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Tallinn, the Estonian city of wonder

By Thorn Mulli | April 4th 2017 at 10:10:59 GMT +0300

An aerial shot of Tallinn in winter.

The high temperatures in Kenya have persisted longer than norm. This makes me long for Estonia, a place whose temperatures are as chilly as they can get. I took a trip last year to The Republic of Estonia, a nation in Northern Europe bordering the Baltic Sea and Gulf of Finland and sharing land borders with Latvia and Russia.

To get to Estonia, I had to go through Istanbul in a journey that took approximately six hours from Nairobi. I had some spare time to explore a little bit of Turkey whose skyline I find remarkable. One has to get a temporary visa to get into the city. Luckily, I was well prepared. When dawn broke, I was back at Istanbul's Atatürk Airport ready for my flight to Tallinn, the capital of Estonia.

Oddly, while harbour city Tallinn is the official capital, Pärnu the fourth-largest city in Estonia is the 'it' city during the summer while Otepää, a popular skiing resort in southern Estonia, takes over during winter. While I live in the highlands where temperature can go really low, I have never experienced temperatures below -20 degrees. On getting there the chill hit me and I scampered for warmth at the Nordic Hotel where I put up for the duration of my visit.

I was on an educational visit and my hosts, the Tallinn University, had planned a packed itinerary that began immediately. A guide took me, in the company of other visiting scribes, out on a walking tour of Tallinn Old Town area that had us mesmerised. It is filled with well-preserved structures of medieval and hanseatic origin. Once a home to wealthy merchants settling from Germany, Denmark and beyond, Tallinn Old Town is a northern European trading city on the coast of the Baltic Sea currently listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Our guide explained that if you were to approach Tallinn by sea, perhaps on a ferry from Finland, you would see the skyline of the Old Town well before you arrived in port. Tallinn's Old Town consists of two parts, the Upper Town and the Lower Town. During our walk, we first discovered the Upper Town, which was a stronghold of the former Tallinn nobility. After seeing Upper Town, we continued to the Lower Town where we saw the medieval merchant's houses. Going down along the Long Leg Street we saw St Olaf's Church, thought to be the highest building in the world during the 16th and 17th centuries.

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Interestingly, despite boasting well-preserved churches, Estonia is one the least religious country in the world with only 14 per cent of the population declaring religion an important part of their daily life. Our tour of Old Town ended at the town hall square inside Lower Town where the gothic Town Hall and the oldest functioning pharmacy in the world, Town Hall Pharmacy, stands.

Inside the Estonian Maritime Museum.

A visit to Estonia is not complete without a visit to at least one of its 255 museums. Being a maritime nation, our hosts took us sightseeing at a maritime museum. The highly interactive Seaplane Harbour, literally, has 'tonnes' of reasons why it's the most popular museum in Estonia. This modern museum founded in Tallinn on the initiative of former captains and sailors in 1935 is housed in an architecturally unique seaplane hangar, which includes structures that were part of the Peter the Great Naval Fortress between 1916-1917.

The authentic submarine Lembit from the 1930s, the century-old steam-powered icebreaker Suur Tõll, a Short 184 seaplane and many other life-sized exhibits are on display here. You'll get a chance to take part in maritime history, as well as participate in the many hands-on exhibits. The child in me really came out in a shooting game using life size anti-aircraft guns. The culinary experience was also eye-opening. Delectable mushrooms and fish featured mostly in menus of the different restaurants I visited. Kvass, a traditional Slavic and Baltic fermented beverage commonly made from rye bread was my favourite.

Away from the cuisine, I also had a chance to visit the Song Festival Grounds that hosts the National Song Festival. This culturally important festival is the culmination of a four-year-long nationwide singing competition starting from the grassroots. The winners clad in the national dress perform for the entire nation. Over 500 songs are performed at the festival with 500 more sung by the audience.

Tallinn is also the city that birthed Skype. We then visited the Estonian showroom where I was introduced to the digital innovations of the government and their successful ID system. Imagine registering a business in under 20 minutes, casting a ballot from the comfort of your living room, or signing legally binding documents from your mobile phone; that's Estonia for you.

I braved the cold and visited the Kõrvemaa Hike and Ski Resort. There, joyrides on snowmobiles and a kick sledge hike stretched my adrenaline rush to the limit. We wound up the tours with dinner at a restored 13th century manor christened 'Kau'.

Estonia maritime museum tourism travel
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