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My European Favourites – Emilia-Romagna, Italy

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My European Favourites – Emilia-Romagna, Italy

When people think of Italy, the first places that usually come to mind are Rome, Venice, Milan and the region of Tuscany, which includes Florence and Pisa. I would go to any of these places in a heartbeat. I love them all, but a region that many tourists overlook is Emilia-Romagna. The region’s name might not be well known, but its exceptional agricultural, automotive and mechanical sectors are known the world over.

Much of the gastronomy we associate with Italian cuisine has its roots in Emilia-Romagna. The region is famous for Parmigiano Reggiano (Parmesan cheese), Modena balsamic vinegar, Parma ham (prosciutto), and various types of pasta, just to name a few items. If you are a wine lover, Sangiovese and Lambrusco are two of their well-known “vinos” for their unique taste and quality.

If you are a motor sport buff, Ducati motorcycles and luxury car manufacturers Lamborghini, Maserati and Ferrari all have their roots in the area. With this racing heritage, it’s only natural that two major circuits are located in the region. The motorcycle racing Misano World Circuit Marco Simoncelli is located near Misano Adriatico and is named after a local rider who died during a race in Malaysia in 2011. The Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari located in Imola, which has been used for Formula 1 Grand Prix races, is named after Ferrari’s founder and his son. The track is sadly the location where three time World Champion Ayrton Senna of Brazil died in 1994.

It is best to do these tours with Parma as your base in Emilia-Romagna, but I enjoy its capital and largest city, Bologna. The city is Italy’s seventh largest with about 400,000 people, and it is famous for its medieval towers, churches, colonnades and historical city centre. The University of Bologna, which was established in 1088 AD, is the oldest university in the Western world. I love exploring the narrow city centre streets and browsing the food markets and shops with fresh produce, cured meats, fish, breads, pastas and regional products. I’m no chef, but I imagine that it would be sensory overload for any culinary expert. The small restaurants with street front patios make some of the best dishes you will eat in all of Italy. You have to go there.

Bologna’s medieval towers, a colonnade, a street full of restaurants and the Neptune Fountain.

Parmigiano Reggiano

We depart in the morning from our hotel in central Bologna to a family cheese making operation that produces the “king of cheeses,” Parmigiano Reggiano. The just over an hour drive brings us to a farm and factory near the town of Parma. They are members of the consortium that designates and controls authentic Parmigiano Reggiano production. Under law, the designation Parmigiano Reggiano is protected as a PDO (Protected Designations of Origin) and can be used only by certified producers from this area, so consumers know they have the real deal.

Around 1000 AD, monks reclaimed the marshy lands in the Po valley. The fertile land was plowed and worked by the monks using cows. With numerous cows, the monks had to invent a method to preserve the large quantities of high-quality milk they produced into a product that could be stored and used over time. The monks eventually developed a technique to produce a distinctive cheese in large boilers. The large round Parmigiano Reggiano is still made the same way today.

The Minardi family own and operate the Borgo del Gazzano farm factory that we are visiting. As an organic farm, they pay close attention to the entire local supply chain process to ensure the highest quality of ingredients. We arrive as they are reaching their final steps of the boiler process that was perfected by the monks long ago. Two men collect the curd from the boiler using muslin cloth and place it in large round molds. The cheese is left to set for a day or two then the mold will be removed to add a plastic wrap that has the imprint of the famous Parmigiano Reggiano stamp along with the date and the producer’s number. The mold is then reattached over the plastic wrap and tightened. The imprint from the wrap will solidify as a permanent mark on the rind over the next day. The wrap and mold are then removed and the cheese is placed in a rectangular vessel filled with a brine mixture for 20-25 days so that the cheese can absorb salt.

Production boilers, collecting the curd, the cheese freshly set in a mold and the brine bath.

Finally, the cheese is placed on a shelf in the warehouse to age for 12 months. Prepare to be astounded to see row after row of these shelves that are over 20 cheeses high and at least 80 cheeses long per side. It feels like a library made of cheese! Do you hear a mechanical sound coming from the next aisle? It is a machine working its way up, down and across the shelves. Its job is to grab one heavy cheese off the shelf at a time, spin it around so it can brush off the excess bits, flip the cheese, then place it safely back on the shelf, before automatically moving on to the next one. I guess now we know where they get the parmesan cheese shavings for the cheese shakers we buy at our local grocery store.

We will step outside to the barn area to see the cows and dairy operation before moving to the tasting area and shop. Tasting the celebrated “fromaggio,” with its distinctive texture and sharp flavour, at the very place where it is produced is really something special. This is not to be mistaken with the cheese we often get at home, as outside of Europe, companies can only use the word “Parmesan” to describe their cheese. To get the real deal, you have to make sure that it is clearly sold as, or even better, see it stamped as Parmigiano Reggiano.

