So in this particular post I’m going to be sort of, somewhat covering Narva and Tartu. Two more different places in one extremely small country you could never find.

Narva

Narva is Estonia’s third largest city with something between 60-70,000 people. I never would have guessed. If I had to give a guestimate of the population based on my experience there I would say maybe 30-40,000. Despite the decent weather the only people I really saw out were parents and their children in the evening after school.

Narva was possibly one of the most confusing cities I have ever been to in my life. As Lonely Planet says, “Is it Estonia’s easternmost point or Russia’s westernmost town?” Seriously, almost the entire population is ethnically Russian (most hold both Russian and Estonian citizenship), everyone speaks Russian, all but one school teach all classes in Russian, all the signs are in Russian and Estonian (but only because it is required by law to have all signs in Estonian and apparently there are some hilarious grammatical errors). It also has more soviet style buildings than pretty much anywhere else in Estonia due to the fact that it was hit (see what I did there?) by Russia and literally 2 buildings survived the air raids.

I’ll be honest, there are very few reasons for heading over to Narva if you are not Russian. My particular reason for heading over was to see the brother castles. Narva Castle is on the Estonian side of the river and Ivangorod Fortress (which looked infinitely more imposing) is on the other side of the River. One could easily spend 1 full day in Narva and see everything. I personally got there in the late afternoon, had a little adventure, spent the next full day in Narva (and saw absolutely everything there is to see probably), and left early the next morning. That was plenty of time.

I started out walking up north of Narva (everything is in walking distance, including the Russian border, I really have no idea why they have cars here) to visit a German cemetary. Really wasn’t that exciting but offered a great view of the even more melancholy, despondant and impoverished side of the Narva river. It was also very relaxing. I was kind of wishing when I got there that I had brought a little picnic. Alas, I had no peanut butter for my sandwiches :(. Peanut butter is shockingly difficult to come by in this country. You can get American hickory bbq sauce, but not some chunky peanut butter. I had to go on a man hunt just to track down some Dutch peanut butter, which isn’t that great.

Anyway, from the cemetary I literally walked along the river/border to the Castle, bypassing the Old Town as I had visited the Old Town the previous night when wandering around. I did visit the castle and had one of the most expensive lunches of my trip so far enjoying the view of the Narva Castle courtyard. Despite the expense, I highly recommend it. If for no other reason than to just look at the ridiculous names of meals on the menu. My meal of pork, apples, onions, potato and salad was called “Knights Templar Seal”. For that, wine and tea it was less than 20 euros. Still insanely expensive for where I was, but good all the same.

Narva castle also has a museum and you can climb the tower, but either the tower is the museum or I just could not find the museum to save my life (the signposts were not terribly clear) but I chose not to climb the tower as I’m getting really sick of stairs at the moment. Just south of the castle there is a little beach that the inhabitants of this tiny city can use to swim in during the summer without breaching the natural border into Russia. I imagine it’s still probably pretty cold though. There are a couple of Orthodox churches, a warehouse district that used to house one of the USSR’s largest and main manufacturing districts and a random lion statue that you can also see.

As I said, not a lot to Narva. Still a quiant little town and for a blast from the past of USSR history (it really is like walking into Soviet Russia, excepting the couple of shopping centres I saw) and I’m glad I went. Though if you don’t speak Russian, the people who don’t speak English really weren’t that friendly, so learn a few basic phrases, if nothing else.

Tartu:

Tartu, on the other hand, was a complete 180 from Narva (and quite different from Tallinn as well). Somehow Tartu managed to escape too much sovietisation and the Russians missed (not subtle at all) burning the entire city to the ground and rebuilding, so a large chunk of the city retains it’s 17t h century style architecture. Now, while I’m well and truly ready to be gone from Tartu (a mere 3 days of being here is still too much for me), I really enjoyed it. If I liked smaller cities (about 100,000 people, 1/5 of which are university students) I would not mind coming back here regularly. There is something about it that draws you into it that just can’t be explained. It really reminds me of a very mini version of Sydney.

The people here are also noticably friendlier than in the rest of the country that I’ve encountered so far. My couchsurfing host very kindly took me on my first night to his colleagues house out in the middle of nowhere where I met many other colleagues and experienced a traditional Estonian sauna (make sure your sitting down for this one, Mum) in the nude! When in Rome. Kids, colleagues, wives and all joined in the ridiculously roasting sauna experience. While it was enjoyable and good for you, I prefer my Turkish hamams. I think I’ll stick with those.

The people watching and wandering aimlessly around has been spectacular. I can literally spend hours (and have) just sitting in cafe’s watching people, blogging, eating, drinking tea, reading, looking up stuff for my gap year, watching people…

Before I go on about the excellent places to visit in Tartu I just need to make a couple of recommendations on places to chill out and have a drink.

1. Crepps- a very delicious and well priced Crepe restaurant. They do have other food, but I ordered a cinnamon apple, chocolate and almond crepe with vanilla ice cream that was bigger than my head (it was actually bigger than the plate it was on). It was a delicious restaurant and you can order pots of tea (instead of just cups), beer, wine, etc. No trip to Tartu is complete without a trip here. I went more than once. Apparently they also have a bar/nightclub for evening shenanigans just above the restaurant.

