I've never heard anyone say a bad word about Estonia. Well, a Lithuanian once told me Estonians are a touch supercilious when it comes to their Baltic neighbours, prefering to see themselves as Scandinavian, but in view of their non-Scandinavian approach to pricing I'm going to let that one slide. Admittedly, our own romance doesn't start promisingly. Fresh off the boat in body but not in spirit, the walk up to my hostel on the far side of the old town entails running the gauntlet of drunk teens throwing drinks over each other, and drunk men outside a strip club offering univited, overly-tactile salutations to this overburdened traveller. Nevertheless I made it in one piece, and less than two days later I leave the city head over heels in love with it. In no particular order, here are some of the reasons why:
No two hostels are the same, but it's safe to say that no matter how many more I stay in, none will ever come close to Tallinn's Euphoria hostel. It's a wonderful, positive place: rough around the edges yet homely, teetering on the chaotic but with no shortage of resident staff pitching in. It transpires the guy in overall charge is from my neck of the woods, Chertsey to be precise, a small town whose chief claims to fame are a barely-traceable medieval abbey, butterfingered former England keeper Robert Green, and nearby Inbetweeners-patronised Thorpe Park. I ask if he misses it. "You're joking, right?", is his disdainful response. More garulous is a barmy Estonian girl called Anna-Louisa, who took an instant dislike to me (her loss), but to whom one of two Australian guys already staying at the hostel had taken a real (if slightly unwise) shine. Befitting the general vibe of the hostel there's also a hippy in the classic Hare Krishna mould (albeit wearing a Puma tracksuit top), who doesn't talk but was coughing so violently the night before that people had taken bets on how long he has left to live.
Medieval stuff everywhere
If there's a better preserved medieval city in Europe then I'd like to see it. I mean it, if anyone has any suggestions please let me know. For the forseeable future, however, Tallinn shall remain top of the tree. Vanalinn, aka the old town, is exquisite, especially in the early autumn sun, having clearly seen a good lick of paint in the last few years. There's an archaeological sensitivity about the manner of the restoration process, as this trio of pictures - that could have formed part of a series called "uncovered bits of blocked medieval doorways and windows in brightly-painted walls" if only there was a viable outlet for such things - attests:
What is more, as if the old town's maze of busy-but-not-too-busy cobbled streets wasn't enough, overlooking it is Toompea, the ancient citadel containing among other things the parliament and a brace of cathedrals: the Dome Church (actually a dome-less cathedral, playing host to a practicing choir making the most beautiful noise when I visited) and the Alexander Nevsky (which I must concede is not actually medieval).
The old town is still largely enclosed by its medieval wall, liberally provisioned with gates, towers and turrets. A couple of sections of the original wall-top walk have been restored, giving great views out over the city, as well as the opportunity to show the wares of local artists. From on high you can see a medieval friary, a clutch of medieval churches and, in the middle distance, the medieval town hall. And what's in the cellar of the town hall? A medieval cafe of course (I recommend the elk stew and exchanging a bit of flirty banter with the girls who work there).
There's a distinctively Baltic theme to Europe's two designated Capitals of Culture for 2011: Tallinn and Turku. I had held ambitions to go to the latter at one stage, but I canned that (Finland's kinda boring anyway) and so could focus more of my culture-consuming energies on Tallinn. There's no shortage of stuff going on (although sadly no screenings at the open-air cinema on the roof of the city's main shopping centre on the day's I'm there) and for once I make a decent, organised fist of making it round most of what I wanted to see. It helps that a hefty chunk of these are on or close to the new Culture Kilometer, a disused railway-turned-path that in reality is 2.2 kilometers in length. The walk to the far end of it is an experience in itself, since it took me through the brilliantly-named Balti Jaam market, where the gloom of the Soviet era still hang heavy in the air, and that offers everything from crossbows to the best array of pin badges I've ever seen. Word has it that the site is destined to be flattened and redeveloped as a shopping centre, and it's hard to avoid the impression that the whole neighbourhood is on the cusp of transformation, with newly-built apartment blocks rubbing shoulders with older wooden houses, vacant lots and derelict factories and warehouses. For now the streets are strangely deserted, something which could not be said of the Culture Kilometer: within a few hundred metres of each other I encounter a couple who had clearly just had a Big Talk that went well, two British guys on hired bikes doing their best Mark Cavendish impressions, and a bunch of lads scrumping apples from a tree. At its western end actual culture's pretty thin on the ground, what with the Seaplane Museum still being under renovation, that is unless you like Ladas and lock-up garages...
