Tag Archives: Estonia

Tallinn and Russian Railways

Tallinn Russian Railway Engine

We needed some beers and a bottle of wine but we didn’t pass any shops so as it was still early Mike S and I walked around the city ring road in search of a mini market.  The route we chose took us towards the railway station and this wasn’t any real surprise because is a railway man by profession and enthusiasm and after about a kilometre or so we were outside the ticket office and an impressive Soviet Steam Engine, the L2317, a 2-10-0 locomotive built in 1953 in Russia at a factory in the Moscow railway suburb city of Kolomna.

The Russian L-series locomotives were one of the more advanced steam locomotives built in the former Soviet Union. They used stocker to feed coal and had a relatively low axle load of eighteen  tonnes to be compatible with the clapped-out railroads of post war Eastern Europe.  It was a mighty black iron beast with red wheels of almost ninety tonnes that really deserved a name rather than just a number, which during its working life pulled mostly freight trains between Russia and Estonia and after it was decommissioned was rather ignominiously used as a static boiler to heat nearby houses.  It has been externally restored now and sits tall and proud outside the railway station, which was where we went next.

We were now in the working part of the city and a long way from the Christmas market and the students dressed in medieval costumes and the overpriced restaurants.  The station felt tired and past its best and next to it was a tram station that conjured up images of the old days of the Soviet Empire and what was surprising was that the passengers on board looked grey and tired and firmly locked permanently into a 1960s Tallinn time warp.  The trams whirred and screeched and sounded bells to warn of their approach as they drew up and pulled off, setting down and picking up and clattering away again between the rows of old wooden houses and out towards the proletarian flats of the city suburbs.

Ice Skating

After a drink in the bar for courage we prepared to go out again and we were excited about this because some of us were going ice skating.  Christine can’t go on the ice of course because she is too accident prone even under perfect walking conditions and neither Sue of Mike S felt confident about taking to the ice but the rest of us were all keen to give it a try so we paid our entrance fee and strapped on the excruciatingly painful bright orange boots and carefully took to the ice.

The strange thing about ice skating is that it is a lot more difficult than it looks and instead of gliding elegantly around the outdoor arena we were stumbling gracelessly across the frozen surface just being thankful to remain vertical.  Kim quickly abandoned any attempt at proper skating and went around clutching on to a sort of ice rink zimmer frame, Mike W quickly got cold feet and abandoned the ice almost as soon as he had started but after a shaky start Helene was lapping faster and faster and Margaret was a complete natural with lashings of grace and poise.

I managed to stay upright through a dozen or so circuits but although I was beginning to feel like Christopher Dean and was humming Bolero to myself as inspiration I am fairly sure it wasn’t pretty to look at for those spectating.  For a start I found it impossible to skate with both feet so quickly established an awkward style of keeping my left foot in constant contact with the ice and pushing myself along with nervous little stabs of the right foot and then sliding for as long as possible before starting over again.  I found that stopping was especially difficult and the only really confident way of coming to a standstill was to plot a course for the side of the rink and then crash into the wooden fences surrounding the ice and it is difficult to make that look in any way stylish!

The entrance fee and boot hire was for a full hour but after twenty minutes without anyone injuring themselves we decided that this was probably quite long enough and to stay longer might increase the risk of broken bones and lacerations so we returned the boots and left in search of a restaurant and an application for ‘dancing on ice’ will almost certainly have to wait until after quite a bit more practice.

Andrew on Ice

Tallinn and the Pirita Spa Hotel

Unless the local Estonian people could speak English (and thankfully many of them could) communication was quite difficult because unlike most European languages, which evolved from ‘Indo-European’, Estonian belongs instead to the impenetrable ‘Finno-Ugric’ branch of languages, making it most similar to two of the World’s most difficult languages to learn, Finnish and Hungarian with a large number of vowels which make it a bit of a mouthful for beginners.

