Tag Archives: Tour

A day in Tallinn

Busy waterway

The Norwegian Sun pulled out of Warnemunde in the early evening and we watched the Baltic as we cruised. It’s hard to imagine the sea any calmer than it was, the only ripples made by the shipping.

The sunset is reflected in a door

Norwegian Sun above the rooftops

We arrived in Tallinn the next morning within easy walking distance of the old town on the slopes of the hill looking over the harbour. As usual, the ship offered guided tours of the city but we decided to venture forth on our own. Locals had set up a market which we would have to walk through to get to the town, but before we ventured between the tents we noticed a group of passengers gathered around a pole, all of them staring at their phones or tablets.

Free WIFI.

There was WIFI on the ship, but the cost was outrageous. It looked like we weren’t the only ones who decided to pass and/or find alternatives.

The row of tents from the ship to the edge of town

The city

Although the sky was clear and the sun was up it was cool in the shadows as we walked up the street to the town square where the main market was held.

One of the wall’s towers with the Norwegian Sun behind

Although the market was like markets everywhere, it was pretty obvious this one had an eye on the tourist dollar, with stalls full of knitted jumpers, shawls, beanies, hats, scarves, beads, necklaces, brooches, and other items that would easily fit in a suitcase. Quite a few sellers offered ‘amber’. I did the brackets because I suspect at least some of it was manufactured. There seemed to be an awful lot with entombed, perfectly preserved insects. Maybe Jurassic Park was real (dinosaur DNA derived from blood of sap-sucking insect). Pete bought a piece just for fun. Having said that, the amber used to create the famous amber room in Catherine’s Palace came from these parts. We’d be learning more about that tomorrow.

Sun and colour at the markets

I loved the witches

Jumpers, mittens, balaclavas, scarves. All pointless in sub-tropical Australia, but nice to look at.

Like most cities in the Olden Days,  Tallinn was a walled city. Red, conical roofs on the towers marked the boundaries. Like many other European cities, where you lived depended on your status. The upper classes lived up the hill, with access gained via gates in a series of thick walls. One got the impression that defence was important in this town. We wandered on up the hill from the town square and encountered a massive wall with a stairway leading to the top and an invitation to climb up to the cafe. We fancied a cup of coffee so we climbed up narrow, winding stairs with uneven and very high risers. Apparently, that was deliberate to slow down any enemies with a mind to try the ascent. We reached the top pretty puffed-out – and that’s where we were asked to pay an entrance fee. We weren’t impressed at the subterfuge but it wasn’t a lot of money and we wanted coffee. We left by a more accessible exit to wander around the town.

An imposing fortification in the middle of town

The stairs to the top. Note those HIGH risers. It’s hard work.

Note thickness of wall

Tallinn is neat, clean, graffiti-free (mostly) and fun to walk around. There are cobbled streets, fascinating laneways, fun places to eat and drink, and inviting shops selling local crafts and very much trading on the city’s medieval past. I expect, like Rostock, the citizens were delighted to throw off the Soviet yolk and get back to being Estonian.

The salmon was to die for, served with a crisp salad

Rather than go back to the ship for lunch, we found a restaurant in town offering a lunch menu and sat at a window watching people. It struck me that Estonians are amongst the most attractive looking people I’ve seen. So many tall, good-looking guys and women with long, flaxen hair. Peter Jackson could have recruited his elves from here, I reckon.

Lunch was fabulous. We had a bowl of chowder, then a piece of local salmon that was right up there with the best I’ve ever eaten. The price was good, too. I expect it might have been expensive for the locals but not for us tourists.

Cobblestones and interesting nooks and crannies

Old edifices

Al fresco dining outside a medieval pub

After lunch we did a lot more walking, soaking up what this city has to offer, stopping now and then for coffee to ease our by now aching feet. But we did climb up the hill that towers above the harbour to admire the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral and the consulate area. The views from up there are amazing.

Shrek and donkey pose outside the beautiful Alexander Nevsky cathedral

The view from the citadel. You can just make out the ship next to the tower

I loved Tallinn and I’d happily go again. I read somewhere that Terry Pratchett’s Discworld city, Ankh-Morpork, has elements of Tallinn in it. I wouldn’t be surprised.

Tired but happy, we meandered gently back down to the ship for the next part of our tour. Tomorrow we’d be venturing into the great Russian city of St Petersburg.


Stories from the bus


The holiday travels are over for now but I can share with you some of the stories our tour director, Sergio, told us while we were travelling from one place to another on the bus. He’s in his mid-forties, rather overweight and with one of those mobile faces that can get a whole paragraph across without saying a word. And yes, of course he used his hands. He’s Italian.

Sergio comes from the heel part of Italy, I gathered from a working-class family, but these days, he lives in Milan. He has a degree in architecture and was employed for a time in a design office. But he explained that in Italy, most of the work revolves around designing the interiors of heritage-listed buildings. Just about all of the buildings are heritage listed. Sergio was more interested in the bigger picture. He told us privately he’d love to visit Canberra. After we stopped guffawing he said it was because it was a city designed before the people moved in. And I could see his point. Canberra is beautifully laid out, with its wide boulevards and public areas. And, of course, a parliament house built into a hill.