Further along the Culture Kilometer there's rather more to see. For reasons beyond my comprehension, someone decided Capital of Culture was a perfect opportunity to import an old Routemaster bus, convert it into a bar and set it afloat on a metal barge in a small harbour, all in the name of highlighting the importance of recycling. I kinda see what they were getting at... Anyway, they sold great cake and cider, which in my book is licence to do whatever they damn well please.
A stone's throw away is an art-cum-junk sale in the overgrown grounds of some old warehouses. The commercial side of things is already winding down when I arrive, and the party in one of the sheds has not yet come to life (not for want of trying among the few revellers inside), so I move on to CAME = Contemporary Art Museum of Estonia, if you were wondering. The giant heads in the courtyard were out of step with the dark themes of the works on show inside, which were pretty decent in the main (especially the full-size horse statue and the film showing in a covered conveyor belt tube which meant you had to sit on a steep slope to watch it).
The Culture Kilometer peters out not long after near the main ferry terminal. For metric measure pedants this may be a long-overdue termination, but for the rest of us it's kind of sad that it doesn't carry on for another kilometre (or two). That said, I've omitted mention of the following two places, arguably the highlights of the whole route...
I can't remember if I read this Vice article about the former Patarei prison before or after I visited it, but first time I read it I was left with the impression that it was out of bounds to visitors and so something of an achievement to gain entry. Turns out it's open as part of the Capital of Culture programme and, unless you find handing two Euros to a couple of locals in their 60s a challenge, getting in is a doddle. There's even an open mic night once a week. Believe it or not I've never been in a prison before, and I'm not sure I'd want to visit another one after Paterei. It's grim; an old naval fort that was given a new, penal function through what in architectural parlance might be termed a light-touch conversion. We're talking endless corridors of cells formed out of old cannon bays, and a central yard filled by tiny, high-walled exercise yards overlooked by vertiginous guard towers.
My one gripe (aside of course from the fundamental objection to incarcerating people in such dreadful conditions) is that inevitably there have been some artistic "interventions" in some of the cells and other rooms, which make it hard to determine what are prison-era artefacts and what are things introduced after its closure. Clearly the titty girl posters represent lags' wank matter, but other bits (the large numbers of "Senok Family Blend OPA Tea" labels stucks to many walls) are more ambiguous. These are largely confined to the cells and offices, leaving larger spaces like the library (a dense forest of russet wooden shelving) and the medical wing affectingly untouched. By far the most disquieting room in the whole building is the hanging room, a gloomy space whose macabre former function still hangs (no pun intended) heavy in the air. I don't get long in there by myself, as two families with small children troop in, perhaps an attempt by the parents to scare their offspring away from a life of criminality. Not sure how that'll pan out, but I for one shall be sticking to the straight and narrow hereafter.
In the Louisiana gift shop back in Denmark I found the book CCCP: Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed (do you see what they did there with the title?), which features all manner of wacky - DID I JUST USE THAT WORD? - Modern buildings and monuments from the Soviet era. It's a weighty tome so I didn't buy it at the time (indeed any would-be benefactor may care to note that it remains on my Amazon Wish List), and as a result I don't know whether Tallinn's Linnahall features in it, but if not it's a massive oversight on the part of the author. Maybe he's got plans to write a book dedicated to the terminal. It more than merits it: built for the 1980 Olympics, alongside its sea transportation function it originally doubled up as an opera house-cum-fortress. Nowadays it acts as little more than a giant concrete pier that barely makes it to the shoreline and boasts no amusements (other than a dodgy-looking nightclub round the back that may or may not still operate and a couple of flimsy-looking viewing platforms added for, surprise surprise, Capital of Culture).
