There’s Something about Tallinn

Tallinn, Estonia, charming, Canon EOS Rebel, photo, Reval, Baltic, medieval, city, architecture, history, , UNESCO World Heritage Site

On my way around the Baltic Sea with my family a couple of years ago, we stopped in the capital of EstoniaTallinn.  It was not a picture perfect June day weather-wise but, of course, we wanted to get off the ship and see the town.  Tallinn is an old city in that part of Europe (think 13th century) and was known for most of these centuries as Reval (file under the “I’d never heard that name” category…).  Nowadays is called more the Silicon Valley of the Baltic due to the presence of technology companies (Skype came from here!).

Estonia has a a strong cultural affinity to its northern neighbor, Finland (or is it the reverse?) and after Estonia broke the yoke of Soviet rule, it pulled towards its northern and quite successful neighbor.  Tallinn itself is only 50 miles from Helsinki, Finland’s capital – a ferry ride away if you are ever in that part of the world or if you are lucky enough to fly Finnair to connect and go elsewhere (I flew that airline in 1997 and it is still one of my top 2 flying experiences!).

In any case the best thing for me about Tallinn was its charm.  You truly see that it has been there since medieval times, yet you can tell that it has been through other periods too as its architecture well shows.  From the city walls, to the 15th century Church of St. Olaf, to the 18th century Toompea Palace, to the late 19th century Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, to its very modern district, the city covers many centuries where it was spared destruction, unlike cities like Berlin, Warsaw, and others.

I hope the pictures I share here give you a feel for what I mean that there’s something about Tallinn.  A one day visit clearly not enough to truly enjoy the town (wish I could have hung out at the cafés enjoying a few beers until sunset…) but I never complain about getting to sample a place, especially when it is as charming as Tallinn.  It is no wonder it is designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site!  I hope to return and explore ALL that the city has to offer!

Click on the photos to enlarge!


 

Exploring Old Town Dubrovnik – Architecture and Ambiance

Architecture detail in Dubrovnik, Croatia

Walking the streets of Old Town Dubrovnik is beat ONLY by walking the city’s walls.  Yes, the entire city is walled still and you can pay to walk the couple of kilometers which affords great views of Old Town from every angle and of the sea and hills outside of Old Town (read more about it here!).  I enjoyed walking the walls the most out of my days there.  The present city walls, though finished for the most part in the second half of the 16th century, actually were started around the early 15th century.  One of the bridges on the western gate (the Pila Gate) dates from the 1470s!  By the way, there was a massive earthquake in 1667 that caused a lot of damage and these walls survived it quite well.

Cannon along the city walls of Dubrovnik, Croatia

Cannon along the city walls

Guard post in the city walls of Dubrovnik, Croatia

Guard post in the city walls

View through the city wall of Dubrovnik, Croatia

View through the city wall

From the city walls you can more easily find old tiled roofs that survived the attacks of 1991-2, and see how creative townsfolk are about using the space ABOVE their buildings since land is at a premium in this charming city.

Rooftop in Dubrovnik, Croatia doing double duty as a sports court

Rooftop doing double duty as a sports court

In Old Town

Along the way, depending on where you entered the walls (I did by the Pila Gate entrance), you will run into the Fortress of St. John which sort of stands guard on the eastern bay of the town.   This fortress houses a very interesting maritime history museum which I highly recommend.

Old Town looks small from the walls but you can get lost down there – and you should!  Old Town is rich in architecture gems and its shiny stones on the ground add to the ambiance of the place.  My approach to a town like this is to walk pretty much aimlessly down streets and alleys (Old Town is all pedestrian).  A great starting point is the Pila Gate where you enter the main pedestrian street called the Stradun.

The Stradun in Dubrovnik from the Pila Gate

The Stradun street from the Pila Gate

Narrow streets of Old Town Dubrovnik, Croatia

Narrow streets of Old Town

Lots of neat buildings and sights no matter where you turn.  I found the oldest pharmacy in Europe still open (it is said to be the 3rd oldest overall having opened in 1317; located within the Franciscan Monastery) and a neat little museum of local countryside life (the Rupe Ethnographic Museum) built on a former granary (you can still see the holes used to move grains from one level to another).

Old Town, of course, has a good share of palaces, churches and other important buildings and structures to see:

  • The Franciscan Monastery and Church – construction started in the 1300s but which was pretty much destroyed in the earthquake of 1667 .  The cloister is considered one of Dubrovnik’s most important architecture pieces.
Cluster in Franciscan Monastery in Dubrovnik, Croatia

Cloister in Franciscan Monastery

Restoration work at the Franciscan Monastery in Dubrovnik, Croatia

Restoration work at the Franciscan Monastery behind a screen

  • The Rector’s Palace – probably my favorite building, it also suffered greatly in 1667 and was repaired/re-built.  I love the arcade on the side of the building.  Inside, it has a museum with interesting artifacts, jail cells on display, and rooms depicting both the decor of the time and the carriages used by well-off folks to travel!
The Rector's Palace in Dubrovnik, Croatia

The Rector’s Palace

Detail of the Rector's Palace - courtyard - in Dubrovnik, Croatia

Detail of the Rector’s Palace – courtyard

Detail of the Rector's Palace - handrail - in Dubrovnik, Croatia

Detail of the Rector’s Palace – handrail

  • The Bell Tower – at the end of the Stradun, it is fairly recent since the old tower had to be brought down and re-built in the early 20th century.
  • Other churches  including the Cathedral, St. Ignatius, and St. Vlaho.
Bell Tower and Church of St Vlaho in Dubrovnik, Croatia

Bell Tower and Church of St Vlaho

Old church in Old Town Dubrovnik, Croatia

Old church near the Dominican Monastery

  • Finally, the old synagogue which is the oldest Sephardic synagogue still in use and second oldest in Europe.  It is tiny and tucked away with a narrow entrance in a side alley.  One could easily miss it but it is well-worth finding it and entering it.

