Pärnu, Estonia: spas, beach…and snow!

Located on a sheltered bay with broad, beautiful beaches, Pärnu, Estonia, has been a popular spa town since the 1800’s with Estonians as well as visitors from nearby countries. Wanting to get into the spirit of things, I booked us into the seafront Rannahotell, a white nautically-inspired spa hotel dating to 1935-37. A “landmark of Estonian Functionalism,” the Rannahotell is listed as a cultural heritage site.

Rannahotell

Completely remodeled since its early days as a “sanatorium” or place to restore health, our room was decorated with sleek modern furniture, light woods and neutral colors. Big windows looked onto an expansive stretch of beach.

The hotel offers attentive service along with an airy piano bar and truly extensive breakfast buffet in a window-lined room overlooking the beach. David and I both booked spa treatments at the hotel which nowadays offers traditional massage treatments rather than the local mud. We both thoroughly enjoyed our massages, but we were shocked to find that it had begun to snow while we were in the spa. Soon, the beach was blanketed in white!

Snow on the beach in Pärnu

The unseasonably cold spring was a topic of conversation everywhere we went in Parnu. Several people suggested we should come back for the bustle of summer and all the beach-y activities at that time of year, but we kind of liked the laid-back, uncrowded vibe of this chilly spring.

Beautiful Apostolic Orthodox Church of the Transfiguration In Pärnu

Driving the short distance into town, we enjoyed strolling in old Pärnu. As elsewhere, things were slow at this off-season time. Since we weren’t really interested in shopping or specific sight-seeing, we merely wandered.

Tucked into a courtyard just inside the arch at 21 Rüütli Street, we came across this intriguing relic from the past, a granary from the 1600’s
Stylish Rüütli Street
Whimsical statue on Rüütli Street

Of course, David had to try local beer (not that I resisted) and we found a nice venue at Wirre Craft Beer Bar.  Tucked in to a cozy cellar space, Wirre was empty when we got there early on a Tuesday evening and stayed nearly so until we left. This gave us time to visit with the knowledgeable young owner who tended bar. Wirre offers lots of Estonian beers along with many foreign beers. We particularly enjoyed the Óllenaut SimkoEil APA.

Ducking inside Wirre for a little local craft beer
Inside Wirre Craft Beer Bar
On tap at Wirre

Our post-beer dinner was pizza at Ephesus, located at one end of Rüütli. It was OK for a simple meal, but nothing to write about.

Another night, on the other hand, we opted for receptionist-recommended Pärnu Kalamajaka Kohvik for seafood and enjoyed an excellent dinner. Although unimpressive from the outside, the restaurant is pleasantly stylish inside.

 

In the dining room: another table joined us and our fellow diner before we finished our meal
The bar and café side of Pärnu Kalamajaka Kohvik

Apparently, Pärnu Kalamajaka Kohvik is also a seafood market and one of several Kalamajakas restaurants in Estonia, named among the best restaurants in Estonia in 2016. We enjoyed a delicious seafood dinner for €59, which included an appetizer, two entrees, crusty bread, 2 glasses of wine and a dessert .

Scallop and bacon starter
Fresh seafood pasta and a generous salad
David’s entree: local fish and polenta
Kalamajaka Kohvik is proud of their desserts

   

Pärnu Kalamajaka Kohvik is located at Suur-Sepa 18 in Pärnu.

Haapsalu, Estonia: beach resort of Imperial Russia

View from the Pavilion on the Promenade in Haapsalu

Despite the unseasonably cold spring, I really wanted to see the seaside resort town of Haapsalu while we were in the area, en route from Tallinn to Parnu. Renowned for centuries for curative mud and a popular spa resort with the Romanov family, Haapsalu is actively seeking to reassert itself as an international resort destination. [We were in Haapsalu May 2017. I’ve been enjoying a low-key summer and have been slow about finalizing my last two Estonia posts–this and one more on Parnu. We were supposed to be in Miami and Havana this coming week, but those plans are canceled due to Hurricane Irma, so I’m taking the opportunity to catch up blogging our Baltics travels before we head back to Belgium in October.]

We turned out to be the only guests at Lahe Guesthouse, the bed and breakfast I’d chosen for our stay. Our hostess was waiting for us when we arrived, showed us the rooms available, then left us on our own in her big, beautiful guest house with a key and the run of the place. It was fun!

Lahe Guesthouse. The two windows on the second floor, left, were our bedroom and offered views of the bay and marshes.
Dining area of Lahe Guesthouse with no one else around on our off-season stay. (Our hostess did return to fix breakfast in the morning.)
One side of our spacious guest room
Marshes and bay behind Lahe Guesthouse

After settling in, we walked away from the marshes and into town.