Parmigiano shelves, the stamp on the rind, the cleaning machine and me with Alfonso Minardi.

Parma Ham (Prosciutto)

Just 30 minutes from the Borgo del Gazzano is a producer that makes another iconic food. The Lanfranchi family are specialists in the making of a cured meat known the world over as Raw Parma Ham (Prosciutto Crudo di Parma). For 20 years, they have been selecting the finest raw materials and using their traditional methods and expertise to produce the finest and tastiest prosciutto, salamis, pancetta, culatello and coppa di parma. Like the Parmigiano Reggiano cheese producers, the Parma Ham producers are also part of a consortium, and as such, must adhere to high standards and follow precise rules of production.

We will get an introduction of the prosciutto making process. Our tour starts with the trimming of the excess fat and rind of the pork thigh to give the ham its rounded shape and to assist in the salting process. The rind is treated with wet salt while the lean parts are sprinkled with dry salt. During a three week period, the ham is salted twice and placed in walk-in freezers with different temperatures. During this period, it slowly absorbs salt, loses moisture, and loses about 4% of its weight.

Our guide explaining the production process, the ham cellar and the “5 point crown” stamp.

In the next stage, the ham’s residual salt is removed and it is placed in a special room with controlled humidity and temperature for just over two months. While in this room, the salt penetrates even deeper and it is reduced by another 8-10%. We continue into a room with windows that are opened for the ham to dry over the next few months in natural process that will result in another weight loss of 8-10%.

The ham’s final move is to the cellar on the seventh month. In the cellar, important biochemical and enzymatic processes occur. Here it loses another 5% of weight but gains the distinct aroma and taste of the Param Ham.

The finished La Perla Prosciutto, a mixed plate of their products and me with Mr. Lafranchi.

At the end of the curing process, the ham is penetrated by a horse bone needle by experts who can verify its quality with a trained sense of smell. Finally, after a twelve month journey, the ham is inspected by the Parma Quality Institute and branded with the “5 pointed crown” as a guarantee to the consumer that the product is of the highest quality.

The tour gives us a great appreciation for the care that goes into making these products, and underscores why they are highly sought after. We move to the La Perla tasting room where we can try some of the local wines while enjoying lunch, which of course, includes pasta, cured meats, prosciutto, Parmesan cheese, bread and a dessert. It is always tough to get a group to leave because the Lafranchi family are great hosts who love to meet people from around the world. But we must leave, as one hour away, is a mecca for car enthusiasts.

The red arch at the Ferrari Museum entrance, the Ferrari 330 P3 and the AF Corse # 51.

Ferrari Museum

As we arrive at Maranello, we are greeted by a traffic circle that has a familiar silver prancing horse in the middle. This is undeniably, the home of Ferrari. Founded by Enzo Ferrari in 1929 as Scuderia Ferrari, the company sponsored drivers and manufactured race cars before moving into production of street-legal vehicles as Ferrari S.p.A. in 1947.

As we arrive to the Museum, we see a F1 race car in what looks like scaffolding and a welcoming bright red arch. Ferrari is the most successful Formula 1 team in history and has millions of loyal and exuberant fans worldwide. The motorsports cars in the museum are dedicated to the 90 years of Ferrari racing heritage. The cars will take your breath away.

The “Prancing Horse” logo, a 1950’s vintage race car and a classic Ferrari.

My favourite area of the museum is the Michael Schumacher exhibition dedicated to his 11 years of racing with Ferrari. The room has some of his F1 race cars on display in an awe-inspiring semi-circle with a video wall in the background playing highlights of his career. On the other side of the room is a lower wall dedicated to Ferarri champion drivers and an upper wall full of shiny trophies.

A few F1 cars from the Michael Schumacher exhibition, Ferrari champions and the trophies.

In addition to the racing automobiles, the museum also displays its most famous street cars through history, including the iconic Ferrari Testarossa. The Ferrari shop is full of items with the iconic item emblazoned on them, but like the high performance cars, they are pricey.

A Ferrari Portofino, a LaFerrari Aperta, and the Ferrari 5999 HY-KERS test “MULOTIPO.”

