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The great rumble and lurch as I hurtle along the concrete path, a sudden lift in the pitch black. The lights become smaller, we bump through the blanket and poooof!

Out we pop above the beautiful marshmallow mattress of cloud-cover. Rolling out into the distance like a soft winter blanket. The purest while, rippled and dappled with the blue of the dawn.

A bright orange speck on the horizon splits through distant cover and streaks a sunbeam across my vision. The colour, the deepest brightest blood orange. A tint only possible made by something Greater.

The sweetest, rawest sunrise over T5, en route to Copenhagen, 7am in October.

The infinite bobble blanket so beautiful, my heart swells. Another small adjustment, a gentle tug forward, and we rise another few thousand feet, the blanket drops away.

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My friends and I have established a rather fabulous habit of heading out for a girls’ weekend twice a year; once in Summer and once in Winter. We make our travel choices based on availability of low cost airfares to European destinations, and, literally on the way home from our last escapade to Copenhagen, we booked our next adventure. How did we make the decision? Search the Easyjet and Ryan Air sales and see which city was cheap to get to, had an interesting ring, and none of us have yet been to. And so it was that we found ourselves on the way to Tallinn, Estonia.

I had very little pre-conceived ideas about Tallinn. A couple times I made the horrendous blooper of saying that we were off to Latvia. I KNOW it is the capital of Estonia, am horrified by my slip of the mind and con-fuddle with other incredible countries in Eastern Europe, but I can safely say that without a doubt, Tallinn is one of Europe’s most treasured secrets, at least for the weekend girl-traveller in search of an adventure.

I fell in love at least 10 times during my 72 hours in beautiful Tallinn. Here are the moments my heart skipped a beat…

  1. The fairy-tale maze of the Old Town

    The old town is a picture book of winding cobbled streets leading to a main square. It’s gorgeous. And it’s small, so you can literally walk from one side to the other, albeit you have to wind a little. The best way to orient yourself is to get yourself onto one of the many walking tours, which we did on our first morning. Ours met at 10.30am in Freedom Square (the tour is free but you tip a well deserving guide at the end) and was a 2 hour tour of the upper and lower Old Town. In our group (mostly comprised of Americans straight off the cruise ship) we climbed the hill to look at the old city wall and hide in the shade of Kiek in de Kok, check out the wedding cake pink parliament building and get a couple vantage points to gaze out over the roof top maze of the city from above. Our guide gave a fabulous potted history as we looked out to the various landmarks puncturing the sky between the medieval spires; the Television Tower, the Tallinn balloon, the two white columns of the “KGB” Viru hotel, and the hulking white masses of the two giant cruise ships docked in the harbour. Lute music played and the sweet smell of roasting nuts added to the medieval vibe of the Upper Old Town. We peeked into the great caverns of two fabulous and contrasting churches; the opulent and over the top orthodox Alexander Nevski Cathedral, with Russian women shrouded in headscarves kissing and crossing at the feet of boxed deities, and the oldest church in Estonia, the Dome Church, a cool escape from the blazing sun, this church simple and peaceful but with rather sinister looking ornate coats of arms hanging on the walls. We diligently followed our guide down into the Lower Old Town cutting through the “Short Leg” street, a steep set of steps cutting through the old city wall, taking in the quirky souvenir shops, cafes and other curiosities peeking out from behind the medieval windows. At the foot of Short Leg street we spotted street art by the local “Banksy” before heading back towards the big stage of the Main Square “Town Hall Square“. Here we left our walking buddies and headed to the shade of a canopied café for a well deserved cup of coffee…
  2. The hideous shot at the local bar

    On the first night we made a mini pilgrimage to a place that we have been tipped off (by one of the guide books – “quirky things to do in Tallinn”) to visit, the infamous Valli bar. We went for two reasons; it was touted as a “local” pub. And that is was. At least it seemed so, the faces all turned as we clattered through the door and I’m sure the barman had a smirk on his face when he carefully prepared the second reason we went there, for the hiddeous “millimalikas” (jellyfish) shots. These beasts taste like paint-stripper but we were determined to sample the local moonshine (although I think it’s made purely for tourists). I thought it looked rather beautiful. It was vile to drink. Some kind of vodka, zambucca and tabasco sauce concoction. I quite liked the tabasco, it was when I hit the zambucca I was struggling. Luckily we got sidetracked into conversation with a small army of Finish girls who were over on the boat for a cheap night out. None of us managed to finish our glasses of jellyfish…

  3. The blue sky at night

    We touched down in Estonia the day after Midsummer celebrations. The timing wasn’t great as we missed out on major party fun and giant bonfires, but we were amused and delighted all weekend by the fabulous blue skies that appeared to extend well into the night. Being that little bit closer to the North pole, Tallinn has longer days in the summer. We would periodically peer out of bar/restaurant windows as night crept on and exclaim “look, blue sky”. It never got old.