We saw few people on our way into Haapsalu town

Haapsalu is small, so in a few short blocks, we arrived at the remains of the 13th century Haapsalu Episcopal Castle, the former residence of the Bishops of Saare-Lääne. The semi-restored castle grounds and walls are open to the public without charge. We had fun just strolling and people-watching. Perched atop a portion of the wall, we laughed at the antics of a little boy zooming endlessly around the inner grounds on his foot-powered “motorcycle” while an older sibling ran after. There’s also a museum, encompassing the castle’s cathedral, that we did not visit, but it’s closed now until 2019 for renovations.

Entrance to Haapsalu Castle
Entering Haapsalu Castle
Haapsalu Castle ruins
Haapsalu Episcopal Castle cathedral

Leaving of the castle, we walked through the old town towards the waterfront Promenade.

Old Haapsalu

The pretty Russian Orthodox Church of Mary-Magdalene sits between old town and the Promenade, overlooking the water.

Russian Orthodox Church of Mary-Magdalene

The Promenade is the pride of Haapsalu. Lovingly decorated by Estonian Roman Haavamägi in the 1920’s, Haapsalu suffered during WWII and many of Haavamägi’s wooden sculptures that decorated the seafront Promenade were burnt. Recent restoration was completed and the Promenade reopened in 2010.

Haapsalu Sundial on the Promenade
Haapsalu Promenade with the Assembly Hall and iconic wooden polar bear statue (a replica) in the water

We enjoyed walking the Promenade, but it is definitely a sleepy place in the non-summer months. After dinner downtown followed by a shot of the local, vodka-like birch water alcohol, we called it a night. The next day, we strolled the paved walkways through the wild marshland behind our guest house before setting out again to explore the back roads of Estonia. Haapsalu made for a fun short visit and I’m glad we went, but there’s not much to keep a visitor there for long off-season.

Looking back towards the neighborhood of Lahe Guesthouse from the marsh paths

Tallinn, Estonia: more than a ferry/cruise port

More retro blogging from our May 2017 Baltics travels. I’m trying to catch up before we’re off on our next trip:

The Great Coastal Gate and Fat Margaret Tower once protected Tallinn from seaborne threats

Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, has long been popular with tourists taking the two-hour ferry ride from Helsinki. More recently, cruise ships also discovered the picturesque Baltic port city. The result of all the boat traffic is a constant swell and ebb of humanity in the city and a very touristy, if lovely, Old Town. (In the summer, cruise ships can bring over 4600 tourists to Tallinn in a day!)

Tallinn Old Town main square
Tallinn flower market

Hoping to dig just a little deeper and see the city during some of those less-crowded ebb times, I booked us a 4-night AirBnB apartment in the heart of Old Tallinn. I had trouble finding an apartment with secure, dedicated parking, but finally settled on a chic, all-white (but small) studio in a terrific location with covered, gated parking. I’m usually not a fan of studios, but this time our options were really limited and we did have a semi-private seating area we shared with two other apartments. Prices are higher in Tallinn than elsewhere in the Baltics, too, albeit still lower than you’ll find in most of Western Europe and much cheaper than Scandinavia. Anyway, our apartment and landlords turned out great and our only complaint was too much sun in the mornings.

Fortified walls of Old Tallinn

We enjoyed wandering the cobbled streets and found simply enjoying the atmosphere to be our favorite part of Old Tallinn. The shops in Old Town are nearly all of the tourist souvenir variety and not of much interest to us, but fun if that’s what your looking for. At this stage of life and travels, we don’t buy a lot of souvenirs and are more excited to see shops and markets selling local products we might not be familiar with to locals. In this modern, small world, those sorts of shops are rarities, though.

Just down the road from our apartment on Uus. It seemed a miracle the old wooden building was still standing.

Old Tallinn consists of both a lower and an upper town. This was most easily visible from the tower of St. Olaf’s Church, a few blocks from our apartment in Lower Town.

View of Old Tallinn, both Lower and Upper, from St. Olaf’s Church tower.
It’s a steep climb and 232 steps to the observation level of St. Olaf’s Church tower

St. Olaf’s Church itself is simply adorned with some interesting archaeological pieces on display along the side aisles of the nave. Completed in the 1600’s, the original church dated back to the 1200’s. It’s the tallest medieval structure in Tallinn. Admission to the church is free, but there’s a €2/adult -€1/child fee to climb the tower.

