Monday, 29 July 2013

My Trip to Estonia in Photos

What a fantastic time I had in Tallinn! The weather was perfect, I had great company and saw many wonderful new things in the Estonian countryside. You can really achieve a lot in three days when you put your mind to it and I did! Naturally, I took loads of photographs of my trip. Take a look!

Inside the Raeapteek

Town Hall Square
Cute statue

Kiek in de Kök Museum

Tour of the KGB Museum in the Viru Hotel 

View of Tallinn from the KGB Museum balcony

Written on one of the doors of the spying rooms.
(Translation: "There's nothing to be seen here")


Estonian forest

Estonian forest

Wild blueberries

Not sure where I was, but I was here...

Kadrina Church

Inside Kadrina Church

Memorial to the soldiers who died during the Estonian War of Independence.

Crosses from Kadrina Cemetery

Kadrina Cemetery
Our family plot. 
This is where my great, great grandfather Alexander Otto Lesthal is buried.

Pariisi - or is that Paris in Estonia...

Saksi Manor

Viitna Tavern
Catherine the Great once stopped here on her way to Tallinn.

Song Festival Grounds

Can't wait till next time!

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Estonian Folklore - The Reverence of Bread

Bread has always been a centrepiece of Estonian culture and is considered almost sacred. For centuries rye bread has featured on the table in every Estonian home and no meal is complete without it. Bread features prominently in many Estonian proverbs and even marriage proposals give reference to bread.  Estonians used to be quite superstitious and our treatment of bread often involved many rituals.

Here follow ten rituals, customs and proverbs associated with this most important of foodstuffs.

1.When slicing a loaf of bread it is customary to have the "opened" end pointing away from the door, otherwise the bread may flee the house.

2. As a house warming gift it was always tradition to bring salt and bread.

3. If you dropped a piece of bread on the floor it was customary to pick it up and kiss it as a mark of respect.

4. Never slice a new loaf of bread after sunset.

5. When wishing someone a pleasant meal, instead of saying 'bon appetit" Estonians were once prone to saying "jätku leiba"  (may your bread last).

6. It is an Estonian birthday tradition to bake a sweet bread called "kringle" which is shaped like a pretzel.

7. Estonian proverb - "Noored neiud ja nisuleib lähevad ruttu vanaks" (Young maidens and white bread age fast).

8. Bread has also been known to feature as part of a marriage proposal. The proverb "Paneme leivad uhte kappi" literally means "let's put our bread in the same cabinet".

9. Bread is never wasted, when stale it's often used in soups such as "leivasupp" or puddings e.g. "saiavorm".

10. It is tradition to bake gingerbread at Christmas time.

If you ask an Estonian living abroad what they miss most about home, the answer quite often is bread. It may seem so basic yet Estonian bread is like no other. It's utterly delicious! During my last trip to Estonia I brought home half a dozen loaves of bread with me, later wishing I had room in my suitcase for more! Peenleib is just too tasty!

It may sound silly but for me, one of the things I look forward to eating the most in Estonia is küüslauguleib - Estonian garlic bread.  I absolutely love it!!!

Sunday, 14 July 2013

Estonia Has the Highest Concentration of Blue Eyed People in the World

According to a study conducted by Danish geneticist Hans Eiberg from the Institute of Biochemistry at the University of Copenhagen, 99 percent of Estonians have blue eyes. This surprising study has revealed that Estonia has the highest concentration of blue eyed people in the world followed by other Nordic countries which rate at over 80 per cent. In Germany, 75 percent of the population have blue eyes and in Ireland the figures are high too. In the United States 1 in 6 people have blue eyes, approximately 16.6 percent of the population.

Findings from extensive genetic research tell us that every person with light coloured eyes has a common ancestor who lived in the Black Sea region around 10,000 years ago. As this person's offspring gradually drifted away from its point of origin and migrated north to colder climates,  blue eyes gradually became a dominant feature in Northern Europe.

Looking at my own family, I can see the pattern. Two of my sisters have blond hair and blue eyes, so does my father and his father before him. My great-grandmother had blue eyes and my grandmother had grey. One of my sisters has four children and two of them are blond haired with blue eyes. Very Estonian!

                        My sister Sarah and her son Jakob are both blue eyed.

Friday, 12 July 2013

The Economist - "Not only Skype"

An interesting article from yesterday's The Economist.


