Eastern Europe Trip – Day 18 – Tallinn, Estonia & Helsinki, Finland

Today I slept in until 8:30am. After getting dressed I walked a few minutes away to Cafe Rotermann and had a coffee and a traditional Estonian breakfast.

First stop of the day was Patarei Prison, a former sea fortress and prison, located on the shore of Tallinn Bay. The fort was built between 1830 and 1837 as part of the fortifications for the tsarist Russian state. In 1863, Tallinn was removed from the Russian Empire’s list of fortressses due to Russia’s defeat in the Crimean War, and the fort was converted into a barracks. After the Republic of Estonia declared independence in 1918 it was reconstructed into a prison, and was used until 2005. Patarei is one of the most prominent symbols of Soviet and Nazi political terror. The prison was closed and is currently planned to open as a museum in 2025. I was able to sneak a few photos of the site, due to poor security. I had to be careful as there was barbed wire everywhere. What a special treat it was to explore this place!

Second stop was the Town Hall Pharmacy, which is Tallinn’s oldest pharmacy, of Europe’s oldest pharmacies, dating back to the early 15th century.

Close by is St. Catherine’s Passage, also known as Monk’s Alley, winds its way from Vene Street to Müürivahe Street. The alley is lined with buildings that were built between the 15th and 17th centuries. The alley retains its medieval charms and was last restored in 1995.

When you exit St. Catherine’s Passage you can see Hellemann Tower and the Town Wall Walkway. Hellemann’s Tower, a three-story tower, dates back to the 14th century, and is integrated into the Town Wall.

It was time to grab some lunch, and I didn’t feel like sitting down at a restaurant, so I just grabbed a cheeseburger from McDonald’s.

My final stop in Tallinn was the KGB Museum at the top of Hotel Viru. Hotel Viru was completed in 1972. The building was the first high-rise building in Estonia. The Soviet Union hired a Finnish construction company (Repo Oy) to build the hotel. Construction started in July 1969, however the construction company went bankrupt in the middle of the project in 1971 due to a fire breaking out on the top floors in December 1970. Finland found another company to finish the project, and the hotel was opened on May 5th 1972. During the Soviet era, the 23rd floor of the hotel housed a KGB radio centre, which was used to eavesdrop on hotel guests. 60 of the ~500 rooms had concealed espionage devices, as well as some of the tables at the hotel restaurant. They were even clever enough to hide espionage devices in cigarette trays.

The KGB, known as the Committee for State Security, was the main security agency for the Soviet Union from 1954 to 1991. It was the chief government agency of “union-republican jurisdiction”, carrying out internal security, intelligence and secret police functions. The KGB was officially dissolved on December 3rd 1991 when the USSR fell apart.

The KGB left in a hurry in August 1991 when Estonia gained independence, and the secret rooms were not found until 1994! The former radio centre is now a museum, and is left virtually untouched from how it was found. The hotel is still in use today, with 516 rooms.

Once I arrived at the airport I went through security. I made a mistake at security and forgot to drink all my water in my water bottle, so I was pulled aside to check my bags. While my bags were being checked there was this elderly Russian lady who was also getting her bags checked. The security guard unzipped her bag and pulled out two containers. Container #1 had some weird dark brown frothy liquids, however was under 100ml. He asked her some questions in Estonian, and she responded in Russian and used a lot of gestures. He placed the container back in the bag. Container #2 was a re-used gummy vitamin container (~250ml) that had a clear frothy liquid in it, with… a bunch of leeches! He pulled her aside and they went into a private room with the bottle. I’d love to know the discussion that occured in that room. Upon returning he placed the bottle back in her bag, and zipped it up. It appears she was likely using the leaches for some old wives tale treatment…

After going through security I had a beer, and a croissant with ham and cheese while I waited for my flight. My flight to Helsinki was on a NORRA (on behalf of Finnair) ATR-72. This was my first time flying on an ATR-72, and it was really neat to watch the de-icing boots work on the short 30 minute snowy flight.

