After the non-event that was Christmas, missing out on our annual end of December trip away was a bitter pill to swallow. With no prospect of travel for some time to come, it’s back to the archives again if I want to blog at all. So today I’m heading back to December 2018 and the fairytale capital of Estonia. Well, on the surface at least…
On arrival at the airport, a quick 4km tram ride takes us to the city centre and drops us right outside our hotel. Perfect. The Hotel Palace is on the southern edge of the Old Town, right opposite St John’s Church and Freedom Square, renamed after the country left the Soviet Union in 1991. It’s late afternoon, the Christmas lights are on, and there’s a sprinkling of snow on the ground. It’s feeling very festive and we can’t wait to explore.
Our first evening’s perambulations tell us a few things about the locals here. They take Christmas very seriously – aside from the bustling festive market in the Old Town Square, there are lights and trees down every alleyway. They also do a mean mulled wine, or glogi as they call it here – I tried a few just to make sure, I’m a slave to research! And most importantly for the greedy traveller, they love their food. There are restaurants everywhere, and when we finally decide which one to try, we’re blown away. This is looking promising.
Exploring Tallinn, it makes sense to start with the well-preserved medieval Old Town with its cobblestoned narrow streets, surrounded by walls with pepper pot towers. It’s like being transported to Vulgaria in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, it’s so implausibly pretty. Since 1997 this whole area has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Tallinn is a compact capital, with less than half a million inhabitants. Founded in the 12th century, Tallinn was known as Reval until 1918, when Estonia became an independant country after centuries of domination by Denmark, Sweden and then Imperial Russia. Unfortunately independance was shortlived, as WWII led to Nazi occupation followed by Soviet authority. There’s a price to pay for being strategically located on the Baltic Sea…
On the surface, there’s little to see of Tallinn’s chequered history. Inside the Old Town walls everything is pristine and pastel coloured and a joy to wander around. The lower town has always been the commercial area, clustered around the Town Hall Square and the 13th century Tallinna Raekoda, jauntily decorated with green dragons wearing golden crowns. This is the oldest Town Hall in Scandinavia and surely the most whimsical.
Staircases lead to the upper town, centre of political and religious power, where the very pink Toompea Castle (home to the Estonian Parliament) and the onion-domed Russian Orthodox Cathedral sit opposite each other at the top of the hill. You can get a great view over the city and out towards the Baltic from the various observation platforms up here.
Outside of the Old Town, things get a bit more sinister, if you know where to look. Opposite the 14th century Viru Gate is the Hotel Viru, built by the Soviets in the 1970s. People always suspected that the hotel was used for KGB surveillance, but the Soviets denied it, and no-one was ever allowed to visit the 23rd floor to find out for sure. After the 1991 revolution, when the KGB fled, a James-Bond-esque set up of elaborate listening equipment was discovered. It’s now a museum, if you’re interested in vintage spying paraphernalia.
A bit further afield, if you’ve brought your walking shoes, is the creepy Patarei Prison, located to the north of the city on the Baltic coast. Originally a sea fortress built for Tsar Nicholas I to protect the shipping route to St Petersburg, it became a prison after WWI and held up to 4600 prisoners until it was abandoned early this century. It’s been untouched ever since, and gives an atmospheric impression of how it felt to be a Soviet prisoner. This place is eerie, even though it’s now mostly used by locals walking their dogs.
On a clear day you can see Helsinki from here, just 50 miles away across the Gulf of Finland, but more often than not the conditions are hazy like today, making the ruins feel even more godforsaken. You can just imagine the type of things that happened here – the KGB were not renowned for leniency towards dissidents. It’s a relief to head back along the harbour to candy coloured civilisation.
It’s after dark that things really get interesting around in the Old Town. Those twee exteriors hide some great bars, many downstairs at basement level. I’m absolutely thrilled to discover an establishment devoted to the music of Depeche Mode, one of my favourite bands. The walls are covered in DM posters, the music is uniquely DM, even the cocktails are named after DM songs – ‘I’ll have a Policy of Truth, please’. I love this place! If you’re not a fan, don’t worry, alternative music is available in Tallinn.
And after a great bar crawl (remember them?) there’s the fabulous food! Since I was a little girl back in Yorkshire I’ve loved beetroot and rhubarb, and at Von Krahli Aed restaurant I get both of them in one meal. I’m not talking pickled or stewed here, my beetroot starter is a work of art, and it’s washed down nicely with sparkling rhubarb wine. I think I’m in heaven.
We leave Tallinn on New Year’s Eve, which is a pity, as this does feel like a place that would put on a good party. In fact, as we cross Freedom Square for the final time, a stage is ready for a big open air concert and the band is just about to rehearse. We linger in the hope of hearing some decent live music, but what we get is pure Eurovision. Maybe it’s a good thing we’re going home after all. I just wish I had hold luggage so I could take back some rhubarb wine.