Lahemaa National Park adventure

Reinhard and I set out early in the morning to Lahemaa National Park. We rented a car and cruised through the snowy roads to the picturesque park. Thank goodness Reini is used to driving in the snowy conditions because I’m sure I would have had at least one panic attack if I had to drive. Our first stop was the Jägala Waterfall, not far from Tallinn. The waterfall freezes in winter but had not yet when we visited, so the falling water would all eventually end up in the Gulf of Finland. It was very pretty with the sparkling snow all around.

We hopped back into the car and set the GPS for the Käsmu Captains’ village. The story goes that this village had an important maritime academy that drew in future captains from all parts of the Baltic. The little town is now just a summer vacation spot. It ended up being deserted, except for 2 men fishing out in the sea. We wandered around the silent village, hiking through the snow and enjoying the alien landscape. At the north end of the village is a little jutted out piece of land that leads to an uninhabited island via a series of glacier boulders. It might be feasible to jump on over to the island during the summer season, but it certainly wasn’t happening in the freezing weather.

After looking around unsuccessfully for a place to get coffee, we decided to move on to the next town – Võsu. This place is supposed to have a great beach. I can’t really imagine that the water ever would get warm enough to swim in here, but hey, Estonia needs beaches too, I guess. Anyway, we certainly weren’t about to go swimming, so we just looked around for a place to get lunch. After peeking in a bunch of cafe windows (all closed for the season) we ended up finding the one open place that sells food in the entire town – O Kõrts. The food was pretty good, considering it was our only option.

Once we realized that Võsu is no fun in the non summer months, we left for Altja. My guidebook says that this village is known for a large swing and fishing huts. Sounds like a party, right? But it was pretty cool, thankfully. This village had a little more going for it. There were adorable pastel houses scattered about, and the fishing huts were straight out of a history book.

 

Reini and I had been reading about the Beaver Trail that runs just outside Altja and near the other town of Oandu. After getting a little lost driving around, we successfully found the trail. The trail lead us through the beautiful Estonian forest, decorated in snow. We walked along the Altja River valley and saw where the beavers decided to make their homes in big settlements. We couldn’t see any beavers (they were probably hiding from the cold), but we could see where the had chewed down some trees along the river.

A little frozen, we hopped back in the car and ended up coming across the beautiful Sagadi Manor house. Built in the 1700s, this house is incredibly impressive, especially because it’s pink 🙂 The pond in the backyard was frozen, but I could imagine the grassy yard beside it would be great for a picnic in the warmer months.

Our stop at Sagadi was short because we were very quickly losing daylight (it’s tough being at the top of the world) and we still had to visit the Rakvere Castle. Just like everything else we tried to visit, the castle was closed. But we were able to walk around it, along the hilly surrounding grounds that were probably built up by the medieval people living at the time of the castle’s construction. It was a pretty cool place. I wish we had been able to go inside, but the outside was also impressive.

After our encounter with the castle, we stopped off for a quick bite to eat before heading back to Tallinn to drop off the car. It felt like a long day, but the frequent breaks (sitting in the heated car) and my great travel partner made it much better. Estonia is very cold, but you just have to be like the locals – don’t let the weather stop you from having fun!

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October snow

Though it is only October and the leaves are still changing colors on trees, Tallinn just had its first snow of the season. Outside seemed a little brighter this morning and I could hear some funny noises, so I peeked out to take a look. Sure enough, my balcony was covered with snow! This was so crazy. We had no warning. Had this been in Georgia or North Carolina, the news would have been reporting this for an entire week before hand, speculating how many inches we would receive and telling everyone to run to the grocery store to stock up on emergency supplies. But here the snow came in silently. I’m so glad my mom bought me a pair of North Face snow boots before I left home. They looked silly sitting in my GA home, but here they are certainly going to get some serious use. My walk to and from work took 5 extra minutes each way because of my modified penguin walk. I’m so terrified of falling flat on my butt in the middle of an intersection as I cross the street. It’s going to happen. I just know it. The snow is pretty for now, but I know it’s going to get old reallllyy fast.

 

Tallinn’s secret spots

All the tourists know about the viewing platforms in Old Town’s Toompea district, but they do not know about the cafe on the top of the Radisson Blu hotel which offers the best views of the whole city. Vitali took me up there where we joined up with Aleksei. He pointed out all of the interesting buildings (including the one where I live). It was cool getting a bird’s eye view of the town and even seeing my walk to work from a different perspective.

The boys enjoying their hot chocolates

We had thought about getting something to drink at the rooftop cafe, but instead decided to venture to a surprise location which ended up a chocolateria! This place was absolutely wonderful. It is located in a little courtyard off a side street in Old Town. The interior was incredibly shabby chic and oh so cozy. I was going to order a coffee until Vitali scolded me and said I had to get a hot chocolate. I’m so incredibly glad he converted me. The hot chocolate was liquid heaven. Absolutely delicious. I wish there was no bottom to the glass! So anyway. Travel tip: befriend locals. They know the BEST places in the city.