IT TAKES just five minutes to register a firm in Estonia, says Mihkel Tikk, the head of the country’s online portal, a one-stop-shop for e-government services. Entrepreneurs wishing to start a firm log in with their national electronic identity-card and a few clicks later the confirmation arrives by e-mail. That service and many other equally convenient electronic offerings are a big reason why Tallinn, Estonia’s capital, is now mentioned in the same breath as Berlin, London and even Silicon Valley. According to one estimate, Estonia holds the world record in start-ups per person—a sizeable feat considering that the country has only 1.3m people.
International venture capitalists have taken notice (one, Dave McClure, created a hashtag on Twitter to describe the phenomenon: #EstonianMafia). And they are also investing. In May Transferwise, which offers a cheap way to send money across borders, announced that it raked in $6m in funding, with Peter Thiel, the co-founder of PayPal, being the lead investor. In April, a virtual fitting room, raised £5m ($7.6m). Nearly a tenth of the firms in the portfolio of Seedcamp, a noted group of European angel investors, hails from Estonia, including Erply, a fast-growing maker of web-based retail software, which raised $2.15m in May.
Some Estonian firms have already graduated from the class of start-ups. The best known is Skype. The technology behind the popular internet phone service, which Microsoft acquired in 2011, was developed in Tallinn (the commercial founders came from Denmark and Stockholm). Playtech, one of the big names in online gambling software, is listed on the London Stock Exchange for nearly £2 billion.
Why so much tech success? The roots of Estonia’s start-up culture were planted during the Soviet occupation. Ahti Heinla, one of the creators of Skype, for instance, learned programming from his mother and father. Both worked at the Institute of Cybernetics, which was founded in 1960 and is located next to Skype’s offices. (His mother developed a system to manage Estonia’s lighthouses, which is still in use today.) Links to former communist countries remain. The technology of Modesat, which sells telecoms gear and was recently bought by Xilinx, a chipmaker, originally came from what is now Belarus.
But the failings of the Soviet command economy helped to produce an entrepreneurial mindset. “Estonians had to be good at many things,” says Mihkel Jaatma, the boss of Realeyes, which uses webcams to read peoples faces and tell advertisers how people react to commercials.
After independence in 1991, Estonia had to build a new administration—on the cheap. “We said, we might as well use information technology,” explains Siim Sikkut, the national ICT policy adviser. Today the country boasts what is arguably the world’s most digitised bureaucracy; even the government cabinet has said goodbye to paper. All this not only created an online-savvy population, but a pool of experienced software developers.
The big success story, which any start-up cluster needs in order to take off, came in 2005 when Skype was sold to eBay. Taavet Hinrikus, Skype’s first employee and co-founder of TransferWise, recalls that this showed other potential entrepreneurs what was possible and gave many employees the necessary experience to strike out on their own.
There are a few downsides to the country’s start-ups. Sales and marketing are not especially strong. Estonia is out of the way; only a few flights directly serve other tech clusters, such as London. And attracting foreign talent is hard, not just because of the brutal winter weather, but also because of complex immigration rules. A fundamental issue is how big an entrepreneurial ecosystem can a country like Estonia support? In the start-up world, being small has both advantages and drawbacks. From day one firms have to think globally: they need to go abroad for customers, talent and money. Of the €21.6m ($28.6m) of venture capital that was invested in Estonia last year, for instance, nearly €18m was foreign money.
Against that, unlike their competitors from bigger countries, many Estonian start-ups cannot really test their offerings at home. The pool of good developers is limited. And to be closer to their customers, successful Estonian start-ups tend to move management abroad. GrabCAD, an online collaboration platform for mechanical engineers, for instance, relocated its headquarters to Cambridge, Massachusetts. Transferwise and Realeyes are now based in London. Estonia’s size is not the only reason why sceptics wonder how long the country’s start-up wonder will last.
Indeed, some argue that the boom is largely fuelled by government subsidies. But Estonia has managed to punch above its weight entrepreneurially because it has also been creative institutionally. Other countries have also set up state-funded venture capital firms, but Estonia’s SmartCap has been much more than a source of money; it educates investors and has given legal advice to start-ups. SmartCap may play less of a role in future. It will no longer invest directly in firms, but only in other VC funds, says Andrus Oks, one of its managers. But other institutions have sprung up. Garage48 organises “hackathons” (“turn your idea into a working service in 48h”) to give entrepreneurs initial training. Startup Wise Guys, an “accelerator” (a start-up school), helps young firms get off the ground.
And the government isn’t sitting on its hands. Programming is now part of the curriculum even in some primary schools. The country is relaxing its immigration rules, making it easier for start-ups to attract foreign talent. There is also an idea in the air of letting foreigners use Estonia’s digital identity system (something that proposed European Union regulation would allow). They could then found a new company in the country from afar.
Estonia may be too small to become anything like Europe’s Silicon Valley, but it certainly has a shot at being the EU’s Delaware, the state where most of America’s technology firms are incorporated.

