A delightful medieval walled town

Trip Start Feb 10, 2008
Trip End May 13, 2009

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Where I stayed
City Bike hostel

Flag of Estonia  ,
Tuesday, April 1, 2008

The ship to Tallinn takes 3 hours - in summer you can take a fast boat that takes just 1 hours. Against my usual practice I decide to try the fixed-price buffet (20 euros for all you can eat and drink) - I sample a little bit of nearly everything and particularly enjoy all the fish on offer. The voyage across the Baltic Sea goes by in no time.
On arrival in the afternoon I walk through loads of slush to the old town to the City Bike Hostel where I am staying. At night I walk around a bit and decide to eat at a cosy-looking pub nearby - creamy vegetable soup and fried crispy pig's ears with garlic sauce, washed down with a half litre of Krusovice dark beer. In the guide book at my hostel it asks with admirable honesty : "are you looking for a culinary experience? ... then order headcheese, a dish made from boiled and seasoned pork or calf's feet, eaten with a dab of mustard or vinegar; and blood sausages with lingonberry preserve; and fried blood patty slices (probably you will not like these dishes)". I wanted to try all these dishes but I actually couldn't find them in any restaurants in the time I had there.
Tallinn was first mentioned by the Arab geographer al-Idrisi in 1154 and became an important and wealthy medieval town from the 13-16th centuries. It had walls that were 4 kms long (3 metres thick, 6 metres high) with 46 towers - even now 2 kms of wall and 26 towers remain.
Of the 1.4 million population only about 65% are Estonian and about 25% Russian (in Tallinn the proportion of Russians is even higher). The Estonian language has some unusual features - it's a member of the Finno-Ugric family (much more similar to Finnish than Hungarian, but I'm not sure how close the relationship is in practical terms, ie to what level they can understand each other, if at all), and the role of vowels is the greatest of any European language, eg a string of vowels can form meaningful words around a few consonants, an example given being 'hauaoooudused' (there should be double dots over each o, but there aren't any on the keyboard I'm using), which means 'horrors of night in the grave'. What I find amazing is that just a couple of countries away there are languages like Czech and Slovenian that are completely the opposite - made up of nearly all consonants and few vowels
Estonia has only regained it's freedom in the 1980's (along with the other Baltic states, Latvia & Lithuania), and has been ruled for much of it's history by Denmark, Sweden and Russia. According to the tourist brochures Estonia has quite a few claims to fame - the highest hill in the Baltic states (all 3 are very flat and have no mountains) - 317 metres; the 4th largest lake in Europe; St Olaf's Church spire (159 metres) was the tallest building in the world until the late 1800s; Estonians invented Skype; Tallinn is one of the 7 most intelligent cities in the world - I think they mean by that usage of computers and high speed internet links - nearly all the hostels offer free internet access.
Ok, that's enough with the geography, history and social sciences - I'm sure you all want to know what I ate beside fried pig's ears :).
Tallinn's Old Town is a very beautiful - many of it's buildings are from the 1500s and 1600s and are in very good condition. It was lovely just to walk around and have them all about you - many have been turned into museums, art galleries, restaurants, etc but people still live there normally, and at the time I was there there were very few tourists so it was particularly relaxing. As a medieval town full of merchants and artisans there were many guilds, and the one I particularly liked was 'The House of the Brotherhood of Blackheads', which was founded in 1399 as a fraternity of bachelor merchants and was named after its patron, Saint Mauritius, who was black - it lasted until 1940.
On my arrival in Tallinn there was lots of snow in the streets and piled on rooftops from a snowstorm a couple of days before (probably the same one as in my day in Turku in Finland). After I arrived the weather turned fine and warm and the snow began to melt. At ground level this meant oodles of slush, but even more fun was walking on the footpaths - water from the melting snow on the rooftops rained continuously down, and sometimes slid off and hit some unsuspecting pedestrian.
After I had spent a couple of days around the old town I decided to walk to 'the other side of the tracks' - behind the train station (which is only connected with Russia, not Europe), is an area that is almost exclusively Russian (40% of Tallin's population). There are lots of run-down timber houses and the area looks very scruffy. I walked into the fenced-in market - the first sight I saw was a security guard throwing out an old one-legged drunk in a wheelchair. The market looks like a shanty-town - most of the shops are in little tin sheds and it all looked quite forlorn in the mud and slush. An amazing variety of stuff is there but most of it looks from anywhere from 10-50 years old - light fittings, locks, tools, hardware, electrical and plumbing fittings, radios, etc, and the plastic on the cosmetics bottles has yellowed.
The clothing stores have horrible clothes and the shoes on sale are mainly what you might call 'utilitarian' - heavy, with thick soles (I'm talking about the women's shoes here) and made of plasticky-looking leather (perhaps it is plastic), and the prices are very low, only $10-20 a pair. I buy a pair of slip-on sandals for $4.50. The fish section is good and cheap - salmon $6 a kg and jars of salmon roe and black roe for $3-4, which would cost $15-20 in Australia. There is a reasonable selection of fruit and vegetables, but most of it is over-ripe and some is rotten.
It's full of old people and it's a bit sad to see - obviously these are people who grew up in the Soviet era and are unequipped for life in modern Estonia. I go into a supermarket to buy a drink and again I get an inkling of what life must have been like - all the normal sections are there, but there is only a small selection and many shelves are only partially filled.
