Pros: beautiful blend of old and new, friendly people, favorable exchange rates/prices
Cons: remnants of the Soviet era
I have been writing to penpals for a long time, starting back in my elementary school days. Most penpals I have lost track of over time, due to changing interests and busying lives. A few, however, have been true and dear friends to me for many years.
One of my dearest friends is an Estonian woman I met in 1998. We clicked right away and spoke often of how much fun it would be to meet in real life. At first it was just talk, I never dreamed it could be a reality. Then as my husbands job situation got better and better it started to look more and more like a real possibility.
In the summer of 2001 I finally decided that I absolutely would go to Estonia to meet my friend. I decided that reality dictated that I should wait until the summer of 2003, since I had an infant daughter. I wanted my kids to all be old enough to handle a week-long absence. Plus, two years would give me enough money to afford the plane ticket.
Obviously, airfare varies by the date you intend to travel, when you buy your ticket, and the general state of the economy. If you want to travel to Estonia in the off season (that would be autumn through early spring) your airfare will probably run anywhere from $750 to $900coach class. This comes from a year and a half of studying the ticket prices.
Unfortunately, my trip was planned around a major national holiday in EstoniaMidsummerand necessitated traveling in June, which is peak travel time to Europe. My ticket cost me a bit over $1200, though you might find during a fair sale a price as low as $1050. All these are ballpark figures meant to give you a general idea of cost if you desire to see Estonia.
Also, my airfare was for a flight to Helsinki, Finland. From most American cities it is much cheaper to fly into Helsinki and then take a ferry to Tallinn, rather than to fly right to Tallinn. If youre not a boat person, it may be worth it to you to pay more, but I opted for the economy trip. The ferry ride was only 37 euros round trip (including an overnight return trip with a cabin), so about $40 USDgive or take.
You are probably wondering about lodging in Estonia, but I have no firsthand knowledge thereof. I was blessed to be able to stay in the home of my dear friend. I do know through online research (you always need a back-up plan when traveling abroad) that there are many superior class hotels in Tallinn, as well as nice hotels in other larger, more modern cities such as Parnu. You can also find a place to sleep in almost any smaller town, but those I wouldnt necessarily recommend because of often primitive conditions.
What to See
Estonia is an amazing country, but its so much more than just Tallinnits medieval looking capital city. Dont get me wrong, Tallinn is wonderful and well worth taking the time to see. Its just that this country is so captivating and I was blessed by being shown around by a travel-loving native Estonian who knew all the best things to see and do and who was proud to show her country off to an American friend.
My first full day in Estonia started out in Tallinn, in the Old Town. As time was of the essence (I was to be at a high school graduation later that after noon in another town) my walking tour of the Old town was brief.
I got to see Fat Margareta cannon tower about 80 feet in diameter only from the car driving by on the street. Shes impressive, and I wish I could have seen her from closer up.
I did get to see Tall Hermann up close, and he is quite impressive also. Tall Hermann is the corner tower (watch tower) of Toompea Castle, 164 feet (50.2 meters) high. Very impressive indeed!
I also got to see a few other buildings, including the parliament house and the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. As little as I got to see of Tallinn, I would definitely like to go back one day and spend at least two days (preferably three) in Tallinn alone.
From Tallinn I went to Paide, a very Soviet-looking city in central Estonia. Why would I go here? My hostess sister-in-law was graduating from high school that day. Let me tell you, there are few things more uncomfortable than being underdressed for a formal occasion (thanks to the airlines careful handling of luggage) in a place where you cant even understand the proceedings.
The thing that struck me most about Paide is that it was so Soviet-looking, even 12 years after the end of Soviet era. The reason for this was the massive amount of concrete block apartments in Paide, they dominated the town. The Soviets wanted to dilute the Estonian people (due largely to their fierce sense of national pride) by bringing in large Russian populations, and they needed somewhere for these people to live. The Soviets built many, many apartments to house these new Estonians. Some towns maintained their own flavor despite the Soviet influence, but Paide did not.
There is one very redeeming quality about Paide, its remnants from a citadel built by the Teutonic knights in the 1200s. One portion of this citadel, a corner tower, has been fully restored and I was able to climb up inside and look out the windows. The stairs are definitely not even, so watch your step, but definitely make the climb.
From Paide we drove to the coast and took a ferry to a small Estonian island by the name of Muhu. My friends family has had a home out here for a very long time that they go to in the summer and for their Christmas holidayany time they need to get away. I can see why this place is their getaway, its just magical.
When we pulled into their home on Muhu Island it was like Id stepped back in time 300 years. They did have electricity, but no water (hence no plumbingbummer). The island is dotted with small villages, none of any real size. Aside from its historic feel, there are two major draws for Muhuwindmills and churches. Make sure you stop and see the preserved windmills and the large gothic style churches that dot the island.