We found the bus stop and didn’t have long to wait for the bright green flexi-bus to arrive and once on board we were away and heading out of the city past the busy ferry terminal and then onto a road that followed the shoreline north.  There was a scrubby beach and a bleak grey sea that stretched out beyond a couple of islands and then on to Finland.  We had considered taking a trip to Helsinki and if the weather had been better, perhaps with some blue sky and sunshine, then we might have made the two hour crossing but the Gulf of Finland didn’t look especially inviting today.

After fifteen minutes we arrived on the outskirts of Pirita and the bus turned inland.  This is where we should have got off but Mike, who was in charge of the map, was confident that this would only be a short detour and the bus would promptly rejoin the main road and take us into the middle of town.  At the first junction he predicted a left hand turn but the bus went right but there was another junction ahead and he was certain this would turn left but again it went right and we were heading further inland and by now it was too late to get off.  Not sure of where we were going we asked a fellow passenger who confirmed that the bus would eventually arrive in Pirita but he seemed genuinely surprised that we hadn’t got off earlier.

The bus passed through deciduous beech woods completely stripped bare of leaves, open parkland and communities of little wooden houses all shut up in preparation for four months of winter assault.  It was a pretty little route that turned out to be one of the more up market suburbs of the city and finally we came to a small commercial centre where the bus turned around and took us all the way back in the opposite direction.  And I mean all the way back because at the turn off where we should have left the bus in the first place it turned around to set off back to Tallinn and we had to leave it in exactly the place that we should have thirty minutes earlier.  We had no complaints however because this had been a good value trip at only 9 Eeks (about .60p).

As the bus disappeared down the road we wondered if we had made the right decision because the place was austere and charmless with a desolate sea front with only a concrete promenade of obviously inadequate construction that had completely collapsed into the water and was no longer suitable for its intended purpose.  Everyone declared it to be coffee time but all that we could find was a forlorn looking monster of a hotel called the Pirita Top Spa that turned out to be a dreary leftover from the days of Soviet occupation.

It had been constructed in the late 1970s and now, as though a symbol of all that communism stood for in Eastern Europe, it is in the advanced stages of decay with crumbling concrete, peeling paintwork and a harsh unattractive appearance and just like communism one day soon it will be gone completely.  I generally don’t like to make judgements about people but the Soviets are an exception.  It must have been lovely having these barbarians as imperial occupiers because one of the most burdensome legacies of the Russian era is the environmental damage they inflicted on their unwilling hosts and this place certainly contributed to that.  As well as monstrosities such as this they left behind widespread pollution and across military installations on Estonian territory the army dumped hundreds of thousands of tons of jet fuel into the ground, improperly disposed of toxic chemicals, and discarded outdated explosives and weapons in coastal and inland waters.

The Estonian people resented the occupation and after regaining independence in 1991 the restored Republic only recognised citizenship of those who were a citizen prior to the Soviet occupation. This affected people who had arrived in the country after 1940, the majority of whom were ethnic Russians who were now required to have knowledge of Estonian language and history before being granted citizenship.  The United Nations considers this to be a breach of human rights but I have to say that it seems perfectly fair to me.

Inside the hotel there had been some effort and a bit of an improvement but I don’t think I will be booking my summer holidays there.  After returning home I checked the hotel web sites for customer reviews and this simply confirmed this decision for me.

Pirita Spa Hotel

http://www.tripadvisor.com/Hotel_Review-g274958-d277102-Reviews-Pirita_Top_Spa_Hotel-Tallinn.html

From the outside we could see that the hotel was built in the style of a beached ocean liner and the reason for this was that it was constructed as a training camp for the 1980 USSR Olympic team – so presumably not designed for comfort and pleasure.  It has undergone a couple of refurbishments but it must be hard to do anything with a building erected in this period, and one thing for certain is that it will never look good.  The 1980 Summer Olympics were held in Moscow and the yachting events were held here in Tallinn, which was the first time that the Games were held in Eastern Europe or that an event took place in an occupied country.