Once I arrived in Helsinki I took the train into the city, which took about 45 minutes. Once I arrived at the central station I took a short walk to Friends & Brgrs, and had an absolutely scrumptious cheeseburger, while overlooking the busy street below.

Next door was a liquor store, where I picked up a few IPA’s, before heading to my hotel to check in. Alcohol in Finland is by far the most expensive of all the European Union countries.

It was time to check-in to my hotel; Noli Studios Katajanokka. The room was $115/night which was actually a steal for Finland, which is one of the most expensive countries in the European Union to visit, besides Norway. The room was very well appointed, with a small kitchen, a gorgeous bathroom, a small living room area, and a bed on a raised part at the back. After checking in I went downstairs and spent a few hours in the spa.

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Eastern Europe Trip – Day 17 – Tallinn, Estonia

Today I woke up at 530am to catch the train to Vienna International Airport to board a flight to Tallinn, Estonia. I flew on a Lauda Europe (on behalf of Ryanair) Airbus A320. Lauda Europe was having financial difficulties a few years ago, so Ryanair purchased them. It’s interesting because the plane is still painting in the Lauda Europe livery, and the staff still wear Lauda Europe uniforms.

It was raining when I arrived in Tallinn. The airport is very close to the city center, and just a 10 minute tram ride away. I boarded the tram and took it to my hotel; Hotel Metropol, where I checked in around 11:00am. I dropped off my bags and went out to explore the sleepy city of Talllinn.

It was approaching lunch time so I stopped in at Pizza Grande for pizza and a diet coke. Food in Estonia is very inexpensive; I believe the pizza and coke were only about $10.

Close to the Pizza Grande is Viru Gate, two ivy-covered watchtowers, built in the 1300’s, that mark the entrance to Tallinn’s Old Town. The main road that enters the Old Town is also quite stunning!

After a short walk through the Old Town I arrived at Freedom Square, a plaza on the South end of the Old Town. It was created by Tiit Trummal, Veljo Kaasik, and Andres Alver. It was a parking lot prior to 2010. The War of Independence Victory Column is located in the square. The column, which stands 24 metres high and consists of 143 glass plates, commemorates all those who had fought for freedom and independence during the Estonian War of Independence (1918-1920).

Nearby is Kiek in de Kök Museum and the Tallinn Bastion Tunnels. The artillery tower was built in 1475 and stands 38 metres (125 feet) high, with walls 4 metres (13 feet thick). Over the years the tower was renovated multiple times, until it became obsolete in 1760. It is now home to archives, and some floors were even converted to apartments. The Bastion Tunnels date back to the 17th and 18th centuries. The town was constantly worried that it was going to be attacked, so they constructed high bastion walls around the outside of the city, as well as tunnels under the base of the walls so they could safely move around soldiers and ammunition. The tunnels eventually became forgotten, and were not found again until 2003 when workers digging a foundation near the Vabamu Meseum of Occupations and Freedom found them. During World War 2 some of the tunnel were used as bomb shelters. During the Soviet occupation the tunnels were modernized by adding electricity, running water, ventilation and phone lines.

Close by is Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, a Bulgarian Orthodox cathedral that was built in Neo-Byzantine style. Construction started in 1882, and was completed in 1912. The church has the capacity for 5000 people!

Next to the cathedral is Toompea, also known as Cathedral Hill. Toompea Castle is situated on the hill, and is topped by Tall Hermann tower. Toompea is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

I then walked about 15 minutes to Telliskivi Creative City, an art focused venue that features studios, cafes, bars, and restaurants. There were some buses and trains close by at a place called DEPOO, that were converted to restaurants.

After visiting Telliskivi Creative City I walked to Towers Square, which gets its name from the Town Wall towers that border one of its sides, and the fact that numerous church spires can be seen from there.

