I immediately warmed to our hostel (16 Eur Hostel) in Tallinn. Reception was buzzing with people buying beer, asking for directions, or generally just hanging out. The wifi was free and the code highly visible on the walls. We arrived quite late from the Helsinki ferry but check-in was still not an issue. We climbed the few flights to our room, admiring the quirky common areas.
Our room was outlandishly big for the price, with comically small beds. We could have staged a ballet in there with room to spare. The ceilings gave the building away as a former office block. I washed my shoes and socks (still filled with ice-water from our morning trip to Helsinki’s Suomenlinna) and went to bed in high spirits.
We got up early the next day and headed over to Tallinn’s main attraction – it’s UNESCO-protected Old Town. In the main square, we treated ourselves to a cheap and cheerful breakfast. Yet more Raig (traditional rye bread) was had, along with porridge wheat (a first for me, which I have since re-created at home). We began our circular journey around the outskirts of Old Town, but not before being whistled at to move out of the way of a guy taking a photo.
Whistled at. Like you would to a dog. WHISTLED AT. I was filled with indignant rage but the slippery ice-covered cobbles prevented me from stomping over to the offender. I settled for a death-stare instead while trying to recall any German curse-words.
We carefully picked our way along the main sites, with some truly stunning theatres and churches to occupy our thoughts and our memory cards. The Russian Orthodox Cathedral was particularly impressive. We loitered outside as service was taking place, watching the opulent display through the glass.
There are a number of scenic viewpoints in Tallinn, where you can survey the city from a height. The first viewpoint (where I spotted the “love locks”, mentioned in a previous post) was where I saw my first tourist mishap with the ice. An old man fell impressively hard and with great gusto. I slithered over to assist him but he insisted he was fine and was relieved to “get it over with”.
Later in the day, I had my own close call. After many slides and “baby giraffe learning to stand” manoeuvres, I skidded dramatically and was faced with certain unintended horizontality. Luckily (or unluckily, depending on your perspective), I stubbed my non-sliding foot against a protruding cobble and managed to stop the fall. There was a brief moment where I though the force might have broken my foot but I pushed on, reasoning that it was already “on ice” (harr) so nothing more could be done.
As we walked and slid along, we saw a group of young children being led around by their teacher. They were all joined together by leashes, like a toddler chain-gang. I bought some kitschy souvenirs and stopped off at Rimi supermarket to get food and return to the hostel for lunch. At Rimi, I had my first ever 100% Estonian conversation. Sure, it was basically “hi, yes, thanks, bye” but hey, little victories. We relaxed at the hostel for an hour before returning to Fat Margaret’s Tower to continue exploring.
We found our way back to the main square, thoroughly enjoying the feel of the place, the great graffiti and street-art and all the small side-streets and alleyways. It reminded me a bit of my hometown of Galway, with all the medieval buildings and cobbled alleys.
We had a delicious dinner of Estonian garlic bread (cooked in thin strips) and goat’s cheese and cherry tomato pasta in Restorant Kohvik. Down one of my beloved side-streets, I found a small shop selling original prints of the city and bought an unframed one to take home.
We briefly watched a fire-thrower near the boundary and then headed back to Rimi, where we had spotted very cheap souvenir chocolates earlier in the day.
Retiring to the hostel with a few ciders, we passed an off-license bearing the unfortunate name of “Go Alko”. We’re still considering this advice.
We had a leisurely morning the next day, a relief after the pretty busy travel schedule of the previous few days. We watched the Athletic Championships and a travel show about Oman (which an Ozzie had enthusiastically recommended to me in Jordan) while packing our bags for Ryanair’s brutal judgement.
After a brief stroll through Old Town, we headed to the bus stop to get the airport bus (1e).
We got off a little too early, as the Estonian for “airport” and “busport” are extremely similar. When we did get to Tallinn airport, we found it to be unexpectedly modern. I amused myself by skyping in a futuristic pod while having my ears assaulted by the tortured screams of a small child who, of course, turned out to be on our flight.
