|October 25, 2010
Given I was up until 2am watching the NFL and then up again at 3am to check the clock I had only myself to blame for being tired this morning. I had set the alarm early in the hope it would be light enough for me to rush up to the windmill and take some photos but alas it was not to be.
The bus to Tartu left Kuressaare at just after 8am and just after 9am we were back on the ferry to the mainland. The bus took around 6 hours to get to Tartu and I slept quite a lot of it. When I was awake however, there was some really cool scenery and some interesting churches and buildings with many being blatant Soviet throwbacks. It is really interesting in these countries to see the contrasting styles of buildings as there are so many old buildings against a backdrop of Soviet architecture and much more modern designs, too. From old brick, to grey, to glass sculpted facades – very interesting mixture!
Once in Tartu we got off at the bus station and walked up the hill to the hostel. We had a private room here and although the building looked quite dated, the room was nice and like a little studio with our own bathroom and little kitchenette. We both slept a bit in the afternoon given the late night last night, the early start and just because we can sleep whenever we want!
In the evening we skipped past the local restaurant next door and went to the nearby pizza place instead. After the joys of Pizza Grande in Tallinn this was always a risky strategy and, as expected, the pizzas here failed to meet those high standards. Thankfully we had chocolates and biscuits back at the room to accompany our choice of movie this evening – Sin City, followed by half of Thunderball before we started dozing off!
October 26, 2010
After a breakfast consisting of bread and jam and kiwi and grape yogurt, Elizabeth got a bit moody with me for not helping clear up the dishes and she decided to go off for a walk on her own for a while. One of the things about travelling for so long is that we spend 24 hours a day together and we both realise that this isn’t always going to be plain sailing and every now and then we go off and do things on our own. If anything, we should maybe do this more often and it might reduce even further the petty arguments we have! When she got back we went out for lunch and we tried the pub next to the hostel. It was quite busy which is a good sign but the food didn’t really justify it. Elizabeth went for frankfurters in dough but these turned out to be little crappy sausages which had been deep fried and weren’t very tasty. I also went for sausages with mash and sauerkraut. Most of the food was OK but they have this habit here of covering everything in some kind of sauce. My sausages and mash were thoroughly covered in a white sauce with no flavour. It was just so bland and even a ton of salt and pepper barely helped!
We then went for a walk around the town and at the main town square we saw the town hall and a statue of two students kissing. Inside the town hall was the tourist information office so we popped in there and managed to pick up a map of the town which included a walking tour around the city. We decided to follow that and we started off by seeing the impressive arched bridge and wandered along the river bank as far as the Bridge of Liberty. Along the way we saw a number of statues including one of Kalevipoig, depicting the Estonian epic. The original was destroyed by the Soviets during the occupation but was re-made and restored after independence.
Just off the river we passed part of the old medieval city wall although this wasn’t that impressive, especially compared with the walls in Tallinn. We stopped briefly at the botanic gardens which weren’t exactly in full bloom given the season but the range of oranges and reds on the leaves was very picturesque. A little along from there were a row of buildings classified on the map as the “Houses of Nobility”. Honestly though, these houses were pretty much derelict and in a fair state of disrepair and not much to look at! We passed the large St John’s Church but decided to forego the walk to the top of the spire – it didn’t look that much taller than the surrounding buildings so I wasn’t sure we’d get much of a view. From there we passed the main university building and then walked up the hill into Toomemāgi Park.
Inside the park were lots of statues of figures from Estonian history – many of them were artists and poets and many weren’t even Estonian but were people who had helped or pleaded the Estonian cause for independence during the Soviet occupation. We saw an example of a sacrificial stone and also saw a small area atop the hill where people had placed locks and carved love hearts everywhere. It is said that if you fall in love in the city you should come up here and put a padlock around the barrier but that it should be removed if the love does not last. There weren’t many locks so either this practice has died out a touch or Estonians just aren’t full of love!