One of those churches is St Olaf’s church, which was was originally built sometime in the 12th century. It was believed that it was the town center for old Tallinn’s Scandinavian community before Denmark captured the town in 1219. The church was originally Roman Catholic, then became Lutheran during the European Reformation, before becoming Baptist in the 1950’s. From 1944 until 1991 the Soviet KGB used St. Olaf’s spire as a radio tower and surveillance point. You’ll learn a lot more about the KGB in my next blog post.

Final stop before heading back to the hotel was Linnahall, also known as Tallinn City Hall, or originally Lenin Palace of Culture and Sports. The building is situated in the harbour, just beyond the walls of the Old Town, and was completed in 1980. The 1980 Summer Olympics were held in Moscow, however since Moscow wasn’t by the ocean and didn’t have a suitable venue to stage the sailing event, it was decided that Tallinn, the capital of the then Estonian SSR, would be the perfect place to host it. The building was built to host the event, along with the Pirita Yachting Center, and a few other sports and entertainment facilities. Unfortunately the building has now fallen into disarray. The skating ring was closed in 2009, and the concert hall in 2010.

When I arrived back at my hotel I decided to go into the hotel spa for 1.5 hours. The hotel had a swimming pool, four hot tubs, a steam room, and three sauna’s of various temperatures. It was a very delightful experience, for only $14! You can stay for a maximum of three hours.

It was time to have some dinner at Restaurant Olde Hansa, which was recommended to me. The restaurant gives an authentic medieval experience with dishes that are cooked according to recipe’s over 700 years old, as well as live music. I had three different kinds of game sausages (bear, wild boar, and elk), served with mashed turnip, cranberries, and something else I couldn’t recognize that was quite delicious. Desert was oven-baked herb and juniper cheese. Overall the total cost of my meal was a bit pricier, but not too bad, about $60.

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Eastern Europe Trip – Day 8 – Budapest, Hungary

Today was mostly a travel day, however, I was able to explore a bit of Budapest, Hungary in the evening. I had to wake up around 5:30 am in order to catch the bus to the airport. Once I arrived at the airport I went through customs, and had a sandwich and an Americano coffee for breakfast. I also had a fairly bad headache, so I sourced some ibuprofen from the pharmacy. I managed my money well in Belgrade, having used all of except 100 Serbian Dinar’s, which is about $1.25 CDN. Belgrade airport is set up in a unique fashion compared to most airports, as the security portion is at the gate.

To get to Budapest I flew on two Swiss flights (Belgrade to Zurich to Budapest), on a brand new plane to me; an Airbus A220-300, which is essentially a rebranded Bombardier CS300. The A220-300 (CS300) is a newer series of aircraft that was originally designed in my home country of Canada. Design of the aircraft started in 1998 as the BRJ-X, which was supposed to be a larger regional jet than the very popular CRJ set, however would have 2-3 seating and underwing engine pods, rather than the 2-2 seating and tail-mounted engines like the CRJ. The aircraft made its first flight in September 2013. The A220-300 can carry 120-150 passengers, which is less than the Airbus A320NEO and Boeing 737MAX series aircraft, however, its fuel consumption per seat mile is almost 20% less than those aircraft, due to extensive use of lightweight materials such as composite materials and aluminum-lithium. Flying on this aircraft was a total joy, with the extremely wide and comfortable leather seats. I’m still annoyed that Bombardier sold out to Airbus in one of the largest scandals in Canadian history. Long story short, the Canadian government bailed Bombardier out of debt in the tune of almost $5 billion in tax-payer money, then the company paid its executives immense bonuses, and gave away the program to Airbus after a failed merger with Boeing in 2016.

When I arrived we parked next to a former Malev Hungarian Airlines Tupolev TU-154, which was a former Soviet Union aircraft produced between 1968-2013. This aircraft closely resembles the Boeing 727.

On exiting the airport, I purchased a 7-day transit pass for about $19 CDN, took the 100E bus to the city center, and checked into my hotel (ibis Styles Budapest City). The room is clean, spacious and pretty cute; not bad for only $50 CDN/night. My only gripe is that the room is a bit warm, and the air conditioning doesn’t work. I just left the balcony door open.

