There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Friday, 15 July 2011

The Baltic Capitals: Part 3 Tallinn, Estonia

Preceding Post in this strand: Riga

We stopped at Parnu on our way to Tallinn. Parnu is Estonia’s most popular seaside resort – so popular that a quarter of the population visit it at least once each year. Parnu has a set of traffic lights, some wooden buildings, some stone buildings, some old people sitting on benches and a flashing sign pointing the way to a sex shop. The reasons for its many thousands of visitors are not vouchsafed to those who drop into and then out of the bus station.
Parnu - the view from the bus station
Tallinn bus station is less conveniently sited than those in Vilnius and Riga, but catching a tram to the centre allowed us to see parts of the city that we would not otherwise have bothered with. Estonia was always the richest of the Soviet Republics and our first impression is that nothing has changed. Tallinn, away from the tourist areas, is smarter and more kempt than the other two capitals, the people look wealthier and the buildings more cared for. The Estonian economy was considered sound enough for them to adopt the Euro in January this year, a fact so far unnoticed by the Independent whose international edition told us exactly how many obsolete Kroons we would need to buy a copy in Tallinn. Our only experience of Finland is the inside of Helsinki airport, but Tallinn looks as I would expect Finland to look, and Estonians are the Finns closest relations both ethnically and linguistically.

We leapt from the tram at what we hoped would be an appropriate place and for the second time in a week disagreed on which way to walk. After studying the map I had to admit, again for the second time in a week, that Lynne was right. Either she is developing a sense of direction in her dotage or I am losing mine – or both.

Our hotel was a short walk away and only 50m from the subway into Vabaduse Square, on the edge of the old town. The subway finishes in an expanse of concrete and a set of wide, shallow steps up to the square. The ramp up the middle had probably not been constructed with skateboarders in mind – but the builder’s intentions were of no concern to the local youth. Above, the less frequented areas of the square provide perfect space for roller hockey.

Roller hockey in Vadabuse Square, Tallinn

Over the entrance was a big screen showing the weather or, occasionally, cartoons. We were now further north than the Orkneys, but under a blue sky, the temperature bounced cheerfully into the low twenties – though a sharpness in the breeze reminded us of our northern latitude.

The Freedom Monument stands on the edge of the square. Erected in 2009, it comprises an Estonian cross on a 24m column of dimpled glass. Officially it looks like an ice-sculpture in danger of melting – symbolising how easily freedom can melt away. To my unofficial eye, it looked like a column of cheap plastic blocks. Freedom, perhaps, can be easily thrown away but not so simply recycled.
Me spoiling the view of the Freedom Monument, Vadabuse Square, Tallinn

From the monument we ascended the limestone outcrop of Toompea Hill. The hill held an Estonian stockade until the Danes arrived in 1219, built a stone castle and founded the city. The present ‘castle’ doubles as the national parliament; it is clearly a much later building and hardly designed as a stronghold. The old town, with its walls still intact – or at least heavily restored - sits at the foot of the hill.

Tallinn Castle

Despite its Scandinavian origins, Tallinn became German after the Livonian knights arrived from the south. A crusading order based in Riga, they had been slaying and/or converting pagans across the Baltic region. Like Riga, Tallinn became a mercantile city and, in 1285, a member of the Hanseatic League. The city was generally known by its German name of Reval until 1920.

The histories of Tallinn and Riga are very similar. Both thrived as Germanic ports for several centuries until, after a period of Swedish rule, they were absorbed into Russia by Peter the Great. As in all three Baltic States, two decades of post-First World War independence was followed in quick succession by soviet occupation, nazi occupation and annexation by the Soviet Union.

The Estonian peasantry, like their Latvian neighbours had been the farm labourers and domestic servants of a German elite.  The 19th century national awakening was an unintended consequence of the attempted Russification of the country. Friedrich Reinhold Kreutzwald’s epic poem ‘Son of Kalev’ was published in 1857. A reworking of folk-tales, it provided a national narrative for the Estonian people. A statue of Linda, wife of Kalev, sits in a sylvan grotto on the shoulder of Toompea Hill. It is hard to imagine the rather genteel lady depicted being the devoted wife of a giant, or single-handedly building Toompea Hill. 
Linda, wife of Kalev, Toompea Hill, Tallinn

Facing the castle is the Russian Orthodox Cathedral. Built in 1900, its primary purpose was to remind the Estonians who was in charge. Much of the discussion on the Wikipedia ‘Tallinn’ page concerns the cathedral, and the objections to its picture appearing in the article; it is not really Estonian, the objectors say. What is beyond argument is that the building is there and difficult to ignore.
The Alexander Nevsky Russian Orthodox Cathedral, Tallinn
Outside the cathedral we first encountered what was to be the bane of our stay in Tallinn. Baltic cruising has become very popular and Tallinn is a major port. Cruise passengers trail around the town following their guides in bands of a hundred or more, each with their bus number stuck on their lapel. The ships are vast and dozens of these groups criss-cross the old town and troop up and down Toompea Hill swamping the unfortunate independent tourist. They want to see the place just as I do, so I should not complain but, perhaps hypocritically, I feel like a moan. Also, I cannot understand why anybody pays so much money to be herded around like sheep.