With your adrenalin pumping from being surrounded by automotive power, you will be ready to try a couple of unique experiences. If you are mechanically inclined, you will love the Pit Stop Experience, where they time you as you make a front tire change on a Formula 1 car. Those that “feel the need for speed” will drool at the sight of the unbelievable Scuderia Ferrari F1 simulators. After you climb into the pilot’s cockpit, you are given a brief explanation of how to use the paddles behind the steering wheel and the gear box. They can set up the simulator for regular driver or in a more advanced mode for “professionals.” You even get to choose one of the famous F1 tracks for your race experience. The simulator lets you feel the track surface including rubbing strips feel the breaking and throttle forces.

If you are interested, you can combine the museum ticket with a tour of the Ferrari track and factory. For the duration of the tour, you must remain on the company’s shuttle buses and no photos or video are allowed. The factory entrance has been kept the same as it was in 1947 and the track is where all of Ferrari’s competition and road cars have been tested since 1972.

Those that want to get behind the wheel can go to the nearby Autodromo di Modena race circuit and drive a Ferrari for 15 minutes or longer. The experience includes track information and safety protocols from a professional driver.

The tire changing Ferrari Pit Stop Experience and the Formula 1 racing simulators.

Balsamic Vinegar

After the heart racing Ferrari experience, we make a short early evening drive to a Balsamic Vinegar producer or “Acetaia” that was founded in the 1800s. The Paltrinieri Acetaia, established in 1845, maintains the family tradition and replenishes over 1000 barrels of balsamic using the experience handed down generation after generation. Adhering to the strict regulations and using local ingredients from the Trebiano and Lambrusco vineyards, Guido Paltrinieri guides the production of the vinegar must.

The company harvests 160,000 kilograms of grapes on their 25 acre farm, which produces 15,000 litres of balsamic vinegar. We will visit the warehouse attic to see the medium sized barrels made from durmast, chestnut, mulberry, cherry, acacia, ash and precious juniper wood.

The flavour garnered from the barrels, along with the aging process, result in the unique scent and flavour of the balsamic. In the tasting room, we try a range of balsamic they produce, and it is amazing how varied the taste can be in terms of the sweet and sour tones. They also vary in density. The denser the vinegar, the more of a syrupy texture it has. Mind you, this is not the balsamic you find at your local grocery store. A high quality Modena balsamic in a 100 ml bottle, and aged up to 25 years, can cost hundreds of dollars. The company also produces balsamic based products like Balsamotto, Acet-Up, Dulcia and Saba which are great for use in cooking or as a condiment, including on ice cream!

The Acetaia’s barrel sign, processing equipment, barrels of balsamic and the tasting room.

One of my favourite meals in Italy is at the Acetaia Paltrinieri restaurant. After our balsamic tasting and tour, we head across the courtyard to the rustic farm house restaurant. Just before we arrive to the restaurant doors, we are greeted with a glass of Pignoletto sparkling wine and crumbled Parmigiano Reggiano drizzled with DOP Modena Balsamic Vinegar. The balsamic and the cheese go so well together.

The Acetaia’s courtyard, restaurant entrance, Parmigiano with balsamic and their products.

Once inside, we are greeted with bottles of Lambrusco wine on the table, which everyone is quick to spot and partake in. Soon, a plate of a local flatbread called “tigelle” similar to an English muffin, and served warm, arrives with a spread. They are so good!

I have had two different first courses, and I’m not sure which I love more. One is a creamy risotto made with “riserva” balsamic vinegar, and the other is a pasta called Strozzapreti or “choke the priest” pasta. The name always makes me laugh, but the pasta, which also contains balsamic, is absolutely fantastic.

The second course is a meat course which is served with vegetables or salad. During my previous visits, I’ve enjoyed stuffed roast pig, chicken with ham or Balsamotto roast beef, with each dish including balsamic as an ingredient. Even my ice cream dessert contains balsamic. After a glass of a special local walnut liqueur called “nocino” or a nice espresso, we are on our way back to Bologna. It will be a late return to our hotel in Bologna but I’m sure we will venture out to find a nice place in the historic city centre to have a glass of wine and to talk about our amazing day in Emilia-Romagna.

Explore Europe With Us

Azorcan Global Sport, School and Sightseeing Tours have taken thousands to Europe on their custom group tours since 1994. Visit azorcan.net to see all our custom tour possibilities for your group of 26 or more. Individuals can join our “open” signature sport, sightseeing and sport fan tours including our popular Canada hockey fan tours to the World Juniors. At azorcan.net/media you can read our newsletters and listen to our podcasts.

Images compliments of Paul Almeida and Azorcan Tours.

Click here to read more of Paul’s travel series on Europe.