Interior of St. Olaf’s Church
In the lower portion of Old Town Tallinn
Historical walk at Estonian History Museum in Lower Town

Hiking up to Upper Town, we visited the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, a 19th century Russian Orthodox church with characteristic architecture including three cross-topped onion domes. Former and current mansions of Estonian aristocracy abound in this area interspersed with terraces overlooking Lower Town, where we common folk could share the view.

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, a 19th century Russian Orthodox church in upper Old Town

The oldest church in Tallinn, the medieval St. Mary’s Cathedral, with its baroque tower also sits in Upper Old Town. Coats of arms of Estonian nobility cover its interior walls. There’s a €5/adult -€3/child fee to enter the church, although you can admire many of the coats of arms from before the ticket booth.

St. Mary’s Cathedral (also known as “Dome Church,” the oldest church in Tallinn
Family crests and coats-of-arms adorn the interior of Dome Church

Having time to spend in Tallinn let us extend our wanderings beyond Old Town. The modern city offers much in the way of shopping, dining, bars and coffee shops. We loved the futuristic additions to old warehouses in the Roterman City area. This chic neighborhood, in easy walking distance of Old Town, bustles with a hip young clientele.

Roterman area buildings

One day, a long walk to us to Kadriorg Art Museum in a baroque palace commissioned by Peter the Great in 1718. The palace itself is as worthy of a visit as the park. The palace is surrounded by Kadrioru Park, a place popular with locals.

Kadrioru Park leading to Kadriorg Art Museum and palace
Inside Kadriorg
Schoolchildren visiting Kadriorg

We enjoyed a delightful  late lunch for €20 (total) at Katharienthal, just inside the park grounds. It occupies an elegant building and offers French-style patisseries downstairs and a pretty dining room upstairs.

Katharienthal cafe exterior
Downstairs at Katharienthal
Upstairs dining room at Katharienthal

Walking further beyond Kadriorg palace, we came to the residence of the president of Estonia, an interesting woman who had to be drafted into the job. We were surprised to find we could just walk into the front parking area to snap a photo. Guards at the front door had no problem with us.

Residence of the Estonian President

Just beyond the president’s residence is the fantastic Kumu museum of modern art. Again, the building is as much an attraction as the art.

Kumu – Art Museum of Estonia
Interior of the Kumu

At last treat in Tallinn was a visit to the Estonian National Opera to see a performance of Tosca. The opera house is nowhere as ornate or large as the opera house in Riga and the staging was minimalist, but the performance was excellent and, for €31 apiece, we had front row center seats on the first balcony.

Interior of the Estonian National Opera House in Tallinn
Tosca

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Tallinn has a great beer scene and we definitely explored that. More on beer in a soon-to-follow separate post.

Viljandi, Estonia

Viljandi church (“Jaani Kirik”) just across a ravine from the castle ruins and park

The drive NNW from Valga toward Tallinn took us through woods and farmland dotted with traditional wooden houses.

Traditional Estonian farm homes

The highlight of the drive was a stop at pretty Viljandi, a popular Estonian tourist town that prides itself on preserving Estonian traditions. Considered a center of culture and folk history, Viljandi hosts popular outdoor concerts in the summer in the ruins of Viljandi Castle on the banks of a deep blue lake. Water sports are popular on the lake as well and the small town is surrounded by parks and green areas.

Footbridge from town to the ruins of Viljandi Castle
Ruins of Viljandi Castle
Lake Viljandi viewed from the castle ruins

There were no concerts or swimming on the crisp spring day we were there, but we still enjoyed wandering the ruins and admiring the gorgeous scenery. We crossed a pedestrian suspension bridge to continue our ramble on through yet another park and the modern Ugala open-air concert/theater venue.

The preserved Old Town is small, easily walkable and picturesque. We found plenty of cute restaurants and cafés in addition to a the Estonian Traditional Music Centre, a puppet theater, art center, museum and more. There’s an old brick water tower you can climb for the view for €2/adult,  €1/child. The Tourist Information Centre offers free parking and free maps within eyesight of “Jaani Kirik,” the church shown in the top photo. Viljandi is a place to relax and take in the atmosphere rather than visit major sites.

Old Town Viljandi

We opted for lunch at stylish Kohvik Fellin on a corner across from the Tourist Information Centre. The food was excellent, if pricier than elsewhere in rural Estonia, something we found true of Viljandi in general. We liked the bread at Kohvik Fellin so much we convinced them to sell us a loaf, something they apparently don’t ordinarily do. We paid a pretty exorbitant €6, but the dense sweet bread provided several breakfasts and we did love the way our waitress wrapped it for us!

