Cruising The Baltic Sea. Tallinn, Estonia and Riga, Latvia.
The day after we left St Petersburg we arrived at the capital city of Estonia, Tallinn – another gem of the Baltic Sea.
We’d been told the old town was the place to visit, and the place to drink vodka, although we were all vodka’d out after two days in Russia 😉 and we had plans to do lots of walking, and discovering of the city on foot.
The capital city of Estonia was founded in 1154 AD and is considered to be one of the best preserved medieval cities in Europe. Some of my travel blogging friends have waxed lyrical about its ancient beauty and I couldn’t wait to find out more.
A little potted history
There’s been a settlement on the present site of the city of Tallinn for more than 1000 years with a port near the sea, a market close by and a castle. It couldn’t be more idyllic. (Can you spot modern Sea Princess in the medieval view below?)
- Estonia has been under different rulers. It was under Danish rule until 1346 when the Danish King sold his possessions to the Teutonic Knights.
- From 1558 to 1583 the Teutonic Knights were at war with the Russians (the Livonian War).
- From 1561 – 1721 Tallinn was under Swedish rule, and after that until 1917 it was under Russian Tsarist rule.
- On 24th February 1918 there was a proclamation of an independent Republic of Estonia, but from 1944 to 1991 there was Soviet occupation of Estonia.
- Between the 13th and 16th Centuries Tallinn was a member of the Hanseatic League (a union of wealthy merchants of Germanic descent that had close connections with the Brotherhood of Blackheads – an organisation of young and unmarried merchants. The Brotherhood’s name came from its Moorish patron saint, Mauritius. The Great Guild was the most important organisation in any Hanseatic town.
On 20th August 1991 there was the restoration of the Independence of the Republic of Estonia. In 1997 the old town was entered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and in 2011 Tallinn was the European capital of Culture.
Sea Princess docked close to the city, and it was only a 15 minute walk to reach the gates of the Medieval old town, and a shuttle bus ($8) was put on for those who didn’t want to walk. But we were going to walk.
The skies were heavy with cloud and threatened rain, so our Princess umbrellas once again came in handy (above)
Stout Margaret Tower
We entered the city at Fat Margaret Tower (above) which is now a maritime museum. The origin of the name is a mystery – was it named after a large cannon, or a cook called Margaret who once worked here?
Our walk took us on past old buildings and over cobbled streets, past the Holy Spirit church (with a beautiful clock in Baroque style dated1684 which adorns the church’s facade) and past quaint shops and cafes in ancient courtyards.
Then we wandered upwards along Pikk Jalg, (Long Leg) which connects the Lower Town and Toompea (Dome Hill) at the top of the old town and on the way found street vendors stirring vats of hot nuts with various delicious coatings. Our favourite : pecans coated with orange and chilli.
Toompea overlooks the old town and includes the sites of the Dome Church, Saint Alexander Nevsky Cathedral and Toompea Castle, the former building of the provincial government.
The beauty all around us was compounded as Sunday church bells rang out in joyful peel and the morning air was filled with tuneful vibration.
Old Town has remained virtually unchanged for over 600 years, and is a living museum of spired churches and medieval architecture (and old relics, like the two below!)
Spots of rain began to fall, and after a short walk around a green park we had a lovely cup of coffee in a medieval building with a colourful walled courtyard bedecked with bright pot plants, and pondered what else we’d like to do in Tallinn, consulting the map we’d obtained at the port’s tourist terminal (where you’ll find an array of touristy pop up shops).
The town square (above) was bustling with people and after a couple of hours walking we stopped for lunch in one of the many al fresco restaurants adorned with flowers.
It also had free Wi-Fi!
We enjoyed pickled herrings and chips, served with pickled sweet pumpkin, but we avoided vodka and opted for a steaming hot cup of coffee instead.
Having lunch we overlooked the town hall (below) which is over 600 years old. The building acquired its present impressive appearance that ended in 1404. It’s the only remaining Gothic town hall in Scandinavia.
From there we wandered in all directions, taking photos, watching street performers (loved the musician playing ‘the glasses’). I posted a video of this to Lifestyle Fifty on Instagram if you’d like to listen to it.
It was such fun just generally soaking up the ‘vibe’ of the old town before the heavens opened and rain began to fall in buckets.
Then it was time to head back to Sea Princess trying to store our lovely memories of beautiful Tallinn in a safe place in our minds. We wrote down our notes, edited some photos, and shortly after Sea Princess thrust off the berth and cruised towards Latvia.
We arrived in Latvia the next day. This was to be the sixth day in quick succession of port visits and shore excursions, and we were already on sensory overload.
