A Vintage Submarine And Icebreaker In Tallinn’s Seaplane Harbour

Tallinn
Tallinn has been an important port and Estonia’s connection with the world since before recorded history. Because of this, the city has not one, but two museums dedicated to the sea. The Maritime Museum is housed in Fat Margaret, an old cannon tower that once protected the harbor. It has the usual assortment of old photos and gear, along with a very cool exhibit on sunken ships.

The other museum is far more interactive. Housed in an old seaplane hanger dating to World War I, Tallinn’s Seaplane Harbour Museum is filled with old ships and other maritime bric-a-brac.

Estonians seem to favor odd lighting in their museums. The Bastion Tunnels have a weird combination of red, yellow, and purple lights. At the Seaplane Harbor museum they seem to favor purple and blue. It gives the place a spooky under-the-sea feel.

Dominating the exhibit is the Lembit, a submarine built in 1936 by the English company Vickers and Armstrongs for the Estonian Navy. When Estonia fell to the Soviet Union in 1940 it was incorporated into the Red Banner Baltic Fleet of the Soviet Navy and saw action against the Axis powers. It managed to sink two ships and damage another.

Climb aboard and you’ll see an almost perfectly preserved submarine that was the cutting edge of technology of its time. You can visit the control room, periscope, radio room, torpedo tubes and cramped crewmen’s bunks all pretty much as they were. It didn’t feel too cramped to me until I read that it housed a crew of 32. Then I decided to enlist in the Army. Check out the gallery for some photos of this fascinating sub.

%Gallery-179305%As you walk around your eyes will be drawn upward by the two giant rotating propellers hanging from the ceiling. They’re so big you might miss the seaplane fitted with skis suspended nearby. A walkway takes you past other historic ships and an extensive collection of mines, presumably defused.

This is a fully interactive museum with touchscreen displays to teach you more about what you’re seeing. You can also man an antiaircraft gun and see how good you’d be defending Tallinn from an enemy air force. Then hop aboard a reproduction Sopwith Camel and try out a flight simulator. While I managed to save Tallinn from the bad guys, my flying skills showed that I should keep my driving on the ground.

Once you’re done with the indoor exhibits, head out back to visit the Suur Tõll, an icebreaker built in 1914 that saw service for several decades, clearing the Baltic Sea lanes during cold winters. Like with the Lembit, it’s well preserved and you can wander all over it. It seemed vast and luxurious compared with the submarine. The officer’s mess looked as big as a ballroom (it wasn’t), the quarters for the crew felt sumptuous (not!) and the engine room was like some Industrial Revolution factory. It takes a pretty tough person to be a sailor, and someone twice as tough to work in a submarine.

If you are at all interested in technology or the sea, don’t miss this place. Your kids will love it too. The museum has an excellent and reasonably priced little restaurant overlooking the hanger in case you get hungry.

Read the rest of my series: “Exploring Estonia: The Northern Baltics In Wintertime.”

Coming up next: Estonia’s Rich Art and Literature Scene!

[Photo by Sean McLachlan]

Tallinn

Museum Month: JEATH War Museum, Kanchanaburi, Thailand

bridge on river kwaiHistory has never been my favorite subject, but once I began traveling in earnest, I discovered something. If I visited a destination, I usually became obsessed with its history or indigenous peoples. Unfortunately, I didn’t discover this in time to save the downward trajectory of my GPA when I was a student, but it’s made me sound infinitely more worldly in daily life.

I found the JEATH War Museum in Kanchanaburi, Thailand, purely by accident. Anything historical pertaining to war is a subject I normally avoid – I’m a girl like that – with the exception of the “Platoon” soundtrack. Thus, the most I knew about “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” which is located in Kanchanaburi, is how to whistle the tune. The town and bridge are actually located at the confluence of the Rivers Kwai Noi and Kwai Yai, at the headwaters of the Maeklong (Mekong).

I ended up there because I had a few days to kill prior to flying home, and it’s less than a two-hour bus ride west of Bangkok. Kanchanaburi sounded peaceful, and is a popular getaway for backpackers and Thai urbanites. The main activities are dining in the many “floating restaurants” on the river, taking cooking classes, hiking in beautiful Erawan National Park and sightseeing (more on that after the jump).

I ended up meeting two fun Australian girls at my riverfront guesthouse, and we proceeded to spend the next three days together. On our first afternoon, I asked them how they’d ended up in Kanchanaburi, and they told me they were there to visit the JEATH War Museum and pay tribute. I looked at them blankly.

