All posts by outofofficereplyon

It was written in the stars, as they say - I am a Sagittarius, the sign of travellers.

Day trip from Tallinn: exploring Tartu

Estonia isn’t just Tallinn, so I thought I’d pick a town from the map and go on a day trip!

Well, the thought process was a bit more complex and involved a Google search for “day trip from Tallinn” but overall the decision was relatively quick, after checking that there would be public transport the following day and that travel time would be reasonable. Sadly, the weather forecast announced rain and snow, but that wasn’t going to stop me.

So Tartu here I come!
Located 2 hours from Tallinn by train, Tartu is the oldest town in the Baltic States, the second largest town in Estonia and the home of one of the oldest Universities in Northern Europe (dating back to 1632). It is associated with young love, intellectual inquiry, bohemian parties and cosy cafes. Not bad, right?

The town is quite compact and you’ll probably see all interesting sights in half a day – which is what I did, starting from churches and historic buildings, then onto semi-derelict houses and various sculptures, plus some unexpected street art. And stopping every now and then to drink ‘must kohv’ (black coffee).

The main University building, built at the beginning of the 19th century, stands out thanks to its striking neoclassical style. As I walked past, I couldn’t help sneaking inside and checking out a few halls and exhibitions.

Around the corner is the Town Hall Square: this is the central square and since 1998 it has been adorned by the fountain of the Kissing Students, one of the landmarks of Tartu. On a rainy day the square doesn’t look particularly appealing but it’s supposed to be very lively in the summer.

Jaani Kirik (St. John’s Church) is an example of brick Gothic architecture and offers the opportunity of a panoramic view of Tartu, if you are willing to climb the short tower.

Tired of buildings? Why not just walking around then? The streets of Tartu are dotted with several sculptures and statues, from the most well-known ‘Father and Son’ to a number of lesser known ones.

One of them will cheer up your spirit: as you come out of the train station (or as you are going back in) you will come across this

Outside Tartu station

If this doesn’t make you happy, I don’t know what will ;-)

Tallinn: beyond the Old Town

There is a lot more to Tallinn than just the Old Town, and it’s quite easy to go around by public transport or on foot (or a combination of the two).

On the far east, but easily reached with a 35-minute journey by bus 34A (which offers nice views of the coastline), is the TV Tower or Teletorn.  At 314 m, this is the tallest building in Estonia and a well-known attraction thanks to its viewing platform and the panoramic 360-degree views over the city. Well worth a visit, even if you are not going to take part in a race up the stairs like I did!

TV Tower – Teletorn

Coming back towards the Old Town (but still on the eastern side), you will encounter the Kadriorg district. The main draw of the area are Kadriorg Palace, a Baroque palace now turned into an art museum, and Kadriorg Park, the largest park in central Tallin. When I visited, a white sprinkle of snow made a nice contrast with the red colour of the palace and the ground.

Nearby is the Kumu Art Museum, the main building of the Art Museum of Estonia, as well as the largest and most impressive exhibition venue in Estonia. I spent a couple of hours visiting the permanent and temporary exhibitions, admiring the quality of the artwork – this is a must see!

Past the Old Town (and on the north-western side) lies the Creative City of Telliskivi. This is Estonia’s biggest creative economic enterprise centre. I wandered around for some time as I was fascinated by the beautiful street art that decorated every wall in the area.

Street art in Telliskivi

Further north towards the coast is the Kalamaja district, which used to be home to fishermen and fishmongers and is characterised by colourful pastel wooden houses. This is a great area for some photography (better on a sunny day, though…)!

I also recommend heading to the shore and go for a seaside walk – I did it when it was -1C and it was still enjoyable despite the freezing air. Don’t forget to stop at the market and sample some delicacies!

Tallinn: the Old Town

Tallinn, the capital city of Estonia located on the shore of the Baltic Sea, is a beautiful city that is growing more and more popular as tourist destination in Europe.
Its Old Town is one of the best preserved Hanseatic town centres in the world and has been on the UNESCO World Heritage List since 1997. Its medieval charm of cobblestone lanes, iron street lamps, and Gothic buildings is undeniable. Its vibrant feel of bars and cafes adds to the appeal.

My Tallinn experience started on a sunny day in April, enjoying a typical Estonian meal in the Town Hall Square (the hub of the Old Town) while checking out the map and planning my afternoon. On my left, the Town Hall, a beautiful Gothic building built in 1402-1404. On my right, a series of grandiose houses mainly turned into restaurants and cafes.

Town Hall Square

I didn’t know then that my discovery of Tallinn would continue in not-so-pleasant weather conditions the following days (hence the mix of good/bad weather photos), but this is another story….

The Old Town is surrounded by well preserved fortifications with high and thick walls, guard towers and gates visible in many parts of town. As I started wandering down the cobblestone lanes on day 1, I was more and more drawn into the medieval atmosphere.

