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Into Estonia

by Going Slowly


As I checked us out of our campsite this morning, I sheepishly handed a note to the woman working in the office. Before packing our tent, I had torn a piece of paper from one of our notebooks, consulted google translate, and carefully scrawled a message as legibly as I could on the scrap. In big, chunky, chisel-point permanent marker, it read:

Lūdzu, kur ir zilas govis?

As the woman took my money and read the note, I waited, hoping a glimmer of understanding would appear in her eyes. There was a slight pause before she said, in a thick Latvian accent, "Yu know what this mins?" Unsure if my translation was woefully inaccurate, maybe even somehow offensive, I offered a cautious, "Yes?" Then, to my relief, she smiled disarmingly and responded, "Yu heva map?"

Thus began our search for the elusive Latvian blue cow. Questionable accounts state there are only 28 left in existence, and they are supposed to roam free somewhere in the Jūrmala region. We'd camped smack in the middle of the area last night, and were now hoping to begin our hunt. I ran back to the car for the map on our computer, and proffered it to the woman behind the desk.

Unfortunately, she pointed us directly back the way we'd come yesterday. I tried my message a few more times with various people around town, but the response was always the same: backtrack. Crap! After some deliberation, to hunt for blue cows or not to hunt for blue cows, we decided we needed to continue eastwards.


Lonely Planet describes Latvia as "vibrant, enigmatic and altogether mesmerising" as well as "a sizzling Baltic sexpot." We couldn't help but laugh when we read this. It is lovely, yes, with nice people, of course. There are abandoned beaches and miles of forest and quaint farms dotted here and there. But sizzling Baltic sexpot? We're not so sure. Still, we had a good laugh as we drove along, saying, "GOD, what a SEXPOT!"

Riga Clocktower

Shortly after zipping through a maze of abandoned border buildings, we were in Estonia, without even a welcome sign to greet us. Apart from a swift jump in the speed limit from 70 kilometers per hour to a more realistic 100 kilometers per hour, there was not much to immediately distinguish the two countries.

Estonian Flower

Until an Estonian cop waved me to the side of the road. My heart thudding loudly in my chest, I quickly rattled off a mental list of all the things I could possibly have done wrong, but couldn't come up with a thing. Headlights were on. I hadn't been speeding. Seatbelts were fastened. What could it be?

The neon-vest-wearing officer strode up to our little red car, and I rolled my window down. "Passports please" he said. Tyler handed them over to me, and I in turn, to him. He deftly flipped them open to the front pages, glancing down at the photos, then up at us.

Then, he adopted an expression of mock suspicion, glaring at the photo, then glaring at us, as if doubtful we were who we claimed to be. He cracked a smile. "You're heading to where?" he asked, amiably. "We're just going to visit Finland!" I said. He thrust the passports back into my hand, said, "Okay, you have nice trip!" and waved me back on the road. Phew!

From that point, we didn't encounter a single soul all the way to Estonia's capital city of Tallinn. We were hoping to see one of these, but we didn't:

Attention: Moose

After getting settled in a nice hostel, we took showers, got dressed, and left to wander around Tallinn. It is starting to feel like all the old towns we've seen are interchangeable as our memories of them blurring from one into the next. Even so, we once again found ourselves enjoying a stroll through another collection of historical buildings.

Tallinn Cyclist

We window shopped, and peeked inside a store or two. When I spied some hand-thrown pottery, I found myself poking around what was touted as a medieval shop. A few steps in, the shop gave way to an adjoining medieval restaurant complete with pottery beer mugs and servers decked out in finery from the middle ages! How cool!

Olde Hansa Restaurant Bar

Though this was very clearly a tourist haunt, it was also awesome; every detail from the wooden tables to the flickering candles to the paintings on the wall made me feel like I'd stepped back in time.

Olde Hansa Candle

We were greeted by a friendly guy in period-appropriate tights and a flowing shirt. He spoke perfect English and cordially showed us the menu, not being the slightest bit pushy. They served several dishes featuring things like bear and boar meat!