Before I dive into exploring Budapest, Hungary let’s talk about Hungary’s history.

Hungary’s History

Hungary’s history dates back to Ice Age. Early settlers hunted mammoths and reindeers with stone weapons. In 5000 BC farming was introduced and was done with the use of stone tools. In 2000 BC they learned how to use bronze, and in 800 BC they learned how to make iron tools and weapons. Romans settled the area between 11 BC and 9 AD and created a province called Pannonia. During this time Pannonia became fully integrated into the Roman Empire and created a number of towns called Pecs, Szombathely, Sopron, and Buda.

In the early 2nd century Romans also conquered the east of Hungary, and called it Dacia. During the 3rd century, the Roman Empire was in decline and they eventually abandoned Dacia in 271 AD. Eventually, the Romans completely withdrew from Pannonia by the end of the 4th century. This gave way to the Germanic people to occupy the area.

In the 6th century the Asiatic people, also called Avar, conquered Hungary. They ended up ruling the area until the end of the 8th century. During this time Charlemagne, the leader of the Franks (now France), conquered central Europe, including Hungary and forced the Avars to accept Christianity. In 843 the Frankish Empire was divided into three, with Hungary becoming part of the eastern thirds.

In 896 the Magyars (descendants from the Finno-Ugric people) began raiding the eastern part of the Frankish Empire and eventually conquered it. By 900 they had captured the western part. Hungary was now home to the Magyar’s. For decades the Magyar’s continued their raid on other parts of central Europe, but eventually suffered defeat. In 955 the Germans, under the reign of Otto I, crushed them at the battle of Augsburg. They ended up settling down and becoming civilized.

In the late 10th century Prince Geza invited German missionaries to come and preach Christianity to the people, with himself becoming baptized. After his death, his son, Stephen, continued his work. After Stephen’s death, there were numerous succession crises in Hungary, but order was restored by Laszlo I.

During the 11th and 12th centuries Hungary became very westernized. Unfortunately, during the 13th century, Hungary was ruled by Andreas II, who was incompetent, and that provoked a rebellion. In 1241 Mongols invaded the country, burned the crops and left the country in shambles. As a result, the population of Hungary declined substantially. In 1320 gold was discovered and this helped boost the economy and, in 1361, Buda became the capital city of Hungary.

By 1543 the Turks had taken control of Hungary. In 1456 the Battle of Belgrade occurred. Christian forces led by János Hunyadi defeated the Ottoman Turks. The pope ordered all Catholic kingdoms to the noon bell, a ritual that is done in Catholic and old Protestant churches to this day.

In 1526, after the calamity of the Battle of Mohács, the Ottomans divided the country into three parts: the Habsburgs in the western and northern parts; Turks in the central area; and the Principality of Transylvania in the south-east as the stronghold of Hungarian culture and independence.

In 1686, with the help of the Habsburgs, the Turks were defeated and left Hungary. Following other rebellions in the period of the Spring of Nations in Europe, the Hungarians revolted against the Austrian emperor. The revolution was suppressed by the Habsburgs with the help of the Russian Czar and in 1867 a compromise with the Habsburgs was reached, establishing the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

In 1873, Pest, Buda and Óbuda (old Buda) were unified into one town making Budapest a major city within Europe.

During the 19th century, nationalism was a growing force in the Austrian Empire, with many Hungarians and Czechs becoming increasingly dissatisfied with Austrian ruling. In 1848 a wave of revolutions occurred across Europe, but the Austrian monarchy was still able to maintain power until 1867, which the Austrian Empire was split into two halves; Austria and Hungary. The Austrian monarch remained king of both independent halves.

In 1914 Archduke Ferdinand, the heir of the Austrian throne was assassinated, which led to World War I. In October 1918 the Austro-Hungarian empire broke up and Hungary declared its independence on October 30th 1918.

