spin which is placed on the stories and which distances us from other people, countries and cultures.
Estonia is spotlessly clean – from the streets without litter to the clarity of the air. For all of my first week I was blessed with brilliant blue, cloudless skies, crisp cold mornings at freezing point, but with temperatures rising rapidly in the sun during the daytime. Most people can speak many languages – English, Russian, Finnish and Swedish seemed to predominate and they are friendly and keen to chat.
The cat well
I love to travel and to see things. Old buildings, modern towns, forests or beaches are all fantastic but for me, it is the connection with people who make my travel so special. Andri and Gunner were a chance meeting by the side of the road but they made my day in Tallinn, so for this journey as I travel down through the Baltic States I intend to delve a little bit deeper into the lives of the people that I meet and bring you some of their stories.
I hope that you will follow me and accompany me on my adventures as I head south.