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Published: June 12th 2019
May 2019 A Taste of Tallinn - Estonia
It’s a while since we were last in Estonia, 2012 if I remember correctly. On that occasion we were travelling from Latvia up Estonia’s west coast in our Burstner motorhome Motorhome News from Estonia
stopping off at the seaside resort of Parnu and the Soomaa National Park before reaching Tallinn. This time we’re doing it the easy way, flying Ryanair in a Boeing 737– 800 red-eye, from London Stansted to Tallinn in a little over two hours. (I’ve flown in many flying machines in my day, but you’ll not get me in a 737 MAX – ever!)
As this is our second visit to Tallinn, it’s likely to be a rather more leisurely affair, having previously visited all of the city’s major sights in the company of our dear Estonian friend, Hans Erik, and his lovely wife, Alvina. Our friendship is built much upon coincidences, and our timing for this visit is another such occasion as Hans is presently in hospital undergoing tests. He’ll welcome a visit.
With a population of only 1.29 million, the only crowds you’ll encounter anywhere in Estonia are when the many cruise
ships disgorge their passengers at the dock in Tallinn. A third of the population lives in the compact capital, a city of apartments, making good use of premium land.
A taxi from the airport takes fifteen minutes to reach our Hotel, the Tanilinna, convenient for Tallinn’s Old Town, just two minutes from the bustling Flower Market by the city wall and a short walk into the centre. Our watches advanced two hours, it’s midday by the time our luggage is safely stored at reception and we’re off to tread the cobbled streets of the Old Town to check out the many busy souvenir shops and grab a bite to eat at the Peppersack, just off the square.
This delightful city hums with life; yes, the Old Town is touristy: a café on every corner, smart designer shops, restaurant waiters in period costume, canopy-covered seating where the many visitors sit to enjoy a glass of wine or take coffee, pigeons gather for easy pickings, taking flight with a clap of wings, scattering shadows like confetti across the cobbles – and tour-group leaders wave their bright umbrellas and fluttering flags as Pied Pipers ahead of their
charges. Tallinn, finally rid of its fifty years of Soviet domination since 1991, has emerged as a vibrant, young and colourful city, the capital of Estonia, cocooned in the security of the EU and flushed with excitement, opportunity and focused on the future. We in the UK could learn from that. We’re too comfortable tucked up in our nanny state, and currently in political turmoil.
The magnetic charm of Old Tallinn throbs through its pastel medieval buildings and cobbled streets, its narrow alleyways and cosy cafes, but beyond the walls and red-tiled gateways there is a modern city of tower-block homes, smart office blocks, vast state-of-the-art shopping centres and signs of growth through civil engineering projects around every corner.
We’re mugs for local markets – the beating heart of any town. Next morning, a short tram ride from the corner by our hotel took us to Balti Jaama Turg, (Balti Station Market) a large indoor market on three floors with fish and fruit, fresh local vegetables, eateries and coffee stalls, local crafts, clothing and antiques - and jolly stallholders exchanging their smiles with us. The combination lock on my suitcase has refused to respond
to any number we might recall and we are searching for a stall to buy a small saw or a file to get to my clothes – you know the sort of thing – every market in the UK has a stall selling cheap tools and I have a workshop stacked with them. Not so here. When asked, a young lady said, “We don’t have shops selling these things here. People don’t buy them.” I guess it’s a matter of paying the tradesman when needed. With some patience, Janice later managed to prise the lock open!
Nearby there are numerous streets of traditional wooden buildings and an area of reclaimed industrial railway land converted to restaurants and bars – tempting Tallinn’s modern youth to enjoy the night-life. We’ll not be joining them – we were up at 3.00am to catch our flight today and it’s early to bed after an evening meal at a cellar restaurant, Estonian style: goats cheese salad with sea-buckthorn sauce, chokeberries and thyme apple for Janice, and braised venison (a little tough if I’m honest) in red wine, for me! We’ll be hunting around for sea-buckthorn sauce to take home in the coming
A €7 two-day transport ticket will get us around town on the efficient trams and busses and, if we remember, we can get €2 back at the airport when we leave. First we’re heading out to Kadriorg Park on the tram for a good walk and a visit to the Art Gallery in the baroque Palace; a former 18th
century imperial summer palace and gardens built by Peter the Great for Catherine I. Much of the art on show is representative of Russian and German origin from the 15th
century. The Dutch and Italian art promised in the brochure is missing – ‘on tour’ we’re told.