“The what?” I asked. They looked at me with pity, thinking, like millions of Aussies before them, that the American educational system is an abysmal failure (no argument there).

“The Japan, England, America, Australia, Thailand, Holland War Museum,” one of the girls said patiently. “Y’know, it’s dedicated to the thousands of Allied POWs who died while constructing the Bridge and Death Railway from 1942 to 1943.”

Cue crickets chirping.JEATH war museumThe girls, to their credit, didn’t make fun of me, but instead explained that the JEATH Museum details a tragic episode in Australian (and, to a lesser degree, Kiwi) military history, and it’s something that schoolchildren learn about at a young age. Within the hour, we’d rented bikes and were pedaling through stultifying heat and humidity to the museum.

The JEATH Museum is located at Wat Chai Chumphon temple, and is housed in an exact bamboo replica of a POW sleeping hut. Inside is a horror house of relics, photos, letters, and descriptions of events and forms of torture carried out by the Imperial Japanese Army, as well as depictions of daily life for the POWs. We spent hours there, alternately sickened and fascinated by how 60,000 Allied prisoners and 180,000 Asian laborers were tortured and forced to labor under unspeakable conditions. Sixteen thousand men were worked to death or perished from starvation, dysentery, or other disease.

According to the museum’s website, the photographs on display were taken of “real situations by either Thai’s or POWs. There are also many real accounts written by former POWs, their relatives, friends, and authors that interviewed the many prisoners that suffered at the hands of the Imperial Japanese Army.”

Like the Holocaust and other genocide museums and concentration camp memorial museums, the JEATH museum is testimony to man’s ability to perpetrate atrocities against his fellow man. I suppose it’s also a tribute to man’s ingenuity when it comes to inventing new and exciting ways to torture other humans, as well as a nod to the resilience of the human body and man’s will to live. Ultimately, I believe museums such as this are also about man’s capacity to forgive: we saw visitors of all nationalities at JEATH, including many veterans.
death railway
In the days that followed, I grew obsessed by the story of the POWs. I took a ride on the famed Death (also known as the Thai-Burma or Burma) Railway, and visited Hellfire Pass, a cutting through sheer rock that earned its name due to the fatalities its labor incurred. It’s said that by night, the flashlights of toiling POWs resembled a scene from hell.

I’ve since told dozens of people about the museum and the events that occurred in the region during the Second World War. While I’ve obviously met Americans who know about the Bridge and Railway, none have been aware of the POWs and loss of life that occurred. My assumption is that because only 356 Americans died – as compared to over 2,800 Australians – it’s not considered one for our history or schoolbooks. It’s a shame, because despite the tragedy, it’s a part of human history that should be remembered, both in tribute and as a warning.

The JEATH War Museum is open daily from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Click here for more information on visiting Kanchanaburi; you can purchase inexpensive bus or mini-van tickets at many guesthouses, backpackers and travel agencies in Bangkok. On a more pleasant note, Kanchanaburi is a lovely town, and the region is definitely worth a visit for its more bucolic charms.

Click here to watch an episode of Gadling’s “Travel Talk” on Kanchanaburi.

[Photo credits: bridge, Flickr user David McKelvey; sign, Wikipedia Commons; train, Flickr user nova031]

Top ten things to do in Brussels, Belgium

BrusselsA couple of weeks ago I was chatting with some fellow travel writers and the conversation turned to Brussels. The general consensus seemed to be that Belgium’s capital isn’t worth visiting.

I disagree. While it can’t compete with London or Paris, it has its own charm and can easily fill up three or four days of a European tour. The mixture of Flemish and Walloon culture makes for a distinct city with an interesting history. A large immigrant population is livening things up too, with Ethiopian cafes, Asian restaurants, and a string of Congolese shops in the Matonge area.

Here are ten reasons not to skip Brussels.

Beer!
Belgian beer is justly famous for its variety and flavor. From the rich Trappist and Abbey beers to the more secular but equally tasty Lambics and Saisons, Belgium is a beer snob’s paradise. There are plenty of fine bars in Brussels serving up this lovely brew. A Gadling favorite is the centrally located Delerium Cafe, which sells more than 2000 varieties from around the world, and of course a huge selection of Belgian labels.

Chocolate!
Like Belgian beer, Belgian chocolate needs no introduction. Hey, it’s so good you can even snort it. Chocolate shops abound in Brussels and most cafes will serve you a piece along with your coffee.

