A Romance Amongst Kohviks

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January 16th 2012
Published: May 10th 2012EDIT THIS ENTRY

Tallinn's Old Town looked like it had emerged straight from a picture book. Narrow winding streets blanketed with snow muffled the sound of voices and music emanating from cellar bars, occasional doors opening to spill golden light onto the drifts and eject a heavily muffled figure from its depths. Emerging into the central square, a Christmas tree festooned with twinkling lights was slowly being blanketed by white flakes, as the city's inhabitants forsook the streets for the warmth inside. On the Toompea, the hill overlooking the city, the spires of the churches stood silent guard as we made our way back to our small hotel.

The following morning the snow had cleared and the sky was a bright cold grey. Bundled in multiple layers of thermals, jumpers, coats and hats we set off to explore, climbing the steep walled street to the castle and venturing down to the frozen ferry port, where the iced-over salt water had festooned boulders with garlands of milky lace. The streets were quiet, but the Old Town's inhabitants looked purposeful as they busily got on with their day. Seeing an open door at the bottom of one of Tallinn's famous conical watchtowers, we ventured in to find an artists studio packed with students - sculpture on one circular floor, paintings on another. A couple of euros each allowed us to climb the rickety spiral stairs to the top of the tower and gaze over the snowbound city.

Tallinn did not look like a city of occupation. Yet, but for a few scant years of the twentieth century, it has been the base of foreign rulers ever since it's original construction. First the Danes, then the Teutonic Knights of the Hanseatic League, then the Swedes, and finally of course, the Russians. It is only since 1991 that Estonians have been able to rule from the Castle at the summit of their capital city (although thanks to Catherine the Great it now looks more like a St Petersburg palace than a fortification). The city museum was housed in an old merchant's house, complete with steeply gabled triangular roof and winch for hauling goods up to attic storerooms, and was a fascinating insight into the rich and varied culture of Tallinn throughout its history, in particular the split personality between the politics and religion of the fortifed Toompea and the prosperous licenciousness of the merchant's city spreading out below.

Estonia's overthrow of Soviet rule was a inspiring success story in non-confrontational protest, and the country largely avoided the violence that inflicted the neighbouring Latvia and Lithuania. In the 20 short years since then, Tallinn, and Estonian, fortunes have swiftly risen. Relations with Russia are still frosty, and, despite the large Russian-speaking immigrant population, 'the book' advised us not to attempt to speak Russian in Estonia. I can't say I complained. The country has however, become known as the Baltic Tiger due to it's increasingly prosperous economy, joining the EU in 2004 and the Euro in 2011. Wikipedia notes that many now consider Estonia as Nordic or Scandinavian rather than Baltic, and whilst the famous Scandi welfare state isn't quite as prolific in Estonia, culturally there are many similarities.

With these changes, Tallinn and Estonia are starting to emerge onto the holiday-makers' horizons. We were nervous on the flight (apart from us, entirely filled with British men wearing matching customised t-shirts) that the city had already fallen victim to the stag party hoardes (in actual case, after arrival, we never saw any of them again). Despite this however, when I told friends and colleagues at home that we were going to Estonia, the most common reaction was "err... why??" Clearly, they were not Travelblog regulars.

A weekend break to Tallinn is probably the first trip I have planned in direct reaction to articles and photographs posted on this esteemed website. The cobbled streets and red-roofed towers of the walled town had captured my imagination, and an idle browse on flight prices had me convinced. Having spent Christmas and New Year at the opposite end of the country to G, a snowy romantic minibreak at the start of January seemed like a wonderful idea; our first trip together.

It turned out to be a perfect one. The Old Town is small, easily navigable (although some alleys had a disconcerting habit of emptying you into squares you had left five minutes before from the opposite direction), and perfect for strolling. It was too cold for major expeditions, and so we spent our days wandering through the streets, venturing into glittering Orthadox cathedrals and sparse echoing Danish churches and mucking around in the snowdrifts of the parks before ducking into cafes for warming gluwine and delicious food.

Estonian food was amazing. I had been expecting a Russian-esque cuisine of meat-from-indeterminate source plus pulses, but every meal we ate had us moaning around our forks in a highly suggestable manner. The esteemed guidebook had for some reason only highlighted the restaurants serving western European fare, all of which were eye-wateringly expensive. It then mentioned in an off-hand manner that traditional kohviks (cafes), could be found in cellars all over the city, which tended to offer a more authentic and cheaper option. Encouraged, we simply wandered the narrow streets ears and eyes pricked for noise and light emanating from below street level, and indulged in every local delicacy going. These included a stupendous tomato-ey seafood soup, borsch, salted herring, delicious black rye bread, salmon or lamb dumplings served with sour cream, savory pancakes, rabbit hotpots and even pigs ear. One afternoon, peckish and cold, we ventured into a tiny cellar where they were selling earthenware pots of wild boar broth and venison pasties for a euro each, and we perched on tiny rickety stools to eat them by the flickering, dim light of tabletop candles.

The alcohol was as equally marvelous. We had been looking forward to the mulled wine, but hadn't expected to find lager heaven in the dark, German-like malty brews of Saku and A. Le Coq. Delicious. The gluwine was fantastic too - far more subtle, fragrant and fruity than British mulled wine, and perfect to warm up hands frozen from snowball fights. The only disappointment was the very sweet Vana Tallinn, which we consumed as a shot in a coffee. However, a quick google search informs me that Vana Tallinn "is often pawned off to tourists as a traditional drink. It was actually invented in the 1960s, and many locals won’t touch the stuff." Does this mean we had Estonian taste? With a national cusine this good, one can only hope so!

What with the snow, the beauty of the Old Town, and the continual temptations of the kohviks, three days passed like a blur, and plans for a visit to the nearby national park of Lahemaa were abandoned. So charmed were we by this tiny overlooked country, that new plans were swiftly made to come back again for a summer cycling trip through the flat pine forests and sandy beaches. Purveyors of romantic mini-breaks (and avoiders of stag parties) beware - head to Tallinn now before all of Europe becomes as charmed as we now are.

Additional photos below
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Kiek in de Kok - the best named tower of all timeKiek in de Kok - the best named tower of all time
Kiek in de Kok - the best named tower of all time

Apparently it means 'look in the kitchen' as guards had a great view into people's houses

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