Maidla Parish

Maidla is a small village located next to the bigger city of Narva, just a little over an hour’s drive to the Russian border. The wonderful people of Maidla took in a few of us to chat and show us their town. We got to see inside their very modern youth center and speak with the parish elder (like a city mayor) about his plans for providing a use for the old mining (oil shale) fields. He plans on putting in a kayaking/white water center that will hopefully attract people who are training for Olympic events. It seems really cool – if it ends up happening. We were shown through their beautiful school building, an old Germanic major. This building was gigantic inside with elaborate architectural elements and filled with chandeliers. I then got to speak with an English class and did a little presentation about fall in America (Halloween, elections, and Thanksgiving). They were so fun to speak with. They had lots of good questions to ask and seemed genuinely interested. After the lesson, a couple of girls from the class volunteered to sing us a song. So we went up to the ballroom, complete with more chandeliers and a white grand piano, and they delivered a wonderful performance. We were then hurried down into the basement where the “cafeteria” was located. The cafeteria was more like a Hogwarts-esque series of rooms, vaulted ceilings. We sat down to a really nice meal of salmon, wild rice with various veggies thrown in, and a delicious slice of raspberry cheesecake with streusel on top 🙂 We all had happy bellies after that. We got to chat more with the parish elder and the women in charge of the school. Interesting conversation flowed in a mixture of English and Estonian (lots of head nodding on my part regarding the latter). After a few more meetings with various people, we got invited to attend the grand opening of the brand new kindergarten building. There was a ribbon cutting ceremony, followed by a tour, and concluding with speeches and songs by the kids. It was a truly heartwarming experience that made me grateful I work for such wonderful people who are willing to have a close partnership with towns like this one. Great, tiring work day.

Estonian Parliament

I recently went on a VIP tour of the Estonian Parliament. The building is not open to the public, so this was an extra special visit. My group got to meet the president of the Parliament, Ene Ergma. She sort of reminds me of a Julia Child-type woman. Meaning: she has a very strong presence, which is absolutely necessary for a woman who is in charge of running the Parliament. She was so cool, even joking around with us.

The inside of the Parliament building was covered with a zig-zag theme. The Parliament’s meeting room had zig-zagging triangles all over the place, providing a striking contrast to the pink baroque exterior. The Estonian Parliament is small, just like the country. There are only 101 members of Parliament (the US has 435 members in the House of Representatives plus another 100 Senators, for comparison).

After we were done being taken around the parliament building, our group was taken to climb up the Tall Hermann tower. This special tower is home to the official Estonian flag. The Estonian flag on Tall Hermann has some really interesting flying regulations. Due to Estonia’s really high latitude, summer days are extremely long and winter nights are extremely short. Normally a flag could be flown from dawn to dusk. But when the sun rises at 4am and sets at 11pm, this doesn’t work well for the flag hoisting and playing of the national anthem. So they say they hoist the flag at sunrise, but not before 7am 🙂 But the view from the top of the tower was really incredible. I wish the weather was better because we may have been able to see out more into the Baltic Sea. We did, though, have a nice view out onto the historic old town and more modern city center.

Ceramics making

The lovely people at the office arranged for us to go to a ceramics making place and craft some pieces of our own. It was a crazy time. Lots of the families brought their silly kids and it was a great big party! I tried to be fancy and make a bowl that hopefully will get used (if not broken on the plane ride home). We got to use special techniques including a lace appliqué. So the inside of my bowl will have a pretty pattern in it.

Day trip to Helsinki

Helsinki is the capital of Finland and is only a really short distance from Tallinn. I was invited earlier in the week by a friend from the Tartu trip to go to Helsinki with him and a few other friends. Early Saturday morning we hopped on the 2-hour ferry boat to get to Helsinki. We spent the day wandering though the city, trying to discover all that Helsinki had to offer.

Helsinki is not as charming as Tallinn, but that does not mean it isn’t worth seeing. It’s just a bigger city that has been forced to modernize. They do still have some beautiful churches perched atop high hills and even underneath a rock quarry.

Another sightseeing stop we made was to a weird sculpture we saw on the map. It was a bunch of huge pipes that looked like they were floating above the ground. After a quick google search, I learned that this is a monument to Finnish composure Jean Sibelius and is supposed to resemble the pipes in an organ.The monument was unveiled in 1962 and has been attracting numerous tourists, like myself, ever since.

One of the main fun things we had planned for the day was to attend an ice hockey game. After purchasing our tickets right when the window opened (we were warned that they sell out very quickly), we decided to check out some of the other things in the area. The Olympic arena dated back to 1938 when Helsinki was supposed to host the event. However, due to WWII, they didn’t actually hold the olympics there until 1952. There was a great tower at the Olympic venue that allowed visitors to have a fantastic view of the city.

Once we finished with the tower, it was time to head back down to the ice hockey stadium. We cheered on the home team in a packed stadium. They were winning until the end, tied, overtime tied, then lost in the 5th round of shootouts. To say this was an exciting game would be an understatement. The fans yelled chants as us foreigners attempted to clap along. Once the game ended, we, along with the sad but loyal fans, headed back home. We managed to navigate our way back to the harbor via tram without getting lost, ate a snack in the ferry terminal, and safely arrived in Tallinn. It was a very long, but adventure filled day.