03.07.2006 - 05.07.2006 25 °C
Tallinn, Estonia, July 2006
I´d been wanting to go to Estonia for some time....the first Estonians I ever met were at the Sydney Olympics in 2000. Erik Nool, an Estonian athlete had just won the decathlon and we happened to jump on board with a carriage full on drunken ones celebrating his victory! Dancing and singing Estonian folk songs at the top of their lungs...was quite an experience to behold.
So, after more than 3 years living and working abroad, I finally had the chance to go. I´m living in Helsinki at the moment, and it´s only an hour and a half by catamaran...so...after spending midsummer at the family´s summer cottage, I got home, jumped online, booked some tix and went the next day to Tallinn!
After a rocky ride on the boat, I arrived in lovely Tallinn - and, so it seemed, so did half the continent! Heritage listing is a funny thing...one of the main aims of listing a cultural/natural treasure is to ensure it is protected. But then, of course, as soon as something gets the WHL stamp on it, every flag-wielding tour group descends upon it.....and is it really possible for a cultural treasure such as Tallinn to be properly appreciated when there are swarms of people there? I guess it´s like many other places, but as the Old Town is so compact, it feels really suffocating here.
Flag wielders and mobs aside, Tallinn was lovely.
A short walk into town in the blazing sun (yes, it was hot here!) saw me arrive at my hostel....at least I hoped it was my hostel, for as I started up the staircase, I caught glimpse of some brightly scripted words on the wall.....
Now, my knowledge of Finno-Ugric (Finnish, Estonian and Hungarian; Finnish and Estonian being quite similar) words at this time was limited to a grand Finnish vocabulary that went something like this - “Moi” - hello, “Hei Hei” – Bye, “Mitää Kuluu”, “Hyvää” – good, “Kippis” – [which sounds remarkably like something lots of people like to do on the weekened] – cheers, and “nukkumaanmenoaika “ – bedtime [I´m working with kids and it pisses them off when I say it at 5 in the afternoon!]. But, hmmm, kinda obvious hey?
What to do..... “Is the hostel somehow affiliated with a strip-joint?” I wondered.
Hmmm....fingers firmly crossed, I wandered up to the first floor, to find what appeared to be a very pleasant hostel. No strippers in sight, nor any seedbags! I hoped that come evening time, that´s how it would stay!
So after offloading my bag, I wandered through the winding cobbled lanes of medieval Tallinn to its heart, at Raekoja Platsto, which is home to the 13th Century Town Hall and surrounded by bustling cafes. I climbed up the Town Hall Tower for a glorious glimpse down upon the old town before wandering, alongside throngs of tourists, up to Toompea Hill, Tallinn´s birthplace and presently home to the Estonian parliament and the spectacular Russian Orthodox Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, with its amazing mosaics and glimmering icons.
After savouring more splendid views from Toompea Hill, I scaled parts of the city walls, before grabbing a bite to eat, stopping by at the old KGB headquarters (nothing special) and heading back to the hostel, which seemed to be free of scantily-clad ladies being ogled over by dirty old (or young) men. In fact the only people that seemed to be there were the grouchy reception ladies and my roommates - the first, a sniffly Japanese girl, and the second, a fellow Sydneysider, Christina, who was on a whirlwind Summer trip through Europe.
The next morning, after perhaps the worst omelette I´ve ever had (after 3 months in Africa and 4 in Asia, I´m quite an omelette connoisseur!), and some teeth enamel-removing-strength coffee, I wandered in search of some of the old town´s art nouveau (a little disappointing after Riga), and stopped to look at the Holy Spirit Church and its splendid 15th century clock, before heading to the Museum of Occupation. As was the case in Latvia, Estonia was occupied by Nazi Germany and then the Soviet Union for much of the 20th century, and the museum details the history of the occupation and of Estonia´s attainment of independence in 1991. Whereas in Czechoslovakia, they had a Velvet Revolution (bloodless and largely casualty free), in Estonia, they had a “Singing Revolution”. Over a period of 5 years between 1987 and 1991, nightly singing masses across Estonia gathered to sing Estonian national songs and hymns, which were banned under Soviet occupation. On 20th August 1991, one-fifth of the Estonian people rallied together in Tallinn. As Soviet tanks stormed through the city to try and put a stop to the rally (apparently Estonians are awful singers!) the people acted as human shields (to protect TV and radio crews) and the independent state of Estonia was declared for all the world to see.
After learning a little about Estonia´s struggle for independence, I wandered around the sunny Harju Hill to the Danish King´s Garden (Estonia was governed by Denmark in the 12th and 13th centuries). According to legend, during the Battle of Lyndanisse (i.e. present day Tallinn), a flag fell down from the sky, helping the Danes to win the battle – this flag is still used by Denmark today. From here I stopped at the Kalev “factory”, where marzipan was said to have been first created, before heading down to the Dominican monastery.
I had read that in this monastery, one of Tallinn´s oldest buildings, there exists an “energy pillar”, a source of mysterious power. I too hoped to get some of this “power” so sauntered inside, where I was met by a 900 (or so it seemed) yr old monk who was delighted to see me, and spoke at length (firstly in Estonian, then broken German) and with enthusiasm about the monastery and its history. He showed me a new collection of photographs (of monks of course), before leading me into the “energy” chamber. He encouraged me to stand in the centre of the room and sing (and presumably feel the good vibes)...so I did...and waited for the energy to hit me...but alas, I didn´t get those good energy vibes....so I wandered out to the delightful cloister for a concert of medieval music.
In the evening I met up with my roommate from the hostel, Christina. Her American flatmate had arrived, and as it was the 4th of July, we went, along with our new roommates, a friendly American couple, in search of pancakes! After a delicious feast on of cream cheese and lingonberry pancakes (there are about 60 types of berries in this part of the world – all delicious), we headed off to the “Pub With No Name” (but plenty of beer, unlike the song), to watch the World Cup play-off between Germany and Italy. Having had our World Cup hopes dashed by a dodgy ref call in Australia´s game against Italy, I was of course supporting Germany! Besides, they were the hosts! But....infuriatingly, the pretty boys won – this time, fair and square...
The next morning, after a much nicer omelette and coffee combo than previously, I headed out in search of the Estonian History Museum (closed), Music museum (closed!) and finally the Fire-fighting museum (meant to have a cool doll house that demonstrates 30 ways to burn down your house!! Great for the hidden pyro in me...but closed too!!!) before wandering up to St Olaf´s Church to climb its spire. In the 16th Century, St Olaf´s Church was the tallest building in the world. Its 124m seems relatively puny in comparison with the world´s tallest building today, Taipei 100 in Taiwan (509m)., but the view from the top was, of course, amazing, and worth the gazillion or so stairs to get up there!
After all those stairs, I was in need of some food, so I headed off in search of the Embassy of Pure Food, an Estonian (not-quite) vegetarian restaurant.... with incredible food, and certainly the friendliest and most efficient embassy staff I´ve met anywhere in the world!
Last stop in Tallinn was the Linnahall, a monstrosity of a building I´d past on my way into town from the boat. During the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, they decided to hold the sailing events in the Baltic sea (Moscow is a long way inland), and used Tallinn as their base. The Linnahall, an extraordinarily revolting building was thus constructed as the Olympic event centre, but has seldom been used since. It´s one of the few remaining reminders of the Soviet era in Tallinn – in typical Soviet Style, it´s an ugly lump of Concrete with little to redeem it but the wacky statue atop it, and the potential for skateboarders to run amok!
And from there, I did some last minute shopping at the nasty port shopping complex, before bidding the steeples, towers and medieval streets of Tallinn farewell!