Hitting the Beach on the Baltic Sea in Estonia

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Located on the eastern coast of the Baltic SeaEstonia has a coastline of 3700 meters.   Surprisingly, the Baltic is not very salty and rather shallow, so it is warmer than you would expect.  I’m not saying its bath water warm, but it’s not Lake Superior cold.

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We traveled from Helsinki to Tallinn by boat in about an hour and a half.   During the Cold War with Finland so close, the Soviet Union zealously guarded its western coast and Estonia became heavily militarized under communist rule.  They were afraid people would defect.  Also, large parts of the country were off-limits to all but the Soviet military.

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With Finland so close,  most of the sea shore was declared a “border zone” meaning they were heavily fortified and citizens were prohibited from entering the water.  They monitored the sand to see if there was tracks headed out that did not return.  Most beaches were forbidden for Estonians. No one could even travel to the beach on a summer day for some fresh air, non-residents required a permit to visit them.

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Our guide told us that under communism this beach had barbed wire, concrete block observation posts (which must have been freezing in winter), other armaments and patrols.  Today, they are hugely popular in the summer.  Cool young Estonians and families flock to them to swim, play, cook out, camp, and watch the sunset.

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It probably didn’t help that the Soviets had one of their three nuclear submarine training facilities not far from there in the city of Paldiski.  Its nuclear reactors functioned continuously for twenty years.  In addition to the nuclear submarine training center (complete with a full-scale model of a nuclear submarine with working nuclear reactors), it was a support base for the Soviet Baltic Fleet‘s submarines and several other large military bases.  A former sailor on a submarine said “I’ve seen the whole world, just not above the water.”

 

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The Soviet Union brought hundreds of thousands of Russian migrants to Estonia to assist with their militarization.  This forced migration resulted in an increase of about half a million people in 45 years!  The Soviets built Soviet-style buildings apartment buildings for them.  The styles are nicknamed after the Premier in power at the time of construction.  Apparently you want to live in a Stalin or a Khrushchev and not a Chernenko or a Gorbachev (they were actually General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party and/or President of the Soviet Union, not Premier), because the quality of the building materials degenerated. By the end, it was pretty shoddy.  Once our guide pointed it out, it was easy to see the difference and tell when they were built by their state of decay.

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The Soviet Union brought hundreds of thousands of Russian migrants to Estonia to assist with their militarization.  This forced migration resulted in an increase of about half a million people in 45 years!  The Soviets built Soviet-style buildings apartment buildings for them.  The styles are nicknamed after the Premier in power at the time of construction.  Apparently you want to live in a Stalin or a Khrushchev and not a Chernenko or a Gorbachev (they were actually General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party and/or President of the Soviet Union, not Premier), because the quality of the building materials degenerated. By the end, it was pretty shoddy.  Once our guide pointed it out, it was easy to see the difference and tell when they were built by their state of decay.

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After the end of the “Cold War” the facilities passed to Estonian control in 1994 after the last Russian troops left the country. These Russian Immigrants were given the choice of returning to Moscow or remaining.  Many chose to remain in their apartment blocks in former military towns; they’d spent most of their lives there and didn’t want to leave their home.  As a result, today there are pockets of people who haven’t integrated into Estonian society, don’t speak Estonian and don’t have employment as the bases closed.  Ethnic tensions linger and it is a significant problem for Estonia.

 

From it.wikipedia.org

 

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What Do Finns Bring Back From Vacation?

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In Scandinavian countries, alcohol is HIGHLY taxed.   Not surprisingly, they are always ready to take advantage of a deal on alcohol.  He says that he’s never seen anything like the Swedes with an open bar.  Yes, I realize that I’m overgeneralizing a bit here.

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Alcohol is not taxed at the same high rate on the cruises and ferries in the Baltic. As a result, Booze cruises are popular and people take advantage of ferries to lower tax countries to buy alcohol. While waiting for our ferry from Helsinki to Tallinn, we saw people disembarking with their souvenirs.

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If you’re travelling in the Nordics and want to drink. You might want to plan ahead and take advantage of the deals from duty-free. The natives do. DSC_0371 DSC_0372 DSC_0373 DSC_0374 DSC_0377

 

Finnish This Brew, A Helsinki Microbrew Festival

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While exploring Helsinki, we stumbled upon a Finnish microbrew festival.  He loves microbrews, so we had to check it out.

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It was a good chance to meet and talk with Finns.  Everyone had told us that the Finns are reserved and not the sort of people to use two words when one will do.   When drinking, this does not appear to be the case.  We were repeatedly engaged in conversation by nearby Finns.  We really enjoyed chatting about their country, beer and life with them.

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While you might not be able to name a single Finnish brew as they don’t export a lot of it, they have a surprisingly good microbrew culture.  The Finns are making some fantastic microbrews.  If you’re traveling there, they are definitely worth seeking out.  There were too many participants to name them all.

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Some of our favorites were:

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They weren’t all crazy beers, but for the traditional Finnish beer drinker, the IPA’s Ale’s and Stouts were probably different than what they grew up with.  However, a growing number of Finns are choosing microbrews instead of the typical beers produced by big global brewing conglomerates.   Karhu (which translates to bear), a traditional Finnish beer, is now owned by Carlsberg.  Many people report boycotting it post acquisition, however a decline in sales cannot be verified.  Small breweries only account for about 1 percent of Finland’s total beer consumption in Finland, but it’s growing each year as Finns develop a taste for more character filled craft beers.   With such good local brews to choose from, it comes as no surprise.