Peeing statues!
Ah yes, the famous Manneken Pis. Has anyone gone to Brussels and not seen this? There are several stories about how this little guy came into being. The one I heard was that a sculptor’s son went missing back in the seventeenth century. A frantic search ensued and the sculptor swore he’d make a statue showing his son exactly as he found him. Take a look at this photo courtesy Jim Linwood to see what the kid was doing when he finally turned up. In the spirit of affirmative action, a female counterpart was erected in 1987 in Impasse de la Fidélité/Getrouwheidsgang (Fidelity Alley) showing a little girl squatting and doing her business. She’s called Jeanneke Pis.

Art Nouveau!
Brussels is justly famous for its many Art Nouveau buildings dating to the early part of the last century. The best way to savor the scene is to go to one of Brussels’ many Art Nouveau cafes where you can enjoy a coffee and a piece of Belgian chocolate while admiring the architecture. One of the greatest of Art Nouveau architects was Victor Horta whose house museum is a classic of the style.

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Classic Films!
Belgium was an early innovator of film back during cinema’s infancy in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The best place to learn about this is the Musée du Cinéma/Filmmuseum, where you can see artifacts from the birth of motion pictures. The museum’s two cinemas show arthouse classics and silent films with live piano accompaniment.

Tanks and Swords!
The Royal Museum of the Armed Forces and of Military History is one of the best war museums I’ve ever visited, and I’ve probably visited too many. The land that now comprises Belgium has been fought over for centuries and this museum’s collection reflects that bloody past. It has an excellent tank collection from both world wars as well as an extensive armory of medieval weapons to slice, dice, chop, hack, and crush your enemies. Why is this cool? It just is.

Fine Art!
Museums are the best way to stay dry when the Belgian weather gets wet, which it does frequently. Brussels has several art galleries and museums. The most prominent are the Royal Museums of Fine Arts. Together they boast some twenty thousand paintings, sculptures and drawings. They include the Ancient Art Museum, the Modern Art Museum, the Wiertz Museum, the Meunier Museum, and the Museé Magritte Museum.

The Historic Center!
Much of medieval Brussels was leveled to make way for new construction in the nineteenth century. Luckily, a classic core survives around La Grand Place/Grote Markt, where centuries-old mansions and churches still survive. This is the most photogenic part of Brussels and while it can get overrun with tourists, it’s still worth a look. A little further out, visit the Basilique du Sacré Coeur/Basiliek van het Heilig Hart, an Art Deco basilica that’s the fifth biggest church in the world, and La Cambre Abbey, a 12th century abbey.

Comics!
Besides film, beer, and chocolate, the Belgians have always been big into comics. At the Belgian Comic Strip Center you can learn all about this with a variety of comics on display and a big gift shop if you want to bring some home. Belgium’s most famous comic artist was Hergé, creator of Tintin, who of course has his own museum.

Day trips!
Belgium is a small country with a good rail system. This makes it a good base for day trips. The lovely countryside is dotted with several castles and rustic villages. Regular trains go to several historic cities such as Antwerp (one hour), Ghent (30 minutes), Bruges (one hour), and Liege (one hour). For more information on day trips, click here.

So head on over to Brussels. You won’t be sorry!

Bletchley Park: see where codebreakers listened in on the Third Reich

Bletchley Park, bombe
You’d never know by looking at the cluster of nondescript buildings that they were the scene of the single most important effort to defeat Nazi Germany. During World War Two, Bletchley Park in Milton Keynes, England, was home to thousands of code breakers listening in on and analyzing German military transmissions. The site was so secret that its existence wasn’t revealed to the world until the 1970s.

It was here that the famous German Enigma and Lorenz code machines were broken, allowing the Allies to follow German troop, air, and naval movements. It’s impossible to say just how much this helped the war effort, but one intelligence historian, Sir Henry Hinsley, estimated it shortened the war by up to four years.

The work on Enigma was actually started by the Polish Cipher Bureau, which broke the Enigma code five weeks before the war started. They shared the information with their British and French counterparts. Although Poland was soon overrun, many Poles fled to the UK to continue the fight. The Poles also sent over a cloned version of the Enigma machine, which proved invaluable.

Of course the Third Reich continued to improve and change the Enigma code, but this early head start helped the Allies keep listening. The Polish machine was later used as the basis for the “Bombe”, a more sophisticated machine the British used to decipher Enigma transmissions. It’s shown above in this photo courtesy Tom Yates.

More than 12,000 people worked at Bletchley Park at some time during the war, the majority of them women. Cryptographers were recruited from universities as well as more unusual sources such as chess clubs. Basically anyone who had a knack for puzzles was considered desirable. In one famous incident, the Daily Telegraph hosted a contest to see who could solve their crossword in under 12 minutes. The fastest winners were offered a job.

