A Travellerspoint blog

Don't go to St Petersburg

Being intolerant of intolerance

storm

Sometime during the summer I gave up tweeting. Like most people, I love Twitter for finding out news fast (or getting different perspectives on stories whose main details have been done to death by the usual media outlets) and amusing 140-or-fewer character concoctions, but I was boring myself with what I was writing, and when this is being read by no more than 50 people it makes you question whether there's any point to it. By contrast, I love writing this blog, and from the site stats it seems like a large number of people enjoy reading it (1157 and counting for my post on Stockholm). Using this ever-so slight position of influence, I would like to explain my title and why - for now at least - I urge you to delete St Petersburg from any travel itinerary you have or may be planning.

From a British perspective, Russian politics seems pretty warped and rotten (an opinion supported by what I heard several people say to me or within my earshot while in the country), but recent goings-on in St Petersburg really take the biscuit. A few weeks ago I received an email from LGBT rights campaign group All Out concerning moves by the city's government to outlaw all public reference to being gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender. Thanks to a concerted worldwide campaign in response to this news, the proposed legislation was dropped, only to be revived and - horrifyingly - passed on February 8th. Apparently this vote needs to be ratified in a final vote scheduled to take place in the next few days (detailed background information is hard to find online, in English anyway), but until such time as the city's powers-that-be see sense and ditch this abhorrent proposal I recommend you go to the campaign on the All Out website (http://allout.org/en/actions/russia_silenced) and add your name to the email petition straight away.

All being well, by this time next week I can delete this post and replace it with one celebrating the many positive aspects of St Petersburg as a city - although part of me is loathe to do that given an intolerant minority will continue to wield considerable political influence. For now I'll carry on working on writing up what I saw and did in Moscow, while leaving you with this link to an apposite piece of short-lived public art in St Petersburg:

http://animalnewyork.com/2010/06/why-russian-art-group-voina-dicked-a-st-petersburg-bridge/

Posted by RobertJSBriggs 08:54 Archived in Russia Comments (0)

Never say Neva

A crap photographic tour of the waterways of St Petersburg by night

overcast 6 °C

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Pretty much every big city is next to the sea, a river or a canal. It's a simple fact of historical geography. As a consequence - at least when said cities aren't off limits to foreigners - these navigable watercourses are plied by tourist boats. I'd resisted those in Copenhagen, Malmö, Göteborg... you get the picture. But having arrived in St Petersburg, and the start of three weeks of an organised (most of the time) tour, meant that when a midnight trip on the famous River Neva and canals of the city was suggested, it was a fait accompli.

Turns out they're really fun, although this might have something to do with our boat being driven (?) at higher speeds than the sedate pace of the boats I'd seen previously, being on board with a bunch of people I'd never met before but would be spending the next three weeks with, and last but not least supping from a litre can of beer (after all this is the country that only decreed beer is an alcoholic beverage not a foodstuff scarcely two months before my visit). The upshot of all of this was that my photos of the boat trip were, well, wobbly.

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And we're off!

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You start on the canals; I imagine Venice looks like this, only with more sympathetic street lighting

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Then you're out on the wide Neva river, giving you the chance to snap the waterfront facade of the Winter Palace/Hermitage

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I think this is a theatre

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I got pretty excited about this giant ball of mozzarella. Turned out to be nothing more than a temporary restaurant

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This shoal of neon fish are the masts of a tall ship, nowadays used as a restaurant and gym

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The spires of Ss Peter & Paul Cathedral

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I got criticised for taking this picture, and to be fair it isn't very interesting

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The Peter and Paul Fortress

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Fortress again, looking like a giant B & Q

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The tower-like thing just to the right of centre is a monument to a naval victory, or maybe general Russian naval prowess, in the form of the Alexandrian pharos

The main reason for taking midnight river cruises is to see the raising of the main bridges across the Neva to permit the passage of ships up or downstream. It's a big deal in the city, they make t-shirts to celebrate it (yes I bought one).

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Bridge is down

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Bridge goes up

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Bridge goes up some more

There you have it. Riverboat trips are fun. Especially under the cover of darkness.

