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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.

 

 

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It was meant to be a secret. I’d requested that my ‘away leg’ hen do would be a secret. I’d turn up at the airport with my little case and passport and have no idea whether I was heading North, East, South, or West. But secrets like Lisbon can’t stay hidden for long and it slipped out in an early morning sleepy conversation on a power walk to brunch in Brighton.

So I had a chance to get plenty excited about this trip. And I have wanted to go to Lisbon for literally ten years plus. I can barely believe that I have been all around the world, but never made it to Portugal. It was time.

So, the plane went south.

Three hours later the plane curved in to land skimming the terracotta roof tops with a bright blue sky backdrop. Stepping off the plane into that beautiful heat, we all had big smiles on our faces. Lovely lovely Lisbon lay in wait.

We reunited with our cases, packed with dresses, hair-straighteners and cobble-friendly shoes (we were pre-warned – no high heels on those cobbles), we jumped in a taxi and were whisked off to the center to find our pad for the weekend. The excitement was building on the taxi ride as we started tile-spotting through the taxi window – beautiful multi-coloured patterned tiles covering old crumbling building facades, bright flowers tumbled down from roofs, old men stood in shop windows, old women walked their tiny dogs in the street. And jazz played on the radio…

Our guesthouse was on a picture perfect street. A stereotypical old Lisbon calcada. My bridesmaids had organized 4 rooms including the penthouse, which was an entire apartment with outside deck which had a sweeping panorama of the city – the rooftops and cathedrals bells sweeping all the way down to the sea. Magnificent.

The weekend was a wonderful whirlwind of food and drink and culture and fun. Lunches ranged from a stunning local secret – the hip Darwin Cafe in the science museum, to a historic spot for sardines and sangria off the main square. We dined in the most famous custard tart cafe in Belem, and bought more in boxes to take away and pack into our cases for our trip home. We stopped at Ginjinger kiosks every night and sometimes in the day to get our hit of the local firewater with its bitter cherry at the bottom of the shot glass. We drank almost as much of the potent expresses to keep us going, just as the ginjinger was wearing off. And suppers were magnificent, from the modern Portuguese in the heart of the action – I had black swordfish with flambéed banana to the original Nando’s, sitting on stools in the street watching locals dancing to a random street musician.

And we walked those cobbled streets. Up and up and down and down. Precariously slipping and wobbling as our flip flops got accustomed to the cobbles. After the first day of walking we all discovered our calf muscles, quivering after taking a pounding on those cobbled hills! We walked along wide avenues boasting shoe shops and waffle cafes and egg custard tart bakeries. Through squares with fountains and statues and giant inflatable ducks… Over tram tracks, ducking out of the way of speeding taxis, past hissing men and shouting women. Down to the sea to join locals and tourists gazing out into the blue to get some peace from the city and a sea breeze to take the edge off the heat.

We took a train along the coast, getting a good view of the tribute to the Golden Gate Bridge (Ponte 25 de Abril) and the Christ the Redeemer. Past the Fort and memorial statues at Belem. We rode to the end of the line to get to Cascais and the beach. Here 10 of us found our small patch of sand (it was Sunday, the beach was busy), laid out our sarongs and soaked up those rays.
We did swim as well, the water was icy.

Our nights were fun. We quickly got onto Portuguese time, dining late, exploring the bars, free shots, more ginjinger, some dancing, some promenading. Folks here stay out late. We went to a huge club ‘Lux’. Where you go to be seen. We danced and ended up on the roof, under the moon, singing at the top of our voices (much to the bemusement of those people who were there to be seen, not heard I guess…). Finally we decided to call it a night and left the club just after 4am. People were still queuing to get in.

We went to the castle, walked down the hill, past the tile shops and the painters and the cafes serving more sardines and sangria. We stopped to enjoy a view out to sea over those terracotta rooves, a couple of guys were playing electric mandolin. Beautiful beautiful music. The warmth, the scenery, the scent of flowers, the trickling of a nearby fountain. Surrounded by my best friends in the whole world. It was one of those moments. I felt like I was in a Woody Allen movie.

It was a time warp weekend. We did so much in such a short time. Experienced what I think was an authentic slice of Lisbon. Had a full gastronomic tour whilst having time to party, relax on the beach, and all that AND spend some serious quality time hanging out, spinning about on our rooftop, chilling, laughing and catching up with my amigas.

Lisbon was worth the wait.

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Our street, Lisbon

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Flags

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The Elevator

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Tram lines

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Lisbon Tram

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Train view, Golden Gate and Christ the Redeemer!

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Hitting the beach

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Outer space at the science museum

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Monument

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Custard tarts

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Riding the tram

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Tiles

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Sardines and sangria

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Sardine shopping

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Penthouse panorama

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