Twenty-one years later Estonia was firmly part of the west and was the first ex Soviet occupied country to win the Eurovision Song Contest followed in the following year by neighbours Latvia.

It certainly was a curious structure, a monument to the past with no place in the future.  We wandered around the boats and the sports shops and then when we certain that we hadn’t missed anything returned to the bus stop and caught the 1A back into Tallinn, this time going directly there without the unnecessary detour.

800px-Pirita_Yachting_Centre

Tallinn Christmas Market

On account of the grey skies we wrapped up in an appropriate way to tackle the bleak weather and set off for the old town and we retraced our steps from the previous night and repeated our visits to the viewing platforms overlooking the Baltic and the islands.

With one of the most completely preserved medieval cities in Europe, the seacoast capital of  Tallinn is a rare jewel in the north of Europe and a precious city on the UNESCO World Heritage List.  It was once a medieval Hanseatic town and for long periods in history dominated by the Germans, the Swedes and the Russians and even today contains lots of influence from those days but as we walked we could tell that there was a uniqueness to the place, reminiscent of Riga but at only roughly half the size certainly very different.

Tallinn is a city with a long and proud tradition dating back to the medieval times and it was first recorded on a world map in 1154, although the first fortress was built on Toompea in 1050. In 1219, Valdemar II of Denmark conquered the city, but it was soon sold to the Hanseatic League in 1285. After joining the League Tallinn enjoyed unprecedented prosperity because its position as a port, a link between mainland Europe and Russia, enabled it to grow rapidly in size and wealth and many of the City’s finest buildings were constructed during this period.  This lasted until the sixteenth century when Sweden moved in and claimed the city and during this time of Swedish rule more fortifications were added and the architecture took on the baroque style of the times.

Just like the previous evening we were confused about how to find our way to the centre of the city not least because where we were was an elevated spot with limited access to the streets of the old town.  We wandered about and corrected ourselves a couple of times before finally walking through a medieval entrance to the city and descending steps behind the city walls before finding ourselves finally at the Raekoja Plats, the Town Hall Square.

Here, in the middle of the town we had reached our objective because since 2001, from December through to the end of the first week in January, Tallinn hosts a traditional Christmas market.  This is appropriate because (although this is disputed, especially in Northern Germany) the picturesque Town Hall Square is claimed to be the site of the world’s first Christmas tree, which formed part of a ritual begun in 1441, when unmarried merchants sang and danced with the town’s girls around a tree, which, when they had had enough fun and drink they then burned down.

This would be rather like any town in the United Kingdom on New Year’s Eve if the tree wasn’t taken down as a precaution in the afternoon before.

Today the market is included in the Times newspaper top twenty European Christmas markets and here in the square there were more than fifty wooden huts and stalls where visitors and locals were being tempted by (traditional? well maybe) artisan products from all over Estonia. Surrounding an enormous Christmas tree hung with lights and decorations, the vendors were selling a variety of original products including woollens, felted wool hats and slippers, buckwheat pillows, wooden bowls, wickerwork, elaborate quilts, ceramic and glassware, home-made candles, wreaths and other decorations.  Traditional Estonian holiday food was also on the menu such as sauerkraut and blood sausages, hot soups, stir-fries and other seasonal treats such as gingerbread, marzipan, various local honeys, cookies and, best of all, hot mulled wine poured from copious wooden barrels.

It was approaching lunchtime and therefore, because of the nervousness of finding somewhere that Sue and Christine would approve of, a potential crisis time in a new country with unfamiliar cuisine.  Without Micky the anxiety was all mine and weighed heavily because traditional Estonian Cuisine has developed over centuries with Germanic and Scandinavian influences and some of it is not for the faint hearted and certainly wouldn’t suit Sue’s delicate dining preferences.  For a girl who turned her nose up at a plain fish salad in Portugal I was certain that she wouldn’t like sült, a sort of jellied meat dish made from pork bones, trotters and heads, or the marinated eel, Baltic sprats, sauerkraut stew or even the Christmas speciality of verivorst or blood sausage.