(Proper post on St Petersburg and Moscow - with proper photographs - to follow soon)

Posted by RobertJSBriggs 02:36 Archived in Russia Comments (0)

Crossing the Russian border

The disadvantages of a Scouse passport

semi-overcast 20 °C

A year spent living in Liverpool but working from an office in Salford meant I became all-too familiar with the many shortcomings and few benefits of commuting between the two cities by coach. Thus I don't think I'm speaking out of turn when I say I was especially trepidatious at the prospect of taking a coach from Tallinn into Russia as far as St Petersburg. I arrive at Tallinn's coach station in plenty of time, but - unlike Britain's National Express, who run a turn-up-at-least-10-minutes-before-departure policy - when Eurolines put 8am on the ticket, it means the coach will turn up bang on 8am.

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Half an hour later and (following no end of pre-departure seat-swapping shenanigans) we're off. Being a pint-sized capital city, it doesn't take long for the industrial outskirts of Tallinn (Is it a nuclear power station? Is it a factory?) to give way to pine forests and fields. The route out of town is being turned into a dual carriageway with the help of some EU Structural Fund cash, giving an ironic twist to the comments of the Estonian finance minister, shown as one of the news headlines on the on-board tv, that the Eurozone should get its (shared) house in order. There's not a lot of other televisual treats treats on offer, so the free wifi is a boon, especially after many months of unreliable mobile internet signal along the M62 corridor. Rural Estonia seems predictably forested, as well as flat (I hadn't made any predictions as to the nature of its relief). It's also finite, and before long we arrive at the border town of Narva. Telly goes off, the coach driver bolts outside to chat and chain smoke with his colleagues while border guards embark and collect passports - the first time I've had to produce mine in over a week of travelling (thanks Schengen!). For an hour or so we remain parked at the top of a hill looking down a road lined with razorwire fences towards the border gate, or at least what I took to be the border gate, but turns out to be a gate near the border. If it wasn't an international frontier with all the militarised gubbins that goes with it the place would be picture postcard pretty; as we descend the hill to cross the Narva river it becomes clear that we've been parked next to a castle (prompting the cry of "Baaarbara, take a picture of the chateau" from one of the Canadian tourists sat behind me) with a counterpart on the opposite bank.

There's not much time to take all of this in, and certainly not to take any photographs (hence the image-light nature of this post) before we park up again at the Russian border post. This time everyone troops off the coach, collects their bags and makes their way into the adjacent passport and customs hall. I'm one of the last in, making for more standing around reading the English-language bits of the proscribed items lists on the walls. Finally I step forward to one of the two passport control desks, hand over my passport and (in what I would quickly come to learn is an entirely redundant gesture in Russia) smile at the lady behind the perspex. She flicks through the pages and puts it under the scanner. Then scans it again. And again. Then she gets up and walks over to the other desk where she talks to her colleague and shows her my passport. Back she comes, and back under the scanner goes my passport. Once again whatever she wants to happen does not, so she rises from her desk only this time goes out the other side of her desk cubicle and disappears through a door in the wall next to it. I'm worried, surmising that the case of my non-scanning passport has now been escalated to the line manager. I look around and realise that all the other passengers have already gone through passport control and the final few are having their bags checked. There's a dog padding about the place; initially I take this to be a reflection of the rural dustiness of the place, but just as I'm about to crouch down to pat it I clock that given the context it's a sniffer dog and I should probably avoid getting myself into even more trouble than I'm in at present. The border guard comes back, my passport in hand, and shoots me another disdainful look. I'm desperately scouring my mind for something in my one-term's worth of A-Level General Studies Russian vocabulary that may be helpful to say, but even if I did learn the phrase "Is there a problem officer?" at the time then I have forgotten it in the decade that has elapsed since then. So I stand there in awkward silence, now the only non-border guard/sniffer dog in the hall. The same routine of scan, re-scan, and huff follows before, with clear reluctance, she stamps my passport and hands it back to me. Perhaps she exercised her judgement to conclude that if I was a British agent entering the country then from the look of me I'd prove even less effectual than MI6's fake rock in a Moscow park and would be on a one-way ticket out of the country before the end of the week.

