Tag Archives: old town

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: 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!

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.

A day in Bratislava

Bratislava wasn’t at the top of my travel wishlist.
It was there somewhere but it was lagging behind some very strong competitors.

Then suddenly it climbed to the top. Unexpectedly. A dark horse. Thanks to the  UFO Tower, its 430 steps and an international race I wanted to take part in.
And on a mild September weekend I found myself in the Slovakian capital, ready to tackle a stair challenge as well as  explore a new destination.

Slovakia Bratislava "UFO Tower"
UFO Tower

Bratislava – one of the smallest capitals in Europe – gained its capital city status when the Slovak Republic became an independent state on 1 January 1993.
Small but intriguing, I found it really pleasant to visit. With its medieval centre, its narrow cobbled streets and plenty of historic buildings, Bratislava offers many opportunities for your sightseeing day.

Hlavne namestie (main square) is a good starting point for your Bratislava mini-adventure: considered the centre of the city, this square features landmarks such as the Old Town Hall and Roland’s Fountain. I especially loved the fountain at night: the changing lights, with shades from red to green to blue, made it a very magical place!

Do you like wandering around without a set itinerary, like I do? Then lose yourself in the meandering streets, explore the city and its history, try the street cafes, discover the quirky arts and crafts shops, enjoy the views over the River Danube. There is so much to enjoy in such a small place!

And how can I forget Bratislava castle?! Perched on the top of a hill, what we see now is a 1950’s reconstruction of Emperor Sigismund’s fifteenth-century castle, which burnt down in 1811. The box-shaped building and its four towers are particularly fascinating at night. The views over the city and the Danube are something not to miss!

My time in Bratislava was limited so I didn’t get to visit buildings  or museums properly but I definitely recommend this city.

By the way, for those of you who want to enjoy panoramic views of the Slovakian capital from the UFO tower, you won’t need to climb 430 steps: there is a lift that will take you all the way to the top!

Discovering Luxembourg City

The capital city of the small landlocked country of Luxembourg (the only Grand Duchy in the world!) is a mix of old and new. Easy to walk around and with enough to keep you busy for a day or so, it is a good destination for a European city break.

I certainly didn’t expect I would find it so interesting!

My visit wasn’t blessed with good weather, though. Heavy rain and freezing temperatures were my companions during my discovery of the city. Less than ideal but that didn’t stop me!

The UNESCO-listed Old Town (especially the part called the Grund) is the most picturesque area of Luxembourg City. You could wander around for hours exploring the alleys, walking along the corniche – by the riverside – and discovering the old fortress. I must admit that, because of the weather, I quite enjoyed adding cosy pubs to my sightseeing list!

Unfortunately the Casemates, underground galleries used as refuge during military attacks in the past centuries and one of the main attractions of the city, are closed in winter so I couldn’t visit them.

The medieval town core of Luxembourg City is in the Ville Haute. This part of town is home to many historic buildings such as the Palais Grand Ducal and Notre-Dame Cathedral, as well as famous squares like Place d’Armes and Place Guillame II.

There are also some interesting museums. I spent almost two hours wandering around the National Museum of History and Arts, which is spread over several floors and dedicated to displaying artwork and artifacts from all times of Luxembourg history. Another museum hosted an unusual exhibition about football seen as a religion of modern times (“Football Hallelujah!“). Although unrelated to Luxemborg itself, it was quite good to visit.

Tired of sightseeing? Why not stopping at Chocolate House for some sweet treats?

Luxembourg "Ville Haute" "chocolate house"
Chocolate House

A visit to the country of Luxembourg would not be complete without heading out to the countryside and the villages. Look out for my next post for this!

Montevideo (2): La Ciudad Vieja

La Ciudad Vieja, or the Old City. This is the oldest part of Montevideo, once surrounded by walls. Since 1829 all that remains is the Puerta de la Ciudadela, the main gateway to this part of town.

Uruguay Montevideo "Ciudad Vieja"
La Puerta de la Ciudadela, Ciudad Vieja

The best way to get to know the Ciudad Vieja is to explore on your own then join a free walking tour. The young guides will give you loads of useful information about the area as well as tell you interesting anecdotes (did you know that Montevideo has a small Walk of Fame similar to the one in Los Angeles?).

The starting point would be the Puerta de la Ciudadela, which gives access to Sarandi, the main tourist boulevard. This is where most shops, cafes and restaurants are located and it is always very crowded.
As soon as you move away from it and venture into other alleys, you’ll find yourself surrounded by rundown buildings reminiscent of Cuban architecture. Dodgy characters sitting or walking around do not make the area particularly appealing so I wouldn’t recommend going there after sunset, but during the day it is fine.

Amongst the main sights that you will want to visit are: the Catedral Matriz (the cathedral), Teatro Solis, the Museo del Carnaval (the Carnival in Montevideo is similar to the Brasilian one but lasts longer!).

Lots of small and quirky art galleries and arts&crafts shops are another way to spend your time in the area.

Then when you are tired and hungry, head towards the harbour area: the Mercado del Puerto, an old and beautiful building that looks like an English train station, is where the main restaurants are. Eating here can be expensive but it’s definitely worth it: the meat barbecues are fantastic!