There was no real need to worry however because although Estonians speak fondly of their traditional food they are no more likely to eat it on a regular basis than in England we are to order pease pudding, jellied eels or brawn and the according to the menu boards displayed outside the pubs and restaurants had a good selection of acceptable offerings.

The Baltic States Join The European Union

On 14th September 2003 the people of Estonia voted in a referendum to become members of the European Union.

When the Baltic States of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia made their accession into the European Union in 2004, few people were even remotely aware of where the mysterious sounding capital cities of Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn actually were.  Up until the end of the 1980s, and the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, these countries were subsumed in any World Atlas into the smear of scarlet that represented the USSR and these once great cities had been hidden behind the Iron Curtain for so long that they had disappeared from the consciousness of many of their Western neighbours.

Even after they were restored to independence the view of most people was that many years under the jackboot of communism rendered them greyer than an Old Trafford sky on the first day of an Ashes Test Match and they didn’t feature on many travel itineraries.   But Estonia has caught up quickly, it has more internet access than any other EU country, is the birthplace of the internet application Skype and in 2009 it was ranked sixth in the Press Freedom Index, which is an annual ranking of countries, compiled and published by ‘Reporters without Borders’ based upon an assessment of press freedom records.

Estonia is located in the North East of Europe (the most northerly of the three Baltic States) and South of the Gulf of Finland, which separates the country from Scandinavia. It has nearly four thousand kilometres of coastline and one thousand, five hundred and twenty islands in the Baltic Sea. It is one of the smallest countries in Europe (148th in the world), and although it is larger than both Belgium and the Netherlands the population is a little over 1.3 million.

Whilst Estonia is a member state of the European Union it hasn’t met the economic criteria to join the Eurozone and this is a country that makes financial transactions in thousands rather than tens of units so for the first time since Croatia in June we had a wallet full of unfamiliar notes and we enjoyed the self deception of feeling like millionaires when we visited the city in December 2009.

A Life in a Year – 18th December, Tallinn and Russian Railways

Tallinn Russian Railway Engine Soviet Steam Engine L2317

We needed some beers and a bottle of wine but we didn’t pass any shops so as it was still early Mike S and I walked around the city ring road in search of a mini market.  The route we chose took us towards the railway station and this wasn’t any real surprise because is a railway man by profession and enthusiasm and after about a kilometre or so we were outside the ticket office and an impressive Soviet Steam Engine, the L2317, a 2-10-0 locomotive built in 1953 in Russia at a factory in the Moscow railway suburb city of Kolomna.

The Russian L-series locomotives were one of the more advanced steam locomotives built in the former Soviet Union. They used stocker to feed coal and had a relatively low axle load of eighteen  tonnes to be compatible with the clapped-out railroads of post war Eastern Europe.  It was a mighty black iron beast with red wheels of almost ninety tonnes that really deserved a name rather than just a number, which during its working life pulled mostly freight trains between Russia and Estonia and after it was decommissioned was rather ignominiously used as a static boiler to heat nearby houses.  It has been externally restored now and sits tall and proud outside the railway station, which was where we went next.

We were now in the working part of the city and a long way from the Christmas market and the students dressed in medieval costumes and the overpriced restaurants.  The station felt tired and past its best and next to it was a tram station that conjured up images of the old days of the Soviet Empire and what was surprising was that the passengers on board looked grey and tired and firmly locked permanently into a 1960s Tallinn time warp.  The trams whirred and screeched and sounded bells to warn of their approach as they drew up and pulled off, setting down and picking up and clattering away again between the rows of old wooden houses and out towards the proletarian flats of the city suburbs.

A Life in a Year – 7th December, Ice Skating

After a drink in the bar for courage we prepared to go out again and we were excited about this because some of us were going ice skating.  Christine can’t go on the ice of course because she is too accident prone even under perfect walking conditions and neither Sue of Mike S felt confident about taking to the ice but the rest of us were all keen to give it a try so we paid our entrance fee and strapped on the excruciatingly painful bright orange boots and carefully took to the ice.

