On a warm, sunny day, we stepped off of our cruise ship and onto dry land in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. A small nation (with fewer than two million people) on the Baltic Sea, Estonia spent 50 years after World War II as an unwilling part of the Soviet Union. But in the past ten years, things have really changed in Estonia. And not surprisingly, computer technology is a big part of that change.
Tallinn was one port of call during the most recent MacMania cruise, an event co-sponsored by this magazine. Before my visit, Macworld contributor Cyrus Farivar recommended that I visit with Veljo Haamer, who runs wifi.ee, an organization that is spreading wireless Internet hotspots throughout Estonia, particularly in Tallinn.
Veljo led me through this gorgeous city via back streets, avoiding crowded, touristy areas and steering me toward his favorite spots. We ascended a hill that provided a view of much of the city—and overlooked many examples of Veljo’s work. He pointed out two beautiful parks next to the Estonian parliament building; both will be enabled with free wireless Internet access by the time you read this.
We ended up at Pegasus, a trendy café that resembled nothing more than an Apple Store. (No, there are not yet any official Apple Stores in Estonia.) Pegasus also offers free Wi-Fi access. Some of the cafés in town charge a nominal fee for access: less than $1 for 24 hours. But most of these venues seem to believe that free Wi-Fi is like free newspapers: It keeps patrons happy and in the café, spending money.
Before reaching Estonia, I had told several of my fellow cruisers about my planned visit with Veljo. They all seemed fairly skeptical about the state of technology in this former Soviet republic—surely, Estonia would still be a technological backwater.
But that’s not the case at all. Just as most of Europe has embraced wireless Internet access and other mobile technology, Estonia has embraced Europe. On the large scale, you see it in the country’s new membership in the European Union, in the fact that many Estonians have not one but two mobile phones (and have ditched their land lines), and in the growing number of Estonians who eschew dial-up Net access in favor of free Wi-Fi. On the small scale, you see it in people like Veljo, working hard to bring wireless Internet access to the whole of his small country, one park at a time.
Walking through the city, we passed a beautiful Orthodox church. A sign on its wall identified it as a national monument, and in the sign’s center was the same Command symbol you’ll find on your Mac keyboard, right next to the Apple logo. I’d heard that Apple had appropriated the Command symbol from a Scandinavian sign indicating a “place of interest”—and now I’ve got proof.
After our tour, Veljo and I met up with his friend Meelis Piller, the founder of the Estonian edition of PC World. Meelis’s group is very small, but they’ve just put out their second issue and are competing well with two other computer magazines in Estonia. Meelis says that Estonia has a growing number of Mac users (he uses a PowerBook himself). In fact, the cover of the Estonian PC World features an Apple logo and the phrase “Nüüd ka Maci kasutajatele!” —loosely translated, “Now covering the Mac, too!” Sure enough, inside are an article about the Intel transition and a feature story about Tiger.
Warm sun, friendly people, and free and fast wireless Internet access: I had an excellent time in Tallinn. As travel writer Rick Steves says, travel is about broadening your horizons and seeing the world from different perspectives. Tallinn showed me that when you’re broadening your horizons, you should bring your PowerBook. You’re liable to find wireless Internet access and Mac fans, even in the unlikeliest of places.
Get more information forthcoming MacMania cruises to Mexico and the Mediterranean, visit Geek Cruises, and complete coverage from the MacMania Baltic cruise. Got a comment? E-mail Jason Snell or visit our online forums.Veljo Haamer (right) and Jason Snell at one of Tallinn's Wi-Fi cafés.