  4. The beach holiday moment I wasn’t expecting

    The weather in Tallinn was rather up and down, with bright sunshine one day and torrential downpours the next, but throughout it was very pleasantly warm. Luckily we decided to use the first day of bright sunshine to make the short taxi ride to the beach. From our conversations in the Valli bar the previous evening we learnt that Pirita Beach is the place to head when you want some beach time. So, after a fairly long day of sightseeing we decided to spend a well-deserved couple of hours on the sand. We jumped in a taxi and within 10 minutes we were walking out onto power sand and a beautiful view of flat calm Baltic sea. The water here is very shallow so you can paddle out a long way before taking a deep breath and sitting down to get your full body immersion in that refreshing icy water. The heat demanded it though and once you get your shoulders under you are truly invigorating and back in the world!It’s a really beautiful spot, with trees tumbling down right onto the beach, some beach apartments and a couple cafe/restaurants to keep you satiated. It seems to be mostly locals rolling out their towels and a very chilled way to spend an afternoon. Gazing over to the left you can see the spires of the old town, the Tallinn balloon making its “flight” up and down the line, and the giant ferries slowly leaving dock into the hazy afternoon

    A beach holiday in a couple hours. Complete down time. The salt in your hair, the sun
    on your shoulders and the sand in your toes. Ahhhh perfect…

  5. The tongue-tingling mind-expanding delicious cuisine

    The one thing I was not expecting what to have some of THE most delicious food I have ever tasted. And all packed into 3 days. We may have been lucky, but I can HIGHLY recommend these spots for food that will literally have you moaning out loud with food pleasure!

    Von Krahli Aed
    . For a romantic/cosy evening meal in the old town. Have the Roasted Rainbow Carrots and Pan Fried Trout. Don’t leave without having Magic Mushrooms for desert.F Hoone, in Telliskivi. Perfect for a lazy lunch with a large glass of wine. Could make decisions over this incredible menu, so went for two starters (and a large glass of wine). Grilled goats cheese with fig jam, beetroot pesto and raspberries, AND Spicy coconut soup with shrimp. Came back here again for brunch, and tried their beautiful (to look at and to taste) Botantist’s Gin cocktail.

    Mekk restuarant. We ducked in here to escape a torrential downpour and discovered the best rye bread in Tallinn. Classy place with sophisticated plates. I opted for delicious dumplings. The cocktails were out of this world.

    Rataskaevu 16. Just down the street from Von Krahli Aed. Stunning food in a stunning building. The service was exceptional – super friendly and welcoming. And the food was deeeeelicious!! I did two starters and a desert again here as couldn’t make decisions. Creamy tomato soup with smoked fish and lentil salad with goats cheese cream. Divine. The warm chocolate cake was the desert winner. Again, this place is perfect for a cosy evening meal. Watch out for the cabinet of moths and beetles in the ladies loo!

  6. The sinister secrets of the KGB
    The Viru hotel. Built by Russians and the only place that “foreigners” were allowed to stay during the Cold War. The hotel was built of the strongest and finest materials. The hotel had an incredible kitchen with top chefs, a hairdressers, the finest shops… all the things that you couldn’t get outside in the City. But the walls were filled with spy cameras and microphones, there were bugs in the ash trays and cooked into the crockery. The whole hotel was buzzing and humming with surveillance. The KGB ran this place and had whole floors out of limits where they were listening, watching, and sleeping. A man behind a newspaper in the bar. An old lady reading a book on one of the halls…. This short but exciting tour takes you up onto that “off limits” floor and gives you a peek behind the scenes of this fascinating hotel. Oh, and if you dare, you can stay there! Entrance to the KGB museum gets you free entrance to the
    nightclub. We didn’t risk it 😉
  7. The cool industrial hipster district