My European Favourites – Lisbon’s Belem District

 

 

I have been in sports management and the sports tour business since 1994 when I created my company, Azorcan Global Sport, School and Sightseeing tours. Please visit our website at azorcan.net for more information on our company, our tours and our destinations. We are European group tour experts specializing in custom sightseeing tours, sport tours (hockey, soccer, ringette, school academies) and fan tours (World Juniors). Check out our newsletters, and listen to our podcasts at azorcan.net/media.

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My European Favourites – Tallinn, Estonia

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Tallinn is one of those cities that you never hear people talk about visiting, but once you do, it becomes an instant favourite. Whenever we do an itinerary for a hockey, ringette or sightseeing group to Sweden and Finland, I always encourage the group to add a side trip to Estonia’s capital. It is only a two hour ferry ride from Helsinki to Tallinn, so it’s perfect for a day trip.

Tallinn has just under half a million inhabitants and is the largest city of Estonia. It is located directly south of Helsinki on the Gulf of Finland and on the eastern edge of the Baltic Sea. Once known by its German name, Raval, Tallinn has one of the best preserved old towns in Europe. Unlike many towns in Europe, Tallinn’s historic old town was never destroyed by war and is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I like to think of it as a smaller Prague. The city started building protective walls in the 13th century, and over time, it enlarged to a defence system of over two kilometers with gates and towers. Much of these structures survive today including twenty of the pointy red roofed towers. In some areas, it is possible to walk along the walls.

Near the old town you will find traditional neighborhoods with colorful wooden houses, green spaces and the redeveloped bustling port area. Estonians are blessed with public beaches to enjoy in the summer months and nearby forests to explore on nature walks. Within view of the old town, there is a modern city, complete with skyscrapers and all the modern amenities you would expect. How modern is Tallinn? It has free public WIFI, and as a high-tech city, it has become a leader in the sector of cyber security. You may have used the services of a well-known Estonian startup company named Skype.

About Estonia

There is evidence that the area was settled as far back as 5,000 years ago, but the city became an important trading hub in the 14th to 16th centuries when it was a member of the Hanseatic League, which controlled trade in the Baltic and North Seas. Even at that time, the city only had about 8,000 inhabitants.

Over the years, Estonia has been ruled by the Holy Roman Empire, Denmark, Sweden and Russia. The country gained short lived independence from Russia after WWI only to be reclaimed as part of the Soviet Union after WWII. Like most of the countries that became part of the USSR, they suffered through a fifty year period of communist policies and stagnation. In 1991, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Estonia regained its independence. Since then it has flourished into a western style city while maintaining its rich cultural and architectural history. It is a member of the European Union and NATO.

Tallinn’s distinctive mix of a modern and historic skyline as we arrive on the ferry from Helsinki.

Ferry to Tallinn

Tallinn is a two-hour ferry ride south from Helsinki, and it’s possible to go early in the morning across the Gulf of Finland and return late on the evening ferry. The Tallink ferry has sitting areas on different decks plus shopping and dining options onboard. If possible, I would recommend an overnight stay near the old town and return to Helsinki the following evening.

From Sweden, you can arrive on the overnight ferry that leaves Stockholm in the early evening and arrives in Tallinn in the morning. Your individual ticket includes a cabin that can sleep up to four people with two single beds and two pull down upper berths. Onboard, you can enjoy shopping, entertainment, bars and restaurants. Another option from Stockholm is to take the ferry to Riga and spend a couple of days in Latvia’s capital. The drive from Riga to Tallin is about four hours, and I usually like to stop along the way in the seaside resort city of Parnu to have lunch and walk in the city centre.

A Tale of Two Towns

Tallinn’s historic center is separated into two areas, Toompea, and Vanalinn. At one time, they were two feuding medieval towns. The upper town, Toompea, includes the aptly named Toompea Castle. The lower town, Vanalinn, has narrow alleyways, the town square, shops and restaurants. Vanalinn, was the Hanseatic League trading center filled with merchants from Germany, Denmark and Sweden. The two areas are connected by two passages called the short leg (Lühike Jalg) and the long leg (Pikk jalg).

Toompea, Tallinn’s Upper Town

As expected, the Toompea Castle sits high above the lower town on an ancient stronghold site that dates back to a wooden fortress in the 9th century. The castle, a symbol of political power through the ages, has been expanded and remodeled over the years by Estonia’s rulers to meet their needs.

Once a castle of ancient Estonians starting in the 11th century, it was later used by the Danish during most of the 13th century. It wasn’t until the 14th and 15th centuries, while in the hands of the Holy Roman Empire’s Teutonic Order, that it was built to resemble what we see today. The religious order changed the castle interior to include a chapel, chapel house, convent and dormitories for the knights. They added defence towers named Pikk Hermann (Tall Hermann), Landskrone (Crown of the land), Pilsticker (Arrow Sharpener) and Stür den Kerl (Ward Off Enemy) to protect each of its four corners. During the 16th century when Estonia became a part of Sweden, they changed the castle from a crusader’s fortress to a symbol of political power, with an administrative and ceremonial purpose.