From my short time there what I see is that Tallinn is made up of at least 3 sections - the Old Town (full of restaurants, bars and tourists), the new city (big hotels, skyscrapers, shopping centres), and sections like where I've just been - people thrown on the scrapheap, unemployed, or unable to fit in with post-Soviet life.
In the afternoon, I take a long walk out to the huge Kadrioru Park, past stately painted wooden mansions - the park contains Czar Peter the Great's Summer Palace and the Kumu Art Museum, which houses a great collection.
Before I forget I must relate a very special event which happened to me. I visited the old St Nicholas's Church, which has now been turned into the Nigaliste Museum. While I was there there was an small organ concert and I caught the last 10 minutes of it. Then I saw musicians and singers milling around so I thought the concert would continue on and I sat down and reviewed some of my pictures and read about other places to visit in the brochures I had. All of a sudden the orchestra and singers started, and when I looked up I saw that I was the only person in there apart from the performers (the venue had closed to the public). I sat there alone and was treated to a full rehearsal of Arvo Part's Te Deum performed by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra, who jointly released this on CD in 1993. I chatted to some of the singers later who told me that Arvo Part is 78 years old and very healthy. I went outside with a huge grin on my face - how many people have heard such a performance (let alone only for them, even if only by sheer luck), performed live in the place where it was recorded, by the very same orchestra and choir, in the very city the composer lives in.
Well, after this I crossed the street to a lovely little wine bar called Musi (kiss in Estonian) and treated myself to a glass of an excellent Rioja Tempranillo, then went to a Estonian restaurant with traditional food and ate the following:
Appetiser of sea-buckthorn schnapps with marinated pumpkin and smoked cheese; thin beetroot soup with finely sliced beetroot, sausage and beef, with sour cream dollops; main course of fried liver with mulgi porridge (mashed barley & potatoes & pieces of pork fat), with sour cream sauce and beetroot salad; and Tuulika Kama, an Estonian dessert of mashed oats, rye, barley and pea flour with clabbered milk (unpasteurised milk that has soured naturally), with a little side dish of berries.
Some of the other items on the menu were:
Onion rings baked in beer dough; Meat jelly with mustard and boiled potatoes; sausage feast for 2; plum soup with whipped cream.
The background to the meal was an accordionist playing what sounded like a cross between village dance music and sea shanties, and a couple of little boys running around the restaurant and their embarassed Indian father speaking to them quietly and patiently in a beautiful Indian English accent and trying to quieten them down.
To help me digest this very substantial meal I had a glass of Viru Valge, an Estonian vodka.
On another night I have a completely different experience. I have dinner at The Beer House, a boutique brewery and restaurant that makes unpasteurised and unfiltered beer. I have fried cheese (3 half-moons of breaded cheese), a big casserole dish of beans and 3 types of sausage, and accompany it with a half-litre of Dunkles dark ale. I am entertained by waiters in suede shorts and barmaids in very short frilly skirts running around, a live duo singing Karen Carpenter songs, a single couple dancing drunkenly on the dance floor, and a Curling competition on the huge TV on the wall (all I know about this is what I have seen - people on skates sweeping the ice furiously in front of what looks like a squashed ball and am amazed to find it described as "the complex nature of stone placement and shot selection has led some to refer to curling as chess on ice").
The next day, Monday is even warmer and sunnier and it's amazing what's happened over only one weekend. All the snow has either melted or been cleared from the streets and it looks like a different city.
I hire a mountain bike and start by riding to the old jail and through the Kalamaja district, full of old wooden houses, then quite a distance to Rocca al Mare to the Estonian Open Air Museum, a huge area beside the Baltic sea full of buildings, houses and huts representing different regions and time periods. I have a late, quick lunch of pea soup, and Kama (same as a couple of night's before - perfect to give a cyclist energy), and a cup of mulled wine 'for the road', because I am riding all the way back to town and in the opposite direction to Pirita Beach.
It's a beautiful ride along the sea-front path (I even ride on the hard-packed sand for a km until the beach narrows too much) - many people are out today enjoying the sunshine and strolling or riding. I watch people fishing, get a great view of the Tallinn skyline, see the sun set, ride back through a Soviet War Memorial, etc. In all I ride about 30kms -it's been a wonderful day - relaxed, unhurried, beautiful weather, varied and interesting things to see, riding along the sand, along forest tracks, through mud and snow, etc ... and it's my last day.
In the morning I have breakfast at Pierre's Chocolaterie (yesterday's breakfast was at Josephine Baker's Chocolaterie - for those of you who don't know she was a black dancer and singer from the US who moved to Paris in the 1920s and took it by storm) - a cup of unctuously rich hot chocolate and a coconut & cream cheese pastry in a rococo-brothel-like atmosphere with a French chanteuse singing heart-rending torch songs at 10 in the morning. I have to squint and shield my eyes as I emerge from the dark, sumptuous interior into the bright sunlight as I lost my sunglasses on the bike yesterday, and head for the bus station to catch the bus to Riga, a 5 hour ride away (there are no train connections).
I'll leave you with an Estonian proverb: "Make fun of the man but not of his hat".

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valeriavine on

Gourmet traveller
come to Jo's for the hottest chocolate in town.....

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