Tallinn, Estonia

Tallinn: Kick ’em in the Baltics!

A popular day stop for the Baltic Cruises is Tallinn.

Wait, what???!!!

Tallinn what? Where and what is this place you call Tallinn?

Tallinn, Estonia

As the morning sun rises and our ship sails in to port, the medieval city of Tallinn greets us

I get it. A lot of people (myself included) have never heard of Tallinn and you know what – that’s almost criminal.

Tallinn was first recorded on a world map in 1154 and is now the largest city and capital of Estonia. It should be your next must-see destination. (See it here on a map)

A medieval, walled-city, this place is full of history, charm and ghosts! Yep, ghosts.

Listening for ghosts in Tallin

Calling all ghostbusters! With their ears up against the walls of the “Virgin Tower”, my girls try to hear something – anything – spooky inside of these Medieval walls.

At its historical heart is Toompea, covered in ankle-twisting cobbled lanes, lined with medieval houses and surrounded by guard towers and Gothic spires. The old town has been astonishingly well preserved despite being extensively bombed during World War II. It was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1997.

But, I’ll be honest with you, history has not been kind to Tallinn – it’s been tossed around like a football for centuries. Its location – on the Gulf of Finland and just 43 miles south of Helsinki- has long been a strategic point between east and west and has been targeted by invaders over the centuries – the Danes, Swedes, Russians, Nazis, the Russians again; they’ve all muscled their way in over the years.

You would think Tallinn would wreak of nervousness and well, its architecture does. In a word Tallinn’s exudes defensive.

One of Tallinn's medieval towers

Once, more than 40 towers protected medieval Tallinn, now only half survive

High walls, gates and guard towers dating back to the 13th century surround the city. By the 16th century, Tallinn was one of the most fortified cities in northern Europe, complete with a network of secret, underground tunnels. (You can still explore them if you’ve got the nerve and don’t suffer from claustrophobia).

The city has a violent past and spooky stories and reports of paranormal activity persist. Hmmmmm, Estonia just so happens to have the highest number of meteorite craters per land area in the world, coincidence …. I think not!

Almost every house in Old Town is “haunted.” Some ghostly accounts are legendary, others are just creepy.

Briefly:

  • Neitsitorn (the Virgin’s tower) once a prison for prostitutes now a cafe, employees and customers report hearing eerie footsteps and scratching noises
  • #10 Suur-Karja is a house dating back to the 13th century. During renovations in 1928, workers supposedly found a skeleton sealed up in one of the house’s walls and since then residents say they’ve heard strange noises, scratching and mysterious voices
  • Gustav Adolf Gymnasium students and staff at the school report hearing ringing bells and seeing women in nun’s habits wandering in the corridors
  • Raekoja Plats (Town Hall Square) was the scene of public executions and gives many visitors the creepy crawlies

Ghostly street

There’s an entire street named for ghosts in Old Town. Vaimu (Ghost) street between Pikk and Lai first showed up in 17th century records. It’s had many names through the years. In German it was Spukstrasse and in Russian it was called Strashnaya ulitsa (scary street). One mayor even wanted to change the name to ‘Evil’ but as you can imagine, the townsfolk shot that down.

Al fresco dining awaits you in the alleyways of Tallinn

Al fresco dining awaits you in the alleyways of Tallinn

For all that ails you

The Town Hall Pharmacy on Raekoja plats, dates back to 1422 and is the oldest in Europe that has continually operated from the same premises. The pharmacy sells today’s medicine and mementos of times past. In its back room, you’ll find its stocks from the 17th to the 20th centuries.

For all that “ales” you

Serving up “historically authentic” cuisine is the kitschy medieval Olde Hansa Restaurant with its bonneted waitresses and merry men. In the summer you can dine alfresco and chow down on bear, elk, wild boar and rabbit. You can chase all that down with beer that is served in heavy earthenware steins. The kids will be delighted and you’ll be a tad nervous when they serve your food and say, “Here are some weapons for your food.”

Dining in Tallin's open square

One of the many pleasures of exploring Tallinn is stopping to have a beer in the town’s open square

The beer goes down nicely and will get you in the mood to belt out a tune. You’ll have a huge selection of songs to sing. Estonians have one of the biggest collections of folk songs in the world, with written records of 133,000 folk songs. Move over “Roll Out the Barrel.”

Bitter Memories

Today old wounds still run deep in Tallinn.

The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral

The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral aka “The Russian Church,” is beautiful but has caused some agita for the locals.

The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral aka the “Russian Cathedral” is beautiful – stunning even, but most Estonians don’t like the church.

It was built here in 1900 over the supposed grave of a legendary Estonian hero—Kalevipoeg.

That in itself was a bitter pill…. but it was built to facing the national parliament – a total smack in the face by the Russians during a period of Estonian national revival.

But it is the battle scars from war that have yet to mend.

In 1940, Estonia was occupied by the Soviet Union, conquered by the Nazis and then retaken by the Soviets.

The Soviets bombed the hell out of the city and many Tallinn citizens were deported or imprisoned by Soviet forces for alleged conspiracy and collaboration with the Nazis.

Those in Tallinn will freely talk about Soviet/Estonia relations – but they’re not obsessed. Our guide and others are now focused on the future with hopes of attracting more tourists to this fascinating, colorful and quirky town.

Been there/Done that

Estonia itself is the smallest of the Baltic countries (the others being Latvia and Lithuania). It’s smaller than New Hampshire and Vermont combined. The official language is Estonian but nearly everyone speaks English and the EURO is used since Estonia joined the EU in 2011. ATMs are abundant and major credit cards are widely accepted. Wear comfortable shoes (those cobblestones and charming, but not good for high-heels) and bring along a sweater or light jacket it can be cool even in the summer. Street food is plentiful (try the roasted nuts).