Adjacent to Muhu Island is Saaremaa Island. I made a day trip from Muhu to Saaremaa to see the impressive castle at Kuressaare. This castle dates back to the 1200s as well, another remnant of the era of the Teutonic Knights.
This castle is the only one from its era located in the Baltic States that has not undergone any considerable alterations and is largely in its original form. That makes it a amazing treat, as Ive always been interested in castles.
Located in the caste at Kuressaare is the Saaremaa Museum (http://muuseum.tt.ee/en/kcastle.htm), as well as a few gift stands. You will pay a bit more for souvenirs out in Kuressaare than you will in Muhu or even on the mainland, so watch your prices.
The town of Kuressaare is also quite a nice little town, with a lot of shops and restaurants where you can get just about anything you might want.
After my time spent out on the islands (Muhu and Saaremaa), my next destination was the resort town of Parnu.
There are many lovely things to see in Parnu, including some Russian-style cathedrals, an old city gate, and the breakwaters.
Legend has it that lovers who kiss out at the very end of the breakers will be together forever. I dont know about that, but I do know that if you plan to walk out to the very end (almost a mile) and back youd better wear some darn good shoes that you dont mind getting wet and hope that youve got very good balance. To make a long story short, my return to shore included a bleeding foot, a bruised heel, a scraped shin, soaked denim shorts, wet shoes (that were nearly lost in the Baltic), a wet passport, and memories that I will carry with me for the rest of my life.
Also in Parnu is a lovely beach that has amenities for people of almost all ages. There are volleyball courts, childrens play equipment, changing rooms and much more. There is a ladies only nude beach for those who would like an all-over tan without being in view of a lot of men.
Parnu is also home to more than one museum, as well as many nice eateries.
Just a short jaunt from Parnu you will find Sooma National Park. Sooma is a wetland, or bog. The tour of the park includes a walking path of narrow boards trailing through the boggy land, into which you will sink in some places if you stray from the boards. Go, but make sure you take your balance (and your bug spray) with you!
On my final day in Estonia, I first made a trip to Rakvere. There is a lovely park/garden in the center of town, well suited for a leisurely stroll in the sunshine.
The real draw to Rakvere is the partially ruined castle that is currently undergoing renovation. Near the castle is a large green commons where many concerts are held in the summer. The castle was not nearly as nice as the one in Kuressaare, but its near to heaven for a castle-lover like myself.
Also in Rakvere, near the castle, is a large statue of the Rakvere bull. Every tourist has to have their picture taken in front of the bull, its a must.
The highlight of my time spent in Estonia were the two Midsummer parties I attended, one for my friends village and one for the entire island.
The hallmark of Estonian outdoor parties is the bonfire, followed closely by the alcohol. As the lone American at the village party, everyone was quite nice to me (though few spoke English). As a whole, the country seems to be quite welcoming of its American (and all other) visitors.
Another key component to these parties is alcohol, so come prepared to drink! I am not a drinker, I limit myself to wine coolers only because I just dont like the taste of alcohol. Well, not wanting to offend anyone, I tried a bit of almost everything offeredincluding some Greek hard liquor, homemade beer, and vodka. All these bottles were passed communally, which is not exactly my first choice but life goes one.
Estonias monetary unit is the kroon, and the exchange rates favors the dollar quite nicely. I was able to buy dinner for three people in a tourist trap restaurant located in a manor house for only $20a meal that would be over $50 in most similar places in America, if not more! A handmade, woolen sweater that would have easily cost $80 or more in America I got for about $25. I didnt buy any, but cigarettes and alcohol were also extremely cheap by comparison to American prices.
I took six hundred dollars in American Express Travelers Checks with me, which were easily cashed at the first bank I located. I returned home with almost half that money left over. If you take into account hotel costs (which I didnt have), you can visit Estonia more cheaply that most of its neighbors.
When most people think of traveling to Europe, they plan to go to England or France, or maybe even Italy. Im the first person Ive ever known whose dream of going to Europe is/was to see Estonia. Thats really sad, and the main reason is because so few people understand what they are going to find when they get there.
Estonia is a land filled with wonderful, friendly, welcoming people. Even those who dont speak your language will try to befriend you, to help you out.
Estonia is also a land of beautiful countryside. In my short stay I saw forests, islands, coasts, and farmland. Its also a land of rich history, most notably witnessed in its many castles and castle ruins.
I had always thought that after my trip to Estonia, if I were to ever go back to Europe it would be to see western Europe. That has changed. If I am ever blessed with the privilege of returning to Europe, my first choice would be to return to Estonia and see some of what I missed on my first trip!
I highly recommend Estonia to any traveler who wants to see Europe and not spend a small fortune while there!
The pictures I have from my trip, and the memories they represent, will be with me for the rest of my life!