Terriffic Tallinn

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Learning about Tallinn’s history I heard a phrase I haven’t heard since my high school Western Civilizations class, The Hanseatic League.  Huh?   What does that have to do with anything?   Learning about it was pretty cool.  The Hanseatic League was middlemen/traders.  For about 500 years (from 1250-1750), they controlled most of the commerce in northern Europe.

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Before the rise of powerful kings and the modern nation-state, local leaders ruled small fiefdoms, kingdoms, dukedoms and probably other –doms.  Local governments were small and relatively weak.  City dwellers were interested in trade, but paying taxes and tolls to each and every feudal overlord was excessive and impeded trade.   Rulers and the various -doms were too small to develop an effective coordinated response to pirates on the seas.   It was difficult to conduct any sort of large-scale commercial activity in such an environment.

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Enter the Hanseatic League.  Prominent merchants banded together, forming a merchant guild to defend themselves against pirates.  They hired armies to protect their ships and ports.   It worked well and they began establishing trading posts in abroad where they bargained with local leaders for discounts.  The Hanse (which in German means trading guild) would trade fish from Scandinavia for grain from the Baltics or luxury goods from Flanders or English wool.  It worked well and trade flourished.  Everyone got something out of it and the League got rich off of their cut.  Not only rich, in a time before strong nation states, they became powerful.  In their heyday, they were a dominant force and stabilizing influence.

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If it worked, what happened?  Rising nation states, particularly their kings, didn’t want to compete for power and were jealous of the League’s wealth.  Plus, the post-reformation religious wars tore apart old Hanseatic alliances.   By the 16th century, trade moved decisively to the south and west as countries like Portugal, Italy, Spain and France set ships to explore and return with treasures from Africa and the Americas.

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We took the ferry from Helsinki to Tallinn, Estonia.  While it was a short ride, it had a culture that was distinct from Scandinavia, both Nordic and Russian.   After the decline of the Hanseatic League, it experienced two centuries of Tsarist Russia rule before World War I and 45 years of communist rule after World War II.  In September 1991, Estonia left the Soviet Union and declared independence (along with the three Baltic states of Latvia, and Lithuania).  The U.S.S.R. recognized Estonia as being independent on September 6, 1991.  In November Yeltsin issued a decree banning the Communist Party throughout Russia.

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While independence was natural for many Estonians, it has an enormous Russian population, many of whose families came during communism and never fully integrated.  Nevertheless, many Estonians think of themselves as part of the Nordic and European sphere and Estonia is part of the European Union.

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It was a quick walk into the old town Tallinn from the ferry terminal and an easy cab ride to the airport.  While we saw old wood buildings in the areas surrounding the old town, the walled city has an Old World ambience.  Tallinn’s old town medieval center is amazingly well-preserved as there wasn’t a lot of building there during communism.  The old town has watchtowers, colorfully painted medieval houses, cobblestoned lanes, and old Lutheran churches.

Tallinn, view

Tallinn, view (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Post-communism, Tallinn modernized quickly and prices have risen with the development.  Even so, being used to Swiss prices, we almost cheered when we saw Tallinn’s rates.  The food was great and we enjoyed dinners out, something we don’t do often in Geneva.  We weren’t the only ones, the streets were filled with people eating, drinking and making merry.  There was a general relaxed, happy summer vibe.  Scandinavians, especially Swedes and Finns, come for a night away and cheap alcohol as it is very highly taxed in their home countries.

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The Town hall of Tallinn, Estonia. Eesti: Tall...

The Town hall of Tallinn, Estonia. Eesti: Tallinna raekoda. Français : L’hôtel de ville de Tallinn, en Estonie. Русский: Таллинская Ратуша. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Town Hall Square has served as a marketplace since the time of the Hanseatic League. The 15th century Town Hall dominates the square.  There are lots of impressive churches like the Cathedral of Saint Mary o, but the best part about Tallinn is the Estonians who inhabit it and how well-preserved it is.  Enjoy wandering the streets, talking to people and taking in all the details.

Tallinn Old Town (Toompea)

Tallinn Old Town (Toompea) (Photo credit: rlanvin)

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Picasso, Yachts And Ramparts In Antibes

You could drive the entire Côte d’Azur (aka the French Rivera) and see all the towns along it, but it would take you forever and all the traffic would drive you crazy.  We didn’t have the time (or stamina) to do it all.  Instead, we picked a few of the best towns on the coast: Antibes, Nice and Villefranche-sur-Mer.  Antibes has sandy beaches (many on the Côte d’Azur are rocky), an agreeable old town, and a nice Picasso Museum.

When we get a yacht, we want one with a helicopter too.

Antibes’s port is filled with enormous luxury yachts.  We watched crews getting the yachts ready for the start of the season.  We didn’t see anyone famous, but in the past few days Jennifer Connelly, Princess Beatrice, Hayden Panettiere and Petra Nemcova have all been sighted there.

Before joining France in 1860, nearby Nice was under Italian rule. Antibes was the last French town before the Italian border. As a result, the French built a fort and some major ramparts.  From the harbor, you can see Fort Carre, in the center of the port.    We strolled the ramparts, enjoying the sun and the beautiful views.

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote one of his best known works, Tender is the Night, based on life in Antibes.  Judging from the story, we thought Antibes wouldn’t be too laid back or plebeian.  Nevertheless, Antibes has a down-to-earth ambience.  Well, at least it’s more down to earth than many of the neighboring towns (Cannes, I’m looking at you).  Ramparts and towers wrap the old town and guard its medieval streets.

It’s not some dour medieval town.  Party animals like Rudolf Valentino and Charlie Chaplin partied here in the roaring 20’s.  Legend has it that water skiing was invented in Antibes in the 1920s.  In 1946 after World War II, 65-year-old Pablo Picasso moved there with 23-year-old lady friend, Françoise Gilot.  He experienced a surge in creativity, painting like a madman and partying hard.  The merry, festive atmosphere continues.  We saw lots of Brits enjoying a pint in the sun.

The 12th century Chateau Grimaldi, an old town mansion on the edge of the Mediterranean, houses the Picasso Museum (it’s where he stayed while in Antibes) and has stunning views.  We took a minute to enjoy the sculpture garden on the terrace before checking out the museum’s paintings, sketches, and ceramics.

Picasso said that if you wanted to see work from his Antibes period, you’d have to do it in Antibes.  Picasso was prolific.  One of the best parts about the museum was being able to see several versions of a painting or idea.  For example, we saw about 10 platters on which he’d painted bulls.  You could see his experimentation with styles and subjects.  Fascinating.

The old town is charming, sunny, relaxed and filled with Brits.  We wandered the craft market and the antique sales.  I know, I am such a sucker.

On the way back to the car, we noticed the yacht store had a Che painting on the door.  Where do I begin?