Ghost Tours are popular here are some links:

Tallinn Ghost Tour

EstAdventures

Like A Local

Day Trip to Delos

Why go tilting at windmills???

According to Greek Mythology, Mykonos is where Hercules buried the Giants after a fierce battle. Another version – ‘cuz there’s always another version in Greeks Mythology – the island was named after Mykonos, son of the King of Delos who was the son of Apollo.

The whitewashed windmills of Mykonos

From as early as the 16th century one of the most recognized landmarks of Mykonos have been these whitewashed windmills.

If your Mediterranean cruise stops in Mykonos – get it out of your head that you have to spend the entire day on Mykonos, there’s real history, real adventure and real lions to see just a short boat ride away.

Most likely your cruise will sail into Mykonos early in the morning and you’ll be in port until 4ish which is more than enough time to 1) Stroll the quaint port village, 2) Grab a coffee and pastry while watching the fishermen clean and sell their daily catch, 3) Wind through the lovely alleyways lined with white-washed houses and 4) Wander down to the beach where you can see the famed windmills; take your photos and then head back to the dock to set sail for a real adventure.

Tell the kids you’re off to Delos, “The Sacred Island” where two Greek gods were born and where a street is lined with lions. (Click here to see Delos on the map)

Posing on Delos

Our own Greek Goddess on Delos, the mythical birthplace of Apollo and Artemis.

Delos: Gods, Lions and Pirates!

Take a short boat trip over to the uninhabited island of Delos which is one of the most important mythological, historical and archaeological sites in Greece as it is the birthplace of the twins Apollo and Artemis.

Excursion boats leave at 10 o’clock and there are three scheduled returns 12:30, 1:30 and 3 o’clock. The ride takes about 30 minutes and costs about €18 per person. The boats are air-conditioned and there’s plenty of room on the deck so you can sun yourself and fantasize you’re on your own private yacht. Sighhhhhhhhhhhh

One Angry Wife

In a nutshell here’s the story about Delos:

According to Greek Mythology Leto had an affair with Zeus and got pregnant. When his wife Hera found out…all hell broke loose!

Beyond furious, Hera banished Leto from earth. Poseidon took pity on Leto and created Delos as her her own private island/maternity ward.

On Delos, Leto gave birth to not one love child – but to two: Artemis and her twin brother Apollo, the newborn god.

And what a god – Apollo is God of music, poetry, art, oracles, archery, plague, medicine, sun, light and knowledge! Artemis was no slacker either – she’s the Goddess of the Hunt, Forests and Hills, the Moon, Archery.

Can you even imagine Leto’s bumper sticker!

Since 426 BC, there have been no deaths or births on Delos after the good folks of Athens “purified” the island by removing all the bones and other remains.

But purified doesn’t mean off-limits!

In 88 B.C the army of Mithridates destroyed the island’s monuments, temples, and slaughtered its 20,000 inhabitants. After that, the island was under constant attack by pirates – that’s right kiddies – we’re talking PIRATES – Arrrrrrrrrrrrrgh!

Family posing in Delos

Posin’ in Paradise – here we are in Delos.

Seeking Sanctuary

The pirates are gone replaced now by tourists and archaeologists.

As the birthplace of Artemis and Apollo, Delos was a major sacred site for the ancient Greeks, second in importance only to Delphi. At its height, the sacred island was covered in a variety of temples and sanctuaries dedicated to numerous gods.

The Sanctuary lies at the heart of the ancient remains. Here you’ll find the Precinct of Apollo and the Precinct of Artemis, together with the Sacred Way.

Loads of Lions

The famous Terrace of the Lions is THE signature image of Delos.

Located across the road and facing the Sacred Lake, these imposing massive cats with their mouths wide open as if roaring, stand guard over the site where Apollo was born. Lined up in a row, these posing felines sit atop pillars of brick and rubble creating a monumental avenue comparable to Egypt’s Avenues of Sphinxes.

The Terrace of the Lions

Having fun with one of the beautiful cats that line the Terrace of the Lions

Dating back to around 600 BC,  there were a dozen of these guardian cats lining the Sacred Way but today, only seven remain and these cats are marble replicas since the originals are under protection (from man and nature) in the island’s museum which is just  a short walk east of the terrace near the visitor pavilion.

If you’re feeling energetic you can climb the to the top of Mount Kythnos for wonderful views of Delos and the surrounding islands. Note it’s about a 400 foot climb and while that doesn’t sound far, keep it real – if it’s hot and the kids are tired, it’s just not worth it.  It’ll take you about an hour to hike up and back but once you reach the summit you’ll have a great view.

Posing in Delos

Welcome to Delos! There’s not a photo op we can avoid

Been there/done that

It’s going to be HOT! Bring water, slather on that sunscreen, wear hats, wear good walking shoes/sneakers and wear cool/comfortable clothing. Don’t rush – let the kids wander, let their imagination wander and just soak up the scenery. Oh, and don’t forget the cameras!!!

Don’t be intimidated by Delos – it’s small. Located in the heart of the Cyclades, it’s just  5km (3miles) long by 1.3km (0.8miles) wide, and is basically just a lump of rock in the Aegean Sea.

WARNINGS: Remember the last boat leaves Delos at 3pm. The last boat tends to be crowed as no one is allowed to stay overnight on the island.  The site is closed on Mondays.

Bookings: You can book your excursion to Delos online. Below are a couple links get you started. You can also book a guided tour of Delos that takes about 3 hours, but if you’re like us traveling with kids, skip the tour and just enjoy yourselves and let them roam free. Good luck,  have fun and share your photos!

Delos Tours

Mykonos Accommodation Center

Viator