Tuesday, July 29, 2014

DAY 41 – 26 July 2014; Helsinki to Tallinn


The reporting time for boarding the Ferry to Tallinn was given as 6.30 am. It was just a ten minute drive from the apartment to the Ferry Terminal of Tallink, the operator through who I had purchased the ticket. Viewing the glorious sunrise over the Gulf of Finland was another luxury I was entitled to from the balcony of the apartment. With the ‘music’ of the seagulls and the imperious movement of ducks in the water the sunrise was perfectly magical. I was ready before 6 am with bags packed and in the car. With salami, cheese and bread left over from the previous day I made a few sandwiches, trusting that they would become handy during the journey of the day.

I gave a call to Shaji Kafoor, to who Lal and I are immensely beholden, along with Anu Jacob, to tell him that we are ready. Observing the Ramadan fast in places like Helsinki is more than doubly difficult, for the sun sets after 11 pm and rises before 4 am; during the month of June, I was told that the ‘night’ is just a couple of hours. Anu told us that he hangs black curtains in the bedroom windows to mimic night! The contribution of these two wonderful chaps in making our stay in Helsinki memorable cannot be overstated. Shaji arrived in time to pilot us to the Ferry Terminal; while the terminal is literally a stone’s throw away from the balcony of the apartment it took us about 10 minutes to reach the point where we had to take leave of Shaji. It is getting to know characters like Shaji and Anu that make the journey rich and experiential.

The boarding procedure was smooth. At the entrance to the terminal it was clearly indicated that I
have to drive in lanes 5 to 11 to get to the ferry I was booked for. Passenger cars were not very many at that point in time. Marshalls are positioned at various points along the long drive to the ferry. The check in itself is a simple procedure. I handed in the booking docket and the passports at the counter while seated in the car. The pleasant girl generated a pass for the car and two boarding passes for its passengers in the blink of an eye. Shortly thereafter we parted with the car pass and strategically positioned Marshalls directed us into the cavernous underbelly of the ferry. Huge freighters were directed to park at the entry level of the ferry and I drove two levels up and parked where I was asked to. The Marshall at the stop point told us to refrain from taking video of the ferry. Lal and I exited with cameras and mobiles and walked a couple of levels up to the seating area.

The idea was to experience the deck, which was on the 9th floor of the ferry! Since the deck wasn’t yet open we decided to explore other options. After exploring the many options, including the special enclosure for kids (!), where the theme was food and fun, we located two chairs and a table from where we could experience the ferry the best. We still had more than a half hour to go for the scheduled departure of 7.30 am. We got down to exploiting the WiFi network! Once that was underway we took turns to have breakfast in one of the restaurants of the ferry. With Apple Juice, Coffee, Omlette, Sausages, Smoked salmon on bread, raw vegetables and bacon the meal was worth every cent of the 15 Euros we paid per head. The meal wound up with a large helping of raspberry cake! In the meanwhile, the cruise began. There were the customary welcome and safety addresses in various languages. The bars got busy and passengers started tucking into food they had either brought with them or sourced from the many food points in the ferry. The ferry operator also tried to liven up matters by organising a few games. I took a short nap and later discovered that the deck was opened. It was a superb experience on the deck. However, it was not possible to spend more time on the exposed part of the deck as it was windy and cold. The views from there, particularly at the time of nearing Tallinn and docking, were magnificent.

As the ferry was being docked instructions came over the public address system that drivers should not turn on ignition of the vehicles unless instructed due to possibility of suffocation from monoxide inhalation. After docking we waited for about 40 minutes to drive the car out. However, as it was at the time of parking, the disembarkation process and procedure was smooth too. While waiting to be waved out of the ferry I contacted the Hotel, Viimsi Spa, to get directions on how to reach there. The lady on the phone gave me clear instructions I found easy to follow while on the road. It was easy to make out that the city centre was close to the ferry terminal. We drove out of the city of Tallinn and reached Viimsi within 15 minutes. Just at the start of Viimsi was located the Hotel. The check in procedure did take an unusually long time since it was the time for check outs as well. Officially the check in time was notified in the booking document as 3 pm. We were a few hours ahead of that, having reached the Hotel by 10.30 am. The receptionist finally agreed to give us two family rooms immediately, if that was acceptable to us. We agreed and completed the check in. The rooms were comfortable, but by no means was it worth the Euros 87 that we shelled out for each!