Churches are certainly not disappointing: visit St. Olaf’s Church – a 14th century Gothic church – the world’s highest building from 1549 to 1625. Nowadays, a climb up the 258 steps of its spiral staircase will give you the opportunity to enjoy great views from the top.

View from the top of St. Olaf’s Church tower

Unrelated to medieval times but worth a visit are the KGB Prison Cells: formerly the KGB headquarters and a symbol of the former Soviet oppression in Estonia, this building has been open for visitors since 2017.  Inside there is a small exhibition about the crimes against humanity committed here.

Toompea Hill, the upper part of the Old Town and connected to the Lower Town by two streets, is where many Estonian government institutions are located. Toompea Castle, with its Pikk Hermann tower, originally built in 1371 and reconstructed in 1500, has been the seat of power in Estonia since Medieval times and nowadays houses the Parliament.

Across from the castle is St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, a classic example of Orthodox tradition, with its onion-shaped domes. I really loved its colours, particularly striking against the vivid blue sky of my first day in Tallinn.

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral

As you walk down the hill you will encounter a couple of observation platforms that offer amazing views of the Old Town.

Panoramic view of the Old Town

Back in the Lower Town, keep wandering around and down every lane, as each one of them has peculiar traits, beautiful houses and quirky shops.

Do not miss St. Catherine’s Passage (Katariina käik), the most picturesque of all lanes, especially at night: this is a must see!

And whilst you are here, the night time view of the Town Hall is equally stunning!

Town Hall by night

 

 

 

 

 

 

Prague: Practical Info

And now a bit of practical information about Prague!

Getting to Prague from anywhere in Europe is easy. The city is well connected by air with most large European cities and cheap flights are widely available. Once you land at Václav Havel International Airport, the cheapest way to town is bus 119 to the metro stop of Nádraží Veleslavín, from where you can catch Metro A (various stops in the Old Town). 32Kč is the cost of the ticket, a standard 1.5hr public transport ticket. Another option, a bit more pricey (60Kč) and not any faster, is the Airport Express Bus to the main train station (Hlavní nádraží). From here you can catch the Metro or buses to anywhere in the city.

Moving around Prague: I’d recommend exploring on foot. Most tourist attractions are within walking distance and this is always the best way to explore a new place!

Where to stay: I stayed in a hostel 5 minutes away from the Old Town Square. It’s the most touristic area and even though I usually prefer quieter areas, being so central was very convenient. And I loved going for a stroll to the main square in the evening! But there are many more options available, from budget accommodation to luxury hotels. Check out TripAdvisor or Booking.com for some good deals.

Tourist Information Centre: The main one is located in the Old Town Hall and is open 365 days a year. More details available here.

Currency: The Czech Republic is not in the Euro-zone, instead the Czech koruna (Kč) is used. 1 Euro will get you around 25 Kč, you can check current exchange rate here. Many restaurants and hotels may accept Euros but the change will always be in Czech koruna.

Language: If you don’t understand a word of any Slavic language (like me), don’t worry! English is widely spoken/understood in Prague. But learning a couple of words of Czech won’t hurt.

 

Na shledanou!

Prague: How about the food?

I found eating out in Prague very cheap (250-500 Kc per meal, often including dessert and a soft drink) and I really enjoyed trying a few different restaurants with traditional Czech food.

Most Czech dishes are very meat-based and contain also dumplings, with some added cabbage here and there. Probably not the lightest meals but very tasty!
My meat feast over the long weekend started with a delicious venison guláš, served alongside with bread dumplings.

Venison guláš

The following day I tried a “farmer’s plate” with pork meat, grilled sausages (grilované klobásy), bread dumplings, potato dumplings, cabbage and gravy.

All-pork farmer’s plate

It was then time for a basic beef guláš in a cheap cafe’, and on my final day some roast duck with dumplings and cabbage.
All food was really good but I particularly enjoyed the venison guláš and the all-pork dish.

And for dessert? I recommend trying the trdelník, a traditional rolled pastry coated in sugar and sold in street stalls around Prague. But don’t fall for the tourist varieties filled with all sorts of sweet things, from chocolate to ice cream: the classic version, empty inside, is the best one!

Trdelník

Prague: The Castle and Malá Strana

As you walk across the 14th-century Charles Bridge, one of the most beautiful bridges in Europe and a landmark of Prague, the castle complex and mainly the two towers of St. Vitus Cathedral will catch your attention.