2. Vein ja Vine- Vein means “fermented grape juice” aka wine. really not sure what Vine means, but the ja is “and”, I’ll let you make your own deductions. This is a neat little wine bar that reminds me of “Unwined” wine bar back home in Lane Cove. Cheap and delicious wine, tapas, friendly staff that speak English and a great ambiance. I was won over pretty darn quick.

3. Caffe Truffe- The ambiance screams “tourist with money who’s not willing to leave Reakoja Plats”, but the food is delicious, even if slightly overpriced. It’s not as overpriced as some of the other cafe’s directly on Reakoja Plats, but still expensive for Estonia. They also have free internet connection (frankly, most everywhere does).

4. Habib- Shisha bar! My wonderful, amazing couchsurfing host took me here with his mate and we sat for a few hours smoking wild cherry shisha and drinking beer. Both my couchsurfing host and his mate are very well travelled so there was a lot of story swapping and advice giving for some of my future travels. The lady was even nice enough to hang around of over an hour after it closed to let us just sit and chat.

So places in Tartu to visit. I must admit I was so enjoying sitting around people watching, eating and drinking that I did not visit nearly as much as I could have.  However, I did walk around (a lot) and did see a little bit to be recommended.

First off, start at Reakoja Plats and visit the Town Hall and the kissing students fountain.

The famous kissing students fountain in Reakoja Plats, Tartu.

It’s a good place to start and then branch your way out. There isn’t much point in heading to Kesklinn (city centre) because it’s just a couple of shopping centres, but there is an excellently disturbing statue thing on the way there. Trust me, you couldn’t possibly miss it. For a photo, go through the facebook album posted below.

I personally went away from Kesklinn and walked down a walkway (where I found most of the cafe’s mentioned above) until I came to the University main building. It’s a beautiful building and just to the left of it there are some other buildings which have paintings on either side. One side is a really cool painting of old Tartu and the other side of the building are paintings of windows with people in them doing rather random and hilarious things.

From there you can either continue south to Toompea Hill, which is a rather English style park with a beautiful old church on top that is nice to look at and apparently houses old church art from Estonia’s history. I didn’t go in because it was rather late in the evening and I couldn’t be bothered, but it is a nice bit of ground to walk upon.

Alternatively, you can walk west of the University building and come upon St. John’s church which is particularly odd due to the terra cotta figures decorating the outside of the church (hundreds of them). You can go into the church and for a very small fee climb the 138 or so steps to the top for a view of Tartu. At this point, I’m rather sick of climbing steps so I decided to skip out on that and don’t really regret it.

I also highly recommend visiting the University botanical gardens. This botanical garden, which is tiny in comparison to the one in Sydney, is nonetheless pretty awesome. It’s a beautiful little garden to wander through, sit around in, have a picnic, or just generally enjoy yourself. Plus there are lots of tulips and the occassional cat running around. I probably spent 1-2 hours there just sitting or wandering or snapping pictures.

Another must see is the aptly named “Leaning Tower of Tartu”. It’s an old building which now houses an art museum and has a significant lean to it. Apparently it was built partially on bedrock and partially on wooden slats that eventually collapsed, hence the lean. Somehow, this doesn’t seem terribly stable to me, but it’s a great little oddity.

And for you beer lovers out there (here’s looking at you, Rob), there is a 200 year old brewery just a 5-10 minute walk from Reakoja Plats. It’s the A Le Coq brewery and every Thursday and Saturday you can do a 2 hour guided tour of the brewery and for only 3 euro you can also do a beer tasting. If you unfortunately cannot make the guided tour (or just don’t feel like it), they have a beer museum which covers about 6 floors. That’s a lot of beer related paraphenalia. Great value.

Last but not least I can not recommend anything more than the KGB cell museum. This museum is housed in the basement of a building that remained standing after the USSR came in. It is a depressingly grim museum but fascinating and gives a good history of German and particularly Soviet occupation in the Baltics. There are numerous artifacts and a significant amount of information of the occupation and resistance is given in Estonian, English, Russian and Finnish. They also have restored it to most of it’s original lack of grandeur. If you see nothing else in Tartu, I recommend you go here. For such a tiny museum I spent over an hour in there.

Tartu is litered with an insane amount of museums all over the place and you can find something for everyone here. I spent a good couple of hours looking for the literature museum before giving up (probably should have looked up the address). There are signs everywhere pointing toward museums of science, literature, history, geology, etc, but they aren’t always easy to find. Look up the address first so you can get in.

For photos see here.

What I’m reading now: Lonely Planet Guide to Eastern Europe: Latvia

What I’m attempting to listen to: Liis Lemsalu. Having difficulty finding her music online to download as I have no cd drive and didn’t want to purchase the cd  for that reason. Her debut album won best female artist of the year in the Baltics. She’s an Estonian artist.

I’m also listening to http://rcm.amazon.com/e/cm?lt1=_blank&bc1=000000&IS2=1&bg1=FFFFFF&fc1=000000&lc1=0000FF&t=shadotrave-20&o=1&p=8&l=as1&m=amazon&f=ifr&ref=tf_til&asins=B007TNUDBW” target=”_blank”>Iiris: The Magic Gift Box. This is also her debut album and she has a much different (and slightly darker) style to Liis Lemsalu, who is very much a future pop princess. If you want to purchase the music please use the available link as it will help minimally with funding my travels!

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