The sun was hot and merciless. It was only 28 C, but the intensity of heat was almost unbearable. After waiting for a half hour to take a bus to tour the Old City of Tallinn we abandoned the foray in exchange for a few hours rest in the room. By 3 pm we were rested enough and the sun had become more engaging by then. Lal and I went to the hotel restaurant and had, what turned out later, a sparse meal; when we ordered we expected rather large portions. After the meal we requested the Manager of the hotel to paste the green sticker on Estonia. He was mighty pleased about the hour; more so when Lal gave him a few CDs and brochures on Kerala Tourism. Later we engaged a taxi to the Old City. On the way the driver pointed out major landmarks such as the large arched concert centre, the place where the sailing events were held during the Olympics hosted by the Soviet Union in 1980, the large parks that fringed the city centre, etc. He drove us up to a vantage point of the Old City and suggested a few walking routes.

The next few hours went by without an effort. I had a good map and an issue of the Baltic Guide to
indicate the must see sights in the Old City. But we did tour much more than that. The Kohtu, Patkul and Kiriku Platforms afford the best views of the Old City apart from the viewing platform of the St. Mary’s Cathedral, which is a steep spiral stairway of 140 steps. The impressive towers of the Niguliste and the St. Olaf’s Churches look just an arms length away. The red tiled roofs with white edges are characteristic of houses in the Old City. The Hermann Tower of the 15th century, with the Estonian Flag atop it, signifies freedom and independence to the Estonians. The Toompea Castle is the centre of the Estonian Government and houses its Parliament. It is just behind the impressive Aleksander Nevsky Cathedral. The Old City of Tallinn Is divided into the lower and upper parts; the upper part (the Toompea) was inhabited by the nobility and the lower part by the hanseatic traders. The Fat Margaret is the most important fortification tower in Tallinn. The massive tower and fortress was constructed to protect Tallinn from invasions by sea. After a few hours of leisurely stroll we landed up in the Raekoja Plats or the Town Hall Square. The Square dates back to the 1400s and is considered the best preserved of all medieval town hall squares in Northern Europe. The Old City of Tallinn was declared a UNESCO World heritage site in 1997. In one of the traditional Hanseatic restaurants we were fortunate to witness a medieval dance and music performance. The Town Hall Square itself was getting decked up for music and fun with a stage having been set up and instruments and gear being positioned for performances later in the evening.

By the time we had explored the City square we were thirsty and hungry. The Baltic Guide had recommended the Beer Garden for its wide variety of beers and excellent food. Though it did take us some time, further elaborating the hunger and thirst, we reached the excellently furnished and comfy restaurant. Just as we made ourselves comfortable a smiling Monica landed up at the table with food and wine menus. While going through the menu I remarked that she should give us a couple of litres of beer free for the effort we had taken to walk to the restaurant. She laughed and vanished, leaving us to decipher the menu. In a few minutes she arrived with two one litre mugs of A Le Coq Premium!! Lal and I were too stunned to react. I did not feel like telling the effervescent Monica that the order had been misunderstood. Lal did and she stared laughing more! When we ordered the food we ensured that it was done seriously; Lal ordered a Ceaser Salad with smoked salmon and I another with shredded lamb. We enjoyed the food and beer over a long conversation on cinema and the industry. Once the A Le Coq was nearing completion we told Monica to let us sample a couple of local favourites. She first brought us Lehe pruulikoda, an ale, and then the Hopster Esimene Vasikas. Both were distinctly different from the lager. Once the bill was settled Monica got us a taxi to head back to the Hotel.

Alexander, who was at the wheel of the taxi, was an interesting conversationalist. He told us about the Euro 300 he makes a week which he is satisfied with. Though his two years in London fetched him more money he was unhappy that he was away from his family and not enjoying life. He took Sundays off to spend time with his mother, wife and 15 year old son, who he hopes to put through college. The day had been long but thoroughly enjoyable. We reached the hotel by 11 pm and hit the sack straight away.

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