Tallinn, the Tijuana of Scandinavia

March 14 – 16, 2014

Sometime in February, an event appeared on the Facebook page for exchange students in my town: a trip to Tallinn. While I initially had little interest in going, many of my close friends wanted to go and after a while, I caved and signed up. A few weeks later, we were Tallinn-bound, my first trip outside of Joensuu since I arrived.

For those of you unfamiliar with this region of the world, this is what it looks like:

Joensuu is in the Eastern part of Finland, near the part of Finland that juts out towards Russia. Just for reference’s sake.

Tallinn is the capital of Estonia. I had never heard of it before, but it’s known for being a medieval city– the old town is a beautiful walled fortress and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s a common tourist destination, easy to get to via ferry/cruise from Sweden or Finland. Tallinn is a popular place for Finns in particular– Estonia is cheaper than Finland, especially for buying alcohol and cigarettes. Apparently, before they get married, many Finns will come to Estonia to buy alcohol for the wedding. And of course, for exchange students, this opportunity to buy some cheap alcohol is worth the trip to another country.

The trip we were going on had a pretty loose itinerary: leave at 5 am from Joensuu for Helsinki (via bus, a trip that would take 8 hours), ferry to Tallinn (2 hours) and then check in at the hotel. We had 2 nights in Tallinn and then a stop at a big alcohol store before boarding the ferry back to Helsinki and then busing back to Joensuu. Luckily, the bus stopped at each of the common neighborhoods where exchange students live, which made the 5 am departure time slightly less inconvenient but no less painful. My street was one of the first stops (and later, the last).

I only packed my school backpack for this trip, since it would only be a couple days and I wasn’t anticipating buying much while there. Plus snacks. So many snacks– including blueberry scones which I shared with my friends. Eight hours on a bus is a lot of time to fill and while some of that time was early enough in the day that we could sleep, sleeping in cramped quarters on a bus full of exchange students (and a couple Finnish students) are not the best sleeping conditions.

At any rate, we amused ourselves well enough and by the time we made it onto the ferry to Estonia, we were sleepy and silly, talking about who-knows-what and munching on endless snacks to stay awake.

The first thing we saw upon arriving in Estonia was an alcohol shop. And right across the street from the ferry terminal, our hotel. This seemed rather indicative of the type of place that Tallinn would be.

The first night, my friends Carmen, Maja, Mareike, and I decided that we wanted to wander around a bit and check out some of the stores nearby. After some wandering, we ended up going to Vapiano, a (German) Italian (fast food) restaurant for dinner that Maja and Mareike promised would be good. It was delicious, and notably– cheap!

Me, Maja, Carmen, and Mareike

Then, we stopping at a random shopping center to pick up some drinks and yet more snacks on the way back to the hotel, which is how the first night was spent eating more junk food than we should have and watching MTV– the only channel we could find in English.

The next day the four of us decided we should explore the Old Town before going shopping. We met up for breakfast at the hotel and then headed off to Old Town. It wasn’t a far walk, but it was a gloomy and drizzly day, which made it less than ideal for exploring.

Carmen, Maja, and I

Carmen and I in front of an impressive-looking church door

Mareike, Maja, Carmen, and I wandered around, took a bunch of pictures, and stopped into a few stores to browse.

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral – photo by my friend Mareike

The Estonian Parliament (across from the Cathedral)

We ended up going into the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral and sitting for a while, watching what looked like a baptism or maybe just a small choir practice. It was beautiful inside– ornate gold, typical Russian Orthodox style. The ambiance provided by the choir made it even more beautiful as the voices echoed and a small crowd of people watched. An elderly Estonian woman scolded us for having our legs crossed, though we weren’t sure exactly why since we had no idea what she was saying. Estonian is close to Finnish– not that any of us speak Finnish, either.

Overlooking Old Town

Overlooking Old Town

Overlooking Old Town — featuring an overly-friendly seagull

Overly-friendly seagull

The Times we had

Mareike, Maja, myself, and Carmen at the overlook – photo from Mareike

We wandered back outside and over to an overlook of the Old Town and city. You may have seen it in pictures before, at least if you spend a lot of time looking at pictures of places you’ve never been– there’s a wall that says “The times we had.” It’s the sort of melancholic beauty that seemed fitting for the gloomy day, and a reminder to enjoy the time with my friends while we were there.

Town Hall Square

Wandering back down through the Old Town, we saw a sign advertising a sky lounge and coffee shop called Katuse Kohvik. Since it was a Saturday, and coffee and cake is something of a tradition for us, we decided it was a fine place to stop.

The barista in the coffee shop was a bit overly friendly, which was unexpected and frankly made us feel uncomfortable. We joked that maybe we had gotten too used to Finns who say little and don’t try to make personal connections with you. They also don’t call you “sweetie” or “honey”. It was a bit off-putting, but the drinks were warm and the view from the coffee shop was pretty cool. Of course, while we were there, it started snowing. While we grumbled and groaned because we were tired of snow, watching the snow drift down in waves from a warm rooftop coffee shop is the sort of magical thing that makes life beautiful.

Inside the coffee shop

Looking out the windows

Mmm, hot chocolate…

After finishing our drinks, we braved the snow storm to continue our way out of Old Town and to the shopping center. We ducked in an Estonian store and sampled some Moose sausage with cheese and admired the wood and wool work they were selling. For the record, I love moose, but it’s also quite tasty in sausage form. Besides, trying strange foods at random is one of the great joys of travel.

Samples!

Trying moose sausage

We finally made our way to the shopping area we had been exploring the day before and commenced our shopping afternoon. We all seemed to be buying summer-type clothing, which probably wasn’t the best decision, since summer weather was a mythical thing for us. Besides, who buys summer clothing when it’s snowing outside?!

When we got tired of shopping, we ended up back at Vapiano for dinner. This time I splurged and bought myself a glass of wine, a rare treat since wine is expensive in Finland and even then, it’s not particularly good wine. Eventually we made our way back to the hotel, already planning to meet up later with some of our other friends at a bar. Our one foray into the nightlife of Tallinn, and a pretty tame one at that!

Later in the evening after our nap/productivity break, we met up in the lobby and made our way to a medieval-looking bar in the basement of a building in Old Town called Porgu. I wouldn’t have even known it was a bar/restaurant from the outside. Honestly, it looked like a medieval dungeon or the sort of place that bootleggers would hide out in the 1920’s during prohibition. Maybe that’s just me though.

When the rest of the girls arrived, we took over a big table and everybody was delighted to find out this bar had a large selection of German beer. Even better, the beer was cheaper than in Finland, and far superior. I might not be the biggest fan of beer, but the one I had (a dunkel) was really good, and of course we all passed around our drinks for the others to try. Friendship is sharing beer, y’know.

Table full of beers – photo from Mareike

Carmen and I

Me and my friend Marie

The next day, we didn’t do much: breakfast and the stop at the “Super Alko”– there were many debates about which alcohol was worth spending money on– and then we loaded up the bus and headed to the ferry terminal.

And of course, the last thing you see before you leave Estonia… is another alcohol shop. After all, Tijuana Tallinn is the place you go to party with friends, where you explore your vices and stock up before returning to your everyday life.

(Originally posted on my blog on Students Gone Global.

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