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November 3, 2013

Medieval towers stand beside modern touches in Estonia's capital

Several years ago, while visiting Costa Rica, I ran into a chap from Britain who led tours all over the globe. I asked him what his favorite destination was. Without blinking an eye, he spurted Tallinn.

I was visiting Helsinki this July when I discovered that Tallinn, Estonia's capital, was but a two-hour, 50-mile ferry ride away. I booked a round-trip excursion across the Gulf of Finland to the the walled Medieval city that's comparable to Krakow with the flavor of Prague.

The oldest capital in Northern Europe, Tallinn started as a fort in 1050 and first appeared on a map in 1154. The Danes took control in 1219 but sold their holdings to the Teutonic Knights little more than a century later.

At a strategic crossroads of trade, Tallinn's defenders built a 4.7-kilometer stone wall around the town, along with 46 observation towers and seven gates, including the main Sea Gate, constructed in the 16th century.

Of these, nearly two kilometers of wall remain, along with half the original towers.

My first view of the city was something of a disappointment. The area around the port is not all that attractive, due to construction and a mishmash of modern buildings.

It wasn’t until I got close to Old Town - a few blocks away, within the old ramparts - that my interest spiked.

Twisting cobblestone streets, gabled houses, rustic lanes and iron street lamps remain within Old Town, forming the fairytale core of a UNESCO World Heritage Site that attracts hundreds of thousands of tourists each year.

The Finno-Ugric ancestors of modern Estonians, Finns and Hungarians all moved into the Baltic Coast as early as 8,000 B.C. Today, all three nations share the same root language.

Nevertheless, I was surprised to find so many people speaking American English - the result of U.S. films and television programs, I was told. (Films and television shows are spoken in English with Estonian subtitles, which makes learning easier for those who want to speak English, as most of the youth I encountered did.)

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