The strange thing about ice skating is that it is a lot more difficult than it looks and instead of gliding elegantly around the outdoor arena we were stumbling gracelessly across the frozen surface just being thankful to remain vertical.  Kim quickly abandoned any attempt at proper skating and went around clutching on to a sort of ice rink zimmer frame, Mike W quickly got cold feet and abandoned the ice almost as soon as he had started but after a shaky start Helene was lapping faster and faster and Margaret was a complete natural with lashings of grace and poise.

I managed to stay upright through a dozen or so circuits but although I was beginning to feel like Christopher Dean and was humming Bolero to myself as inspiration I am fairly sure it wasn’t pretty to look at for those spectating.  For a start I found it impossible to skate with both feet so quickly established an awkward style of keeping my left foot in constant contact with the ice and pushing myself along with nervous little stabs of the right foot and then sliding for as long as possible before starting over again.  I found that stopping was especially difficult and the only really confident way of coming to a standstill was to plot a course for the side of the rink and then crash into the wooden fences surrounding the ice and it is difficult to make that look in any way stylish!

The entrance fee and boot hire was for a full hour but after twenty minutes without anyone injuring themselves we decided that this was probably quite long enough and to stay longer might increase the risk of broken bones and lacerations so we returned the boots and left in search of a restaurant and an application for ‘dancing on ice’ will almost certainly have to wait until after quite a bit more practice.

Andrew on Ice

A Life in a Year – 6th December, Tallinn and the Pirita Spa Hotel

Unless the local Estonian people could speak English (and thankfully many of them could) communication was quite difficult because unlike most European languages, which evolved from ‘Indo-European’, Estonian belongs instead to the impenetrable Finno-Ugric branch of languages, making it most similar to two of the World’s most difficult languages to learn, Finnish and Hungarian with a large number of vowels which make it a bit of a mouthful for beginners.

We found the bus stop and didn’t have long to wait for the bright green flexi-bus to arrive and once on board we were away and heading out of the city past the busy ferry terminal and then onto a road that followed the shoreline north.  There was a scrubby beach and a bleak grey sea that stretched out beyond a couple of islands and then on to Finland.  We had considered taking a trip to Helsinki and if the weather had been better, perhaps with some blue sky and sunshine, then we might have made the two hour crossing but the Gulf of Finland didn’t look especially inviting today.

After fifteen minutes we arrived on the outskirts of Pirita and the bus turned inland.  This is where we should have got off but Mike, who was in charge of the map, was confident that this would only be a short detour and the bus would promptly rejoin the main road and take us into the middle of town.  At the first junction he predicted a left hand turn but the bus went right but there was another junction ahead and he was certain this would turn left but again it went right and we were heading further inland and by now it was too late to get off.  Not sure of where we were going we asked a fellow passenger who confirmed that the bus would eventually arrive in Pirita but he seemed genuinely surprised why we hadn’t got off earlier.

The bus passed through deciduous beech woods completely stripped bare of leaves, open parkland and communities of little wooden houses all shut up in preparation for four months of winter.  It was a pretty little route that turned out to be one of the more up market suburbs of the city and finally we came to a small commercial centre where the bus turned around and took us all the way back in the opposite direction.  And I mean all the way back because at the turn off where we should have left the bus in the first place it turned around to set off back to Tallinn and we had to leave it in exactly the place that we should have thirty minutes earlier.  We had no complaints however because this had been a good value trip at only 9 Eeks (about .60p).

As the bus disappeared down the road we wondered if we had made the right decision because the place was austere and charmless with a desolate sea front with only a concrete promenade of obviously inadequate construction that had completely collapsed into the water and was no longer suitable for its intended purpose.  Everyone declared it to be coffee time but all that we could find was a forlorn looking monster of a hotel called the Pirita Top Spa that turned out to be a dreary leftover from the days of Soviet occupation.