Anyway, that’s something of an aside. Sergio is one of the best stand-up comedians I’ve ever seen, with terrific delivery, all accompanied by amazing body language. Please read these little stories with an Italian accent and wave your hands around to get into the spirit.

Sergio felt he wasn’t getting anywhere, so he packed it all in and went off to London, I think to join his sister, who had gone there to work and met a man, married, and stayed. Sergio didn’t speak much English but he was willing to try just about anything, so he took a job with Costa Coffee, a chain of coffee shops often found in train stations and the like. Carlo, another Italian working there, taught Sergio all he needed to know when talking to customers – the types of coffee, size of cups, food on offer, and where to find the toilet.

Sergio’s doing all right, getting out the orders, when a man comes in. “I’ll have a large cappuccino, one of those blueberry muffins, and”, leans forward, “where’s the loo.”

WherestheLoo? Sergio panics. WherestheLoo? What the hell’s a wherestheLoo? He looks around, looking for Carlo, but he’s nowhere to be seen?

“Sorry, Senor, we don’t have any wherestheLoo”

Customer rolls his eyes. “No. Where. Is. The. Loo?”

Sergio’s still none the wiser. Loo? What the hell’s a loo?

Carlo hoves into view. “Carlo”. He beckons, breaks into Italian. “He wants to know where the LOO is? What do I say?”

Carlo pats him on the shoulder, apologises to the customer. “Sorry. He’s new. Over there, just around the corner.” To Sergio he says, “That’s what they call the toilet here.  Or they might say bathroom, gents, ladies, mens, womens, lav, washroom, WC…”

Sergio’s back on the bus with us and he laughs. “The best one I ever heard was an American lady who asked for ‘the powder room’.

London seems to have been quite the learning curve. When people came to the counter, they would often say, “How are you?”

Sergio thought about it. They’re asking how he is. That’s nice. He lines up his English sentence. “I had a sore throat this morning but I’m feeling better now, thank you.”

The customer blinks, then says, “I’ll have an espresso and a piece of raisin toast.”

Eventually, Sergio consulted with his friend, Carlo. “They don’t expect you to say anything but maybe ‘fine, thanks’. It’s not like in Italy,” he explained. “It’s just another way of saying hello.”

“Now in Italy,” Sergio said back in the bus, “You can go to a shop and if you’re third in the queue and the customer says, “How are you?” it starts a whole conversation.”

The lady serving says, “Well, I’ve got a nasty sore on my arm that won’t go away.” Shows her arm.

Customer says, “Oh that’s bad. Have you been to the doctor?”

Server says, “Yes, I went to see Dr G. He gave me some ointment, but it doesn’t seem to be helping.”

Another customer chimes in. “Dr G? Eh. He’s no good. You should see Dr T. She’s excellent. My grandma went to see her for her sore back. It’s all better now.”

And so it goes. In Italy don’t ask someone how they are – unless you’ve got plenty of time. Differences in culture, you see.

On another occasion he told us about his brush with HM tax collectors (Revenue and Customs). He’d been paying tax in the UK, of course. Or at least, Costa Coffee did, on his behalf. One day, Sergio received a letter. An official letter. Window face with a Government logo.

His heart beating a little faster, he opened it. The long and the short was there was a discrepancy in his tax, he was entitled to a refund, and he should go to the head office to have the matter attended to. Sergio was petrified. If you got a formal letter from the government back home in Italy, you were in deep doo-doo. But he hadn’t done anything wrong!

He phones his father back home in Italy. “Papa, I have to go talk to the tax people in London. But I haven’t done anything wrong!!!”

His father sighs. “Sergio, Sergio. You should have stayed in your nice job in the architect’s office. But no, you had to head off to foreign parts. Now you’ve fallen foul of the government. Oh Sergio! I’ll have to visit you in jail.”

Papa was a great help.

Eventually, Sergio plucks up some courage and presents himself at the office in London, where he eventually speaks to a po-faced clerk who asks how he can help.

Sergio hands over his letter. “I got this in the mail. But I haven’t done anything wrong.”

Unsmiling, the clerk reads the letter and looks up at Sergio. “It seems you’re entitled to a refund for overpaid tax.”

Overpaid? Refund? Refund?? Really? They were going to give him money? Back on the bus, Sergio turns to Roberto, the driver. “Do they pay you refunds in Italy, Roberto?”

Roberto laughs.

But Sergio got his refund, paid in cash.

He also gave us some demonstrations of Italian hand language. That’s too hard to describe, so I won’t try. Suffice to say he told us about a time when he was in one of those tedious, over-long meetings. His only Italian colleague was seated some distance away, but Sergio was able to communicate “this is boring, let’s leave for coffee” without saying a word.

Another time, back in London, he saw a man on the other side of the road attempting to take money out of an ATM with an obvious lack of success. Sergio crossed the road and said to him, in Italian, “You look like you’re having trouble. Can I help?”

The man’s eyebrows shot up. “How did you know I’m Italian?”

“You were trying to have a conversation with the ATM using your hands.”

Sergio was a great stand-up comedian. I think if he entered the Edinburgh Comedy Festival, or better still, the Melbourne Comedy Festival, he would be a certain hit. We did suggest it. But I think he has a good life taking tourists around Italy and France. He would have been totally wasted working in an architect’s office. It was a pleasure to meet him.

Tuscan countryside