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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Passage De Monetier, A Not So Secret Passage

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is an historical passage in Geneva’s old town.  You enter at the top of the Rue du Perron (by No. 19) and exit off the alley Monetier, at the base of the old ramparts.  The passage zig zags between medieval buildings for around 100 meters (328 feet), narrowing to 50 cm (20 inches)!

Courtesy of Wikipedia

Given layout between residential buildings, darkness and narrowness, it’s not surprising that this secret passage is open to the public only during the last two days of Geneva’s Escalade festivities.  The rest of the year, it is closed.  Get in on the action this weekend while you still can!

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Occupied since Roman times, Geneva is ancient.   Over time, Geneva grew and extended its fortifications.  The passage began as a simple path between early fortifications sometime during the 600-1100 A.D. that protected the hill of Saint-Pierre (on which Cathedral St. Pierre sits).

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In the Middle Ages buildings weren’t glued to each other.  As new fortifications and buildings were built, Passage Monetier became a passage or alley.  It took on its current route around 1300-1400 A.D. and allows access from one neighborhood to another without detours.  Without indoor plumbing alleys served as an open sewers and it probably didn’t smell great.

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The Savoyards came along the Aarve River, assembled at Plainpalais and attacked from the back of the city.

There’s an urban myth that says the passage had something to do with the surprise attack by Savoyard troops sent by Charles Emmanuel I, Duke of Savoy during the night of 11–12 December 1602 to attack Geneva.  Alas, it is just that, a myth.  Neither attacks, nor the battle that night  took place near there.  Its opening merely serves as one of the festivities comprising L’Escalade festival which celebrates Geneva’s win and usually occurs in 12th of December.

L'Escalade à Genève, 1602. The Escalade in Gen...

L’Escalade à Genève, 1602. The Escalade in Geneva in 1602. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

Thun, Worth Making A Stop On The Way To Interlaken

We’d passed by Thun, before.  It’s on the way to Interlaken and we’d heard there was a castle there.  We’d just never stopped to see it.  Last weekend was a long weekend so we weren’t on as much of a schedule.  Someone at his work told him that the town merited a stop and a stroll.  They were right.

The most important things to know about Thun are:

  • It is located on the Aare River at the lower end of Lake Thun.
  • The historic Old Town and the newer cafes and restaurants on the river are pretty freaking cute.
  • Of course it has a castle because no self-respecting cute Swiss town would be could dead without one.
  • The distance between the aforementioned castle is short, but very steep.  Welcome to the Bernese Oberland.

It sounds nice, but is pretty standard for Switzerland.

We found Thun to be unique with interesting features that make it one of the better Swiss towns.

The main shopping thoroughfare boasts terraced sidewalks built on the roofs of the stores’ first floors.  You can stroll the upper level or climb down stone stairs to visit the “sunken” street-level shops.

They have a covered bridge.

He loved the old bridge over the river. Yep, they retrofitted it to generate power.

Somehow, the town seems more colorful than cities like Bern, Zurich or Geneva.

How Do You Know When Spring Has Arrived In Geneva? Check The Chestnut In Old Town

How do you know spring has arrived?  Flowers, spring showers, sundresses or swimming in the lake?  In Geneva’s old town, there is a tree, a chestnut, that is the official harbinger of spring.  Well, maybe it’s only the quasi-official harbinger, but it’s good enough.  In Geneva’s Old Town, on the Promenade de la Treille, is a tree whose first bud marks the official arrival of spring (Marronnier Officiel).  It’s known as “l’eclosion” which translates as “the hatching” or “the blooming” but in this case means “the budding.”

The first bud was charted since 1808!  It has always come sometime between January and the beginning of April, varying considerably (but generally getting progressively earlier).  This year, it arrived on March 13!  It’s official, spring is here.

Since observations began, several trees have been used.  The original from 1818  to 1905, the second from until 1928,  and the current since 1929.  The current tree is so bent over that it has to be propped up with a pole.

In 1808, Marc-Louis Rigaud-Martin began recording the tree’s first bud, likely out of a kind of scientific curiosity.  Since 1818, all the dates have been recorded on a parchment-roll in a special place in Geneva’s State Council chamber.

Workers of the city stroll past the tree over periodically during the key months and even use binoculars to examine the tree in greater detail.  Once, an employee hastily returned from vacation during exceptionally warm weather to avoid missing it!  They know exactly where on the tree to look as the first buds always appear on the eastern side.

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No, I’m not talking about a giant SUV.  I’m talking about a pretty cool party. Geneva’s Escalade commemorates the Protestant city of Geneva‘s defeat of the Duke of Savoy‘s Catholic troops in 1602.
I’m not really sure, but these might be Geneva’s version of Paul Revere?  If you’re going to visit Geneva, this might be the best time to do it.  It’s a really cool festival that’s part spectacle, part party and very accessible.  You’re in the middle of it so you’ll experience it with all of your senses.  The sounds of drums and fifes echoed through the city walls, while the smell of mulled wine (vin chaud) wafted through the air.