The great thing about it is that, rather than being shunned as an ugly, borderline-useless edifice in an out-of-the-way part of town, it's populated by all manner of people drinking, sleeping, reading, cycling or taking the dog for a walk. I remember visiting the Millennium Dome for my 18th birthday, well over a year after it had shut its doors (yes I appreciate this is not casting me in a particularly fun-loving light), and you couldn't even access the river, let alone the main building itself. I'm glad Estonia makes more of its architectural white elephants. Now who's got the number for O2, I think I've found the site of their next arena...
Estonia may not be able to lay sole claim to the pancake, but they have an interesting, and more to the point generous, take on the fried foodstuff. In Kompressor, the city's best known (not to mention cheapest) creperie-cum-bar, I run into a girl from the hostel, an Australian girl named Susie. She works in TV, and I think she can tell I'm a little disappointed when she says she worked on The Secret Life of Us (which I barely watched) rather than Neighbours or Home and Away (which I have watched too much). As we chat I manage to keep putting my foot in it; first when I mishear her say Skype was invented by Australians rather than its true progenitors the Estonians ("It's about time you gave something to the world" was my ill-judged retort), and later when, after she tells me she's a vegetarian, I begin my familiar tirade against pescetarians - only for her to order the salmon pancake. As it happens she doesn't seem to mind either slur, and shares some of her food with me (which is just as well since the cheese pancake is decidedly one-paced) and eventually I manage to turn off that leaking tap of unintentional insults and have a good chat over surprisingly good Estonian beers (of the sort they clearly weren't selling on the ferry).
Ha, I've made this sound like a review of a date. It wasn't a date.
Highlight of Capital of Culture
Ok, this is positively, absolutely the last mention I shall make of CoC (as it most definitely isn't known). I happened upon this small gallery space below the city walls showing an exhibition entitled 'Marine Mine Furniture'. The artist, Estonian sculptor Mati Karmin, had come by a stockpile of the aforesaid mines (you know, the floating roundish ones with the bits that stick out), and fashioned from them a range of furniture and other vaguely domestic items that would be great if (a) you had a massive house that could accommodate such things and (b) you had a massive amount of money with which to purchase them. To give you an idea, they look a little something like this:
But wait, what's that in the background, I hear you ask. It looks like a giant metal cock. Well you'd be right. In the straight-faced words of the exhibition catalogue...
At the end of the mine project the artist created a mobile sculpture out of a Soviet military truck. His vehicle has instead of a rocket a gigantic phallus of mine shells towering above... This ambiguous and wonderful work still awaits a proper place in the Estonian public space.
It may be waiting for some time to come. Here's a montage of pictures of it in all its ejaculating glory. Parental discretion is advised.
It took a matter of minutes from my arrival in Tallinn to realise that I would be sharing the city's streets with a heap of athletes young and old, fit and not-so-fit. The fun and games were spread over both days of the weekend, on account of the organisers arranging innumerable races according to distance/age/gender. All, however, started and ended in the Vabaduse Väljak, the rather great new national square which just happened to be across the road from my hostel.
The first day (or maybe just the afternoon) seemed to be given over to the children's events, compered by this hairy green cartoonish dino-monster...
The main events follow on the second day, with grown-up athletes running grown-up distances. This includes a couple of guys from my hostel, neither of whom claimed to have done much in the way of preparatory training, yet both reportedly complete the half-marathon course in respectable times. In fact the event has the air of a display of national athletic prowess, with all manner of people who you wouldn't take to be (half) marathon runners, but who proudly wear medals around their sweaty necks. Certainly, Estonians don't really go in for dressing up as rhinos or similar (which on reflection may indict them as an unambitious and uncharitable nation), but on the other hand they do consider a death metal band to be suitable accompaniment and encouragement for the runners.
Day 2 of my stay also coincides with the tenth anniversary of 9/11, which prompts a rash of heartfelt Facebook statuses and no doubt acres of coverage in special commemorative supplements in the Sunday papers back home. As I imagine it has for most people, the sense of complete unreality I felt about the events at the time has since metamorphosised into one that sees it as something all-too real, whose legacy has turned out to be much less positive than might have been hoped for soon after the event.