Despite its obvious historic importance, the site has been struggling with funding for a long time. Now it’s had a change of fortune, with a £4.6 million injection courtesy the Heritage Lottery Fund and the listing of its Block C as a Grade II building, meaning it will be preserved for all time. Block C housed the massive library of punch cards used by Colossus, the world’s first programmable digital electronic computer. Colossus was used to analyze the sophisticated German Lorenz code.

Today most of the original buildings are open to the public and tell the story of the secret fight against the Axis powers. The original buildings house a wonderland of old tech, as you can see in the gallery to this article. The site also houses the National Museum of Computing and the Radio Society of Great Britain. Bletchley Park is within walking distance of Milton Keynes station, making it an easy day trip from London.

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Military museums in Rome


The Italian army gets a bad rap.

Sure, it made a poor showing in World War Two, but it was Italian Communist partisans who finally bagged Mussolini. Plus the Italians fought in one of the toughest fronts of the First World War, high in the Alps against the Germans and Austro-Hungarians. They endured freezing conditions on top of glaciers for months on end. One of the favorite tactics was to cause avalanches to bury the opposing side. A few years ago the mummies of three Austro-Hungarian soldiers were found frozen in the ice, and another World War One soldier was found last month at an Italian ski resort.

The Italians are also pulling their weight in Afghanistan with 3,800 troops, and joined in the invasion of Iraq and served there for three years. Sadly they have suffered more than 50 deaths in these wars.

And then there was Operation Alba. Operation Alba? Yeah, that’s been pretty much forgotten. In 1997 the government of Albania collapsed, plunging the country into chaos and leading to fighting that killed some 2,000 people. Italy commanded an international coalition that restored order in a textbook case on how to properly run a peacekeeping operation. The rule of law was established and the troops were gone in five months. Military successes tend to be forgotten in favor of military disasters.

Rome has several military museums dedicated to its fallen heroes. Usually overlooked in favor of the giant archaeology and art museums, they offer an interesting glimpse into forgotten history and weapons you’re unlikely to see anywhere else. Take this little tank I’m standing next to, for instance. This is an L3/35 with twin machine guns (now removed). They were introduced in the 1930s and are a stage in development between the lumbering behemoths of WWI and the more practical tanks of WWII. They proved useful during the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 and 1936. Despite their thin armor, the Ethiopians didn’t have anything to destroy them, although some brave warriors managed to immobilize them by sticking pieces of railroad track or even sabers into their treads! The L3/35 also saw service in North Africa in WWII where they proved easy prey for the more advanced British tanks.

%Gallery-102423%Here are some of the military museums in Rome:

Ufficio Storico Stato Maggiore Esercito: The Italian army archives has an interesting collection of tanks and weapons, mostly from the two World Wars. Several display cases show artifacts dug up from the Alpine front of World War One. It’s in a military building, so bring some ID and expect to have your bag searched. Via Etruria 33.

Museo Storico della Fanteria: The Infantry Museum houses the best and largest military collection in the city with artifacts dating from Roman times up to the present day. The garden is decorated with tanks and cannon set beneath an ancient Roman arch, and the three floors inside are filled with racks of guns, full uniforms, paintings, and dioramas. Piazza San Croce in Gerusalemme 9.

Museo Storico dei Granatieri di Sardegna: Two doors down from the Infantry Museum is one dedicated to the grenadiers of Sardinia. It traces their history from 1659 when they were armed with primitive grenades to their present-day duties as part of the Mechanized Infantry. Piazza San Croce in Gerusalemme 7.

Museo Storico dei Bersaglieri: The Bersaglieri are an elite force in the Italian army famous for running everywhere, even when they’re in their barracks. This makes them very fit and they’re considered some of the toughest troops in the army. Founded even before the unification of Italy, they’ve fought with distinction in all its wars. Porta Pia i Via XX Settembre.

Museo Storico della Motorizzazione Militare: This museum dedicated to military vehicles displays more than 300 tanks, trucks, helicopters, mobile rocket launchers, motorcycles, and more. It’s located in a large military base. Bring ID and expect to be searched. Viale dell’Esercito 170. If you like tanks, you might want to check out our list of other great tank museums.

There are several more military museums worth seeing, so check out the list the Italian army has here. It’s in Italian, but the basic information is easy enough to puzzle out.

Don’t forget to check out the rest of my Vacation with the Dead: Exploring Rome’s Sinister Side.

Coming up Next: The Catacombs of Rome!