Right now, wherever in the world you may be reading this as whatever time, there is a huge ocean liner plying the Gulf of Finland. This boat is either en route from Helsinki in Finland to Tallinn in Estonia or vice-versa. In either case, this huge boat is packed to the brim with passengers whose states range from being totally inebriated to mildly drunk. Finns who travel from Helsinki to Tallinn are drinking to contain their excitement of buying unlimited supplies of cheap alcohol in Estonia. Finns traveling back from Tallinn are drinking to contain their excitement at the liquor booty they have bought.
In summer June, I am sitting on the open air deck of the Sea Explorer whose capacious bowels contain cars and trucks. A coolish wind is blowing over the calm seas and all I can see are smiley happy people who have come on deck to smoke So smiley happy that at noon most of them are lurching from side to side. But as John Lennon once sang, ‘Whatever gets you through the night, is alright, is alright!’
Tallinn, which has only half a million inhabitants, is also Europe’s oldest capital. Its Old Town is one of Europe’s best preserved walled cities. The city was first recorded by the Arab cartographer al-is-risi back in 1154 AD. Precisely 856 years later Travelista records his own impressions of a city in a bubbling blend of olde-worlde charm and modern day honey lures.
Do I want a sensual massage (€50) or a soap-erotic massage (€94)? Hedone exclusive (sic) oriental massage club also offers free hookah smokes. Shall I venture into the SOHO striptease club where private shows are offered in VIP rooms? Should I dine at Chakra where clay ovens cook (sic) authentic Indian cuisine? Or mingle with the city’s fashionable set at the Venus club built inside an old firehouse? Decisions, decisions.
I play tourist and gravitate towards the Old Town built all over a gentle hill. Hours of a slow amble later, I reach the top to admire the view and wouldn’t you know it? It starts raining and, of course I don’t have an umbrella. I take shelter in the Holy Spirit church, where a bow-tied man promptly starts a conversation.
Hanno, for that’s his name, was born when the Soviets ruled his country. As a boy, he developed two passions. For jazz music. And for chatting up people from the outside world. The first passion was easy. Russian jazz bands came visiting often. But it was only in 1991, when Estonia declared independence, that a trickle of western tourists started coming in. With a bagful of obscurejazz music CDs, he trudges through Tallinn’s touristic sites, striking up conversations with tourists in the hope of making a sale. Excerpts of the conversation: “Are yo Arab? No? Sicilian? Ok last guess, Brazilian? ” On being informed of my provenance Hanno lights up and exclaims, “Bollywood city! But you don’t have jazz music. Here let me show you my private booty of rare Estonian jazz.”
Rare is an adjective I can easily apply to Tallinn. Twisting cobblestone lanes and iron street lamps. Gothic spires and medieval markets. Italian restaurants and Wi-Fi. Punch drunk tourists in bars and night clubs open 24×7. Friendly natives who speak English with charming accents. Historic ambience meets cutting edge culture in a city that was once a thriving member of the Hanseatic trade league between the 14th and 18th centuries.
Technology and industry have enlarged Tallinn in all directions. Supermarkets, malls, five-star hotels are milestones in the city’s physical and economic growth. But the touristic draw lies in the magnificently preserved Old Town, with its two distinct parts. The Lower Town and Toompea Hill are packed with neighbourhoods of colourful gabled houses, half-hidden courtyards and grandiose churches. Most of the 13th century wall is still intact with gates and roughly half of the original 46 towers still loom over the Old Town, evoking images of heroic knights and damsels in distress.
TOWN HALL SQUARE & TOWN HALL
The picturesque Town Hall Square has been the undisputed hub of Old Town for the last eight centuries. Surrounded by elaborate merchant houses and, in summer, packed with café tables, it’s a natural magnet for tourists. Historically it served as a market and meeting place, and was the site of at least one execution (resulting from a dispute over a bad omelette). From here, with a little stretching and bending, you can see the tops of all five of Old Town’s spires. Dominating the square’s east side is the Town Hall, built in 1402-1404 as the headquarters for the ruling burgermeisters. Today it’s Northern Europe’s only intact – and best – preserved – Gothic town hall.
ST OLAV’S CHURCH
Once upona time, from 1549 to 1625 to be precise, this 13th century Gothic church was the tallest building in the world. In medieval days its 159 metre spire would have made it a truly awe-inspiring sight. Sadly it also made an excellent rod, and the resulting fires burned the church to the ground in 1625 and in 1820. At 124 metres, th current spire still towers over Old Town, and in spring and summer daring visitors can climb up for an amazing view.
In the old days the nobles living on Toompea hill would look down – both literally and figuratively – on the merchants and artisans living in the town below. Now so can you. Two viewing spots in particular, the Kohtu Street and Patkuli view platforms, give sweeping panoramas of Old Town’s rooftops, towers and beyond. From the Kohtu Street platform there’s an unforgettable view of the city’s medieval neighbourhood against the backdrop of its new financial district. There’s an open-air bar, where lovely young girls play the guitar while you sip your beer. The Patkuli platform, on the other hand, offers the best vantage point to see Tallinn’s fairytale city wall and towers, as well as St Olav’s Church and the harbour.
TOOMPEA CASTLE & PIKK HERMANN TOWER
Toompea Castle has been the seat of power in Estonia since the German Knights of the Sword built in the first stone fortress here in 1227-29. Even these days it is home to the nation’s Parliament. Most visitors first view the pink Baroque palace dating to the time of Catherine the Great. Go around back, down the hill to the left, for a more medieval view. From below, the castle takes on a much more fortress-like appearance.
CATHEDRAL OF ST MARY THE VIRGIN
The more common name of this gleaming, white church on Toompea is “Toomkrik” (Dome Church) and it is now the main Lutheran church in Estonia. Established sometime before 1233 (and rebuilt several times), it was the church of the elite German nobility. Inside you’ll find their coats of arms and tombs.
Tallinn is full of affordable places serving a range of cuisines from pizzas to meat to potato dishes to elaborate salads and pastas. Traditional Estonian food has Scandinavian, German and Sk-lavic influences. The most famous resto called Olde Hansa is a touristic draw because the waiters are all dressed up in medieval costumes. On the menu: Sult (jellied pork), marineeritud angeras (marinated eel), hernesupp (pea soup). Bon appétit, or as they say in Estonian – Head Isu!
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
One piece of Old Town architecture that seems out of place here among its medieval neighbours is the colourful, very Russian looking onion-domed church that lords over the city from atop Toompea hill. Most Estonians aren’t thrilled about the church due to its placement and early political significance: it was established here in 1900 as a symbol of Tsarist power over the Estonian people, who at the time were starting to make noises about independence. Now the cathedral is the main place of worship for Estonia’s Russian Orthodox faithful.