Nearby is the Lutheran Cathedral, a plain building as are most of Tallinn’s churches. Inside it is more interesting with boxed pews and a glassed off area for the nobility. Photographs were not allowed, but nobody said you could not take them through the open door.

Through the door of the Lutheran Cathedral, Tallinn

From the ramparts we could look out over the old town, and parts of the new town, including the harbour, where we could see the colossal bulk of several cruise ships.

Looking out over the old town, Tallin
(with a cruise ship visible to the left of the church towers)

We descended into the old town by the long cobbled street of Pikk Jag, the wall on its uphill side an impromptu gallery for local artists selling their work.

A glance at the map might suggest we were back in Riga; like Riga, Tallinn has a House of the Blackheads and, instead of the Three Brothers, a set of old houses known as the Three Sisters.

There are, however, few other similarities. Riga is a city of small squares, Tallinn has one main square, containing the Town Hall, and long cobbled streets radiating out from it. And of course Tallinn has its wall with its red-roofed towers. Old Tallinn is twee, perhaps reminiscent of Carcassonne and, like that French city, it is, first and foremost, a tourist trap.

Tallinn - a bit like Carcassonne?

The House of the Blackheads, a late-medieval drinking club for bachelors of the Merchant class, has little architecturally in common with its Riga namesake, though the crest of St Maurice is the same.

The House of the Blackheads, Tallinn

The Three Sisters have been united into one upmarket hotel, though I would hesitate before choosing a hotel continually besieged by tourists attempting to photograph it and being thwarted by their inability to get far enough away.

The Three Sisters, Tallinn
We made our way to the Olaviste Church. The Estonian language is closely related to Finnish. The two of them, along with Hungarian are the sole European survivors of the Uralic language group. Apart from Basque – which has no known relatives – they are the only extant  European languages not of the Indo-European language family. Latin has six noun cases, which was, I found in my schooldays, five more than I could cope with. Estonian has fourteen. Hence, St Olaf’s Church becomes the Olaviste Kirik and St Nicholas’ becomes, rather pleasingly, the Niguliste Kirik.

King Olaf II of Norway was a 10th century warlord, but a Christian warlord, so was canonised for slaughtering people in a caring Christian way. The most interesting feature of the rather dull church bearing his name is actually outside it – the richly decorated grave of 15th century plague victim Johann Ballivi.

The grave of Johann Ballavi,St Olaf's, Tallinn

Continuing to the Great Sea Gate, we passed the maritime museum, with its plaque commemorating the help given by the British Navy in the Estonian War of Independence, 1918-20.

Commemoration of British assistance in the War of Independence

At one side of the gate is a tower known as Fat Margaret, for at least semi-obvious reasons.

Fat Margaret, Tallinn

Outside the gate is the memorial to the 852 people who died when the ferry ‘Estonia’ sank en route from Tallinn to Stockholm in 1994. The loss of the largest Estonian owned ship in the worst ever peacetime disaster in the Baltic sea was a severe blow to the newly independent country.

Memorial to those who died on the Estonia, Tallinn

We walked along the walls and back towards the centre where we visited the Church of the Holy Ghost.  Once the Town Hall Chapel, it became the church of the Estonian speaking population. Priests here produced an Estonian language catechism in 1535, an important statement at a time when most Estonians were living as serfs.
The oldest clock in Tallinn

With Tallinn’s oldest clock, dating from 1680, standing guard over the door, it is by far the city’s most interesting church. Cream walls, dark wooden pews and panelled balconies create a special atmosphere. The altarpiece, Descent of the Holy Ghost, by Bernt Notke (1483), is a masterpiece of medieval woodcarving.

The Descent of the Holy Ghost by Berndt Notke
Church of the Holy Ghost, Tallinn
Less sophisticated are the paintings of biblical scenes on the panels of one of the balconies. Naïve they might be, but their charm is undeniable.

Adam & Eve, waving some rather fine fig leaves
Church of the Holt Ghost, Tallinn

From the church an alley leads into the town hall square. The square is surrounded by restaurants and sometimes has a market in the middle. It is a permanently crowded, cheerful false-medieval scene, reinforced by the dress of the serving wenches of the Old Hansa Restaurant, just off the square. To complete the atmosphere they have minstrels inside and a crier dressed in motley, periodically touting for business in Estonian and English.

Town Hall Square

The only building on the square that is not apparently a restaurant is the Reapteek. The façade is seventeenth century, the building behind at least two hundred years older. It is part museum, part working pharmacy and wholly strange.

Reapteek, Tallinn
The City Museum is a couple of hundred metres from the square. The good news was it was the first place we had encountered offering senior citizen discounts, the bad news was they gave us the discount without question.