Right in the centre of the park is the old ruins of the Cathedral. It was really huge and still in enough of a state for you to see what it was. It reminded me a little of the unfinished church in Bermuda but on a grander scale. Walking over Angel Bridge, and seeing Devil Bridge off to one side, we headed towards the observatory and here we stumbled across the Struve Geodetic Arc. This is actually a UNESCO World Heritage Site but there was nothing about it on the map, in the guidebook or at the tourist info centre. The Arc is a series of points from north of the Arctic Circle down to the Black Sea which were charted and triangulated by a scientist called Struve. He used these points to calculate the curvature, size and shape of the globe. The commencement of his work was the observatory in Tartu and so this is really the only point of the arc that you can see within a town or city – most points are just drill holes in the floor in the middle of a piece of farmland. It isn’t exactly the most impressive UNESCO site we’ve seen but for the importance of the Arc scientifically it was quite cool to see it, albeit unwittingly!
Walking back down the hill the other side of the park we saw the statue called The Two Wildes, depicting Oscar and Eduard having a conversation. These two people never actually met although the site claims that they were alive at the same time so a meeting was feasible!
After a good walk around we’d certainly built up an appetite (of course!) and after a short rest we went out for dinner to a place called Tsink Plekk Pang. This wasn’t exactly your typical local cuisine but we’d had lots of Estonian food and fancied a change. This Chinese restaurant was really busy and we managed to get a seat and ordered a couple of dishes to share, choosing spicy pork and sweet chilli beef. The food took quite a while to arrive as it was really busy but it was worth the wait and was one of the best meals we’d had for a while. We left there really stuffed and barely managed to waddle our way back to the hostel where we collapsed on the bed and watched the rest of Thunderball before falling asleep!
October 27, 2010
Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing, I’m not sure, but most museums and things here don’t open until 11am which means we are rarely in a rush to get out of bed! After a nice lie-in and some breakfast we ventured out to the KGB Cells Museum, a heart-racing 30 second walk away from the hostel! The museum told the story of the Russian occupation in the Baltic countries. This particular building was stolen from a businessman in the city to use by the KGB to imprison and torture political prisoners. After the occupation the businessman’s family got the building back and they gave it to the city as a museum. The story was told really well by the interactive display and showed how the country went from Soviet to German and back to Soviet in the space of just a few years before almost 50 years of Soviet occupation until independence in 1991. When the Soviets recaptured Estonia (and the other Baltic countries) from the Nazis they staged demonstrations. These demonstrations were supposed to represent support for the Soviet regime but the people included on these marches had been forced to be there! Many Estonians tried to stop or hinder the Soviets including the Forest fighters, a group who hid in the forests and made attempts to sabotage anything they could, and the Blue Black and White, a student group who formed in some of the cities and tried to stand up to the Soviets, with limited success and many lives lost. The old cells were interesting to walk around but they didn’t seem too spooky in themselves until you saw some of the pictures on the walls of tortured or murdered prisoners who had been kept here.
After a quick stop for groceries and to put my camera back at the hostel, we went to Wilde’s for lunch. This was the restaurant near the Two Wildes statue. The menu there was typically Estonian food and I tried something new – moose stuffed with tomatoes. Elizabeth had chicken but my moose thing was really great. It was minced moose meat, rolled into a ball and stuffed with sun-dried tomatoes and served with mash potato. It was a bit more expensive than many of the meals we’ve had here but it was a really nice atmosphere and excellent food.
After lunch we went to the Estonian National Museum. The displays were quite dull and focused on such joyous subjects as farming, fishing, national dress, etc and tried to make out that these things were some kind of Estonian invention. It’s not like any other country in the world had agriculture, is it? The one interesting thing there was the range of large wooden beer tankards, all intricately carved and all in differing styles depending on the region they came from. For a country so small, the differences between east and west and north and south were quite evident in the beer mugs. They were probably evident in the national dress displays too but I didn’t look close enough to see! They did have some “living rooms” from different eras, too and the one with Stalin’s image on the wall was quite funny and the one post-independence, from the 1990s, looked like what most of Europe looked like in the 1970s!
In the evening we just hung out at the hostel and had homemade sandwiches with a couple of beers – a Saaremaa beer and the Le Coq Bock beer. Eating in isn’t much fun sometimes but at least we can grab a couple of beers and get some food and relax with some TV or suchlike and not spend a fortune. Estonia has been cheap enough but the odd quiet night in helps even more for those big nights out!
Overall, Estonia had been great but we really could’ve skipped Saaremaa – not because it wasn’t very scenic but because it was so difficult to get around, particularly in the off-season. We’ve met a lot of cool people here, too, which has made it even more fun and I could definitely see us coming back here for a holiday!