Prague castle: The largest ancient castle in the world, you can easily spend half day exploring this complex, made of several buildings. The Gothic St. Vitus Cathedral, the largest and most important church in the country, is stunningly beautiful. I could have stayed in for hours admiring the stained glass windows and the lines of the vaults. I then wandered into the Old Royal Palace, with its multitude of diverse rooms, and the Basilica of St.George, the oldest surviving church building in the castle complex. The Story of Prague Castle permanent exhibition has a very interesting collection of items related to the history of the castle, as well as photographs and informative panels. The last section included in the full tourist ticket for the castle complex (ticket A, 350 ) is Golden Lane, a street originally built in the 16th century and whose houses are now mainly souvenir shops.

The district south of the castle is called Malá Strana (usually translated as Lesser Town) and is characterised by baroque buildings and colourful shops.

One of the most beautiful sights in Malá Strana is St.Nicholas Church, with its distinctive dome. Built between 1704-1755, this church features beautiful stained glasses and frescoes. The main fresco is currently under restoration but the church is definitely worth a visit.

Petřín hill: Covered in parks, it is a nice place to relax. You can reach the top via a funicular railway or, as I did, you can walk up the hill using the various paths and stairs. The Petřín lookout tower at the top of the hill is a 63.5-metre-tall steel-framework tower built in 1891 and resembling the Eiffel tower. Initially used as an observation tower as well as a transmission tower, it is now a tourist attraction. You can easily climb its 299 steps to the top for a 360-degree view over Prague. Next to the tower don’t miss a visit to the Mirror Maze for a bit of entertainment: the mirror images can be quite funny!

At the base of Petřín hill is the Memorial to the victims of Communism, a group of seven bronze statues that commemorates the victims of the communist era 1948-1989.
A few minutes away is the so-called John Lennon wall: supposedly a tribute to John Lennon, this wall covered in colourful graffiti and writings mainly from fans has little artistic quality and there are much better graffiti elsewhere in Prague (and in many other cities). Worth checking out if you want to tick the box, but not much else.

You can then return to Staré Město crossing the Legion’s bridge (most Legií) for more views of Charles Bridge and the Castle from the distance.

 

Prague: Exploring the Old Town

If you don’t like crowds, you may want to visit the Old Town in Prague early in the morning. At any other time you may have to wade through the masses and even elbow your way out in the area by the astronomical clock.

But don’t let this put you off!
The Old Town (Staré Město in Czech) is beautiful and you will want to spend some time exploring it.

The Old Town Square, the centre of the Old Town, is surrounded by beautiful and colourful buildings. The towers of the Church of Mother of God before Týn (or Týn Church) dominate from every angle and are probably the most distinctive feature of the square. This Gothic church dating back to the 14th century is open to the public a few days a week but unfortunately I missed my opportunity to visit inside.

The Old Town Hall was established in 1338 as Prague’s oldest town hall.  Throughout the centuries it was extended to include several buildings, only five of which now remain. At present, the Old Town Hall is primarily used for ceremonies and state events held by the City of Prague. A curiosity: the Chapel of the Virgin Mary enables visitors to view the Prague’s astronomical clock’s inner workings.

The astronomical clock: after several months of major repairs, the 608-year old clock returned to its place in the Old Town Square the weekend I visited Prague! Here tourists gather in masses especially on the hour, when the four figures flanking the clock and the ones above the clock are set in motion.

Crowds gather by the clock on the hour

Franz Kafka’s landmarks: Franz Kafka (1883-1924), one of the major figures in the 20th-century literature, was born in Prague’s Old Town and lived there most of his life. So it is not surprising to see reminders of his life and work all around the city! Kafka’s birthplace is at náměstí Franze Kafky 3, just off the Old Town Square. The house has a small exhibition about the writer. The city’s official monument to Kafka is a sculpture located in the Jewish quarter and representing a large, headless man carrying a small man (Kafka) on his shoulders. If you want to track down more of this writer’s landmarks, read this article.

My favourite part was exploring the Old Town cobblestone streets, wandering down narrow alleys to see where they led and what was there. There are many colourful houses, small courtyards, quirky shops, arts stores, interesting sights everywhere.

Just north of the Old Town, across the river, lies Letná park. This large urban park on the hill is a great place for postcard views over Prague, especially at sunset. Come here to relax and enjoy the panorama at the end of your sightseeing day!

Prague, finally!

In my school years, Czechoslovakia was one single country.
Back in those days, the geography of Eastern Europe was quite different from what it is now, and mass tourism was largely unknown.

Fast forward 2-3 decades and the young countries of Czech Republic and Slovakia – born in 1993 from the peaceful dissolution of Czechoslovakia – are now popular destinations for tourists of all ages. With Prague, the Czech capital, one of the most visited capital cities in Europe.

So why was Prague still missing from my travel CV?
“You have travelled so much, and you haven’t been to Prague?!” was the usual surprised comment from my friends.

So it was time to do something about it. As usual, a bit of a late decision, with flight and accommodation booked just over two  weeks before departure and no other planning done…but not much planning was actually required.

Follow me for more posts and photos of my trip to Prague!

