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Winter Wonderland in Old Town Tallinn, Estonia

Does Tallinn, Estonia ring a (jingle) bell?

I'd never heard of it until early last year when I stumbled upon Tallinn Tourism Board's Instagram (R! O! I!). When a cheap flight alert came through my inbox after months of following their travel-lusty photos of colorful town squares and cobblestone streets, I immediately forwarded it to Cassandra. I think you see where this story is going.

Before we knew it, it was the weekend before Thanksgiving and we were off to this very new-to-us, very foreign region. Not only had neither of us been to the Baltics before, but also most importantly! We're both very much warm weather dwellers (Christmas-in-shorts kind of people) and thus, the exact opposite of Elsa: the cold has ALWAYS bothered us. This was our first cold weather destination, and it clearly showed: most of the things in our suitcases were borrowed or frantically purchased at the last minute.

But Tallinn, my goodness! If it's not yet on your radar, this is me ringing all the bells and insisting that it needs to be. It's one of the coolest (pun intended) places I've ever been, and evokes all the childhood storybook dreams of yore.
Bright and early, we hauled on our wool socks and bulky boots and fleece leggings and a second layer of pants and gloves and scarves and earwarmers and thermal shirts and cozy sweaters and parkas that swallowed us whole - a process that took a full twenty minutes.

...and then the exploring began!

Knowing not much more than the fact that our Airbnb was situated somewhat close to the main square in Old Town, we set out in the direction that looked liveliest and followed a path of wet roads and adorable pastel buildings, chattering away with each other about how cold we were and geez, it REALLY is cold isn't it and how much colder do you think it'll get and... all of a sudden, Cassandra gasped and started speed-walking because she'd been the first to catch sight of this:
That towering fir, all lit up against the gray skies in the center of the Town Square - Raekoja plats, the rich scent of mulled wine simmering just yards away; and wow who knew that the brisk chill makes this scene all the warmer. Twirling around and prancing to and fro, we were absolutely delighted but also a bit puzzled at how no one else seemed the least bit affected.


We peered curiously into the charming wooden huts where locals were selling wool hats and gloves, and frying up sausages and dumplings. But each time we tried to smile or exchange pleasantries, they'd demurely look away. Later, we learned that this is the Estonian way: mostly stoic, averse to small talk, but really very warm once you get a few glasses of wine in them.
After circling the Christmas market for awhile, it was time to see more of Old Town Tallinn.  From the towers of Viru Gate, through the main shopping stretch that boasted a number of cafes and modern boutiques, and back to Town Square because we just couldn't get enough...

...of the Christmas tree (which is famous because it stands in the same spot where the very first Christmas tree in the world supposedly did back in the 1400s), and also of the dumplings!

These dumplings, these dumplings, these dumplings. Pan-fried golden, they burn your tongue just a little, but OH is it so worth it. Perfectly plump, with just a graze of salt, and the most delicious explosion of flavor hidden inside - especially tasty with a healthy dollop of sour cream on top.
Next was the free Tallinn Walking Tour, which I highly recommend.

Given by locals, it's the best way to see and learn about all of the famous landmarks. Our guide walked us through the more historical quarters of lower Old Town, the current government buildings in upper Toompea, and then to the famous vista points that overlook a sea of red rooftops. By far the most special part of this tour was its brief lesson on Estonian history and alllllll of its various occupations (Vikings! Danes! Russia! Nazis! Soviets again!), as well as its illustration of what it's like to live in Estonia now. Frankly, I'd move there in a heartbeat - free public transportation, universal health care, everything is digitalized and so advanced, and there's a heavy emphasis on tech and innovation. 
The endpoint of the walking tour happened to be right by Cafe Maiasmokk - a cafe that came highly praised and which also happens to be the oldest cafe in the city of Tallinn.

And so we found ourselves a table by the window, pulled out our journals, and quietly enjoyed a pavlova cake and cappuccino in the warmth. 

