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Posts tagged: Estonia

Travel: Soaking in the View From the Tub

(Photo of the Hotel Welcome 'Bali' Room, by Cheryl-Anne Millsap)      

 

       For many of us, there are few elemental pleasures that can equal a long hot solitary soak, especially when it is in a tub filled with bubbles or scented oil. Time and troubles seem to vanish with the steam.

        I think this is especially true for bath-loving travelers.

            There have been times that the first thing I’ve done after checking into a hotel and discovering the room came with a tub, was fill it with hot water and let the stress of travel melt away before I set out to explore. And then later, after the day was done, I’d slip back in for one more soak before turning in for the night.

            Looking back at the places I’ve been, most stand out for the scenery, the history and the culture of the destinations. But a few trips, in addition to everything else, are also memorable because of the bathtub. The white marble bathroom and expansive downtown view from the tub at the Shangri La in Vancouver, British Columbia comes to mind. Or the big tub in my private cottage at Blackberry Farm, in the rolling countryside of Walland, Tennesse. Or the deep soaking tub, complete with champagne and chocolate, at the Hotel Le Littre in Paris.

            So many trips, so many tubs, but my favorite might be the big bathtub in the exotic garret “Bali” room at the Welcome Hotel in Brussels.

            Each of the 17 rooms at Hotel Welcome is decorated in the theme of an exotic location around the world, accessorized with furniture, textiles and objects d’art brought back from the travels of the owners.

            The walls of the Bali room are painted a deep red and gold. Rich fabrics and authentic architectural elements and decorative objects accessorize the space.  Elaborately carved wood doors open to reveal a large jetted tub, surrounded by a pebbled floor and faceing a set of French doors and a narrow balcony that overlooks the city.

 

            I’d spent a week in Belgium before flying on to Estonia and then Lithuania and I had returned for one more night in Brussels before catching my return flight in the morning. The hotel, part of which is in what was originally a 19th Century home, is located in the beautiful and historic Saint Catherine district, adjacent to the Fish Market. Surrounded by wonderful shops and restaurants, the hotel is only a few minute’s walk from the bustling Grand Place, and yet it feels like a private hideaway.

           

            After strolling through the historic heart of Brussels, stopping for one more Belgian beer and one more plate of delicious food, I made my way back to my room, packed my suitcase and prepared for the next morning’s flight back to the United States.

            Finally, just as the sun went down, I filled the tub with hot water. Turning out the lights, I opened the French doors and stretched out in the big bathtub. From the privacy of the dark room, I could see the city come to life. Lights came on in apartments and hotels. Footsteps rang out on the cobblestones of the street below. Voices and laughter floated up to where I was. Church bells and music serenaded me.

 

            I thought about all I’d seen and done in the last weeks. Relaxed, well fed, my mind still replaying images from the trip, surrounded by the trappings of Bali but cocooned in Brussels, a city I love, I was filled with a deep contentment. The moment sealed my happiness.

 

            Travel is about new experiences and new frontiers. But there are times when the ancient pleasure of the bath is enough.

 

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a travel writer based in Spokane, Washington. Her audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of ‘Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons’ and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com

 

Traveling to Tallinn

(Photo by Cheryl-Anne Millsap)

 

An acquaintance recently asked where I'd been that had surprised me the most and I didn't hesitate to answer. Tallinn, the beautiful and ancient Estonian city on the edge of the Baltic Sea, was surprising in many ways.

Virtually unknown to US tourists, as are other Baltic countries that virtually disappeared under more than 50 years of grim Soviet occupation, Estonia's capital city is remarkably well-preserved. Only a few buildings were destroyed in WWII, leaving the town square intact. Now, under its own rule, the city is embracing tourism and has become popular with European travelers. It's also a favorite destination for Russian tourists looking for a quick getaway. Tallinn's relatively new (since 1991) Christmas Market is one of the most popular.

Remnants of the old city wall curve around the oldest parts of the city, enclosing narrow streets and lanes and picturesque buildings. A towering Russian Orthodox church anchors the top of the hillside and offers a wonderful view of the city and the Gulf of Finland. Remnants of Soviet presence can still be found, in the KGB museum and other spots, but Estonia—the birthplace of Skype—has embraced its freedom and the culture is rich and vibrant.

I wrote about visiting Tallinn in the last issue of Spokane Cd'A Woman magazine. You can read that story here.

Lesson from Estonia: Love feeds us all

(Photo by Cheryl-Anne Millsap)

Living in villages in the remote southeastern corner of Estonia, the Setu people have been farmers and woodsmen for centuries. No one seems to be exactly sure how long. They are said to be the oldest settled people in Europe, having never moved from their homeland. The pagan traditions of the past melded over time with the traditions of the Russian Orthodox Church and now, with half their homeland on the Soviet side of the demarcation line drawn after Estonian independence in 1991, leaving families fractured and divided, their primary export is more basic. It is the ancient songs traditionally sung by the women as they worked, cared for their families, worshiped and celebrated family ties. Now, Setu choirs perform around the world, on television, at festivals and fairs.

We were invited to join a group of Setu women at the cemetery for a special celebration. There, a cloth was spread at the base of the gravestone of a woman from the community. Food was arranged on the cloth and when everything was as it should be, the women stood up and began to sing. As they sang they swayed, some wearing traditional white wool coats over their woven skirts, white blouses and ornamental silver jewelry. All wore scarves covering their hair.