Warsaw in two days: Day 2

My second day in Warsaw started with a visit to the Palace of Culture and Science (PKiN), the highest building in Poland (231m) and centre of several cultural activities. Teenagers on school trips crowded the ground floor while the majority of other tourists seemed to head straight towards the lift to the viewing terrace located on the 30th floor. From there, the view over the city and the growing number of high-rise buildings is an interesting way to witness the changing skyline of the Polish capital.

 Outside the building I stumbled across a stark reminder of the sad history of Warsaw and Poland: boundary lines mark the ground perimeter of what used to be the Warsaw Ghetto, the largest of all Jewish ghettos during World War II.

Boundary markers of the Warsaw Ghetto walls

Sudden memories of me aged 10 and reading a book about kids in the Warsaw Ghetto came back. I wanted to go and see what’s left today.

The Warsaw Ghetto was established by the Germans in 1940 and, split into a “large” and a “small” ghetto, locked 350,000 people identified as Jews behind its walls until May 1943. The harsh life conditions in the Ghetto and the day-to-day activities of its inhabitants were recorded in detail in the Notes from the Warsaw Ghetto by Emanuel Ringelblum.

Nowadays one of the best preserved fragments of the Ghetto wall remains at 55 Sienna Street, not far from PKiN. Other small memorials can be found around the same area.

After the Ghetto area, it was time to dig deeper into history so I headed to the Warsaw Rising Museum. Opened in 2004 and split over several levels, this largely interactive museum covers the chronology of the events of the 1944 Uprising. This was a resistance operation attempting at liberating Warsaw from the German occupation. But it didn’t end well: after 63 days the city capitulated and the German acts of destruction continued, with large parts of the city flattened to the ground.
Give yourself 2-3 hours to visit the museum and learn about the many aspects of the Uprising.

My last bit of sightseeing in Warsaw involved catching the metro to reach the Eastern side of the city and explore Praga. This working class district is now regarded as up-and-coming and is quite in contrast with the main tourist areas of Western Warsaw. Rundown estate blocks, flashy shopping centres, alternative nightlife, unusual museums, all characterise Praga.
Worth a longer visit next time.

Warsaw in two days: Day 1

 In the morning, I ventured out in the streets of Warsaw wearing multiple layers of clothing. I was determined not to let the freezing cold (temperatures around -7C!) stop my sense of adventure and interest in discovering a new destination.

Krakowskie Przedmieście is one of the most well-known streets of Warsaw, a wide avenue with large pedestrian areas and flanked by elegant palaces, churches and townhouses. As I reached it arriving from the east side of town, I saw the first of many Warsaw landmarks: the Copernicus monument that stands outside the Polish Academy of Sciences. Walking around the square I spotted a curious sign of contemporary times: QR codes labelled “take a selfie with Chopin” on a bench! It seems that there is a whole app on the relevant online app stores….

Next in the line of Krakowskie Przedmiescie’s monumental buildings as I enjoyed my stroll towards the Old Town (with a large cup of hot coffee to warm me up), were the church of Kościół Rzymskokatolicki Wizytek and the Presidential Palace, the largest palace in Warsaw.

Just before entering the old town, I made my way up to the viewing platform next to St. Anne’s church. This is a great spot for a view over the whole Old Town and its cobbled streets and houses in pastel colours.
Built during the 12th-13th centuries, the Old Town (or Stare Miasto) was destroyed by the German Army after the 1944 Warsaw Uprising. Subsequently rebuilt using most of the original material, it has been awarded UNESCO recognition and is now the most popular destination for tourists visiting the Polish capital.

The Old Town is worth spending a few hours just wandering around. Start from Castle Square and explore the labyrinth of cobbled streets, admire the houses with beautifully coloured and adorned facades, head to Market Square, stop by in one of the many arts and crafts stores to buy some traditional products. Cafes and restaurants abound too, and every now and then you may want to rest your legs (or warm up, if you go in winter!) and sample local food and drinks. I certainly did!

I couldn’t leave the Old Town without visiting the Royal Castle: one of the landmarks of Warsaw, this beautiful building has a long history as it was the residence of the Polish monarchs for several centuries. Almost completely destroyed during World War II, then painstakingly rebuilt, it  now serves as a museum and several rooms can be visited over a couple of hours.

A short walk from the Old Town was Polin, the Museum of the History of Polish Jews.
Not a happy place, quite oppressing at times, but something not to be missed if you want to better understand the sad history of Poland.

The Holocaust section felt claustrophobic compared to the rest of the museum: low ceilings, grey walls, narrow passages – the sense of anguish increases as you walk through. Pictures of Jews in concentration camps plastered the walls. Extracts from the Warsaw Ghetto Diaries featured everywhere.
Then World War II ends and the exhibition lightens up a bit. But the Holocaust can’t be forgotten.

More on this in my next post.