Monday, January 5, 2015

Mystery Birthday Weekend

Q and I are switching up what we give each other for our birthdays. For the last two years, we have been trying to live with less stuff and focusing our resources towards what really matters in our lives. What we really value is having new experiences; and we have plenty of room for those. Inspired by our friends Sarah and Mike, we're starting a new tradition of giving each other a surprise weekend trip.

Here's how it works: The giver plans the entire trip - location, transportation, lodging, and activities - with no input from the birthday person. The only information the birthday person is allowed to know is the dates of the trip and what to pack. My birthday came first and landed next to a holiday - yay for long weekends. Q really set the bar high by planning an great trip for me.

We set off Friday morning for the airport and checked in at the Fin Air counter. Yes - we're going to somewhere in Finland! Then the woman behind the counter said confirmed our tickets to Tallinn. What? Where is in Tallinn, Finland? Not even Google Maps could even answer that one. Apparently, my geography knowledge was lacking because with a proper Google search I learned Tallinn is in Estonia - doh! It turned out that Q wanted to take me somewhere for my birthday that I would have never guessed - mission accomplished!
Ready to fly out.
Doh, turned out Helsinki was just a layover.

I knew almost nothing about Estonia, besides it being part of the former USSR. I had one hour before takeoff to learn about the place we were headed. For those of you in the dark about Tallin as I was, here's a little background on where we were headed:
Tallinn is the capital and the largest city in Estonia and best known to travelers for having the best preserved medieval town centers. The medieval old town, built by German crusaders in the Late Middle Ages, was formerly known as Reval from 13th century until 1917 and once again from 1941-44 during Nazi occupation. It was under Soviet occupation until 1991. Since gaining independence, Estonia joined the EU in 2004 and has been using the Euro since 2011. Today many websites list Tallinn as an up and coming travel destination.
View of Tallinn's old town from the center of town.

Q had everything lined up for us. He knew how to get from the airport to the hotel by public transit, had booked a nice new hotel located just outside the medieval town center for us, and a few tours set up. Q lined up a few things on and off the beaten tourist route.

Main Tourist Attractions

Exploring the Middle Age Town Center
We spent much of our free time exploring the old city center, wandering through narrow allies of boutiques, walking up along the fortress walls and towers and visiting the larger squares of middle aged themed restaurants and souvenir shops. The old town offers plenty to keep a tourist busy for the weekend, which is why many never venture outside of the old town walls.
Costumed merchants and Medieval themed pubs
Strolling the streets after dinner at 10PM at night and it's still bright outside - totally weird.
Roaming the upper town after dinner.
Felt like we stepped back in time.

Estonian Food Scene
We spent a good portion of our time trying out several cafes tucked away in charming courtyards and highly rated restaurants that Q picked out ahead of time. We were both impressed with the quality of food, variety of cuisines, service, and affordable prices. Every person we encountered was warm and spoke excellent English. There was only one restaurant we weren't crazy about but that may have been due to our expectations rather then the restaurant itself. It was a trendy vegan restaurant; actually the best vegan restaurant we had ever been to but we had meant to go to a traditional restaurant and just enter the wrong door. Doh.
Estonia exceeded our expectations. Dinner at Rataskaevu16
Little touches like this one from our waiter really made us feel welcomed.
One the hunt for the local Chocolatier, The Pierre Chocolaterie.
Starters at Vegan Restoran V, the best vegan meal we didn't intend to have.

Free Walking Tour
Of course we had to do a walking tour of the old town. The Tallinn Free Tour lasted 2 hours and covered the highlights of the old town. Our overall impression was that tour was somewhat informative but we were a bit let down by the quality of our young guide. She led our large group thought the lower and upper town, sharing great vista points, and local myths and ghost stories but I felt the guide was a bit quick with the information and could have been more engaging. As with many free walking tours, you always take a gamble with the guide.
Within 2 hours we actually covered a lot of ground.



Getting Off the Main Tourist Path

Prangli Island Tour
We try to make time every trip to get off the well worn tourist route and visit some of the lesser known parts of the region. Q booked an afternoon excursion with Prangli Travel to one of the small islands in the Baltic Sea with a private guide. There we learned about the seal hunting that used to take place in the winter when the sea freezes over and about simple Estonian island life. Being our first time in Estonia, this may have not been the best tour for us and perhaps better suited for those with more background knowledge of the country. Thankfully our guide was able to answer our non-stop questions about Estonia and we were able to gain more than if we had just gone to a touristic museum.
Touring the island from the truck bed added to the local simple lifestyle.

Exploring the Kalamaja Neighborhood
Kalamaja translates to "fish house" in Estonian, which was the original wooden home to fishermen between the old town and the Baltic Sea. With some of our down time we took the advice of our tour guide and ventured outside the typical tourist domain to roam around an up and coming hipster neighborhood and stopped for a coffee. Despite its current run down appearance, many of the buildings are under renovation and the neighborhood could be a lively place to hang out in a few years.
Checking out the century old Estonian architecture.

Outdoor Rooftop Movie
For our last evening, Q had pre-purchased tickets to an outdoor roof top movie. Older movies are featured each night and conveniently an English movie was playing the night we came. Being close to the Summer solstices, the sky never gets 100% dark - but at 11pm it was dark enough to grab a drink at the bar and sit back with the locals for a movie.
Wish we had something this laid back in the center of Zurich.

Tallinn wasn't all Q had planned for my birthday. After a couple days in Tallinn, we packed up our bags and set out for the bus station to start the second half of my birthday trip.

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