    Telliskivi is a seriously hip part of town with cafes, bars, boutique shops all nestled in warehouses covered in graffiti. Known as the “Creative City” this part of town was run down and crawling with undesirables in the fairy recent past. Now you can have lunch in a train carriage, browse the weird and wonderful flea market, take selfies along the graffiti wall, and sip some SERIOUSLY delicious cocktails at our favourite food/drink spot F Hoone. This place is super cool, photogenic and we didn’t see half of it! (our timing wasn’t great, as it was the holidays a lot was closed – so we had to window shop). Just across the train tracks outside the Old City, this place is a funky alternative spot to shop, eat, drink and be merry.

  8. The cab connectivity

    Somewhere I heard that Tallinn is the most digitally connected city in Europe. I’m not sure if it’s true but one digital experience that was noticeably superior to any place I’ve been recently is what I am referring to as the “cab-connectivity”. We had to use cabs as one of the girls was on crutches with a broken foot (not great on the cobbles!), otherwise you could easily walk everywhere. But the cabs were a DREAM. And this is because we used the app Taxify. Don’t pick up cabs on the street (if you do, check the yellow stickers and make sure the starting fare is low – they can vary from 2 Euros to 5…), use this app instead. It’s incredible. Your taxi is ordered and you are being whisked away within MINUTES (the max we had to wait was 5). You watch the taxi arrive on your map, rate your driver, and you can see the fare in advance, so no getting ripped off. They also have Uber there, which was supposed to be even
    cheaper, but we were VERY happy with this one!
  9. The karaoke bar that creates memories to inspire a movie

    I don’t know why but sometimes in these old and exciting cities, I would rather seek out a karaoke bar for a night of howling into a microphone over sticky drinks than hitting a local night spot for some dancing. Well, you can dance in karaoke bars! We randomly happened upon this karaoke bar on our Saturday night. It was down an alley and we had to pick our way over some off duty strippers who were taking a break outside a “Gentleman’s Club” at the entrance to said alley to get to the bar. It was sticky, neon, empty except for a very inebriated man who was leaning against the wall crooning badly into the mike. A group of locals looked up at us as we peered into the karaoke palace, bemused. I just knew we had to come back.

    I find those places deeply romantic. Not in the love sense of romance but in the “this feels like somewhere straight out of a novel or movie, about a girl on the run, adventuring across Europe. Meeting nameless characters and having lost conversations in sticky bars.

    So anyway, it didn’t take a HUGE amount of persuasion of my girlfriends to suggest we head along after dinner. Just for one song. We had the place to ourselves for the first 45 minutes, racking up all the power ballad favourites, ordering in the drinks. Jumping and spinning on our own private dancefloor. It was sticky-neon-singalong-heaven. Then our howls started attracting more punters and before long we had a small collection of those waifs and strays that always find their way into these kind of bars. Some boys from Austria wanting to join in our fun. A gang of Finish guys taking it very seriously, an older couple knocking our the Estonian favourites, and the bar man joined in with about 3 different versions of Wonderwall. It was hot and sweaty, we sang until our throats were raw, the movie was rolling. 4 hours passed in the blink of an eye.

  10. Serious but smiley; the friendly Estonians

    I seem to always say “the people are so friendly here”, but genuinely our experience of people in Tallinn was excellent. Most people were those who served us, so in bars, restaurants,  the dude in the Tallinn Balloon, our many taxi drivers… But all were interested in us and really helpful. The fabulous lady who met us at our AirBnB not only drove us around the local area to give us some orientation, she took us to the supermarket and waiting whilst we piled all manner of snacks into our basket and then she drove us home! The Estonians (or Tallinners) we met had an air of seriousness about them, but were incredibly welcoming. Our last encounter with a Tallinner was in the airport on the way home when we needed an escort with a wheelchair for our hobbling friend. Kaarel, a fabulous young man straight out of the army and now with his sights on University swept us through the airport, chatting about his life and dreams, Brexit, and all sorts, and got us quickly and safely onto the plan ahead of all the other passengers. With a serious face but a smiling face 🙂

Other things to do:

  • Cure a broken heart with a love potion from the Raeapteek pharmacy on the old square.
  • For the best views of Tallinn, take the 120m high flight on the Tallinn Balloon. Go before 10am to beat the crowds and get the best ticket price.
  • Stay in this very cool AirBnB. Close to all the action (walkable distance to the Old Town, Telliskivi, and two big supermarkets) and it has it’s own hammock for relaxing in the afternoon.
  • Spend a couple hours connecting to Tallinn’s recent past and the days of Russian and German occupation, at the Museum of Occupations.