No visit to any European town can be complete without a visit to Tourist Information. This is where you get friendly advice on where and how to travel and what to see and do during your stay. On offer today is a 'Soviet Tour', two hours of Tallinn's history through USSR occupation. The tour starts outside at 2pm and we plan to be here. The thermometer is rising as the day progresses and by mid-morning it's 28C and we're tempted to make our way across Freedom Square to investigate
the Kiek in de Kok Tower, Bastion Passages Museum, where the temperature underground stays constant at around 12 degrees. We're led to believe that these tunnels, running for hundreds of metres under the city, were built in the 17th century for the movement of men and armaments and as a second line of defence. The tunnels, perhaps three or four metres in diameter, are literally cut through the limestone and it seems they were never actually used for their original purpose. When Soviet bombing started in 1944 they came into use as Air Raid Shelters by the local inhabitants. Guide books suggest it's necessary to book ahead for this rather intriguing experience and a guide is essential, but we bought our tickets at the door and were free to wander the narrow walkways in the cool for more than an hour. Delightful!
To get a good view of the city we bought an €8 ticket to walk along the ramparts and investigate a number of the fortification's towers. This also offered the chance to make a morning tea stop at the cafe and watch a group of Chinese tourists taking a million pictures of themselves below. Nearby is the
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral which had been closed on our last visit and this time we were able to take a few moments to wander around this rather grand building's (no photos please) delightfully delicate interior, before heading for the city overlook (a must) and a quick lunch at the Pottery Cafe, (highly recommended). It's too hot for that Soviet Tour we've decided, two hours of standing around in a crowd in all this heat will be too much. We'll give it a miss and stroll back to St Catherine's passage for Janice to do a bit of geocaching while I take afternoon tea - as one does as a true Englishman.
And then it’s off by bus from Freedon Square to Tallinn’s Regional Hospital, a half-hour ride out of town. There’s nobody manning the reception desk but our arrangement with Hans is to meet him at the Hospital Café at the appointed time so we'll have to use our initiative by the look of it. We wander empty corridors of this smart, modern hospital, in virtual silence, following signs past the bookshop and a chain restaurant to the Café where we’re greeted by a smiling Alvina. She has invited
Tiia, a close friend, to join us and help with some of the tricky bits of interpretation – we speak no Estonian and, despite speaking many other languages, Hans and Alvina can just manage enough words of English between them for us to enjoy each other’s company.
There’s a hint of a tear in his eyes as Hans shares a huge bear-hug on our arrival. His well-appointed room is strictly private with en suite and TV. It’s all on the State. We know he believes this hospital to be a true credit to his country and he’s extremely proud of that. We only come across a couple of nurses and a handful of patients throughout our visit – no packed-out waiting rooms, no queues, no crowds of nurses dashing around or huddled over computer screens…..
Alvina has bought us presents. We might have guessed: a tin of Estonian chocolates (a specialty) and beautiful Estonian socks; essential in this country to keep out the bitter cold of winter. In return we have brought a framed acrylic painting I reproduced from a photograph taken on our last visit and a special Mandala stone, a Janice masterpiece. There’s one for Tiia
too. Traditions concluded, we can move through the deserted corridors to the café for tea and rather delicious cakes. A nurse finally caught up with us and insisted we have a wheel-chair for Hans. Hans is a big man. He’ll be OK – he’s as tough as an ox. ‘Till we meet again, my friend.’
I’m not good at good-byes.
It's Janice's birthday in a day-or-two so we'll celebrate with dinner and a glass of wine on the terrace of Scheeli's Restaurant this evening. It's a bit cool outside and Janice in making good use of the blanket provided. 'A perfect way to celebrate my birthday,' she says. All-in-all it has been a wonderful day, meeting up with special friends, and strolling the streets of this city, one of our favourites, in glorious sunshine without any great demands on our time. With a fair wind we'll be back some day.
A taxi is booked for 9am in the morning. We’re off to Helsinki for a couple of days, a two-hour passage on the ferry, before moving on to Saint Petersburg - a long time on our bucket-list.
David and Janice
The grey haired
Scroll down for more photos and up for the panorama show!
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