One thing I love about Europe is how close everything is, and Finland is no exception. Initially, I thought Finland was far more isolated than it really was; instead, it’s wedged a bit too snugly between Sweden and Russia. To its south lies tiny Estonia, whose capital Tallinn is just a two-hour ferry ride from Helsinki. Of course we were going.
Online research suggested that ferry tickets would cost about 80 euro roundtrip per person. Lucky for us, neither Jamie nor myself has a credit card, or at least a functioning one, so we opted for the old ways and walked 15 minutes to the Tallink ferry terminal to pay in cash.
“Cash is better anyway,” Jamie said as we walked along the harbor, “because they can’t trace me. My name isn’t really Jamie. It’s Desmond.”
This wasn’t the only secret we were about to discover: a brief chat with the Tallink clerk revealed that tickets were a mere 32 euro each, roundtrip – a far cry from the whopping 80 euro online. We departed feeling fortunate we hadn’t used the internet. As M says in Skyfall, sometimes the old ways are the best.
The next morning, we found ourselves being swept across the grey and choppy waters of the Gulf of Finland. I’d read that Tallinn was famous for its Medieval architecture and its Old Town, a quaint and compact little world whose streets are studded with 14th century churches and pubs like Hell Hunt, a name that conjures images of Van Helsing sipping ale in a dark corner. As we sailed forward through clumps of rolling fog, I couldn’t help but think that the dreary morning set the perfect tone for exploring a creaky old Medieval European town.
I’d read so much about Tallinn’s old world charm that I was convinced it was an ancient relic of the past. I’m always disappointed when arriving at a place and being greeted by modern buildings and smokestacks. I don’t know what I expect exactly – maybe lanterns and low stone huts? Estonia welcomed us with grey shores studded with high rises and smoky factories. Fortunately, the steeples and spires of Old Town poked up in the distance and weren’t hard to locate – cobbled streets meandered through souvenir shops and cafes into the town square where we snapped a few shots before ducking into the dark Olde Hansa. A medieval-themed tavern/restaurant right down to its robed maidens and dark ages menu – bear, anyone? – it provided hearty food and old tyme toilets. This was the Estonia I was searching for. I dined on lamb with barley, lentils, and baked beans, while Jamie dined on sausages of elk, boar, and bear with turnips and berries. (The bear itself was pricey, nearly as much as we’d paid for our tickets.)
We explored the town square and eventually stumbled upon a Russian-inspired church whose domed roofs inspired views of the Kremlin. It’s crazy how Russia had its paws in everything – and still kind of does. For another type of ancient history, I stood in line at the pharmacy for over 15 minutes while a stooped Estonian man paid for his prescriptions in coins. I didn’t realize that people still did that, and felt a sense of awe eclipse my mounting impatience.
With an hour until the ferry departed, we dipped into Hell Hunt, Estonia’s apparent “first pub, circa 1990.” Also functioning as a brewery – that makes a great wheat beer – the atmosphere was eclectic and modern, and provided a warm escape from the damp and chilly Estonian February.
And that wasn’t all – the ferry back to Helsinki offered a bar level. If we’re being honest, ferry is kind of a misnomer. This thing was more like a floating mini-mall; lauded by LP as the ultimate Finnish “booze cruise”, the vessel features a children’s play area, a pub, and a stage with elaborate lights and sound system for concerts and live performances.
Who would have thought, then, that in hundreds of years, you could cross the Gulf of Finland in a pub – all for the price of some bear and ale?