Sunday, September 13, 2009

Tallinn, Estonia

The bus trip from Riga to Tallinn passed through flat expanses of forests, with wooden homes hidden behind the trees. This scenery is very typical of the Baltic region. Along the way, I could also spot empty passport control booths. Similar to the Lithuania-Latvia border crossing, there were police at the side of the road stopping vehicles and checking passengers’ documents a few kilometers into Estonia. I always find border controls within the EU puzzling as isn’t eliminating borders one of the reasons these countries joined the EU?

I only had a few hours to explore Tallinn’s famous Medieval old town and it was not enough. Most of the old city walls and its towers were still intact. Many of the buildings were Medieval-style, with pointed roofs, and cellar doors. Besides its Gothic town hall and cathedrals, there were also several Orthodox churches, due to Russian occupation. My favorite part of the visit was climbing to upper town, or Toompea, and savoring the views of the lower old town.

I had two highlights in Tallinn. First, I enjoyed visiting the Gustavus Adolfus Gymnasium Museum, which has displays chronicling the history of Estonia’s oldest continuously functioning school. The school was founded by the Swedes in 1631. What made the visit enjoyable was that the curator took time to explain to me the history of the school. Being the only tourist in the museum, I felt special to receive that kind of attention.

My second highlight was observing the modern architecture of Tallinn. The new apartment buildings are simple, chic and somewhat Nordic (though others may disagree). I think the most aesthetic cities are those that are able to blend in the historical and contemporary architecture, creating a mosaic of eye-pleasing structures.

It seems that the further north I traveled, the more polite were the drivers. I was very surprised to observe that drivers yield to pedestrians at zebra crossings in the Baltics (especially in Estonia). I was equally impressed with the widespread adoption of technology in Estonia, from free Wifi all over the city to ID cards that can be used to vote online. By the way, it turns out that Skype was developed by Estonians!

My five-day visit to the Baltics has come to an end and I will definitely be back in this region! (Possibly coupling this next trip with visits to Belarus and Russia to see the contrast.) The region contains hospitable people, scenic nature, quaint towns, clean air and a Nordic lifestyle. While the region still has a bit of societal corruption (e.g., giving doctors gifts) inherited from the Soviet era, it seems that the rest of society has broken free from its past, embraced the West and is growing by leaps and bounds. The only visible remnants of Soviet occupation are the apartment block buildings and some of the buses and trams.

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