Olde Hansa Restaurant Wall

We don't generally patronize touristy food establishments, or eat out at all, for that matter. But, it seemed a shame to pass the place by. Tyler agreed, and once we'd found a table and ordered a mug of beer apiece, I remembered that we'd recently received a thoughtful donation from one of our readers.

(It feels so strange to say "one of our readers" like it is a totally normal thing!)

After some quick calculations, we deduced that we had enough for dinner. Thank you so much, Al Thoma! This meal was the highlight of our very brief stay in Estonia!

We were seated at a small, candle-lit table in the corner. I had a dark, sweet beer flavored with herbs, and Tyler picked a dark honey beer. They were both delicious and complex in flavor, almost a meal in their own right. They came in hefty ceramic tumblers, and drinking from them sparked memories of using my own hand thrown pottery back home. We've been eating out of collapsible silicon for so long that I'd all but forgotten about this.

Tara Drinking Juniper Beer

As we waited for our food to arrive, we listened to the haunting music that played in the background and tried to record it. We especially liked hearing servers tromp up crooked wooden stairs to deliver food to patrons sitting up there, as well as the creaking sound the bathroom door made as people came in and out.

We weren't sure what to expect when we ordered our meals, but we were very pleasantly surprised when they arrived. I had a plate of Bear, Elk, and Wild Boar sausages (!) with an array of side-dishes including red currant sauce (like cranberry sauce), sweet onion chutney, a tangy sauerkraut of sorts, candied turnips (so good!), and horseradish cream sauce. I cut pieces of sausage and tried them with my various toppings; each varied bite was excellent.

Bear Sausages, Candied Turnips & Chutnies

It was almost overwhelming to taste so many new (old, traditional) flavors. There were so many different herbs and spices that I had a hard time recognizing them all, and was briefly appalled by how limited my modern day palettes is.

Tara Eating at Olde Hansa

Tyler ordered a thick meat soup, served with a spelt bread roll and some onioney soft cheese to spread over it. He was just as pleased with his choice as I was with mine. I tried a bite of his just to see, and sure enough, it was really good!

Tyler Eating at Olde Hansa

Completely full of delicious, unusual food, we left the middle ages and walked through Tallinn's picturesque streets back to our hostel. Thank you so much for that experience, Al!

Tallinn by Night Tallinn by Night Tyler & Benz K-I-S-S-I-N-G
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Wow, Tallinn looks so romantic by night. I almost visited Estonia backpacking a few years ago, but with limited time, I decided to stick to the Balkans instead - I've really been enjoying your Romania stories. :)

I came across your blog about a week ago and have been reading it and checking out your amazing (!) pictures. Thanks SO much for sharing! I'm sure you'll be so glad to have all your stories well-documented and put together so you can look back on it years from now.

My boyfriend and I plan to do a long bike ride at some point within the next couple of years, and reading your reports is very inspiring and helpful. Thanks again!!

Love the last pic, btw. :)
Posted by Logan on July 10th, 2010 at 10:24 PM
I'm glad you like Olde Hansa. I ate there in 2007 and had the same sausage plate. Definitely kitsch, but worth it. I look forward to reading about your travels in Russia!
Posted by Stephen Bruce on July 11th, 2010 at 8:02 AM
Logan - Hi! So nice to hear you're enjoying our site! Just out of curiosity, how did you find it?

Maintaining our website does feel a bit like scrap-booking, only instead of waiting until we get home, we do it every day!

If you do go on a trip with your boyfriend, don't hesitate to ask us questions during the planning process. I know it can be a bit overwhelming at times, so if we can help, just let us know. :-) Also, if you keep a journal or blog or something, we'd love to check it out!

I love that last photo too. It's one of my favorites. :-) Thanks for taking the time to say 'hello'!

Stephen - Crazy you had the exact same meal! The Russia stories will start coming in an hour or two, so I hope you enjoy them! :-)

Posted by Tara on July 28th, 2010 at 3:58 PM