The museum gives a more genuine account of medieval Tallinn, with artefacts, real medieval costumes and a cut-away model of a merchant’s house. We continued upstairs to 19th century interiors with original furnishing, while on the top floor a fascinating collection of posters showed the happy workers and peasant united in their thankfulness to Josef Stalin, who was represented by a stern bust.
Happy workers and peasants love Uncle Joe
Tallinn Museum

Our main objectives for the second day were St Nicholas’ Church and the Museum of the Occupation just outside the old town.

St Nicholas was largely destroyed by Soviet bombing in 1944 and subsequently rebuilt as an art gallery and concert hall. It contains a number of notable woodcarvings and paintings, including several late medieval altars, but the star attraction is a fragment of Bernt Notke’s Danse Macabre. Everyone, regardless of wealth or station, must die and we see Death inviting kings, popes and fine ladies to join his dance. It was an immense painting - over 30m long - and the remaining fragment is still a substantial piece of work. It is among the finest surviving examples of this genre. No photographs were allowed in the church so I am borrowing Wikipedia’s. 

Bernt Notke's Danse Macabre
St Nicholas', Tallinn
The Museum of the Occupation is housed in a glass box 250m south of the city wall. I would have thought it was ugly if I had not seen the museum in Riga. Like its fellows in Vilnius and Riga, the museum covers the events from 1940 to independence in 1991. The story is much the same catalogue of deportations and repression, but the Tallinn Museum is perhaps the weakest of the three. It is short on artefacts and rather long on video presentations. It would take a stronger man than me to watch six consecutive forty-minute documentaries (in English) on the trials and tribulations of being Estonian.

Perhaps the best part is the basement where they have statues of Stalin, Lenin, and several local leaders, less well known to us. The sculptures are monumental monsters and it is easy to see why the people of Vilnius are so happy with their informal bust of someone as harmless as Frank Zappa – though I suspect Frank Zappa would have been appalled to be called ‘harmless’.

These statues are no longer welcome in the parks and squares of any of the Baltic States, the Lithuanians have even gathered them in a semi-ironic open-air museum near the Belarus border. We found a different situation when we visited Russia in 2007. Lenin remains in his mausoleum in Red Square, while Yekaterinburg and Ulan Ude prominently display his statue, and their main streets - and those of Irkutsk - are still named after Lenin and Marx.

On our wanderings we passed this memorial to naval hero Johan Pitka.

Johan Pitka, Tallinn
Two young Italian men were climbing on the statue to stick their heads in the obvious place for a third to photograph. A local man of similar age was shouting at them – in English - to get down. Finding himself ignored he pulled out his phone and said he was calling the police. Still ignoring him, the Italians posed for their photograph and dismounted. The Estonian put his phone away shouted ‘it’s not your country’ and strode angrily away. This may inform us about a) the behaviour of foreign tourists in Estonia (and elsewhere) and b) the reaction of Estonians to them, or it may just tell us about the four individuals involved - I merely record what we saw and heard.

As we made our way back to the hotel, the big screen over the underpass was showing a documentary. Armoured vehicles rolled across the very square in which we stood, followed by nazi troops goose-stepping and saluting. It made me shiver to watch such events surrounded by exactly the same buildings that surrounded us – apart from a lick of paint the place has hardly changed in seventy years.  But there have been changes, deeper and more fundamental than the facades of the buildings. Given the choice between storm troopers and skateboarders, I will take the skateboarders every time.

If Riga had been more expensive than Vilnius, Tallinn was another step up, indeed restaurant prices in the main square reached the levels you might expect in Western European capitals. Our lunches followed the well-established Baltic pattern of garlicky fried bread and beer. Estonian beer, particularly that of the A. Le Coq brewery, is lighter and gassier than the beer of Latvia and Lithuania. Perhaps for that reason, or maybe just for a change we chose to drink wine in the evenings. We visited one Italian restaurant – complete with genuine Pizza oven and Italian pizza chef, one more regular Estonian establishment and finally gave in to the mock medieval atmosphere and found a free table outside the Peppersack restaurant for our last night. Our ‘Pikeman’s Choice’ was a huge plate for two bearing a leg of smoked pork, roast potatoes, beery sauerkraut, pumpkin, dill pickle, mustard and horseradish. It was good hearty food in the best Baltic tradition, though I doubt any real pikemen fortunate enough to have enjoyed such a meal would have washed it down with a bottle of Chilean Merlot.

Pikeman's Choice, The Peppersack, Tallinn
Having fought our way through the cruise ship passengers we saw little of Tallinn’s other regular visitors, the stag party – though we did once have coffee at the next table to a group of very hungover young men. Our neighbours John and Linda, who lived in the Tallinn’s old town for a year, say they were quite happy to leave the city at weekends. We too left on a Saturday morning and while we were at the airport we observed the arrival of more than several groups of young men. I do not want to sound too po-faced about this (I have a past, dammit) but I was not sorry to miss their company.

An extremely short hop on the shuttle flight to Helsinki, brought our trip to the Baltic States to an end. I am grateful to anyone who has read right though Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn to arrive here. If such a person exists there is probably one burning question they now need to ask. The answer: the Estonian for ‘Harry Potter’ is……well, ‘Harry Potter’. What a let down.

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