Thursday, 11 July 2013

How to Locate the Graves of Family Members in Estonia

If you're like me and researching your family history, and unable to visit Estonia as often as you'd like, online resources are the way to go. Thanks to my cousin I discovered a new website today which enables you to gain access to important family records. The Haudi Kalmistute Register is the online cemetery portal of Estonia that offers a quick and easy way to locate family graves.

To complete a search, all you need to do is enter the first and last name of the person you would like to find at the top right hand corner of the screen, and a record will appear.

Please note that not every cemetery in Estonia is linked up to the portal at present but I'm sure that will be rectified in time.

The website can be found at:

Thanks Jaanus :)

Monday, 8 July 2013

Top Ten Things To Do in Tallinn

Tallinn is one of those cities you can enjoy all year round. Whether its the long summer days that take your pleasure or the winter wonderland of a medieval city covered in snow. Tallinn won't leave you disappointed. This vibrant and culturally rich city is brimming with fascinating historical sites just waiting for you to explore. A visit to the Old Town of course is a must, the enchanting 13th century gothic architecture looks like it comes straight out of a fairytale book and is sure to delight both young and old. With a plethora of things to choice from, here are ten things not to be missed in Tallinn!

1. Kiek in de Kok Museum & Bastion Tunnels
Once an artillery tower and used as a bomb shelter during WWII, Kiek in de Kok is now a museum highlighting the birth and evolution of Tallinn. Below the tower features the bastion passageways, a series of limestone tunnels built to conceal the movement of soldiers.

2. St. Olaf's Church
Built in the 12th century St.Olaf's Church was once considered the tallest building in the world, Standing at 123.7 meters high, it provides an excellent vantage point overlooking Tallinn. It is believed that the church  has been hit by lightning at least ten times and has been burnt down three times. The most recent renovation were completed earlier this year.

3. Song Festival Grounds
This spectacular stadium, that can hold 15,000 singers is the venue where the Singing Revolution began in 1988. Thousands of people gathered here to sing banned patriotic hymms which precipitated the toppling of Soviet rule. Today, international acts perform concerts here and of course the Estonian Song Festival takes place in the venue every five years.

4. Estonian Open Air Museum
This reconstructed rural village is only a short drive away from Tallinn's city centre and is a must see. It features twelve farms, a tavern, school, church, fire station, windmills and watermills. It offers a great insight into old Estonian life.

5. The KGB Museum
Located on the 23rd floor in the Viru hotel, this former secret KGB radio operations centre was discovered only in 1994 - three years after the KGB had left! The hidden rooms were used to eavesdrop and spy on hotel guests with approximately 60 rooms hooked up to radio equipment. The spies must have left in a hurry for everything on display remains as it was the day they left - cigerette butts and all!

Viewing of these secret rooms can be made via booking a tour with the Viru Hotel in your preffered language.

6. The Raeapteek (Town Hall  Pharmacy)
Located at Raekoja Plats 11 The Raeapteek is one of the oldest continuously running pharmacies in Europe.  Since the day it opened in 1422 it has been operating in the same building in the Town Hall Square. My great grandfather Alexander Otto Lesthal studied to be a pharmacist here and when I recevied a copy of his graduation diploma recently I was surprised to find that it wasn't written in Estonian, German or Russian but in Latin.  The Raeapteek welcomes guests who wish to view a bit of Estonian history.

7. Katusekino
For a night on top of the town (literally!) why not spend an evening at Tallinn's rooftop cinema? Located on top of the Viru shopping centre it features a massive inflatable screen with 300 deckchairs for viewers to sit and relax under the stars. Great on a summers night!

8. Maiasmokk Cafe
If you're like me and have a sweet tooth, you would love this place. Maiasmokk (Estonian for sweet tooth) is the oldest and most famous cafe in Tallinn. It has been operating since 1864 and still retains its delighful pre-war interiors.  One of the things Maiasmokk used to be most famous for was their charming mazipan window displays. Today, Maiasmokk is a great place to stop and relax and to enjoy one of their termpting cakes or pastries.

9. Kadriorg
Built by Peter the Great in 1718 for his wffe Catherine I, Kadriorg is one of the most splendid buildings in all of Tallinn. The estate is renowned for its baroque architecture, beautiful parkland and Japanese garden. Today, many museums are located here including the Kadriorg Art Museum, Mikkel Museum as well as ones dedicated to acclaimed Estonian writers A.H. Tammsaare and Eduard Vilde.

10. Balti Jaama Turg
This Russian market is a must for anyone looking for a bargain or a bit of old Soviet memorabilia. Located just behind the Tallinn railway station, the markets are open every day and offer everything from food, clothing, second hand household goods and spare parts. A real gem of a market - you never know what you may find!