I hate alarm clocks. I really do.  Nothing sets my stress levels higher, that I can think of, especially when compared to the relatively peaceful sleep I typically enjoy.  Being jarred out of sweet repose by the ever-annoying sound of digitized bells is about as pleasant as gouging out your eyeballs with hot pokers. But as it turns out, you still need to use alarms (in the form of wake-up calls) on vacation. Today was no exception, especially since during the night we lost another hour between time zones, placing us squarely 10 hours ahead of Arizona. Some of our cruise tours were ridiculously early as well and frequently called for a 5AM wake-up time, but it was of no consequence.  I may hate alarm clocks, but I welcomed them on the cruise. They were beacons for me, pointing the way to and promising adventures unknown in the day ahead. I got the wake-up call and turned on the TV.  The movie of the morning was “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” and I laughed my way through getting ready that morning. I think by this point of the trip I was finally starting to relax and escape.  I remember that during the first part of the trip I would say to myself, “This isn’t reality; this is fantasy.” That was my mantra to protect myself, but by the time I grew comfortable and relaxed enough where I was, I abandoned the constant repetition of it and really began living in the reality of each moment (it was reality, in truth, no matter how lovely and somewhat surreal it felt).

We went upstairs to the Lido Deck and tucked in to breakfast on the outside deck overlooking Tallinn, the capital of Estonia.  Among the places we traveled, Tallinn is a bit of an anomaly.  The Old City (which makes up the heart of Tallinn) is replete with medieval castles and German architecture, and the entire vibe of the place makes you feel as though you’ve stepped into a world of giant ogres who walk down cobbled streets, hammering passersby into the ground with fists the size of wrecking balls. And yet, for all its old world charm, Tallinn is a modern city, urbane and sophisticated, with all the modern conveniences artfully couched in its architectural memories of the past.  Tallinn is, indeed, the most modern city in the world in the most modern country in the world, in that it is the birthplace of a little company you may have heard of called Skype.  Estonia is also the most connected place in the world, offering Wi-Fi in every corner of the country, much of it free.

I’m sure by now you’ve gathered the general theme of the mornings: Wake up, get ready, eat breakfast, hit the deck, get coffee, wait for the tour, so I won’t bore you with all the ad nauseam recountings.  Needless to say, we did all of those things, and headed out on the tour.

We hopped on a bus and drove around Tallinn very briefly before being dropped off in the Lower Town, full of life and bustle, especially near the Town Hall.  The Town Hall is a rather imposing building that used to house both the City Council and the Courts, but it’s a museum and concert hall today.  Seated perpendicular to the Town Hall are the six gates of the Lower Town, and it’s true fairybook scenery—the gates surround Toompea castle, complete with turrets and towers.  There’s an especially chunky tower that is affectionately known as “Fat Margaret,” and it sticks out among the towers of the castle, the castle being the current government seat.

Along the way around the castle we ran into our first onion-dome cathedral, the Alexander Nevsky Russian Orthodox Cathedral, a very famous landmark in Tallinn.  The city has a history filled with wars and takeovers—the Swedes, Danes, Germans, and Russians all had their influence on Estonia, and Alexander Nevsky was our first peek into Russia, which was to be our next stop in the cruise, and it didn’t disappoint.  We were told before going in that we weren’t allowed to take pictures in the cathedral, so I rather slyly turned my camera on video mode and nonchalantly aimed it around the inside of the building, taking video of whatever I could find without drawing attention to myself.  There were several people inside worshipping and chanting, possibly Gregorian, but with an added element I couldn’t place.  We didn’t stay for long for the sake of the sanctity of the worshippers, so we walked downstairs to the outside where we were promptly greeted by two women, clearly beggars.  Every time they received money, they fell on their faces and made loud shouts of thanks to God.  Interestingly, worshippers, or believers in God in general, are a rarity in Estonia.  We were told on the bus ride over that Estonians are the least religious people in the Slavic countries, and also that they have the highest divorce rate of any Slavic country.  Our tour guide didn’t say whether the two were related but I found it interesting.  Also odd for a Slavic country is the fact that the national religion of Estonia is Lutheranism, very similar to all the Scandinavian countries.  I grew up Lutheran, and it’s very much a cultural thing.  My family is Norwegian, and in Norway, there’s nothing more Norwegian than to be a Lutheran, and nothing more Lutheran than to be Scandinavian.  I suppose Lutheranism was picked up in Estonia due to all the takeovers by the Scandinavians, but I was surprised that Estonia wasn’t comprised of mostly Russian Orthodox churches.