But Riga was a delight and completely stole our hearts, and we just couldn’t get enough of the old town sights.
It was only a short walk from Sea Princess to the old town but we were booked on a ship’s tour and so hopped on the coach conveniently at the bottom of the gangway and set off on a 30 minute orientation by coach.
Flavours of Riga.
This major Baltic seaport rests at the mouth of the Daugava River on the Gulf of Riga and old Riga is a UNESCO World Heritage Site founded in the early 13th century and now it’s an important trading centre.
It was designated the European Capital of Culture in 2014, and the strengths of its attractions made Riga the target of almost countless conquerors. Riga has been ruled by nearly 40 different empires.
During the coach ride around the city we passed buildings in the Venetian Palazzo style, Art Deco and Art Nouveau (Riga is apparently the world’s centre of Art Nouveau architecture).
We walked around the stunning Freedom Monument spearing into the sky – the symbol of Latvian independence, erected in 1931. The tree stars symbolise the three cultural and historic parts of Latvia. The monument faces westwards from whence freedom came. We enjoyed some beautiful moments standing below contemplating its meaning, admiring its grandeur soaring gracefully into the blue blue sky.
We also passed the previous KGB headquarters, “About which we don’t like to talk,” our guide Zane told us. “If you went in for an ‘interview’, you didn’t come out again.” I didn’t take a photo.
Later in the morning we listened to a street performer, below, who played The Four Seasons by Vivaldi and a piece I only know as Romance – beautiful guitar licks which somehow totally captured the feeling of Riga for us. I’ll post a video to Facebook at a later date.
The guided walking tour took us through a maze of streets, and our impressions were of a cultured, sophisticated, easy to get around city with beautiful buildings, uncrowded cobbled streets, and tranquil canal-side banks bathed in watery sunshine.
“7 streets in Riga lead to the main square,” Zane told us. “This always used to be the meeting place, markets are held here, political gatherings take place here too. The defensive walls around the town date back to the early 1200’s.”
The main square was impressive, with dominating buildings which included colourful cafes and the Latvian Radio building.
The Bremen Tower Musicians sculpture above is considered a political statue depicting an iron curtain surround with a donkey, dog, cat and rooster peeking through it – symbolic of Westerners looking through the iron curtain.
Black Head House – Built in 1334 for merchants – it was restored in 1999 and looks like an enormous lego building.
The Powder Tower above was once used to store gunpowder.
“But now we’re looking for some magic,” Zane said as we headed to the Black Magic Bar, once the laboratory of a pharmacist who was concocting a magic brew.
It’s an 18th Century drink that became known as Riga Black Balsam, which people today still keep in their pantries as a home remedy for colds.
“It’s made of 24 herbs and is real medicine but stronger than Vodka at 45% alcohol. Abraham Kunze thought he could make people immortal if only he could find the 25th ingredient!” Zane explained as we sat in the dark interiors of the former pharmacy.
The flavoursome concoction consists of pure blackcurrant juice mixed with balsam and herbs. It’s somewhat bitter with spicy tones of ginger and nutmeg. We were able to taste three different sorts of Riga Black Magic in the dark, atmospheric cafe.
Later on our ‘taste of Riga’ we made our way to one of Old Town’s favourite restaurants and had some epicurean snacks at the Lido. The chef had whipped up delicious Latvian classics into a selection of modern tasters, and as we ate we gazed out at the Opera House and a gorgeous fountain (below).
We had sea trout and caviar. Duck breast with sweet apple and rhubarb puree in a dark pastry. Spinach pancake with goat’s cheese and mushrooms. Whipped goat’s cheese on pumpernickel topped with cranberry jam. Roast beef with pickled pumpkin on rosti.
“When the old library was moved to the new library across the bridge, hundreds of people formed long lines between the two buildings and hand-passed each and every book,” Zane told us.
“The first ever decorated Christmas tree comes from Riga,”Zane told us, “So think of us when you decorate your Christmas trees this year!”
Riga is know for the best nightlife in Europe.
During the Nazi occupation of Latvia hundreds of Jewish refugees from Lithuania and local Latvian Jews were herded into the basement of the Big Choral Synagogue which was then intentionally burned to the ground.
After the guided tour we had free time to wander around, and once again in beautiful sunshine we were able to meander and soak up the atmosphere of this beautiful Baltic city which completely stole our hearts.
We really enjoyed today’s gentle ship’s tour, Taste of Riga, and Zane’s guiding made it even more interesting.
I’m travelling as a guest of Princess Cruises but all opinions are my own.