Here’s the deal. Charles Emmanuel I the Duke of Savoy wanted Geneva’s wealth. Genevans wanted their independence.  Many of them were religious refugees and would have had no where safe to go if Geneva had fallen to Catholic France. They also wanted to keep their money instead of giving it to the Duke.

When the Duke’s troops attacked, grandma threw a pot of boiling soup over the city walls as they attempted to climb them.  She then woke up the city so that it could defend itself.  Pretty much, they celebrate not their city not being overtaken by the Savoy and not becoming part of France.

It’s historic in the best possible way.  They have parades.  The old town is lit up by people carrying torches.  They really did fire the muskets!  They were so loud.  It scared the heck out of me… and the kid next to me.  They fire cannons too.  People dress up in period costumes.  Some are even on horseback.  The Passage de Monetier, a secret passage in Geneva’s old town is open for only this one night.
How do you celebrate grandma’s victory?  In the most quintessentially Swiss way. Chocolate!  They make giant tureens (cauldrons) of chocolate with marzipan vegetables (to be like granny’s tureen of soup).  Stores like Migros and Co-op sell the “vegetables.”  I bet it’s really easy to get kids to eat these vegetables.  They also have tasty street food and (of course) mulled wine.

Children dress up in costumes, kind of like they would in the US on Halloween.  We didn’t see any risqué costumes like you do there.

The cannon was louder than the muskets.  Unfortunately, there are not enough occasions where shooting off a cannon is permitted.  If you can get away with it, it definitely says celebration (or attack). There’s also a race/run that takes place weekend of or preceding the night of the 11th It usually starts in the  Parc des Bastions, where the Savoy troops congregated before attacking the walled city, and goes through Geneva’s old town, before finishing near the start. It’s a big deal here and everyone gets involved; you’ll even see families and running together.   There’s even a youth race and a costume run.

*Escalade translates from French into English as climbing.

 

 

Tourist’s Geneva – St. Pierre Cathedral

When you look at Geneva, the building that stands out is the cathedral on top of old town. It’s called St. Pierre Cathedral.  On your first clear day in Geneva, go to the top and enjoy the view.  In addition to the stellar view, the building’s history tells you a lot about the city of Geneva.
 
They’ve started excavating underneath St. Pierre Cathedral and found Roman ruins* (visit the archaeological site to learn more).  The site was continuously occupied until the current building was built in the 12th century. Back then, it was a Catholic church.  When the reformation arrived, it became a center of the Reformation.  The cathedral is best known as Calvin’s home church.  They even have his chair inside. 
 
Calvin’s chair

The Reformation brought changes to the building as well. It’s philosophy of austerity impacted the interior of the cathedral.   Ornaments were removed; colors were whitewashed.  The Calvinists didn’t believe in religious images, so statues, alters, paintings and furniture were out.  The windows are just about the only thing they keptCompare this to St. Peter‘s Cathedral in Rome and you can really see the austerity, solemnity and restraint.

To get to the top, you will climb 157 steps up to the North Tower.
Don’t get spooked out by the twisty stairs or the attic-type space, keep heading up.
Don’t stop when confronted by wire cage.
If you continue, you will be rewarded.  Aaaahhhh.  There it is, that’s the shot you came to get.
*There are Roman ruins throughout Switzerland.  I even stumble onto them during my runs (there’s a ruins of a Roman villa in the Parc des Eaux-Vives).  We saw them in St. Saphorin and Sion has Roman roots.
 

Dinner in Malmö

 
Our last night in Copenhagen, we went to dinner in Malmö, Sweden.   To get there, we took Øresund Bridge. It is not just any bridge. At 7,845 meters (25,738 feet), it is Europe’s longest road and rail bridge (the rail is on a second level below the road) and a pretty impressive engineering feat. To keep shipping lanes unobstructed and avoid interference with planes from the nearby airport, the first portion of the bridge is a tunnel!
 
The tunnel

You emerge from the tunnel on an artificial island (created from the earth dug out for the tunnel).  From there, the suspension bridge starts.

Artificial island created from the earth excavated for the tunnel
The bridge from the island
View of the Øresund Strait from the backseat

The bridge made getting from Malmö to Copenhagen quick and easy (you can still take a ferry). It created a renaissance in Malmö and some people who live there commute to Copenhagen. Prior to that evening, my knowledge of Malmö was almost entirely derived from The Millennium Trilogy, sorry Sweden.


Beautiful landscape on the way to Malmö, it is traditionally an agricultural area. 
We had dinner in the Old Town. It was great to walk around the old streets and window shop. There were lots of very trendy looking people grabbing dinner and drinks outside.
We drove from Denmark to Sweden, ordered in English, ate Spanish Tapas and followed it with Italian espresso. Next time, we will try to be more international, but it’s definitely not a bridge to nowhere.