 

 

Goosebumps. A spark.

I read this article:

https://medium.com/life-learning/last-night-i-panicked-i-was-scared-id-been-wrong-2540105fe554#.79tdh9l8j

I saw this quote:

I think there are too many people who try and present a smiling, sexy, happy, glamorous version of themselves online. Their lives appear perfect, without a glimpse into the shadows and the shit that keeps them up at night.

I feel draw to the phrase “The shadows and the shit”. It’s the dark side of all of us. “I’ve got fractures, cracks and damages”. We all have. It’s our humanity. It’s our beauty.

I feel a stirring in my soul. It looks like a poem, tastes like a song.

Inspiration hits. “Ding”.

This year, my birthday coincided nicely with a prize that Chris won at work. A prize that was worth a lot of money. Money I would never chose to spend on what it was, but I was very happy to experience it… a night at the Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons.

We arrived shortly after 3pm, it was a rather grey day and the light was fading fast as we were the other side of December 21st. The days were at their shortest. The dark sky was still full of rain, although it wasn’t falling, which was a relief.

As we parked we were met with by a very attentive concierge, who whisked our bright overnight bags away whilst we were then led on a short tour of the main house, the dining areas, the champagne lounge. Warm, cosy, expensive. Then onto our room “Sandalwood”. An African theme, a big plush bed, a tray with sherry and glasses, champagne on ice. Classical music playing. And a birthday card from Raymond!

I found a small box of sugared almonds. I devoured them. They were divine.

Off to explore the gardens. So beautiful, even in the fading light.
Amazing sculptures. Beautiful lines of kale in rows. The tranquil pond.

After dusk back to enjoy the warm, cosy room. The champagne on ice. The deep hot bath full of bubbles. The soft pillows and fat white duvet. Extra heavenly in contrast to our mid-renovation house at the moment. Glossy magazines filled with even glossier fashion and far-flung exotic destinations.

At 8.30 we headed to the champagne lounge for pre-dinner drinks. The wine menu was a little extravagant. Cheapest bottle £129. We opted for £17 cocktails. A tray of small but delicious appetizers appeared in front of us.

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Then we were led to the dining room for our 7 course menu.

SOUPE DE POTIRON, NOIX DE SAINT-JACQUES (Roasted pumpkin soup, scallop)

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CONFIT DE SAUMON, CONCOMBRE AIGRE-DOUX, CRESSON AND POMME DE TERRE (Confit of oak smoked salmon Loch Duart salmon, pickled cucumber, watercress and potato)

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OEUF DE POULE, CHAMPIGNONS SAUVAGES, TRUFFE D’AUTOMNE (Free-range hens egg, wild mushroom tea, autumn truffle)

FILET DE BARBUE, HUITRE, CONCOMBRE, WASABI (Braised fillet of Cornish brill, oyster, cucumber, wasabi)

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CHEVREUIL ROTI, CELERI-RAVE ET TRUFFE (Roasted loin of venison, celeriac and truffle)

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‘TROU NORMAND’ (Compressed apple facon tatin, Granny Smith sorbet and calvados)

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‘FRAICHEUR CAFÉ ET CHOCOLAT’ (Coffee panna cotta scented with orange. Macae chocolate ganache)

Each course amazing, delicious, different, new flavours, new textures, strong, powerful, beautiful. The anticipation of the next dish, the presentation stunning. Looking around at our fellow guests, trying to guess who they were, what they did. How they can afford a night here.

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After our full seven courses our stomachs were full with what we imagined were over 100 ingredients. Time to head back to dive into those crisp white sheets and get a start on digesting all that amazing food!

Breakfast the next morning was an incredible breakfast buffet with all the usual suspects, but these were Raymond Blanc usual suspects. Including an out-of-this-world Raymond granola bar (I had 3!!). I also ordered Eggs Benedict and a pot of Roibos tea. We had our final blasts in the hot shower, re-packed our overnight bags and then time for one final stroll around the herb garden before heading for home.