With the end of the war, the Slovaks and Romanians within Hungary broke away, and as a result, Hungary lost nearly two-thirds of its territory, and nearly 3.3 million Hungarians suddenly became citizens of Hungary’s neighbouring countries. On November 18th, 1918 Bela Kun formed the Hungarian Communist Party, nationalizing the industries and land. This irritated the locals so they rebelled. Hungary also wasn’t popular with its neighbours, Czechoslovakia and Romania. The Communist regime lost all support when the Romanian army marched into Hungary and occupied Budapest. Kun fled, which led to the collapse of his party. The Romanians eventually left in October 1919.

Hungary had a death toll of over one million citizens in World War 2. In 1945 the Soviets drove out the Germans, and ended up occupying and incorporating the country into the Soviet bloc for over four decades.

On October 23rd 1956, a peaceful student demonstration in Budapest produced a list of 16 Demands of Hungarians Revolutionaries for reform and greater political freedom. The State Protection Authority made arrests and tried to disperse the crowd with tear gas. The students attempted to free those that were arrested, the police opened up fire on the crown, and this set off a chain of events that led to the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. The revolution was eventually suppressed, taking with it the lives of 3000 innocent people. It was a clear message to the Soviets that their plans were unacceptable and unsustainable.

International developments and rapid changes within the Soviet bloc led to the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9th, 1989, leading to rapid political changes in Eastern Europe. The countries became free from Soviet rule and Hungary became a republic again. The first democratic, multi-party elections were held in 1990. In 1999 Hungary joined NATO, and in 2004 joined the European Union.

Exploring Budapest, Hungary

After checking in I took a Lime Scooter to Kalvin Square Reformed Church to take a picture from the outside, since the inside was closed. I couldn’t find much information about the church online, unfortunately.

A short walk away is the Great Market Hall. The Great Market Hall is the largest and oldest indoor market in Budapest. It opened in 1897. It was built because it was thought to improve the food supply of the people by having inspected food in a central location. This was at a time when Hungary was suffering from a continuous deterioration in food quality. The market is over 10,000 square metres in size and is covered by a massive steel structure. During World War 2 it was significantly damaged, and it wasn’t rebuilt until 1991.

Next door is the beautiful Budapest Corvinus University, which is one of the most prestigious universities in Hungary. There are currently over 11,500 students enrolled. The main building was built in 1874 in Neo Renaissance style, and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is often called “Customs House” or “Chief Customs Palace”. The building was connected to ports of the Danube by four tunnels and even had a railroad connection. During World War 2 the Hungarian, German, and Soviet troops used the building as a military base. It suffered serious damage during the war. In 1948 the building became the main building of the University of Economics. The building underwent major renovations in 1950, and again between 1989-1990.

During my exploration of the Great Market Hall my shoes completely fell apart so I was in an emergency search for new shoes. I took the bus a short distance north to Deichmann, where I purchased some Nike running shoes for $70 CDN. I normally purchase ASICS, and I try to not support the Nike brand due to well-known child labour issues. However my choices were Nike or Adidas, and my feet are too wide for Adidas shoes, so my decision was made for me.

After obtaining my new shoes it was time to get some food. I walked over to Karavan, which is a back alley full of food trucks. I had a Guitar Hero burger from Zing Burger & Co, as well as an IPA beer from another food truck. Both were extremely delicious!

I then walked by the Emanuel Tree and Dohany Street Synagogue, which I will come back and visit in a few days. I will dive into the detail of those places when I explore them in the daytime.

I then purchased some IPA beers from Csakajosor Kft, which I highly recommend visiting if you’re into craft beer. I then walked over to the Ferris Wheel of Budapest, also known as Budapest Eye, which stands 65 metres tall, and was built in 2013.

On my way back to my hotel I stopped in at Gravity Brewing to have a delicious double IPA.

In the evening I did some work, as well as worked on my blog. Be sure to check back tomorrow when I explore more of Budapest!

If you like the content that I produce and want to donate money towards the upkeep of my site, or buy me a cup of coffee please feel free to contribute towards it. I really appreciate it.