When the songs ended the women gestured toward the food, inviting us to come closer. They poured fruit punch, held up takeaway containers of cake and sandwiches and urged us to finish it all. Instead of the hushed voices one might expect in a churchyard, there was laughter and conversation.

The Setu language was indecipherable to me. The way the women were dressed was exotic with the musical jangling of silver on silver, chains of coins draped over large, heavy cone-shaped breastplates meant to ward off evil spirits. But a ceremony to honor the dead centered around food and hospitality made perfect sense. Food is sustenance,  we take it in to satisfy the need to fuel our bodies and minds. But food is also a conduit for love.

Thinking of my childhood, I recall so many meals. Family dinners, picnic lunches and breakfasts of scrambled eggs and toast. Chocolate milk and cups of coffee. Leftovers.

Food was my introduction to each of my children. Our first embrace was when I nursed each one just minutes after birth. Even now, when I can get them all together I have to serve them something. To feed myself, I need to feed them, to see them satisfied and content. Thinking about it, I realize my last moments with my mother on the night she died were spent offering her tiny spoonfuls of ice. It was all I could do.

The scenery and the songs of the Setu may be different from my world, but the driving force is the same. We court over meals, we celebrate milestones—birthdays, anniversaries, promotions—at the table. We grieve those we have lost gifted with offerings of food prepared or delivered by friends and coworkers.

Food brings us together, binds us to one another. And standing in a windswept cemetery, surrounded by stones weathered and mossy with age, I didn’t have to understand the words to recognize the spirit of the songs.


 Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance writer based in Spokane, Washington. In addition to her Spokesman-Review Home Planet and Treasure Hunting columns and blogs and her CAMera: Travel and Photo blog, her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com
  

Sleeping with the KGB

(Photo of the Hotel Viru KGB Museum by Cheryl-Anne Millsap)

 

   It’s usually done without thinking. I check into a hotel, unpack, take a photo if the view from the window is a good one, maybe even take a nap or, if there's time, a bubble bath.  Then, as I leave for the afternoon or turn in for the night, I slip the Do Not Disturb sign on the door and that’s that. My valuables are locked in the safe. My door is locked. My privacy is secured.

    I never gave much thought to that privacy as a luxury but recently, touring Estonia and the beautiful city of Tallinn on the coast of the Baltic Sea and the Gulf of Finland, I got a glimpse into an altogether different world. I took the one-hour KGB Hotel Museum at the Sokos Viru Hotel.

    The Hotel Viru, built in 1972, was Estonia’s first skyscraper and one of the very few luxury hotels in the Soviet Union. With a glitzy Vegas-meets-Moscow interior, complete with showgirls, the Varu was built to bring in much-needed tourism dollars. It was where visiting celebrities and VIPs stayed. But, as was later discovered when Estonia gained independence in 1991, the hotel was riddled with microphones and other surveillance secrets. Hospitality KGB style.

    Small unseen rooms were secreted between guest rooms to make it easy for KGB agents to eavesdrop and monitor guest’s activities. And on the 23rd floor (the elevator went only to the 22nd floor) in a cramped space occupied by two men and filled with equipment, private conversations were recorded and monitored 24 hours a day. On each floor, matrons sat in hallways and marked the comings and goings of each guest.

    In Tallinn, everybody wanted to work at the hotel. In Soviet Estonia, the next best thing to having some kind of power or prestige was having a friend who worked at the Viru. In a society where black-market trading was the only way to thwart severe and deliberate communist deprivation, who you knew was was like money in the bank. The Viru was a source of foreign currency. Of scarce food supplies, basic toiletries and any number of other desirable things.You could, for instance, if you were lucky enough to make an under-the-table deal, procure a cake baked by one of the hotel pastry chefs. A cake!


    The KGB tour starts in the lobby before taking the elevator and a flight of stairs up to the  secret room. The hideout’s interior is just as it was found when KGB agents fled. There are still cigarette butts in the ashtray. Our guide obviously relishes her job. She sprinkled her historical comments with “wink wink, nudge nudge”asides about the “micro-concrete” construction and the “special” bread plates which were wired with microphones and placed on the dinner table when KGB agents were particularly interested in what certain guests had to say.

    She told us that when Elizabeth Taylor stayed at the Viru, she threw a Movie Star tantrum and ripped open a feather pillow. Unfortunately, Ms. Taylor then tried, unsuccessfully, to flush the feathers down the toilet and caused quite the plumbing headache. Score one for Americans, I guess. (Astronaut Neil Armstrong was also a guest but was apparently less temperamental.)

    While the cloak-and-dagger machinations sound almost comic now, it’s worth remembering that life for the residents of Estonia during the Soviet years was anything but funny. There was no abundance of anything. Scarcity was real. So were travel restrictions and lack of personal freedom. The things we take for granted—like privacy—were sometimes unattainable. Think about that the next time you check into a hotel. And if you’re ever in Tallinn, a beautiful city in an independent country, check out the KGB museum at the Hotel Viru. It's worth the trip. And the reminder.
    
Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance writer based in Spokane, Washington. In addition to her Spokesman-Review Home Planet and Treasure Hunting columns and blogs and her CAMera: Travel and Photo blog, her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com

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Cheryl-Anne Millsap's Home Planet column appears each week in the Wednesday "Pinch" supplement. Cheryl-Anne is a regular contributor to Spokane Public Radio and her essays can be heard on Public Radio stations across the country. She is the author of "Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons."

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