"IT'S SNOWING!" Cassandra declared after a little while, and sure enough - if you squinted just so, you could make out the first icy flakes drifting down and melting promptly as they hit the ground. Downing the rest of the cappuccinos, we hastened through the scarf > parka > Hot Hands stuffed into gloves > earwarmers process and ran outside, sticking out our tongues to catch tiny snowflakes and stamping our feet in minuscule snow puddles for that satisfying crunch. Then, the cold started feeling a bit painful (Californians *eyeroll*) so we raced back to our Airbnb to bulk up our layers. 
... and of course, we headed back to the Old Town Square afterwards to take in the winter wonderland in all of its snowy glory - mulled wine(s) in hand. Please note that this was 1pm and I was double-fisting mulled wine: one original flavored, and one "Vana Tallinn" (the liquor that's their pride and joy) flavored that came in hot with 40% alcohol content, which made for a great afternoon...
Snow falling heavily at this point, we retraced the steps from our walking tour, delighting in the empty streets, having snowball fights on-the-fly, and admiring the gorgeous churches, medieval towers, and rooftops blanketed in white. It was like being a kid again, our hoods weighed down with matted snow, and practically giddy with glee as we watched the world turn white around us.
OK, now I have to tell you about what is very likely my all-time favorite travel memory. Based on our tour guide's recommendation, we feasted on crepe-style pancakes at Kompressor - whose aesthetic is very reminiscent of my freshman dorm's dining hall and whose pancakes were hearty and filling, and perfect for a cold, wintry night in Europe. Perhaps a little too hearty and filling because soon after dinner, we were desperate for a nap.

Thus, back to our Airbnb we went for a short snooze - only the jet lag hit us real hard, and we were thisclose to calling it a night. But because we really only had this one day in Old Town Tallinn (we were leaving for Riga, Latvia at 7am), we half-heartedly encouraged each other to crawl out of bed, don our twenty layers, and head out for at least some hot chocolate.

And so we did - first, it was Cafe Maiasmokk again for a steamy mug of hot cocoa, and then predictably - we were lured back to the town square to catch the Christmas tree twinkling in the night to the soundtrack of some carollers decked out in traditional costumes.  And because we were out anyway, we decided to take the long way home and perhaps grab a pint of beer somewhere along the way. 
There was no pub in sight, but instead a tiny storefront boasting the name "Wine Not?" down a silent street that we'd wandered down. Something about the place - whether it was the name, or the flickering candlelight, or just the enticing promise of that first sip of red wine - called out for us to enter.

The first glass of wine was pleasant, and we thoroughly enjoyed a conversation with the owner, a young Portuguese fellow who had moved to Tallinn for love. Two more parties joined - one was a larger, livelier group who left after a short stay. The other was a couple and their beagle named Oxford who sat behind me.

Cassandra and I chatted quietly and China became a topic of conversation, and then the woman behind me tapped my shoulder and said that she couldn't help but interrupt, but heard us talking about China and she actually just returned from a business trip there...

and then we were talking about Tallinn and how we had found our way here over Thanksgiving,

and then we were talking about our great love of traveling through the Balkans,

and then the man told us all about Mongolia and his travels,

then work, and society, and the Estonian culture...

and then the owner pulled up a chair to join the conversation, and Cassandra and I swung our chairs around too. Two younger fellows filed in and said that it looked like such a party in here! It turned out that they were diplomats, and so then we were interested in their take on Estonia. Then, a gentleman from Finland walked in, followed by the man who lived upstairs, too. We had spirited discussions about politics and ethics and history (tears were shed at one point), and traveling and restaurants, and Estonia, America and everywhere in between - and our wine glasses were never empty. Cassandra and I made eye contact and kind of shook our heads in disbelief; it seemed so surreal - sitting here with ten or eleven strangers, on our seventh glass of wine, hearing their stories, sharing ours. Our Finnish friend downed a last glass of wine, stood up, and announced before leaving "I was feeling very blue tonight because I found out my mother was diagnosed with melanoma... so thank goodness for passionate people and great conversations!" It felt absurdly poignant and serendipitous.

By the time we finally left, it was nearly 3 in the morning- we'd been in that wine shop for six hours. We were halfway home before realizing that we'd taken a wrong turn somewhere and were very, very lost. And so there we were, blindly walking around Old Town in circles, not a single other soul in sight. At one point we found ourselves back at the wine shop only to find the doors locked, the lights off. It was almost as if we had dreamed it all up. And if it all didn't seem like a movie already, we were soon caught in a torrential blizzard. When we finally made it back to our apartment, our fingers were frozen solid, and our sweaters soaked through, but I don't think we could've been more grateful that we forced ourselves to leave the apartment earlier.
The instant we were safely ensconced back in our cozy apartment, we shoved as much as we could into our suitcases, fell into bed for a couple hours' sleep, and readied ourselves for a roadtrip to Latvia that would begin as the sun rises.

But I'd do it all over again because what a beautiful experience it was!

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