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We Discover Northern Europe #3 — Estonia

October 19, 2016

Estonia City View - from, "Insight Guides" to Baltic States
Estonia City View – from “Insight Guides” to Baltic States

All our lives, we’d heard about the three fascinating Baltic States: Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania; three small neighboring Northern European countries that have shared histories, similar geographies, different languages, and separate identities. They lie between Scandinavia to the north, Poland to the south, and Finland and Russia to the east. Their combined total land mass is only 67,000 square miles, about the size of Oklahoma—even smaller than Austria. Although they are much alike, they are also distinctively different from each other. According to Insight Guide editors, Lithuanians are stereotypically the most outgoing and nationalistic. Latvians are the most rural in outlook; because Russia did its utmost to swallow up its identity, today only 60% of Latvians are Latvian rather than Russian. Estonia is more influenced by Scandinavia. Under the heading of “Showing Affection” in the guidebook is this thought-provoking paragraph:

Old Town Fortress
Old Town Fortress

“Estonians have mastered the art of being impeccably polite without being friendly. Friendship, for them, is for life…. Despite their differences, Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians are united by a love of nature and the outdoors. Admittedly, they enjoy it in different ways. Lithuanians will drive their car to a beauty spot and blast their surroundings with pop music, whereas Latvians will organize barbecues or swimming parties. Estonians tend to regard such habits with horror, going to great lengths to find a truly solitary spot where they can sit in silence.”


Walking to Old Town
Walking to Old Town

Unfortunately, due to time constraints, it was only possible for us to visit one of the three: Tallinn, the fairytale capitol of Estonia. It was a heartstoppingly beautiful blue-sky day when the Zuiderdam arrived. It took some getting used to for us to shake off distance misconceptions. Tallinn is only 53 miles from Helsinki, Finland; and 80 miles from St. Petersburg, Russia. This close proximity to giants such as Russia has resulted in a tragic past for the Baltic States. Every time Russia sneezes, they shudder. This is one reason they pay so much attention to U. S. politics, for if Russia should once again swallow them up, if the U.S. refuses to honor its treaties, one gobble and they’d be erased from the face of the map.

But it’s not just Russia that has dominated Estonia. The first conquerors wereestonia-alexander-nevsky-cathedral-scan the Danes; since the Estonians held off 1,000 ships, Denmark called in Teutonic Knights; together, in 1227, they took over Estonia. Sweden was next, but proved so repressive that Estonians turned to Peter the Great. By 1721, Russia was firmly in control. Estonia remained subjugated for 270 years until on August 20, 1991, with Russian tanks rolling into Tallinn, Estonia formally declared its independence. Thus, Estonia has only been independent for a paltry 25 years in its entire history!

Tallinn is a medieval walking town with      meandering cobblestone streets. Unfortunately, we weren’t permitted to stay long in the lovely old city. Apparently, it is today being loved to death by Russians, Swedes, Finns, Norwegians, Germans, and Danes—just for starters. Yet, in spite of it all, Estonians revel in their newly won freedom.

Just as was true of the Danes, Estonians were all outdoors, savoring the early May sunshine. They are so far north, Northern Europe is, that they have very long gloomy winters, with precious little sunshine. Consequently, when May comes, no one wants to stay indoors!

It was with great reluctance that we watched Tallinn receding from view, vowing to return in order to explore more of those three magical little nations, each reveling in its new-found freedom.

Toompea Castle



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We Discover Northern Europe #2 – Denmark

October 12, 2016

denmark-palace-hotel-scanThe series began on August 31, but it has taken until now to pick it up again. The 24-day cruise on Holland America was a gift from my bride, Connie. Its purpose was to console me for having to add more zeroes to my life’s odometer.

Northern Europe, we’d never experienced before, so we were certainly looking forward to it. The flight from Denver to Toronto, and then from Toronto to Copenhagen was long and forgettable as are most flights today no small thanks to cramped seating (little leg-room; none if the person in front of you leans back on you). It would be much more comfortable were we wealthy and able to afford First Class, where they turn seats into beds. It was a big Air Canada jet (nine seats across) that ferried us over the Atlantic “pond.” The night seemed not only long but interminable.

But finally, there below us was Copenhagen, capital of Denmark. In our mostdenmark-mime-scan informative guidebook I discovered that Denmark occupies over 480 islands (only about a hundred being inhabited). Always the country has served as a pivotal strategic bridge between Europe and Scandinavia. Denmark is also the world’s oldest monarchy. Trivia buffs might be interested in the Danish flag as it is the world’s oldest. Like many tourists who come here, I associated the little nation as home to the intrepid Vikings and the beloved folk tale anthologizer, Hans Christian Andersen. Of course his iconic Little Mermaid was a must on our places to see and photograph.

Canal cruising
Canal cruising

Throughout its history, Denmark has played a major role in European events. It was sending out Viking warships as early as the Ninth Century. During the denmark-mermaid-scanreign of Canute (1018-35), the Danish king also ruled over England and Norway. Copenhagen was founded in 1167. During the reign of Valdemar (V (1340-1375), the Kalmar Union was formed; united Denmark, Norway, and Sweden into one kingdom. This lasted until 1523, when Sweden elected its own king. Disastrous wars followed and lasted until 1720. The Napoleonic aftermath was even worse. In 1814, Denmark lost 124,292 square miles of territory, including Norway. Denmark then ceased to be a great power. Copenhagen’s main attractions today include three royal palaces, museums, churches, and monuments.

But back to us; after disembarking we were bussed to the Palace Hotel, wheredenmark-royal-yacht-scan many of the Holland American passengers stayed. While waiting for a room, groggy-eyed, we wandered down to a canal where we boarded a Gray Line barge. What a fascinating water tour of the city that was! We saw the Little Mermaid from the water-side; later, from the land-side. Everyone, it seems wants to be photographed next to it.

The Royal Yacht

We were shocked to discover a city where almost everyone moved around by bicycle! More shocking yet, here cyclists have the right of way over both autos and people walking! Needless to say, the Danish are a very physically fit race. Obesity is rare.

denmark-architec-2-scanLater in the afternoon, our traveling buddies, Bob and Lucy Earp arrived from Tennessee by way of a week in London with their daughter. That evening found us in Tivoli Gardens, the most visited tourist destination in Denmark. We were now becoming sticker-shocked! Even a cup of coffee costs $10 – $15! More sticker shock for our room: $465 U.S. Next day we boarded the Zuiderdam. We would return to Copenhagen once in the middle of our cruise and again at the end. It is indeed a lovely city, and the Danes are a very happy people – especially in their all too brief summer. In the winter, they’re lucky to see the sun two to three hours a day.

Vor Frislers Kirke with spiral tower on the outside.