Delicious but pricey bread at Kohvik Fellin in Viljandi
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The Viljandi Tourist Information Centre is open M-F 10am-5pm and Sat.-Sun. 10am-3pm. English speakers there are happy to offer advice on sights and dining. Parking is free (and conveniently located to sights) in the lot in front of the tourist center. Email at viljandi@visitestonia.com or phone (+372) 433 0442.

Driving from Birzai, Lithuania, to Valga, Estonia: unexpected treats, Turaida Castle, and a quirky hotel

A favorite photo from our cross-Latvia roadtrip

Leaving Birzai, Lithuania, we soon crossed the border again into the Latvian town of Skaistkalne and instantly came across our first surprise roadtrip treat when we spotted a lovely old church on a hill just overlooking the main road. This is exactly why we love exploring the roads less traveled and the freedom of a car. Winding our way up the steep drive, we passed a woman working on the church flowerbeds, but she paid us no heed and we wandered into the empty church on our own. We were blown away by the baroque interior and magnificent altar of the church which a sign proclaimed to be the tallest in Latvia. It turns out this church, Skaistkalnes baznīca–dating to the late 1600’s–is one of the largest churches in rural Latvia and the second most popular pilgrimage site. I left payment at the honor-system counter for a wooden rosary for my Catholic nephew, in green, his favorite color. What a lovely chance stop!

Beautiful Skaistkalnes baznīca

Continuing on our rural cross-country, we passed plowed fields (and lots of storks) before stopping for lunch in an eclectic little roadside eatery about 45km past Skaistkalne. Its sign named it only “Krodzinš” which basically means “inn,” so not much help there.

Rural central Latvia: plowed fields and storks

The sole waitress spoke no English, nor did anyone else in the place, but we got by with the aid of Google translate and a few words of German although Russian would have been a lot more helpful. Things were made extra-easy by the fact that a large portion of the menu wasn’t actually available. Oh well, we enjoyed what they had.

An eclectic interior
Lunch was cheap and good…once we figured out what was on the menu

My one sight-seeing goal for the day was Turaida Castle and the Turaida Museum Reserve in a forested national park northeast of Riga. We arrived in early afternoon to find ample parking in the nearest lot in front of a big restaurant and just across the street from the entrance to the castle and open air museum. We paid €1.50 to a lady watching the lot. Although it was off season and the restaurant was closed, a market of open stalls across the road was open and bustling.

Turaida Castle, like so much in this part of the world is largely rebuilt. The work was well-executed and the castle, surrounding buildings, and period-costumed docents give a glimpse of a bygone world. A adjacent sculpture park offers another scenic stroll. Adult entrance fee for the castle, outbuildings and sculpture park was €3 each. This is the winter fee and goes up to €5 in the summer peak season.

Approach to the castle inside the preserve grounds
View of Turaida Castle courtyard and the Gauja River from the castle tower
Fish tanks for breeding and harvest
Turaida blacksmith

Pine trees dominated the terrain around Turaida and beyond as we continued on our northeastern path. Logging trucks lumbered along the roads, piled high and slowing down our progress.

Logging trucks are a common sight in northern Latvia

Still, we made decent time and rolled into the Estonian college town of Valga by early evening. Once again, my TravSIM data SIM card transferred seamlessly as we crossed the border from Latvia into Estonia, so I was able to do a little quick hotel research and (for €68 euros including breakfast) book online what reviews promised to be the nicest hotel in town. Hotel Metsis is a distinguished small mansion of a building which sits across the street from a city park. The hotel lobby and restaurant are literally overflowing with an incredible collection of taxidermied animals. If this bothers you, you’ll want to avoid the place. We just found it quirky if a touch on the macabre side. I grew up in a Texas hunting family and am plenty familiar with domestic and foreign hunting trophies, but Hotel Metsis took things in a direction and to an extent I’ve never seen.

Hotel Metsis in Valga, Estonia

We enjoyed a very good dinner at the Hotel Metsis restaurant for €58 including a bottle of Chilean wine.

Dinner at Hotel Metsis
Hard to know what to say about this piece of taxidermy at the Hotel Metsis

The main street in front of the hotel was nearly devoid of cars and the town had a sleepy feel. We explored the park across the way and found only a few other people there. Walking into the residential neighborhood on the other side of the hotel we came across some some people playing ball in a small lakeside park. It was a quiet place, though, and we slept well that night in our pretty, comfortable room under the slanted roof of the hotel.

Park across from Hotel Metsis

Our included breakfast the next morning was served in the same restaurant as dinner and was good and ample, even if the various dead animals lurking over the buffet were a little off-putting.

Hotel Metsis breakfast buffet and stuffed/skinned animals