March 2020 - To Tallinn (EST), oh and Helsinki (FIN)
Updated: Nov 22, 2022
The bus trip from Riga to Tallinn in Estonia was again super comfortable but I was surprised the entire route was just a single carriage motorway. Our bus must have overtaken at least 40 trucks on the very busy road; the driver did each overtake calmly but remorselessly in the massive, double-decker bus. The scenery was of no particular note, a continuation of the flat plains and pine forests I had seen travelling from Lithuania to Latvia. Tallinn however was of particular note, notably beautiful.
I caught a tram to the Airbnb, without paying as I couldn't work out the ticketing system. Ticketing here is done with an app. I was soon to discover Tallinn is ultra modern, in fact a world leader in computing technology and cyber security.
So it was in Tallinn that I was to finally experience real snow, the proper hardcore winter conditions I had hoped for in Bulgaria and Ukraine but only got very small snippets of. I woke to a full scale blizzard and explored the old town while battling super thick snow including drifts and eddies. It was awesome, so heavy was the snow that my camera just couldn't focus and the battery struggled in the daily maximum below freezing ("feels like" was -10c).
That night I went out again and by this stage the snow on the streets was a good 30cm deep and being bulldozed hourly. There's something so unique about medieval towns covered in snow, I would live here just to experience this annually. The locals (especially kids) seem to really appreciate this weather too.
The 'real' winter weather was to continue nearly the whole stay in Tallinn and this made it a truly memorable place. Tallinn is very touristy in summer, for good reason, it's a truly spectacular city with one the best preserved medieval centres in all of Europe. But in my opinion it's winter when places like this are at their best, plus there's very few tourists - win win! In fact, most of the rest of the week it was sunny, crisp (day time temps usually a few degrees below freezing) but still snow covered - can't ask for better.
I must have walked the old town a half dozen times during my stay but each time I discovered new angles, places, characters and sites. Also, a walk around the outside of the town is well worth it to appreciate the scale of the old town wall and ramparts. Not an easy place to invade.
One of the things most of these former Soviet countries have removed since the fall of communism are the statues and monuments from that time. However, in Tallinn there is a communist statue garden about 10min by car from town. I was the only visitor and so spent a while in deep conversation with Lenin and Stalin about why they f-ked up the implementation of an otherwise sound system.
It was special to see these monuments covered in snow, somehow seemed appropriate. Nearby there is also an enormous memorial to those killed during Soviet rule, when I say enormous I mean you could spend a few hours exploring it! Again, the snow really added to the atmosphere.
From Estonia I had originally thought about going to Finland but after reading mixed things about Helsinki I decided to just do it as a day trip from Tallinn using the regular ferry service. The ferry runs six time daily and carries up to 2,000 people and hundreds of cars/trucks, she's a big boat. The crossing was unique (for me) as it snowed and there was a dense sea fog. I can imagine such conditions terrified sailors back in the day.
So the first thing you'll notice in Helsinki is that it's hell-expensive. Overall, I didn't really like the city. It lacked... something that I can't put my finger on it but it just felt like an ordinary western city without particular charm. I did happen to bump into the "Tweed and Bike" festival that made for some great candid portrait photography. Everyone was dressed in tweed/retro clothing and drinking wine before riding retro bikes through town.
From Helsinki I also took a ferry to the UNESCO Suomenlinna island, which has a small traditional town, a fortress and some really nice bays/coves to explore or and sit by the calm, cold sea or frozen lakes. The lakes were frozen enough to walk across and the ocean shore had plates of ice. Pretty cold BUT normally at this time of year it's so cold you can walk from Helsinki across the sea to the island! This island alone was worth the trip to Helsinki.
Back in Tallinn the snow started to melt the day before I was due to leave. Well timed. Keep in mind this was the first snow Tallinn had seen all winter (it was late February)! Warmest winter on record, again. Normally the Baltic Sea is frozen here, not this year.
From Tallinn I had booked a ticket on the 'cruise ferry' to Stockholm in Sweden, an overnight trip of 18 hours. Another ferry built for thousands of people, but I estimate a few hundred were on board (time of year, Corona).
And some final photos.