(I later discover two things I wish I'd known before reaching the border post, so will impart to all awaiting or contemplating a trip to Russia. First, Russian border control computer systems are notoriously slow, so the constant re-scanning of my passport may have had more to do with its inadequacies than anything else. However, my second observation is that my new-style British passport, obtained at the end of one of my last coach journeys to Liverpool as it happens, looks decidedly amateur-hour - comparing it a few days later with an Irish passport, the lack of a high-quality photograph or any holograms make it ripe for suspicion on the part of border guards whose job it is to be dubious of your travel documents. If you possess a new-style passport like mine then I'm not sure if there's anything you can do to avoid the discomfort I went through, other than maybe avoid the border crossing at Narva. In conclusion, nice one UK Identity and Passport Service.)

The baggage check flew by in comparison to what preceded it, although it was every bit as stressful (fortunately it turns out Russian customs officials understand what you mean when you identify opaque sachets of powder as Imodium). Finally, after what seems like an hour but probably at most was only half that time, I get back on the coach. Once we're away from the border there is a palpable change in mood on board, at least among those like me for whom the journey is the first time they have entered Russia. For one thing, the wifi stops working. Then there's the visible signs of a heavy military presence within the first few miles from the frontier, in the slightly-intimidating forms of memorials and an old T-34 tank. There's sharp intakes of breath when we cross a temporary bridge across a ravine (does anyone else play the thinking-up-tabloid-headlines-to-describe-the-circumstances-of-your-premature-demise game?) but we make it across unscathed. Russia looks, well, Russian, but Cyrillic characters aside, it's hardly a massive change from Estonia. Same kind of forests, same kind of single-carriageway roads, same kind of petrifying overtaking manoeuvres. Only when we near St Petersburg airport does the road take on a more impressive character. As if to make up for lost time, from thereon it's constant flyovers, underpasses and wide boulevards as we near the end of the route.

Suburban St Petersburg is grimly impressive, peppered with hefty soot-blackened buildings and monuments. Baltiskaya Station is one such building, but more importantly it marks the end of the coach trip. Without the slightest bit of ceremony we're thrust out into a maelstrom of taxis, smoking bystanders and other coaches disgorging similarly-disorientated passengers. Gathering my thoughts, and switching to watching my valuables mode, I manage to buy a metro ticket (clearly sitting in a glass-windowed booth doesn't make every Russian unhelpful and uncommunicative - heck the ticket vendor didn't even complain about me paying with a note). Two trains, and some of the longest escalators I've ever ridden, later and I emerge onto the streets of central St Petersburg. It takes me a while to orientate myself, but finally I make it to the gates of my hostel. Disconcertingly, smoke is billowing from a bin hard by them. I resolve to be a good traveller and use the last of the bottled water I have with me to extinguish this mini-inferno. My recounting of this act of civic heroism fails to impress the staff in the hostel, and over the course of the following week or so I learn that burning bins are a common sight (and smell) in Russia, ones that are best left alone. Nevertheless, despite almost having fallen at the very first hurdle, I feel like Russia and I have got off to a good start.

Posted by RobertJSBriggs 04:17 Archived in Russia Comments (0)

Tallinn

Yestonia!

sunny 20 °C

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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:

Hostel
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:

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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).

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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).

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Culture Kilometer
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...

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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.

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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).

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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...

Patarei Prison
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.

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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.

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Ferry terminal
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).

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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...

Pancakes
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:

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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.

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Marathon
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.

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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...

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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.

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9/11
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.

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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.

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(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.)

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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.

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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...

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KUMU

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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:

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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.

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In conclusion
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.

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Posted by RobertJSBriggs 05:07 Archived in Estonia Comments (1)

Night boat to Tallinn

Booze cruisin'

sunny

It starts off so modestly. I make it to the ferry terminal in oodles of time, but as this ain't an airport there's no being kept waiting to board. All the same I kill a bit of time perusing the shop for last minute supplies before realising that they're not merely charging Swedish rather than Estonian prices, but inflated transport hub prices to boot - 17 kronor for a Twix? I think not. I attempt to show my passport only to have it waved away as unnecessary; I spend longer having my photo taken (replete with assorted baggage) in order that I might purchase a souvenir copy once on board the good ship Victoria I, but at 10 euros for a photo produced in front of you on an inkjet printer I decide to keep hold of my cash for less-obvious ripoffs.

