Estonia · Finland

Helsinki: To Tallinn And Back Again

Last weekend, we got up at an ungodly hour and made our way to West Terminal 1 (Länsiterminaali 1) at the West Harbour in order to catch the 8.30am Eckerö Line ferry to Tallinn, Estonia. We were pleased with ourselves when we booked it because an online sale meant that we got the return tickets for less than €10 each, but a lot less pleased when we were huddled at a bus stop at 6.30 on a Sunday morning. March in Helsinki seems to be bipolar, with bright sunshine and blizzards appearing side-by-side, but it’s always too cold for waiting at bus stops. Brr.

Checking in and boarding the ferry was easy and we found ourselves at the front of the boat, in a bar with tiered seating and a stage. We settled down and alternated between napping and listening to the performance, which consisted of a guitarist and a keyboard player singing golden oldies in various languages. At one point, we ventured out onto the top deck, and were greeted by freezing wind, a few flakes of snow, and the slate grey Baltic Sea. For obvious reasons, we didn’t stay out there for long.

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The Baltic Sea in March: snowy, steely and scary.

After arriving in Tallinn and following the signs to the Old Town for about ten minutes, we met a structure that the map told us was called Fat Margaret’s Tower. This sparked a lot of speculation as to who Fat Margaret was – I thought she was probably a disgruntled princess – but disappointingly, we later found out that Fat Margaret was the name of the tower itself. It made sense as she is rather squat and round, but we were hoping for a better story.

Fortunately, the free walking tour we joined at 12pm was full of stories. The tour took us through the Old Town and our guide, Henri, was amazing – he covered 1,000 years worth of history in about 2 hours without saying anything boring, which I challenge anyone reading this to ask their/their child’s History teacher to try. As far as I could gather, Estonia (or Livonia, as most of it was called for a long time, along with Latvia – you can look it up) has a rich history of putting up with occupation, religious imposition, and generally annoying neighbours. Henri covered a lot of medieval history, which we loved. It included stories about massacres in churches and walling live “virgins” (prostitutes) into towers to bring good fortune in war, so Tallinn’s history is perhaps not safe for the faint-hearted, but it cast a fascinating light on the Old Town as we explored it. Look out for the medieval Dementors (supposedly “monks”) in the Danish King’s Garden for that extra creepy vibe.

Later, we visited the Kiek in de Kök (“Peek into the Kitchen” – ask Henri for that story) tower museum. Tickets were only €3 each for students, and it was well worth it. I would definitely recommend the museum to anyone with an interest in old weapons and torture (!) and medieval European life, as well as to those who are less morbid and just want to look over Tallinn from a tower. Henri had taken us earlier to a high point in the city with amazing views, but for some reason, seeing the city through medieval stone windows was more exciting.

For lunch, we had elk stew and Saku, which is an Estonian beer and cost half the price of a pint in Helsinki so was a major highlight of our trip. The restaurant was called Vanaema Juures (“Grandma’s Place”) and we thought it was really cute; it’s in a cellar on Rataskaevu with old wonky arches and alcoves, and is full of antiques that are supposedly there to remind you of Grandma. It doesn’t sound like it should work, but it does, and the food was great.

Before making our way back onto the ferry, we did what we had been told by every other Helsinki Erasmus student to do: stock up on alcohol in Tallinn. After seeing dozens of passengers pulling trolleys laden with crates of beer, we realised that plenty of people in Helsinki come over when they can in order to do the same.

In short, Tallinn has it all: amazing history, cheap booze, and pretty buildings. It even has a little blue tourist train that trundles cheerfully through the city. Hopefully, we’ll get a chance to go back soon.

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