Tall Hermann, entrance to the Governors Garden and the Toompea Castle’s pink palace.

When the Russians took over in the 18th century, the Czar had the castle turned into a palace by adding a Baroque and Neoclassical wing to the eastern part of the castle and a public park on the south east. When Estonia declared its first independence from Russia after WWI, the former convent of the Teutonic Order was transferred into an assembly hall for the Parliament of Estonia, named the Riigikogu. After being disbanded during the Soviet era from 1940 to 1991, the assembly, the Riigikogu, was reinstated in 1992 as the Estonian Parliament with 101 members.

I like to start my tour of Tallinn in the upper town just outside of the Toompea Castle, so I can get a good look at the impressive Tall Herman and original castle wall from the Governors Garden. During the castle’s evolution, the Stür den Kerl castle tower has been demolished while the others have been integrated into building projects. The 48 meter high Tall Hermann still stands and has become an important symbol of Tallinn and the nation. The Estonian flag is raised atop the tower every day at sunrise as the national anthem plays and it is lowered at sunset.

Around the corner from the park is the Lossi Plats (Castle Square) where we can see the pink palace which was added to the front of Toompea Castle during the renovations by Russian Czars. Topped by the Estonian flag, the one-time medieval fortress is now clearly the modern centre of government for Estonia. On the opposite side of the square is a richly decorated Russian orthodox cathedral.

The Castle Square, the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral and an Russian Orthodox mosaic.

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral

The striking Alexander Nevsky Cathedral was built in 1900 in Russian Revival style when Estonia was part of the Russian Empire. It is Tallinn’s largest orthodox cupola cathedral and is dedicated to Saint Alexander Nevsky, a Russian military hero, who in 1242, won a famous “Battle of the Ice” against the Teutonic Knights on Lake Peipus. The lake on Estonia’s eastern border is shared with Russia with the modern day border between the countries being about half way across.

During the USSR period, the church came into decline due to communist non-religious policies. Since 1991, the church has been meticulously restored even though it is a constant reminder of Russia’s influence, power and oppression over Estonia through the ages. There were actually plans to demolish the structure in 1924, but it was spared due to a lack of funds to raze such a large building. Today, the church is one of Tallinn’s most visited attractions and is unique due to its contrasting architectural style.

The church exterior has five onion domes, each topped with a gilded Orthodox cross.  The church has eleven bells that were cast in St. Petersburg, including one massive 16 ton bell.

Like other traditional Orthodox churches, there are no pews as worshippers were required to stand during services. The ornate interior has three alters, stained glass windows and three gilded wooden iconostases (wall of icons and religious paintings) which separate the nave from the alters. Entrance to the cathedral is free. The intricate detail and colors of the mosaics and icons are amazing and well worth seeing.

St. Mary’s Church, the top of the baroque tower spire with the year 1772.

Leaving the Castle Square, we venture further into the upper town, and about 100 meters in, we reach the Kiriku Plats (Church Square) and a white medieval church with a baroque bell tower. The Toomkrik built by the Danes in the 13th century, also known as the Dome Chrurch or St. Mary’s Cathedral, is Estonia’s oldest church. Originally a Roman Catholic cathedral, it became Lutheran in the mid 16th century and is the seat of Tallinn’s Archbishop of the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church. Although the church endured severe damage in the great fire of 1684, it was the only building on Toompea left standing. It was restored to its previous state shortly after the fire and a new baroque spire was added in the 18th century.

From the Church Square, we can see the light green colored Estonian Knighthood House. This is the 4th Knighthood house that was built for noble Knights to meet and enjoy festivities. The Knighthood was formed in 1584 by the Baltic German nobles, but it was disbanded in 1920. Currently, the building is used by the Estonian Academy of Arts. On the right of the building we take the Kohtu street until we reach the end and turn right onto a small open area between two buildings.

Kohtuotsa views: Towards the harbour and of the old town with skyscrapers in the distance.

A Panoramic View and Sweet Almonds

As we enter the Kohtuotsa viewing platform, which is a courtyard between two buildings, the smell of candied almonds overwhelms the senses. A wooden kiosk with a couple of girls dressed in traditional costume are making batches of sweet almonds in a copper pot. They have a sample for you to try, and when you do, the sale is complete. They have two options, Magus Mandel (Candied) or Soolane Mandel (Salty). I have the candied ones every time.