On the plane, I thought back over the highlights of the trip while the girl next to me attempted to engage me by asking how much I had spent on everything in Tallinn. She bragged that she had spent less than anyone had ever spent on a trip, while showing me a suspect-looking tuna, apple and pea wrap she had gotten “for nothing”.
Tallinn was the end of a longer trip to Stockholm and Helsinki and I would visit each again. The level of English and public transport was good in each city. Personally I found the Estonians to be the friendliest and most willing to chat, but the Swedes and Finns were very helpful when asked. Both Sweden and Finland have reputations for being extremely expensive to visit. I’m living proof that this doesn’t have to be true. By booking individual legs of flights (eg. Dublin-Stockholm, Stockholm-Helsinki) and working my way back to the start point, it worked out cheaper than simply booking a return flight. Accommodation is expensive in Stockholm and Helsinki but if you are creative (utilising sites like Hotwire or Airbnb) you stand to save a lot and maybe end up in a place you otherwise wouldn’t have gotten to see. Public transport is reasonably priced in all three cities and should be more than sufficient. If we were to have gotten taxis everywhere, we would have been crippled by the price. Food can always be cheap, if you budget the odd meal out while using the (usually) complimentary breakfast provided by your accommodation and going to supermarkets for the odd meal.
Alcohol is expensive in Stockholm and Helsinki (the cheapest drinks we found in bars were about 6/7e), whereas it is much more affordable in Tallinn. We did not purchase city cards for any of the cities and think it worked out well without.
Highlights of the trip were the museums in Stockholm, the scenery on the outskirts of Helsinki and the Old Town in Tallinn.
Day 1- Stockholm to Helsinki, Temppeliaukio Kirkko
4.10am saw us up,alert and surprisingly okay. We were making the journey from Sweden to Finland today. I shuffled to the bathroom, half-expecting to see semi-naked guy again but I was sorely disappointed. We checked out while feeling sorry for the lonely night shift receptionist (Connect has a 24hr reception).
We waited for a bus just outside the hotel to take us to Telefonplan t-bana station and onwards to Centralen. From there, we got the Arlanda Express train. It was quite swanky.
Arlanda Airport was easy as pie. There is self check-in and security is fast. Boarding was easy and the airport staff zipping about the place on scooters was our morning entertainment. Slightly perturbed by the fact that my passport was not checked at any stage (I could have been a drug-dealing murderer!), I enjoyed the short and underbooked flight.
Once in Helsinki Airport, we got a Finnair bus to the main rail station and continued on our lumbering journey to our accommodation in Ramsinniemi. We hadn’t planned for the amount of snow that was on the ground (it was late March) and dragged our wheelie cases through snow drifts before reaching our spectacularly picturesque hotel, courtesy of Hotwire.
Extremely relieved to be free of our baggage,we got the train back into Helsinki and went to see Temppeliaukio Kirkko, the Rock Church. On the outside, the place was a pile of rocks and snow with a cross stuck on it. Nothing special. On the inside though, it was stunning. Interior carved from the rock, wood beams, plush purple pews and a giant bronze dome. We were lucky enough to arrive 15 minutes before it became available for public viewing. A small trickle of mass-goers exited and gazed at the tourists which vastly outnumbered them.
Most places had closed by the time we got back to the city centre, so we people-watched in a shopping centre for a while before having dinner in an Italian restaurant. After picking up some essentials (read: copious amounts of snacks), we headed back to Ramsinniemi.
We had purchased a day transport ticket, which was proving good value.
Once back at the hotel, we wandered the grounds for a while to take in the view.
Day 2- Suomenlinna and Ferry to Tallinn (Estonia)
We checked out and took lots of scenic pictures on the hotel grounds to bore people at home with. The water was solid. An early bird had built an igloo under the emergency buoyancy aid. One brave man was walking his dog on what is normally a deep lake.
Suomenlinna is a series of small islands just off the coast of Helsinki. (For Irish people: picture the Aran Islands). A regular ferry takes people on the short journey to the islands. Tickets are reasonably priced. (The islands are inhabited so it’s not exclusively a tourist service).