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Our favorite was the Malmgård’s Brewery.  Their Dinkel and Arctic Circle Ale were exceptional.  We met the head of marketing who told us a bit about the brewery, beer in Finland.  The brewery’s products are produced by hand in small batches using clear spring water, the domestic malts, cereals from the farm’s own fields.  They don’t use any additives. Malmgård has both the standard craft beers and more adventurous products.    If you’re in the US, you can get some through Shelton Brothers in shops featuring organic and locally produced products. DSC_0179DSC_0180

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Suomenlinna Fortress – The Russians Came!

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Suomenlinna Fortress is one of the islands in the Baltic Sea that surround Helsinki‘s harbor.  When we told a Finnish gal that we were going there, he said “it a great place to shoot Russians from.”  Historically, there has been more than a little tension between Finland and its close neighbor, Russia.

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In the mid-1700’s, Russia under Peter the Great was rising as a power.  Pete had just built a shiny new capital called St. Petersburg nearby and had his binoculars trained on the west.  Sweden built the Suomenlinna Fortress (christened Sveaborg by the Swedes) with French financial assistance to address the threat Pete posed.

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The second largest or of its type (after Gibraltar), it is a serious fort to counter a serious threat.    When it was built, it was high-tech and a big deal.  It had the world’s largest dry dock, over 5 miles of walls and hundreds of cannons.

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We checked out the museum to learn a little about its history (there are several others on the island, but the weather was so good that we wanted to be outside).  There, about defenses and battles.  In 1808, the Russians came, led by Alexander I, who had colluded with Napoleon, and began bombarding it (see below).

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When no Swedish reinforcements arrived, the Russians took the fortress, occupied it, and called it Viapori.  The Finnish war ended with the Treaty of Fredrikshamn under which Sweden ceded Finland to the Russian Empire in 1809.  Part of the reason Finland is an independent nation today is because it became an autonomous grand duchy within the empire.

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The Russians expanded the fortress, building extra barracks, a bigger dockyard and extra fortifications.   The English and French tried unsuccessfully to take the fort during the Crimean War.  Unfortunately, they only succeeded in damaging it.  Fortunately, the damage was repaired after the war.  In the build-up to World War I, the Russians used it as part of its defenses to designed to safeguard the capital, St. Petersburg.

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Following the Russian Revolution in 1917, Suomenlinna became part of an independent Finland.  Later during and after the Finnish Civil War, the island held a prison camp.  The island’s museum has artifacts from, paintings and photos of all these events.

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Today, Helsinki’s Suomenlinna Fortress is more than just one of the largest maritime fortresses and a UNESCO World Heritage site.  It’s a cool place to hang out.  It’s only a fifteen minute ferry-boat ride from the center of Helsinki.

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We wandered around the grounds and scampered on the rocks, enjoying the sun, picnicking and taking pictures.  While taking this one, I slid on the slick rock and fell into the Baltic (thank goodness the camera didn’t go under.  He sat there and laughed at me trying unsuccessfully to scamper out on the algae covered rocks.  Unfortunately for me, he wasn’t the only one.  Suomenlinna is the place to hang on a nice summer day.  We saw Finns lazing on the rocks and picnicking in sunny fields.

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The island is home to 850 residents, who have a pretty cool little town.  There’s a nice brewery, a bar, nice cafes, and a general store.  Many of the residents are artists who sell their wares on the island.  I bought a beautiful pair of earrings that were way cooler than their relatively inexpensive price tag.  The island is especially relaxing because there are barely any cars on the island, although I hear that people used to be able to get to Helsinki via snowmobile in winter.

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We explored the ancient fortress walls and tunnels, checked out the rusty cannons and peered through the gun holes.  There’s a submarine from the cold war to tour and the museum.  The island also houses military barracks.

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Saunas, That’s Hot!

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Scandinavia is known for its saunas.  While we were there, we indulged and I developed a new addiction.   They are amazing.  I want one,  maybe we should build a home sauna in our basement bomb shelter

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Traditionally, Saunas are wood paneled rooms (sometimes in cabins like the one below) with wooden benches that are heated with wood fired stoves topped with rocks.  Today, many of the stoves are electric (for the heating unit).  Infrared saunas exist, but the steam is part of what makes it so good.

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You ladle water onto the rocks/stove to create steam.   We saw shops selling fancy buckets and ladles all over Scandinavia.  Since warm air rises, the higher the bench, the hotter the temperature.  It gets really hot and you sweat out all sorts of toxins.

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Locals claim that slapping the skin with birch branches enhances circulation.  They also believe that the chlorophyll releases opens your sinuses.   Being American, we didn’t beat each other with branches or didn’t go in the buff  (although locals do both).

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We did, however repeatedly cool off.  Many take a cold shower.  If there is snow, people will go roll around in it.

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Our favorite way of cooling off spot was on the island of Grinda in Stockholm’s archipelago.  We started by walking tentatively into the Baltic Sea and ended by taking giant leaps into it.  Even though I hate Polar Bear swims, I’d jump in from the sauna every day if I could.

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