There is a stone wall at the end of the platform with amazing panoramic views of Tallinn. Looking to the left, you can see the white tower of St. Olaf’s Church amongst medieval towers with the harbour and the sea in the distance. Directly ahead are the roof tops and spires of the lower town with the skycrapers of the city in the distance. It’s quite a contrast of architecture from medieval structures to modern steel and glass.

Another nearby viewing platform is the Patkuli, which is reached by climbing 157 steps from the old town up to Toompea. This platform offers a great view of the harbour area.

Leaving the Kohtuotsa, we go back towards the Nevsky Cathedral and take the Long Leg Street down into the lower town. We walk along the fortification walls until we reach the Long Leg Tower and enter the lower town.

Walking down the Long Leg passage to the Long Leg Tower and into the lower town.

Vanalinn – Tallinn’s Lower Town

Emerging from the Long Leg Tower, we continue on Pikk street until we reach the Grand Guild Square (Suurgildi Plats). The square is named after the medieval gold colored Great Guild Hall that is now the Estonian History Museum. The Great Guild was a medieval association of merchants, artisans, and craftsmen in Tallinn from the 14th century until 1920.  On the square, we also find the Lutheran Holy Spirit Church (Pühavaimu kirik). The white washed medieval church has stained glass gothic windows, an octagonal bell tower and an interesting 17th century carved clock on the façade. If you enter the church, you will see elaborate wood working, especially on the alter.

The Maiasmokk Café, the Holy Spirit Church, the church clock and the pharmacy sign.

Established in 1864, the Maiasmokk Café on the square, is the oldest in Tallinn. The café interior hasn’t changed for over a century. It is famous for its marzipan, which is said to have been originated in Tallinn. Marzipan is made from almond meal and either sugar or honey. The café’s Marzipan Room details the city’s history of making marzipan including traditional marzipan figures made from special molds.

If we take a small passage along the church, we will reach the Town Hall Square (Raekoja Plats). As we enter the square, two doors down on our left is the Town Hall Pharmacy (Revali Raeapteek). This pharmacy dates back to 1422, and it may be the world’s oldest pharmacy in continuous use.The pharmacy has a museum where you can see some of the old time medicines and potions. You can test various herbal tea blends picked from local fields in the basement of the Town Hall Pharmacy (or Raeapteek) or explore the exposition of the 17th to the 20th-century medicine in the back room. You can purchase some of the products from the middle ages including teas, spices, chocolate, marzipan and claret, a potent libation made from wine and spices that dates back to 1467.

The Old Town Square’s colorful buildings, the Town Hall and a Town Hall dragon water spout.

The lively Town Hall Square, one of the best preserved medieval town squares in the world, was a market place in the Middle ages. Many of the colorful buildings on the square were once medieval merchants’ homes, offices and warehouses from the Hanseatic Golden Age. During the summer months, the restaurants around the square set up their umbrellaed patios where you can enjoy lunch and a cool beverage as you watch locals and tourists mill about. Restaurants like “III Draakon” and ‘Olde Hansa” offer a unique medieval experience with menu items made with elk, bear and boar meat.

The square is the centre of the Old Town Days medieval festival, concerts, fairs and the centuries old Christmas market. It is said that in 1441, the Brotherhood of the Blackbeards, a professional association of merchants, ship owners and foreigners, erected the very first Christmas tree here on the square. Today, in addition to the tree, the Christmas market fills the square with kiosks selling everything from gingerbread to knitted mittens and handicrafts. Other kiosks sell snacks, oysters and mulled wine to keep you warm. Kids can drop off letters at the Santa Claus cabin and ride the carousels in a magical setting. On a stage, hundreds of performers take turns entertaining the crowds during the markets month long stay from the 27th of November to the 27th of December.

Sweet Almond vendor and Old Town buildings. The Christmas market stage and a kiosk.

The town hall, built in 1404, sits prominently on the square and is the oldest in the Baltic and Scandinavian regions. It is no longer in the seat of the municipal government but is used for special events and ceremonies, and is the home of the Tallinn City Musuem. The town hall tower can be climbed in the summer months to get another great view of Tallinn. Since 1530, a weather vane of Vana Toomas, or Old Thomas, has been keeping lookout atop the spire. Old Thomas, who is holding a sword and an arrow, is said to be a protector of Tallinn.

The square is spectacular, but it can be touristy. I like to wander through the cobblestone streets and alleyways surrounding the centre to find restaurants and cafes where the locals frequent. Walking these side streets is like taking a time machine back to the medieval ages, but you will find interesting little museums, galleries and shops selling local products like amber.

