Sometime during your childhood, probably on a family trip to a not too far from home beach destination, you saw your first one. You had finished your day at the beach. You had finished your ice cream cone or cotton candy. Someone mentioned the need to purchase something to bring home as a remembrance of your time spent together. You searched out a curio shop whose window had “souvenir” written in 4 languages. You entered through the shell strands that hung in the doorway. You made your way past the postcards, magnets and T-shirts. Along the back wall, alongside the polished rocks, nautical themed statuettes and aprons with silly puns, you found your first one.
You hesitated to pick it up because it looked so fragile. It was round and made from thick glass. Inside was a tiny town surrounded by water. The town had colorful houses with red tiled roofs. Towering church steeples and castle towers with colorful flags waving from the ramparts were interspersed between the houses. A wall surrounded the city and a large square was located in the center.
Maybe your mother noticed your fascination. She picked up the object and put it in your hand. It was heavy, almost like a crystal ball. You held it with two hands as she motioned for you to make a soft shaking motion. The tiny flakes took flight inside the dome and instantly created a magical, winter wonderland where snow endlessly swirls around the buildings and never seems to actually touch the ground.
Perhaps for a moment, you pictured in your mind what life inside the tiny town was like. Maybe you envisioned medieval shops selling hot chocolate and perfectly warmed pastries. Fashionable boutiques with glass storefronts displaying hand knit sweaters and hats made from only the softest types of wool. Smiling children bouncing along cobbled pedestrian streets on a tiny toy train that plies the narrow streets daily. Restaurants with friendly waiters standing in the doorways beckoning visitors to enter warm dining rooms that smell of grilled meat and delicious stews. Townspeople dressed in festive costumes entertaining onlookers in the town square underneath the large clock on the perfectly preserved town hall. Everyone bundled warmly against the chill and happily enjoying a sunny, yet freezing world apart from others outside their tiny wonderland.
Is there such a place as this tiny town of your imagination? Could your imaginary world inside the snow globe actually exist? Is there a place where it is always winter, even when the rest of the world is warm? There is such a place, and we lived there for a month and it is Tallinn.
We arrived in Tallinn after midnight on a foggy and freezing night. The short flight from Helsinki was less than an hour. Exiting onto the tarmac the air was shockingly cold, enough to make you lose your breath. We were happy to arrive after a long day of travel from Edinburgh. It was a short taxi ride to our new apartment. Entering the walled Old Town was like entering a different world. Cobblestoned, uneven roads led through the arched entrance in the towering city walls. Medieval towers loomed above us in the misty night air. Church spires pointed upward like giant rockets ready to shoot skyward. We found our apartment easy enough. The owners kindly left the heat on and the house was pleasant. The warmth was greatly appreciated on the cold night.
We envisioned our stay in Tallinn as a bit of a break from aggressive travel. We were looking for a classic European beauty where we could spend some time resting and planning our future travels. Tallinn is located on the edge of the Baltic Sea. South of Helsinki, east of Stockholm and west of St. Petersburg, Tallinn sits at a natural crossroads between its much larger neighbors. Estonia is a tiny country with a population of just 1.3 million people of which 400,000 live in the capital. The old town shows influences from many of the countries that have ruled over the country at different periods of history. German, Danish, Russian and Finnish architecture and features are evident everywhere. It seemed a nice place to settle in for a month.
We chose our apartment to be purposely close to the Russian Embassy. Our plan was to obtain a visa and visit St. Petersburg and perhaps Moscow after our stay in Tallinn. We visited the embassy early on our first morning after stocking the refrigerator with tasty treats from the nice market nearby. After some translation difficulties they recommended we visit the visa office located just outside of the old town area. It was difficult to find and when we did, we did not get good news. We were basically told that if we weren’t on a tour, cruise ship or staying at a major international hotel, the likelihood of getting a visa was very small. It was a little disappointing but we were glad we hadn’t booked an apartment or forward transportation prior to getting the visa.
Winters in America are generally thought of as being unpleasant times of year. We think of winter as a time of rain, cold, mud, slush, moisture and just general uncomfortableness. We do not have “proper” winters. Proper winters as described to us are limited to the far northern or southern areas of the globe. A proper winter is a time of cold and possibly some snow. The cold is dry and if it does snow, it does not melt into a quagmire of mess. The skies are usually blue and if you stay in the sun and dress warmly, it is generally quite comfortable and pleasant.
Tallinn has proper winters. Despite the freezing temperatures, we found we had very few days when we couldn’t spend some time outside. We enjoyed walking tours of the town with friendly guides who explained the troubled past and bright present histories of this tiny country. On the walled hill above town called Toompea, where government offices and many embassies are located, we often found visiting groups enjoying the beautiful views over the old town area and onward over the sea towards Helsinki. Tallinn has beautiful squares surrounded by colorful medieval buildings that have been perfectly restored. We made a trail of benches that had the best sunshine and least wind and frequented them daily on our walks through the town.
There is no lack of shops filled with wonderful handmade items in the city. I don’t think we have been in any city that had a better developed handicraft industry. Intricately knitted items of hand spun wool were abundant. Fine linens, wood items, pottery and art were plentiful and of high quality. Unique antique stores with items from different periods of Estonia’s past can fill endless hours of browsing.
The chilly air did not curtail the café crowd from enjoying outdoor dining and drinking opportunities. The afternoon sunshine and lack of wind in the main town hall square always drew large crowds to the tables that fill it. The direct sun as well the heat that was reflected off the walls and paving stones had diners removing heavy topcoats on many days. Coffee shops, bars, breweries, museums and chocolate shops are everywhere and provided plenty of warmth on days that were best spent indoors.
Many houses in Estonia have adopted the nearby Finns obsession with Sauna culture. Our apartment had a wonderful sauna inside. A first for us during our travels, we enjoyed many evenings thawing chilled bones after long days spent in the chilly weather. The trees were beginning to sprout leaves and grass was growing thicker as we were getting ready to end our brief visit. Posters were seen everywhere advertising upcoming festivals and outdoor events. Spring was definitely in the air and the citizens of the city seemed excited about the possibility of partaking in summertime activities. We were a little sad that we would not be around to share in the excitement. However we will always remember our nice month spent inside our perfect little snow globe by the sea.