Pirita Spa Hotel

It had been constructed in the late 1970s and now, as though a symbol of all that communism stood for in Eastern Europe, it is in the advanced stages of decay with crumbling concrete, peeling paintwork and a harsh unattractive appearance and just like communism one day soon it will be gone completely.  I generally don’t like to make judgments about people but the Russians are an exception.  It must have been lovely having these barbarians as imperial occupiers because one of the most burdensome legacies of the Soviet era is the environmental damage they inflicted on their unwilling hosts and this place certainly contributed to that.  As well as monstrosities such as this they left behind widespread pollution and across military installations on Estonian territory the army dumped hundreds of thousands of tons of jet fuel into the ground, improperly disposed of toxic chemicals, and discarded outdated explosives and weapons in coastal and inland waters.

The Estonian people resented the occupation and after regaining independence in 1991 the restored Republic only recognised citizenship of those who were a citizen prior to the Soviet occupation. This affected people who had arrived in the country after 1940, the majority of whom were ethnic Russians who were now required to have knowledge of Estonian language and history before being granted citizenship.  The United Nations considers this to be a breach of human rights but I have to say that it seems perfectly fair to me.

Inside the hotel there had been some effort and a bit of an improvement but I don’t think I will be booking my summer holidays there.  After returning home I checked the hotel web sites for customer reviews and this simply confirmed this decision for me.

http://www.tripadvisor.com/Hotel_Review-g274958-d277102-Reviews-Pirita_Top_Spa_Hotel-Tallinn.html

From the outside we could see that the hotel was built in the style of a beached ocean liner and the reason for this was that it was constructed as a training camp for the 1980 USSR Olympic team so presumably not designed for comfort and pleasure.  It has undergone a couple of refurbishments but it must be hard to do anything with a building erected in this period, and one thing for certain is that it will never look good.  The 1980 Summer Olympicswere held in Moscow and the yachting events were held here in Tallinn, which was the first time that the Games were held in Eastern Europe or that an event took place in an occupied country.

Twenty-one years later Estonia was firmly part of the west and was the first ex Soviet occupied country to win the Eurovision Song Contest followed in the following year by neighbours Latvia.

It certainly was a curious structure, a monument to the past with no place in the future.  We wandered around the boats and the sports shops and then when we certain that we hadn’t missed anything returned to the bus stop and caught the 1A back into Tallinn, this time going directly there without the unnecessary detour.

800px-Pirita_Yachting_Centre

A Life in a Year – 4th December, Tallinn Christmas Market

On account of the grey skies we wrapped up in an appropriate way to tackle the bleak weather and set off for the old town and we retraced our steps from the previous night and repeated our visits to the viewing platforms overlooking the Baltic and the islands.

With one of the most completely preserved medieval cities in Europe, the seacoast capital of  Tallinn is a rare jewel in the north of Europe and a precious city on the UNESCO World Heritage List.  It was once a medieval Hanseatic town and for long periods in history dominated by the Germans, the Swedes and the Russians and even today contains lots of influence from those days but as we walked we could tell that there was a uniqueness to the place, reminiscent of Riga but at only roughly half the size certainly very different.

Tallinn is a city with a long and proud tradition dating back to the medieval times and it was first recorded on a world map in 1154, although the first fortress was built on Toompea in 1050. In 1219, Valdemar II of Denmark conquered the city, but it was soon sold to the Hanseatic League in 1285. After joining the League Tallinn enjoyed unprecedented prosperity because its position as a port, a link between mainland Europe and Russia, enabled it to grow rapidly in size and wealth and many of the City’s finest buildings were constructed during this period.  This lasted until the sixteenth century when Sweden moved in and claimed the city and during this time of Swedish rule more fortifications were added and the architecture took on the baroque style of the times.

Just like the previous evening we were confused about how to find our way to the centre of the city not least because where we were was an elevated spot with limited access to the streets of the old town.  We wandered about and corrected ourselves a couple of times before finally walking through a medieval entrance to the city and descending steps behind the city walls before finding ourselves finally at the Raekoja Plats, the Town Hall Square.