St. Catherine’s Passage kiosks and alley. The Viru Gate tower and the white Viru Hotel.

St. Catherine’s Passage, the Viru Gate and the KGB

From the Old Town square if we go to the right of the old town and down the busy pedestrian Viru Street we will reach the St. Catherine’s passage on Müürivahe Street. The passage leads to the St. Catherine’s Monastery which was founded in 1246 by the Monks of the Dominican Order. The monastery is the oldest building in Tallinn. At the monastery, you can visit the chapel, gallery, or book a private tour. The medieval passage itself, formerly known as Monk’s alley, has the tall fortification wall on one side with little kiosks below selling handicrafts and 15th to 17th century residences on the other side, with some now being used as artists workshops.

Only steps away from the St. Catherine’s passage is the 14th century Viru Gate that was part of Tallinn’s wall defences. When the entrances to the Old Town were widened in the late 1800’s, many of the gates were destroyed. The Viru Gate’s corner towers survived and are a great divide from the medieval town on one side and the modern city on the other.

During the 50 year Soviet occupation of Estonia, the KGB had its headquarters in the old town at Pagari 1. In its basement, suspected enemies of the state were imprisoned, interrogated and tortured. If convicted of crimes, they were either shot or sent to labour camps in Siberia. The tall white Viru Hotel that can be seen clearly in the distance from the Viru Gate has a KGB Museum. Like any hotel where foreigners stayed, the hotel had to have spying facilities for the KGB. The museum tells the story of their activities and the Soviet mindset.

St. Olaf’s Church, the Fat Margaret Tower, and the Kadriorg Palace.

St. Olaf’s Church 

On the northern edge of the old town is Tallinn’s biggest medieval building, the iconic St Olaf’s Church. Named after the sainted Norwegian king Olav II Haraldsson, the church was the tallest building in the world from between 1549 and 1625 due to its 124 meter tower. The church had three great fires in 1625, 1820 and in 1931 caused by lightning striking its tall spire. In fact, lightning has struck the church at least 10 times. During the Soviet occupation, the spire was used as a radio tower and KGB surveillance point. Today, if you climb 232 steps on a winding staircase you will have a great view of the city and the harbour area. I’m not sure I would go on an overcast day tough.

Near the church is the Fat Margaret tower which houses a part of the Maritime Museum. The main part of the museum is the Seaplane Harbour (Lennusadam) which is located a couple of kilometers away. It is one of Europe’s biggest maritime museums with a submarine, icebreaker, seaplane, an aquarium, simulators and other activities.

Other Things to do in Tallinn

If you go to the wall connecting the Nunna, Sauna and Kuldjala towers, you can walk the city walls, like the medieval guards that protected the town.

Near the old town, the Rotermann quarter has been transformed from old warehouses and factory buildings into a trendy and lively neighborhood with modern architecture.

Kumu Art Museum, with a modern architectural design, depicts various periods of Estonian art from the Academic Style to Modernism, from Soviet Pop Art to contemporary art.

Near the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, Tallinn’s Museum of Occupations tells the history of the country’s occupation by the Nazis during WWII and then the Soviets.

Patarei Prison is a huge complex in the Kalamaja district that can be visited in the summer months. Once an artillery battery in the 19th century, it became a prison from 1919 to 2002.

The 314 meter high Tallinn TV Tower has a glass-floored viewing platform on the 21st floor with a 360 degree view of the city. Thrill seekers can take a safety harnessed walk on the open deck.

Foodies may want to visit the Kalev Chocolate factory or the Baltic Station Market.

Just Outside of Tallinn

Just outside Tallinn is Kadriorg Park. Established by Peter the Great in 1718, it has the Kadriorg Palace as well as beautiful gardens and woods. The park includes a concert area, children’s park, a people’s park and a Japanese garden.

The 72 hectare Estonian Open-Air Museum has around 80 reconstructed buildings from the 18th to 20th centuries. The traditional structures were brought here from throughout Estonia.

Tallinn is not overly priced, or especially crowded with tourists. You can easily spend a few days in Tallinn, and it is well worth adding to any itinerary of Sweden or Finland. You will thank me for it.

Explore Europe With Us

Azorcan Global Sport, School and Sightseeing Tours have taken thousands to Europe on their custom group tours since 1994. Visit azorcan.net to see all our custom tour possibilities for your group of 26 or more. Individuals can join our “open” signature sport, sightseeing and sport fan tours including our popular Canada hockey fan tours to the World Juniors. At azorcan.net/media you can read our newsletters and listen to our podcasts.

Images compliments of Paul Almeida and Azorcan Tours.