Suomenlinna was beautiful, but pretty treacherous in parts due to thick sheets of ice coating the paths and hills. The snow and ice melted over the course of the day and made the going easier. We walked on the fortress, witnessed the might of the Baltic Sea for ourselves and rambled over to the smaller islands (one of which is a naval training academy).
Many of the buildings were closed for winter and were quite decisively snowed in.
We got the ferry back and were entertained by the regular cries of “Wow Chiwawa!” by two small boys, as they delighted in the waves splashing the boat.
On Mannerheim, we stopped at an all-you-can-eat pizza buffet. We retrieved our luggage from the rail station and made our way to South Harbour, after some confusion about which harbour houses the ferry terminal to Tallinn. (The West houses the Stockholm ferry, the South the Tallinn and St. Petersburg lines. Of course, thinking about this now, this makes basic geographical sense).
We arrived at the airport-like terminal just in time to witness a massive brawl, reminiscent of traveller fights at home. Balls to the wall, everybody involved, an ever-growing smattering of blood on the ground.
About a dozen police officers broke them up while our taxi driver waved happily at us, completely oblivious to the violence. I laughed that a guy despondently dragging a crate of beer after him and sporting a bloody and broken nose was my last impression of Finland.
We boarded a raucous ship (the “Superstar”) after watching 3 teenage boys be escorted off the Baltic Princess, bound for Russia. We wondered if they were runaways or stowaways. We sat on a large leather couch outside the on-board perfume shop, with a view of the arcade games. Before the ship had even begun to rumble to life, a man took up residence at the poker machines and proceeded to play two games at once (one machine with each hand). The girls behind us shared a litre of white wine while, bizarrely, the Corrs (an Irish band) came on over the sound system. I traipsed over to the supermarket to stock up and accidentally bought carbonated water for what seemed like the hundredth time that trip. The motion of the ship threw me off-balance while waiting to pay. I returned to my seat, dizzy. (And fizzy. Badum-tish!)
I feel like one of the simultaneously best and worst things about travel in the digital age is that you can get a pretty good idea of what to expect on your trip.
This is good. You know to avoid certain areas that are rife with street crime or too touristy. You can find out if you’ll be able to get your wheelchair up the steps to that monument.
This is bad. You can watch videos taking you on a walk-through of the exact path you will take on Macchu Pichu. Live feed. You lose the element of surprise.
Planning is good. But I think we’ve become somewhat afraid of the unexpected in travel. Be prepared but don’t be too prepared.
I stumbled onto these “love locks” on a recent trip to Tallinn, Estonia. If I had read more guidebooks I probably would have known about them and even been given directions to them.
But finding them for myself made it feel more special.
And so, it begins. Passport? Check. Bag? Check.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’m going to Stockholm, Helsinki and Tallinn over the next week.
I promise a rigorous assessment of the goings-on upon my return.
I better go, I still have to pack my leather boots. (Channelling Lisbeth Salander during the Stockholm leg).
There’s another trip in the works. Early this March, I’ll be taking a week-long jaunt to Stockholm, Helsinki and Tallinn. I’ve been avoiding Scandinavia, thinking it was too expensive. Indeed, Stockholm in particular has a reputation as being one of the most expensive cities you can visit. I was never sure how this could be, as it’s possible to work a budget pretty much anywhere. Turns out accommodation is the killer.
The situation was pretty bleak. So, for the first time I turned to hotwire.com for help and got a pretty great deal on some 3-star hotels in Stockholm and Helsinki. (Comfortable hostels are far more commonplace in Tallinn). All in all, I managed to get 6 nights accommodation (3 in Stockholm, 1 in Helsinki and 2 in Tallinn) and 3 flights (dublin-stockholm, stockholm-helsinki and tallin-dublin) for under 250euro. Now that the booking and numbers are out of the way, the excitement can begin. Fights can be had about the itinerary. Bags can be looked at in despair while baggage limits are read out. This is where the fun starts.