And RIGHT Outside Old Town

One of the neatest things about Dubrovnik is the sea around it.  One can walk towards the Fortress of St. John and see fishermen coming in with the catch of the day.

Dubrovnik fisherman

Just around the fortress, one can walk down the sidewalk to bask in the sun and the serenity of the sea – unless the waves are a-crashing!

Waves crashing in Dubrovnik's sea walkway 2

Waves crashing in Dubrovnik's sea walkway

Dubrovnik is well worth a visit; and the slower the pace, the more enjoyable it becomes – I shall return!

Unexpected Opportunities in Bulgaria: the Rila Monastery and Plovdiv

Going to Bulgaria and only seeing Sofia is a crime, in my book – Plovdiv and the Rila Monastery prove my point.  Sofia has some of the key sites to see in Bulgaria for sure but it is only but a fraction of what a visitor should experience.  I did not have ample time to travel around Bulgaria but wish I had been able to.  I hear folks in the smaller towns are very hospitable and that the natural beauty of the countryside and the large number of monasteries and churches around the country are worth seeing.  And let’s not forget wineries!

Our time was limited in Bulgaria since we were there for a wedding but was expanded courtesy of the volcano in Iceland that shall not be called by its name.

CNN anchor talking about the volcano – or about to eat Iceland

That presented us with an unexpected opportunity…  So we decided to explore more of this interesting Eastern European country!

Side street in old Plovdiv, Bulgaria

Side street in old Plovdiv, Bulgaria

Rila Monastery

Since our time was limited, we made the Rila Monastery our top priority for being the largest monastery in Bulgaria and being a beautiful one in a beautiful location, about 73 (117 km) miles from Sofia in the valley of the Rilska River and at an altitude of over 3,700 ft (1,100m +).

We got a car and a driver as we did not have time to figure out other logistics given how busy we had been with the wedding events.  This allowed us to recover from the wedding party the night before but also to soak in the scenery.  We drove past apple orchards (I had never seen one) and small towns on our way to enter the Rila Mountains area where the monastery is nestled in.  This part of the drive was simply beautiful full of green and tracking the river most of the way.  With the snowmelt from the mountains, the river was fast and it was a sight to behold.

We arrived at the monastery and seeing it blew us away.  What an incredible structure!  It is not ancient (reconstructed in the 1830s; the tower dates from the 14th century) but the site has been in use for centuries as a monastery.  St. Ivan of Rila lived in a cave about an hour’s walk away from the monastery many centuries before.   One can make the hike to the cave and it surely is a beautiful walk through the forest but we didn’t have time to do that…

Inside the monastery’s courtyard is a beautiful church.  Its architecture seems an interesting mix of what I understand Orthodox church architecture to be but also with elements that reminded me of the Mezquita de Córdoba in Spain (and, thereby, of Arab architecture as in the columns and arcs on the perimeter of the church).

Rila Monastery church in Bulgaria

Rila Monastery church in Bulgaria

Rila Monastery church portico ceiling

Church’s portico ceiling

Old tower at the Rila Monastery in Bulgaria

The old tower

Rila Monastery hallway in Bulgaria

Around the halls of monastery

Plovdiv

As we looked into how to spend an our final day in Bulgaria, Plovdiv was brought to our attention as worth seeing so, since it wasn’t far from Sofia (about 90 miles), we decided late that morning to go for it.

Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second city and has a population of over 330,000, was something unexpected to me.  It is a very charming town, with a large pedestrian area in the old part of town.  It has seemingly a different climate than Sofia and I do not mean just in meteorological terms:  it felt happier, livelier.  Not being the capital city, it didn’t seem to have the weight that title may impose.  While there were definitely buildings that carried Soviet-bloc stereotypical architecture, there did not seem to be much of it in the city center – I am glad they did not raze parts of old town, like in Bucharest, for grandiose communist projects!

Pedestrian area in the center of Plovdiv, Bulgaria

Pedestrian area in the center of Plovdiv, Bulgaria

Mosque in the center of Plovdiv, Bulgaria

Mosque in the city center

The city center teemed with life, people were out and about, and the open spaces seemed more inviting and taken advantage of than in Sofia.  To be fair, it rained most of the time I was in Sofia but somehow, I think Sofia is more of a “city” and Plovdiv more of a “town” where I give the town label a more positive meaning.  In the city center (which reminded me of Bratislava and maybe Salzburg, a little bit), there are some Roman ruins, cleverly revealed in the midst of the pedestrian area.
Roman ruins in Plovdiv, BulgariaThe hill (one of 6 around the city; a seventh was removed early in the 20th century) in old town Plovdiv is definitely a must-see.  It has some of the best views of the city but also some neat architecture.  It also offers views to excavations of Roman ruins and a Roman theater near the appropriately named Yellow School.
Ruins of a Roman theater in Plovdiv, BulgariaWhile some of the old buildings need repair, restoration work is evident in many of the structures, which are very interesting architecturally.

Building in need of repair in Plovdiv, Bulgaria

Beautiful even it its disrepair

Home on the hill in Plovdiv, Bulgaria

Colorful home on the hill in Plovdiv, Bulgaria

I wish we had known about Plovdiv before going to Bulgaria.  I would have really enjoyed an overnight stay to relax in a cafe and watch life go by…  If you go to Bulgaria, do not miss spending some time in Plovdiv!

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