Here, in the middle of the town we had reached our objective because since 2001, from December through to the end of the first week in January, Tallinn hosts a traditional Christmas market.  This is appropriate because (although this is disputed, especially in Northern Germany) the picturesque Town Hall Square is claimed to be the site of the world’s first Christmas tree, which formed part of a ritual begun in 1441, when unmarried merchants sang and danced with the town’s girls around a tree, which, when they had had enough fun and drink they then burned down.

This would be rather like any town in the United Kingdom on New Year’s Eve if the tree wasn’t taken down as a precaution in the afternoon before.

Today the market is included in the Times newspaper top twenty European Christmas markets and here in the square there were more than fifty wooden huts and stalls where visitors and locals were being tempted by (traditional? well maybe) artisan products from all over Estonia. Surrounding an enormous Christmas tree hung with lights and decorations, the vendors were selling a variety of original products including woollens, felted wool hats and slippers, buckwheat pillows, wooden bowls, wickerwork, elaborate quilts, ceramic and glassware, home-made candles, wreaths and other decorations.  Traditional Estonian holiday food was also on the menu such as sauerkraut and blood sausages, hot soups, stir-fries and other seasonal treats such as gingerbread, marzipan, various local honeys, cookies and, best of all, hot mulled wine poured from copious wooden barrels.

It was approaching lunchtime and therefore, because of the nervousness of finding somewhere that Sue and Christine would approve of, a potential crisis time in a new country with unfamiliar cuisine.  Without Micky the anxiety was all mine and weighed heavily because traditional Estonian Cuisine has developed over centuries with Germanic and Scandinavian influences and some of it is not for the faint hearted and certainly wouldn’t suit Sue’s delicate dining preferences.  For a girl who turned her nose up at a plain fish salad in Portugal I was certain that she wouldn’t like sült, a sort of jellied meat dish made from pork bones, trotters and heads, or the marinated eel, Baltic sprats, sauerkraut stew or even the Christmas speciality of verivorst or blood sausage.

There was no real need to worry however because although Estonians speak fondly of their traditional food they are no more likely to eat it on a regular basis than in England we are to order pease pudding, jellied eels or brawn and the according to the menu boards displayed outside the pubs and restaurants had a good selection of acceptable offerings.

A Life in a Year – 14th September, The Baltic States Join The EU

On 14th September 2003 the people of Estonia voted in a referendum to become members of the European Union.

When the Baltic States of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia made their accession into the European Union in 2004, few people were even remotely aware of where the mysterious sounding capital cities of Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn actually were.  Up until the end of the 1980s, and the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, these countries were subsumed in any World Atlas into the smear of scarlet that represented the USSR and these once great cities had been hidden behind the Iron Curtain for so long that they had disappeared from the consciousness of many of their Western neighbours.

Even after they were restored to independence the view of most people was that many years under the jackboot of communism rendered them greyer than an Old Trafford sky on the first day of an Ashes Test Match and they didn’t feature on many travel itineraries.   But Estonia has caught up quickly, it has more internet access than any other EU country, is the birthplace of the internet application Skype and in 2009 it was ranked sixth in the Press Freedom Index, which is an annual ranking of countries, compiled and published by ‘Reporters without Borders’ based upon an assessment of press freedom records.

Estonia is located in the North East of Europe (the most northerly of the three Baltic States) and South of the Gulf of Finland, which separates the country from Scandinavia. It has nearly four thousand kilometres of coastline and one thousand, five hundred and twenty islands in the Baltic Sea. It is one of the smallest countries in Europe (148th in the world), and although it is larger than both Belgium and the Netherlands the population is a little over 1.3 million.

Whilst Estonia is a member state of the European Union it hasn’t met the economic criteria to join the Eurozone and this is a country that makes financial transactions in thousands rather than tens of units so for the first time since Croatia in June we had a wallet full of unfamiliar notes and we enjoyed the self deception of feeling like millionaires when we visited the city in December 2009.