Estonia is one of the great success stories among the nations that reclaimed their independence after the Cold War.
Five hours is not enough time to experience a country. Five hours can, perhaps, give you a taste of a town and maybe the country, but that taste will be minute at best. If you don’t enjoy the bite you have, you may forever write off returning to said place and miss out on its best features. If you like the flavor, you may decide you need to order up a bigger helping and return for a longer visit.
So it was with our recent visit to Tallinn, Estonia. Since we were on a cruise, we had limited time there, and we had to choose one excursion. I like to get the lay of the land, so we decided that an introductory tour to Tallinn would be best.
We had no idea what to expect, and because Estonia had been under Russian rule for so long, I was under the impression that what we would see was just a smaller version of St. Petersburg. My bad. Except for the apartment buildings (More on that later), Tallinn was anything but Russian. I enjoyed our time in Tallinn (although it was freezing, and I had to buy a heavy sweater), and I would return. I’d make sure, however, that I set the trip for mid-to-late July/August when the temps might actually hit the 70s.
Our tour guide, an English teacher at one of the local high schools, didn’t speak English very well. She inserted, “Um” and “Ah” between every two-to-three words. I try to be patient with non-native English speakers, and I understand she may have been nervous, but she teaches English and has been a tour guide for years. I listened when I had to, wandered away when I could, and learned a few surprising things about Estonia.
Until 1991, Estonia was part of the Soviet Block (1940-1991), and it declared its independence and joined the United Nations. (Over the centuries, it had been under Swedish, Danish, and German rule.) It changed its government to a parliamentary democracy and its economic market to capitalism before joining the European Union and NATO in 2004. Estonia is the first country in the world to offer a flat tax system to its citizens, and they can even file their returns online.
Estonia is a small country, but its territory includes 1500+ islands. It’s a very flat country, and less than 90 percent of the country’s land is less than 300-feet above sea level. The highest point, Suur Munamägi (Great Egg Hill) reaches just over 1000-feet above sea level. It has a very low air pollution rate making it one of the cleanest places on earth. Believe it or not, about 50 percent of the country is forest.
The official language is, of course, Estonian, but because Estonia has so many immigrants from surrounding countries, Russian, German, Finnish, and English are common. ore than 35 percent of the population is of an ethnicity other than Estonian, Russian being the most common. More than 66 percent of the population lives in an apartment, and most of those apartments date post-World War II.
Estonia’s capital city has one of the best-preserved historic centers in Europe. Still home to the original cobblestone streets and the medieval churches, houses, barns, and businesses, Old Town Tallinn is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The town hall, which sits appropriately in Town Hall Square, is the oldest surviving Scandinavian/Baltic town hall. There are hundreds of 17-century underground passageways under the Old Town. Called the Bastion Passages, there are more than 350 open to the public today. The Swedes, who built them in the 17 century, used them to move ammunition, troops, and supplies in secret in case of attack. During WWII, the city’s residents used them as bomb shelters.
I must bring up Café Maiasmokk, the oldest continuously operating café in Estonia. Located in Old Town, the café still sits in the location where it opened in 1864, and much of the interior reflects that time. The multi-story café offers sweets as well as typical Estonian meals, and it houses a marzipan museum. Unfortunately, we were in town so early that it was still closed.
Registered residents of Tallinn ride public transportation free-of-charge. The government is planning to implement free public transport (bus) throughout the country this year. Free public transport not only keeps private car traffic in check, but it also helps low-income workers apply for and keep jobs. Studies show that car traffic during the work day has decreased about 15 percent since Tallinn started the program in 2013.
Estonia is now a world leader in technology.
~ The Economist
No discussion of Estonia would be complete without mentioning the country’s technological life. There is so much to write here that I don’t even know where to start except to say that Estonia is a digital society. . .with a capital “D.” Not only did Estonian programmers develop programs such as Hotmail, Skype, and Transferwise, but the government has introduced digital services to individuals and businesses. More importantly, the Estonian government has deemed internet access a basic human right, and free internet connections are everywhere—cafes, parks, squares, trains, buses, and even the beach.
For more than 10 years, Estonian residents have had a digital “passport” of sorts so that they can perform all types of business online. There are over 600 e-services for citizens and 2400 for businesses. Included are such services as:
File tax returns.
Apply to open a business.
Pay for parking or non-free transportation.
Apply for government assistance.
Receive digital prescriptions from one’s doctor.
In more than 10 years of existence, the program has not had a security breach. Keep in mind that Estonia has been out from under the thumb of the Soviet Union since 1991.
I mispronounced Estonia’s capital city’s name for years. The correct pronunciation is “TAL-in” (The first syllable pronounced like “al.”) as my seatmate on a plane told me when I said, “ta-LEEN.”
I’m afraid that no matter when I return to Estonia, I’m going to need a sweater. The average temperature in July is 64 degrees. It could be worse, I guess. At least they have a longer day.
Finally, the only Estonian food we had while we were in Tallinn was a sweet cake frosted and filled with a fresh whipped cream. The country’s cuisine includes foods common to its neighbors (and former occupiers)—sauerkraut, rye bread, potatoes, sour cream, pork, and fish. Of course, beer and vodka are popular. One of the most popular ethnic dishes is mulgipuder, a potato and groat (barley) mash.
I’ll be sure to bring a jar of peanut butter and loaf of bread with me when I head that way next time. I might want a bigger taste of the country, but a smidgen of food should suffice.