As we stood on our balcony waiting for the sunset, Holland America Line’sWesterdam was charting a course for Tallinn, capital of Estonia. Not long ago, The Economist cited Estonia “as the biggest, most complicated, and most promising piece of the new Europe.”
I’m not sure what we expected of Tallinn, but we were awed by what we saw. Although the ancient architecture could have fooled us into thinking our ship had arrived in the Middle Ages, the exuberance of the local people and the bustle of tourist activity suggested that we had arrived on the threshold of the city’s epoch. And we probably had.
Soviet occupation ended in 1991, but it was only in 2004 that Estonia — along with neighboring Latvia, Lithuania and Poland — joined the European Union.
Long before that, however, in 1154, an Arabian geographer marked Tallinn on the world map. The town quickly became an important trade town.
In Hanseatic times, luxury furs, wax and honey from Russia were delivered through Tallinn’s port, while salt from Portugal and woolen fabrics from England and Flanders came through on their eastward route.
Our ship approached a cityscape that might have been familiar to those seafarers of long ago: red-tiled rooftops, church spires and the onion domes of Russian Orthodox churches.
We docked within walking distance of the Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. With its miles of winding cobblestone streets and quaint medieval houses, Tallinn is the best-preserved Old Town in Northern Europe.
We climbed the vertigo-inducing circular stairs at St. Olav’s church for a view that was worth the challenge. Only 50 miles across the sea (18 minutes by helicopter from city center to city center) we could see Helsinki. We would be there soon, after our next stop: Peter the Great’s city.