At any rate, we walked around the city for about 3 hours, taking in the sights.  We walked up Toompea Hill through little alleyways, passing all sorts of quaint shops along the way.  We came upon an open courtyard at the top of the hill, and there was a little 3-piece ensemble playing traditional Estonian tunes as dozens of people mingled and shopped in the courtyard.  At the very end was what many call the best view of Tallinn.  A very short wall framed the cityscape perfectly, and it was a great place for pictures (and I got many).  We had a bit of time to wander on our own at that point, so we walked over to a place called “Symphony of Amber.”  Amber is a semi-precious stone that Slavic countries are world-famous for producing and distributing.  I bought a pair of earrings and we made our way down the hill once again with our tour group.

Along the way down I heard echoes of something that sounded like Louis Armstrong, but I couldn’t place it.  As it turns out, the city is situated in such a way as to make the smallest noises sound infinitely louder, and I discovered the source of the music was not 10 meters away from me: a street singer who looked like Randy Newman and was clearly homeless and playing for money, singing  his best impression of Satchmo.  A little further down the street I saw another unexpected sight: Shrek and Donkey.  Their costumes were well done and reminded me a bit of the characters at Disneyland, but I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why they were standing there at the base of Toompea Hill, chatting with a tourist.

But that wasn’t the end of the interesting sights! A few meters away from Shrek and Donkey was an artist who had set up shop on the sidewalk and was painting the scenery. And behind him there was an archery contest taking place, complete with men wearing tights, capes, and droopy hats with feathers in them.  Not too far away from them was a giant water closet (or bathroom for you Americans) that looked a bit like an American mailbox, just sitting in the middle of nowhere.  It’s not often that I experience sensory overload, but there was a lot going on in that little area at the base of Toompea Hill.

An anomaly?  An oddity? Sure. That’s Estonia, to a T.

We hopped back on the bus and took a very short drive to what appeared to be a gigantic park.  We got out and walked about 1 kilometer through gardens filled with ponds, swans, large quantities of Queen Anne’s Lace and flowering trees letting go of their white blossoms in the breeze.  A little girl danced in the tall grass as some flowers landed in her hair.  It was surreal and lovely.

As we continued walking, we came upon the pink and white winter palace belonging to Catherine, czarina of Russia, a remnant of the Russian occupation.  It had been partially converted into an art museum, and the first sight I was greeted with upon entrance was a replica of the Venus DeMilo.  I walked through the 3 floors of the palace that were open, and took pictures of the artwork, most of it religious.  There were rooms of the palace that were quite decadent, filled with gold leaf embellishments and lots of intricately-carved marble.  The decadence was actually nothing compared with what I was soon to see in Russia!

We left and walked again through the gardens back to the bus, and back to the dock from there.  There was a long line of souvenir shops alongside our ship, and a rock band playing and singing in Estonian at the end of the shops.  We moseyed through and bought a few things, and I wandered off by myself to go stand at the seashore.  It was a bright, clear day, and the sea was incredibly calm, the waves breaking languidly over concrete barriers separating land and sea.  Our ship was the only one on the horizon, standing out white and crisp against the azure of the sky.  It was a truly great moment, and it stands out clearly upon recollection, even a month after I was there.

We got back on the ship and stood out on the deck looking at the city once again, the red-tiled roofs of the Old Town visible from the ship.  We had more coffee and then went to the stateroom and relaxed for a while, watching a featurette on Stalin on TV.  We had room service that night because we had napped through half the featurette and through most of the evening.  I was frustrated with myself for sleeping that long and missing the happenings on the ship once again, but decided that napping can sometimes be a good thing, especially on vacation.

After dinner, it was close to midnight, and we had already set sail for Russia, losing yet another hour in the process.  I went to bed and slept until around 2:30AM, at which point I was awake for the long haul.  I grabbed my iPod and listened to my Danish playlist until the phone rang.

Wake-up call.