Click here to read more stories from the series My European Favourites.

My European Favourites – Day Trip From Amsterdam

 

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Alberta

Whistle Stop Cafe owner challenging lockdown and authorities

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Just a few months ago Mirror, Alberta might have been referred to as UCP heartland.  But things seem to be changing quickly.  One of the hottest spots in the area is Chris Scott’s Whistle Stop Cafe.  The owner, Chris Scott opened The Whistle Stop in the middle of Alberta’s second lockdown back in January.  Still facing legal action from that lockdown, Chris didn’t hesitate to announce he would also be defying Alberta’s third lockdown of indoor dining as soon as that was announced.  Hundreds of supporters showed up on the weekend.  They were treated to music, a beer garden, as well as both outdoor patio, and indoor dining options.
As expected The Whistle Stop was visited by an AHS inspector and RCMP members who noted the violations and informed Mr. Scott of impending legal actions against The Whistle Stop Cafe.  All this hasn’t slowed Scott down one bit.  As of Tuesday morning, the cafe is open and serving customers (who are warned by staff they could be charged for violating indoor dining restrictions) and Chris Scott is planning for another busy weekend.  Scott addresses his massive social media following daily.  His Tuesday morning address shows just how committed he remains despite the obvious impending showdown sure to take place in the coming days between Scott and AHS as well as the RCMP.
In his facebook post, the owner of The Whistle Stop Cafe almost seems to be daring Premier Jason Kenney to make a move:

From the Facebook page of The Whistle Stop Cafe

Good morning everyone! It’s been a busy, stressful couple days for us here. I’m not going into details as they’re irrelevant to our vision of serving delicious food, to beautiful people ❤️ today could be a very big day for us here at the Whistle Stop Cafe in Mirror, Alberta. We’ve got a lot on the go including planning this coming weekends festivities here. Live music, karaoke, and wonderful food prepared with care and attention to detail. All of us here believe strongly in taking every precaution with the way we handle food. As a food “service,” provider our number one priority is ensuring that what we serve its fresh and safe. We also believe in your choice to either venture out in this dangerous world or stay home and limit your exposure to the thousands of risks we encounter every day. Nobody here will ever judge you for making your own choice. As most of you know, Alberta Health Services suspended our food handling permit yesterday, via EMAIL. Now I could have ignored the email and said I didn’t recieved it and made them come out here and deliver themselves, but I didn’t. AHS inspectors are not well received these days. And I’m happy to consider them as human beings and keep them out of situations where they may be subject to abusive language and threats. So I accepted the email as it was written and acknowledge the suspension of my permit. However, as a man and a human being I have the right to engage in commerce. I have the right to Life, Liberty and security. These rights are not conditional on any agency “permitting,” them. We continue to follow best practices in regards to purchase, storage, and preparation of our food. And we continue to maintain a clean environment in which to serve or consume said food. We will not continue to be bullied into submitting to garbage, harmful, baseless restrictions forced on the people of Alberta by those who will never suffer the consequences of their own actions. We are OPEN for business. And we have some great specials today!

Eggs Kenney

Breakfast- Eggs Kenney served with a side of disobedience. 2 eggs poached one way, then changed to whatever we feel like making up at the time. We will give you ham, sausage, and bacon with your eggs Kenney but then we’re going to take back half of it and tell you is for your own good. Comes with hashbrowns on the side, but only if you submit to our stupid rule of clapping three times and saying the word, “knee,” (as in the Knights who say, knee. Because it’s ridiculous and changes nothing.) $5.00 plus a fee of $7.95 for the permit to eat.
Lunch special today is a UCP burger. Our delicious classic burger! But like our government it will be served open and two-faced with an egg on its face. Comes with delicious freedom fries! $11.95
Soup today is Hinshaw chicken noodle. Chicken soup is good for you! And since Dr. Hinshaw seems to think she’s the only person who knows what’s good for us I figured it was an appropriate name.
Supper special is whatever you want. We will prepare you anything you like! Because what you put in your body, and where you choose to eat and do business is YOUR CHOICE!!! Keep in mind our kitchen is small so please don’t go crazy🤣 our supper special is FREE! And if you feel like donating to our cause we would be very happy to accept it. I heard something about “plague rats,” so all donations will go towards cleaning supplies and a consultation with an exterminator because we want ALBERTA TO REMAIN RAT FREE!!!
We’re looking forward to seeing you today!! We NEED YOU HERE. We need your support! We need to push back as hard as we can, knowing that we may get sick but doing OF OUR OWN ACCORD!!
Sending love and freedom from the Whistle Stop Cafe in Mirror ❤️
-Chris
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