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Once aboard I'm pointed in the direction of my four-berth cabin. In there already is a man who looks to be in his 50s. I give him a nod and a generic Scando-phone "Hey". In return I get what sounds like the Estonian variation on the theme, "Hey hey", which I duly adopt as my stock greeting to everyone I meet for the next three days. It's much, much later that I discover he actually said (or mumbled) the word for hello, "Tere", but fortunately for me Estonians turn out to be a patient, understanding people who let my daft riff on their basic vocabulary slide. The Estonian's watching some women's beach volleyball, unfortunately at a rain-lashed tournament, but I join him to reinforce my Regular Joe credentials (like he even cares). Not long after a guy enters bearing a bunch of flowers. "Ete Lev", he says, using one of the few Russian words I know. I still contrive to bottle my reply, rolling the initial R of my name to the extent that he asks if I'm Italian. I explain that I'm not, and he explains that the flowers are for his girlfriend. He then turns to the Estonian guy to ask his name, who response is a well-pronounced "I don't speak any English", which strikes me as a rather negative choice for a solitary useful phrase to learn.

It's all a bit cramped in the compartment, even without our fourth and final roommate (who turns out to be the even less Anglophone pal of the Estonian guy) so I seize the initiative and make my way up onto deck. You'd struggle to pick a better evening to be making your way along the shipping lanes of the Stockholm archipelago and out into the Baltic. Looking back towards the city the sky is doing that thing where shafts of light are streaming down from holes in a cloud covering the sun, casting one beam down upon the Ericsson Globe as if to underline how next time I'm in the city I should try to make some time for the world's largest hemispherical building (sez Wiki). A few minutes later and the big fluffy cloud is dumping rain down on from whence I just came. What's the Swedish for schadenfreude?

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I think I read the Stockholm archipelago is one of those things where legend has it that trying to count the number of constituent islands will send you mad. It's not for that reason that I'm not counting - I've got better ways to pass my time, such as getting jealous at all the people who have beautiful houses with little sauna buildings right by the water's edge as the ferry sails slowly by. The phrase quality of life suddenly takes on a new, more enviable meaning.

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Half an hour or so later, and a trip to the other side of the ferry, and a fort-like tower hoves into view. Turns out it does indeed pertain to a fort, and it looks rather lovely in the evening light. In fact, everything is looking rather splendid, so I get out my camera and start snapping away. As I do I hear some guys to my left laughing. I turn to look and see two tough-looking Estonian guys try to push their no-less-tough-looking friend over the barrier and into the water. It's then I notice the carnage. What I had thought was a perfectly normal deck had all of a sudden turned into a sea of empty beer cans (the majority having contained the liquid wares of A le Coq, a brewer whose labels implausibly claim it is based in London) and cheap vodka bottles. Everyone around me is sloshed and it's not even 7pm.

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In a situation like this, it's perhaps not the wisest course of action to beat a retreat to a bar, but that's exactly what I do. I say bar, but I mean the King's Pub, which looks British-themed but in a vague enough way as to overcome the impediment of Blighty not having had a male monarch for nearly 60 years. There's a guy with a guitar providing musical accompaniment to the dozen or so patrons, murdering a succession of standards by the likes of The Beatles, Dylan and James Blunt (although in the case of the last this may be no bad thing). Then, during a pause between songs, out of nowhere there's a loud drunken heckle; "CREEDENCE". The singer didn't hear so asks what was said. "PLAY SOME CREEDENCE", comes the shouted reply. Someone in north-eastern Europe in 2011 is asking, without a hint of irony, for a Creedence Clearwater Revival tune. Amazingly the singer consents, and receives rapturous applause (and no little whooping) at the end. It's not long before he's taking further requests, in the wake of the most anarchic pub quiz i have ever witnessed. The role of quizmaster is taken by the ship's head of entertainment, a woman with such patience and determination that a job as a UN peace keeper would seem a more productive use of her talents. The quiz itself involves a lot of shouting, with chocolate being handed out to the one who screams the correct answer first, but eventually - following a hotly-contested tiebreaker (a tricky question about the year of Freddie Mercury's death) - an overall winner emerges. Alongside a bottle of bubbly, said victor gets to choose what song gets played next. "EAGLE EYE CHERRY", he shouts. The singer responds with a lacklustre version of 'Save Tonight', but no-one seems in the slightest bit disappointed.