I'm not one to indulge in mawkish displays of commemoration out of some misplaced sense of empathy, but it ends up being the case that three of the places I visit on the day have a slight resonance with the occasion. In the morning I climb the tower of St Olav's Church (yep, that thing above), the tallest building in the Old Town and, like the World Trade Center, once upon a time the world (or so they claim - Ulm cathedral may have something to say about that). It is without doubt a hefty steeple, with an innumerable flights of steps (interrupted by floors that lull you into thinking you've reached the top). Progress is slowed by people going in opposite directions being loathe to let go of the rope which forms the only handhold for many sections, and a group of hungover British lads clearly on a stag weekend whose numbers are gradually whittled down by "exhaustion" the higher we go.
(The views from the top are belting, giving a panorama of Tallinn, its surroundings and of course the sea. This line of Noddy towers on the city walls are a particular highlight.)
A couple of hours later, and back on terra firma, I walk through what is rather confusingly known as Tallinn City. It's a once-average neighbourhood that nowadays is home to the city's six skyscrapers; not all of them really merit that epithet, but its non-matching version of the twin towers are - for Tallinn at least - pretty vertiginous. I'd had visions of being able to walk between them, but it turns out that they're linked by a lower, Puma-branded building that's closed.
From Tallinn City I make my way to the The Park of Kadriorg. Formed from the grounds of the eponymous imperial palace (a favourite of Tsar Peter I), it would be the perfect place for a lazy day enjoying the sunshine, but as it is I can make it no more than a fleeting stop-off of a frantic walk to crowbar as much sightseeing in to one day as possible. There are in fact two palaces in the park: the old imperial pile, and the president's palace. As I stroll past a modest motorcade of cars with little Estonian flags on their bonnets sweeps past me and in through a gate between high walls. Presumably one of them contains the president or one of his ministers (someone in my hostel later tells me a story about getting shitfaced in a bar with a businessman who at the end of the night disclosed he was actually the finance minister). What strikes me is that, given this is the country's equivalent of the White House, the security measures round the other side of the palace are decidedly flimsy...
KUMU, the new national art museum, is a source of great pride for Estonians, and it forms a fitting counterpoint to the beauty of the old town. Typically, I get there late in the day just over an hour before closing, but this works in my favour as I get reduced admission (although not before a few more minutes have been taken up by the woman at the desk calculating what entrance I should pay). It's fair to say that it contains the finest collection of Estonian art in the world, and this is not meant in jest as (some OTT early twentieth-century religious-themed paintings excepted) it's of high quality. The gallery dedicated to busts of the great and good of Estonia is extraordinary, while the rooms containing works produced in the 1970s and 80s are a huge surprise given my preconceptions about the deadening effect Soviet control would have had on artistic culture:
An honourable mention should also go to the temporary exhibition Getaways: Art and Networked Culture, put on as part of that, er, year-long European cultural event I promised not to mention again. Ranking as one of the most interesting, fun exhibitions I've been to, among the stacks of great exhibits are globes representing all manner of things to do with the internet and such (look, I'm no Brian Sewell, just look at the picture below to see what I mean), and giant snails with microchips on their shells that can deliver messages eeeeeevvvvvvveeeeeeeerrrr ssssssoooooo ssssssslllllllooooooowwwwwwllllllllyyyyyyy. Yep, snail mail, got it in one.
I love Tallinn. Why do I like it so? Well, I'd like to think you may have got an inkling for the basis of such a sentiment from the preceding paragraphs, but if not then I'll leave you with this little nugget. At the start of 2011 Estonia ditched it's post-independence currency, the Kroon (and with it the fantastic abbreviation EEK), to throw its hat in with the Euro. Understandably the country is still in a transitional period, with prices given in new and old currencies. However, it is clear that some are still calculated from pre-Euro figures. Thus the diminutive Museum of Photography charges €1.92 entry rather than a nice round figure of two Euros, foregoing the eight cents in order to keep it equivalent to 30 EEK. It's the little things like that which make the place such a joy to visit.