 

Insomnia

I wake up in the middle of the night, distracted by the thoughts rushing across my mind.

I catch each thought in turn, press it into a poem captured inside a flimsy bubble.

I sit in the centre of my mind, a dark cosy cave, back lit by glowing embers.

I watch the bubbles gently drift up and bounce against each other before popping into nothingness, leaving imprinted paintings on the cave wall…

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Last night I woke and couldn’t sleep, it could have been the 5pm cup of coffee, or the biscuit-crunch buzz of the oil heater in our room. It could have been the wind whipping round our tarpaulin covered roof, or the silent scamper of imaginary rats on the floors below. It could have been my belly, swollen from dinner, or the reckless impressions left by the book under my pillow.

It was probably the book.

This is the book.

I’ve just returned from a weekend in the Woods with 200 shiny people who were all buzzing at the edges with energy and ideas around escaping the Corporate world and embarking on what is known (in those circles) as a “21st Century Career”. But more on that later…

At the festival two things happened (well, again, much much more, but relevant to this post); 1. I turned my phone off for the weekend, and 2. I encountered an amazing group called the Rebel Book Club, with wonderfully book-obssessed people, who meet monthly to read and discuss a world-changing book. I have plans to join.

So today, back at my desk, fully hardwired back into interweb-networks, I found myself scanning their Twitter feed and a post to this article:

How Making Time for Books Made Me Feel Less Busy (Havard Business Review)

And I spend my very short lunch hour (not an hour) at my desk, reading the article and drinking my soup. Not really getting away from my glowing screen.

I immediately wanted to jump on Facebook to announce to my world (my Facebook world) that I was leaving Facebook for a month and heading to the mountains of digital detox-dom. But then I realised we have a New Year’s Resolution Club meeting next week and I need to be on Facebook to promote and so forth. Not that easy.

So instead, I have decided to follow Hugh McGuire’s excellent 3 step approach to becomming less busy through reading more books:

1. I get home from work, I put away my laptop (and Phone).

2. After dinner during the week, I don’t watch Netflix or TV, or mess around on the Internet. 

3. No glowing screens in the bedroom (Kindle is OK, though).

You’ll need to read How making time for books made me less busy for the positively bouncey benefits, and I am completely sold. This kills two birds with one stone – how to feed and nuture my bookworm, whilst taking baby steps towards a full on digital detox (which I’m not sure is entirely possible given that I work, but a partial, out of office hours detox could be the way forward).

I’ve been trying to get TV out of my life for ages, this may help. Netflix went last week, replaced with NowTV (so much better). So that will be a tough cookie.

My phone and ipad have been taking up residence on the bedside table (on top of the Kindle). I will now banish them to another room.

We have the builders coming in in less than two weeks and right now there are a million other things we should be doing rather than messing around on the internet. So I’m hoping this will really make a difference. Let’s give it a whirl for a month and see what happens!!

My friend Anita has a beautiful outdoor porch. She uses it as her retreat, leaving the confines of the house with walls, out in the garden, surrounded by trees and the click and bleep of a thousand invisible insects.

This haven is set deep in a sub-division of Raleigh, North Carolina. I’m entranced by the exoticism of the garden surrounds; bright pink and purple flowers hanging heavy on tree branches. Red birds flitting around the feeder. And that noise. That jungle-loud insect cacophony that rings out from the dense woodland lining the housing estate, constant, other-worldly, hypnotic.

We paint on the porch. Picking over the long lines of white paint tubes, all spattered in a kaleidoscope of colours. Squeezing and dabbing and swirling that paint onto clean white canvases in many shapes and sizes. Seeing what flows from the brush. Listening to the bleeps, working alongside each other in silence, feeling waves of warm air drift through the porch, and out into the expansive woodlands behind.

Two big fans on the ceiling gently throw invisible sheets of cool air down on us, a welcome relief. We swill our brushes, heavy with turquoise, pink, orange, green, around in the murky water in the jam jar.

Faces emerge from our canvases. Lizards, birds, animals, humans. We rip and stick newspaper cuttings, messages from the print. Sequins, beads, glitter. Wash over with another layer of paint.

Our hands and legs grow freckles of paint. I have some in my water glass. A dab more, a dash here.

And then it’s done. We lift our canvases up to take a look, and prop them up on the mosquito netted windows to admire our latest creations.

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