A group of performers in stupid costumes appear and make their way through the bar to advertise their performance later that night in the ferry's main entertainment arena, the Starlight Cabaret nightclub. I make a mental note to avoid them at all costs, and slip out onto deck again, this time choosing the port-side one which was considerably quieter owing to the fact that it's on the opposite side of the ship from the duty-free store. It's getting colder as the sun sets, although this doesn't stop a steady stream of Russian toughs in wifebeaters and sleeveless leather jackets from coming out for a smoke. I hope that like me they notice how the fading sunlight reflected on the water is almost silver in colour, but I somewhat doubt any did. Nor do I imagine many notice this accomplished canine engraving...

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And so to the cabaret. Playing tonight are Deja Vu, the third best seaborne covers band in the Baltic (I may have made that up). Much like the singer in the King's Pub they play it safe material-wise; a case in point is their rendition of 'One Way Ticket (To The Blues)', my first time hearing the infuriatingly memorable song I now learn was made famous by such musical revolutionaries as Neil Sedaka and Boney M. If the venue's armchairs weren't so comfortable I would high-tail it out of there, but instead I sit back with a dubious Bacardi-based cocktail in hand and watch as the guitarist manages to find space for a solo in the most unlikely numbers while the lead singer whoops at inappropriate moments during songs. Whatever their merits, the band manage to get a lot of people up on their feet. Estonians sure like to dance, although some of the men take the lead with such (drunken) gusto that I fear for the safety of their partners.

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During an interval, and in what elsewhere might be seen as a breach of personal data privacy laws, the head of onboard entertainment invites the eight or so passengers whose birthday happens to coincide with the voyage up in front of the stage to receive a bottle of wine and a rendition of 'Happy Birthday'. Among this lucky octet is a smart-looking guy from a young family sat around a table in front of me. He ends up standing next to a guy in a Guns n Roses t-shirt who I had seen earlier in the night, noting him to be probably the most drunk of anyone on deck (no mean feat given the stiff competition). For him the wine must have been a nice change of pace after beer and vodka, and he promptly invites himself back to the table of his new "friend". He disappears soon after, returning with a fistful of glasses and a steaming drunk buddy in tow. The family's night is clearly being ruined, but the father is too polite to ask them to leave while his wife/girlfriend says nothing, and instead bares a face like thunder and no doubt a grudge against her partner that will last long after his birthday night is over. It can't help that taking over from Deja Vu are a dance troupe billed as one of Stockholm's best, a most dubious claim if their stock-in-trade is the "hilarious" cops 'n' robbers routine to the Inspector Gadget theme tune they opened with. It's time to call it a night, although I can't say I'm not sorely tempted to hit the adjoining Disco Aluminium. Yes, Aluminium;

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At 1am the corridors below deck look a little Bates Motel to the weary-eyed traveller, but I find my way back to my cabin without too much trouble. I can hear snoring from outside the door. I enter to find Mr Don't Speak English lying half in, half out his bed, wearing only his underpants and with an empty bottle of the local liquor, Vana Tallinn, on the bedside. His snoring is unbelievably loud. Analogies involving pneumatic drills are overused, but would be wholly appropriate in this case. It's no surprise that as soon as I step in the door the other two guys sit up in their beds. No-one's getting any sleep around here.

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Remarkably I wake up from some form of belated sleep a few hours later (having dozed through our early-hours stop at some islands whose name I forget - look at an atlas). The Estonians have already packed and left to spend the remainder of the voyage smoking on deck. LADS. We're still mid-Baltic when I first make it back outside on what is a beautiful - if bracing - morning. I like the idea of being out on the open ocean, but there's little time to enjoy the enormity of it all and my own comparative insignificance as it's not long before I catch sight of land again. Cue more sailing slowly past fir-covered islands, albeit these are much larger and less sauna-fringed than their Swedish counterparts; more like flatter and temperate versions of the Lost island if you will. More people are gathered on the other side of the ship, to look at the Estonian mainland and a cluster of chimneys and towers that turn out to be Tallinn. The last half an hour or so is a slow tease as our final destination draws near. I'm not alone in impulsively taking photos of Tallinn as the view of its old town reveals itself, only to take more or less the same picture from slightly nearer shore ten minutes later.

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The journey ends much as it began, with a lot of waiting around on the ship even though it is in the port before a long walk to the terminal building and absolutely no passport checks whatsoever. Would I take the ferry again? Absolutely. Only next time I'm going to be mortal drunk for the duration.

Posted by RobertJSBriggs 21:49 Archived in Sweden Comments (0)

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