Tallinn is more than a winter wonderland

Yeah, on first glance, Tallinn looks like it was lifted out of EPCOT. The walls around the capital of Estonia, the look and feel of the architecture … the “old city” seems almost staged. But, that changes quickly when you walk the streets, get a feel for the people and scarf down a meal in one of the restaurants. To call it charming is an understatement, with cobblestone roads that date back centuries, reminding you that history is underfoot as much as around you as you trace the winding roads.

I arrived in Tallinn by ferry from Helsinki, which makes it a great side-trip from Finland, though the New York Daily News reports the time to the old city from the local airport is a mere 15 minutes – which is almost impossible to imagine for anyone who has sought Manhattan after landing in JFK.

When I climbed the walls of Tallinn a year and a half ago, I had no sense for the town as a winter wonderland, but looking back, I can see it as a Christmas village waiting to happen. The UNESCO world heritage site (since 1997) is among the best-preserved medieval villages in the world and takes advantage of its unusual look to host a Christmas market that began last year on November 29 and is set to close this week (on January 7).

If Santa isn’t really your scene – or if you wait for warmer weather before visiting – make it a priority to visit the indoor shooting range. Ask for Instructor Tonu to show you the ropes with an AK-47, and have a blast sending rounds downrange. Top it off with a meal at Olde Hansa, and you’re good to go.

[Photo by Tom Johansmeyer]

The 11 coolest flags in the world?

The travelers here at Gadling have seen a lot of world flags. We’ve seen the world’s flags made out of food. We were also amused by this opinionated list ranking the world’s best and worst flags. But we just can’t seem to get enough. In fact, in the interest of your ongoing and insatiable need for world flag amusement, we’ve stumbled across yet another list of the “11 Coolest Flags Ever” and wanted to share it (just because we like you).

This new list has no consistent methodology for selection. And some of the flags represent countries and empires that no longer exist. But leave that aside for a moment and simply admire the sheer visual awesomeness of the flags that were selected. In addition to the bear holding the axe shown above (Yaroslavl Oblast in Russia), this highly scientific list includes a flag with a parrot (Dominica), an flag with an AK-47 and a book (Mozambique) and of course the flag of a guy getting beheaded (Benin Empire – don’t mess with them).

Each of these off-the-wall official banners raises an interesting question. What exactly does a flag represent? Does it tell the story of a country’s history and/or creation? Do the colors of the flag have symbolic significance? Perhaps flags don’t mean anything at all – as you can see from Libya’s flag, sometimes you just don’t even bother. Make sure to check out the list and leave us a comment if you know of any “cooler” flags, either historical or current.

Destinations on the edge: Baghdad

There used to be one way to go to Iraq. You’d go to your local recruiting office, take an oath and sign a contract. Then, you’d subject yourself to a minimum of 16 weeks’ training under the most unpleasant of circumstances. Wearing your snappy new threads (and a Kevlar helmet), you’d be put on a plane. Today, things are a bit different. You don’t have to be a soldier or civilian contractor to go to Baghdad. All you need to do is buy a plane ticket.

If you’re looking to put the winter chill behind you, Iraq is certainly an option. Civilian flights now touch down every day at Baghdad International Airport. But, as you’d expect from airlines operating in a war zone, information’s not easy to come by. Royal Jordanian Airlines operates flights to Iraq. On its website’s route map, several Iraqi cities are listed, including Baghdad, Irbil (also spelled “Erbil” and sometimes “Arbil”) and Basra. When you try to book a flight to these destinations from the website, though, you’ll see that they aren’t available. To book a flight, give them a call to get more information. You can also roll the dice with Iraqi Airways, but I’d stick to known brands.

Play it safe by taking an Austrian Airlines flight to Irbil. Jumping off from JFK (New York) or DCA (Washington, D.C.) makes the most sense, and the latter is a bit less expensive. A round trip for late January will set you back around $2,000 for the cheapest fare available, so keep in mind that this insanity is a form of luxury travel.

Hey, adventure’s the new luxury. Drop the cash on a thrill.

If you really want to live life on the edge, you can be driven into the city by a “bodyguard.” This service provider is pretty much a guy with a car an AK-47 sitting across his lap. He’ll bring you into the country, but you’ll probably be nervous the whole way. Or, maybe the notion of a stranger in a war-torn country with a rifle across his thighs makes you feel comfortable. I don’t judge.


According to several reports from the ground, the Baghdad airport itself is relatively safe. There are plenty guards all over the terminals, and they do take their jobs seriously. Photography is not permitted, a fact that the folks with the guns will make sure you understand (though not in a harassing manner). Once you’re on the outside, the rules change. Iraq is a war zone; there’s no other way to describe it. People shoot at each other. Hostages have been taken. So, you need to be smart when you make this trek. Follow the rules when you see people with weapons.

But, you don’t care. So, it’s time to find a hotel.

The normal means of booking a room do not apply to Baghdad. Scour the traditional travel sites, and you will be disappointed with each click of your mouse. So, dig a little. On RealTravel, you can get a bit of variety. Twelve hotels are listed, with rates varying from the Hotel Ishtar’s painless $67 a night to the Palestine International Hotel’s $150 room rate.

Don’t expect luxury. Howard Cornell, a contractor who served in Iraq, remembers stays at both Hotel Baghdad and the al Rasheed. He recounts in an interview with TraderDaily.com that the al Rasheed was a bit beat up on the outside but wasn’t so bad one you crossed the threshold. Hotel Baghdad? Well, it’s only good for “reporters for civilians with a pistol under the pillow.” In town, you’ll be able to get around on foot or via taxi. The cab drivers are comfortable enough with the tourist economy to quote rates in U.S. dollars.

If you’ve become immune to the safer thrills of skydiving and cave diving, war tourism is the next logical step. There are plenty of danger zones around the world; you have choices. Unfortunately, Afghanistan gets cold. Iraq will get you the adrenaline rush you crave, and you probably won’t need to pack a sweater.

Be careful when you tour Baghdad. Stay aware of your surroundings at all times, and you’ll have a fulfilling experience. This is a unique opportunity, and few will make this sort of move. When your co-workers brag of their luxurious or unusual travel exploits, having been to Baghdad will equip you to end their tales … quickly.


[Thanks, Brian Sayler, for the galleries and photo of Sadam’s palace above]