Published: May 2006
Tallinn’s a tough one. It sounds like a prescription drug. Even worse, shove Estonian in front of it, and it sounds like an illegal one. And while “Tallinn Estonia” definitely has the ring of a place about it, there’s that awful implied Americanism that you’re trying to differentiate it from some other Tallinn in say, Utah. What Tallinn lacks is profile. Think Moscow, Qatar, Delhi, even Leamington Spa, and something springs to mind. Think Talinn, and …….? Tough eh? Unless of course you’re a fan of that annual Eurosong fest which the city hosted in 2002, and that’s as good as it gets.
Tallinn is the capital of Estonia, the smallest of the Baltic states, way up there in the frigid inner thigh of the Gulf of Finland where a chill northerner seems to blow all year long, bar a couple of days in the middle of August. Think cold. Very. The sea’s been known to freeze so locals can motor their way to islands usually only accessible by boat and ferry. The city faces Helsinki, which is just an hour’s catamaran cruise away, or twenty minutes if you’re willing to lay down a hundred bucks on a helicopter. Sounds cool to me, particularly the bit where you land on a skyscraper right in the middle of the Finnish capital. But before you think its all glam post-glasnost, let’s get the facts straight. Tallinn is home to over a third of the Estonian population but at around four hundred thousand, that’s still less than Cardiff, more like Patras. And over half the inhabitants are non-Estonian. Illegal Russian immigrants make up a significant percentage and account for much of the city’s crime. And the standard of living at large is low.
It’s been dubbed, accurately, the best-preserved medieval town in northern Europe. UNESCO shoved it on their hit list in ’97, and it’s Tallinn’s single biggest draw. The Old Town is a tiered affair with an Upper Town, the Toompea, centered on a fortress where the nobs used to hang out, and a Lower Town that in the Middle Ages was a moneymaking den of wide boy German merchants and uppity artisans.
All the region’s players have had a finger in Tallinn’s evolution. The name itself comes from Taani Linn which means “Danish City”. The Danes got the current fortress up and running in the early 13th century, and were followed by the Germans, Swedes and Russians. Not that the Estonians would have had it that way. The country’s only enjoyed thirty five years of independence in the last eight hundred; twenty years between the two world wars, and coming up to fifteen since the Soviets moved out in 1991.
As with so many of the type, the Old Town, all cobbles and crooked streets, is a tourist honeypot. Medieval effluence has become modern day affluence and if, like me, you’re not the type to respond favourably to the crowds, it can be a bit much. Interestingly, while the majority of visitors are Finnish day-trippers in search of a bargain, the predominant age group for the longer stay is, shall we say, mature. Having bussed it to Bruges for the past few millennia, the culture-and-coach set have found a new town to terrorise. Zimmer-defying the steep streets may be but that’s not going to stop the likes of my Mam and Dad crowding churches, stomping through souvenir shops, and outstaying their welcome over tea and a bun.
But you’ve got to hand it to them. They’ve got taste. There’s no denying this place is pretty and beneath the ubiquitous Scandinavian knitwears and knock-off Russian icons, there’s a gem of medieval town planning to appreciate. The Old Town will comfortably fill a day. You’ll need longer if you have a penchant for churches of which there are surprisingly quite a few that have survived the dark days of Soviet domination. Only 20% of Estonians regularly attend church but weddings, christenings and Christmas keep up the demand. Highlights include the Alexander Nevski Cathedral in the Upper Town. It’s a 1901 Russian Orthodox pile with classic onion domes that is still viewed with suspicion by some locals as a Russian Imperialist imposition. The Toomkirik or Dome Church, originally St Mary’s, turned Lutheran in the early 16th century and as such, it’s the closest thing the Estonians themselves have to a national cathedral. And the Church of the Holy Ghost in the Lower Town is worth a glance if only for the 1680 clock above its entrance. It’s the oldest one in Tallinn.
Of the secular attractions two must-sees predominate. There are the city walls, which are nearly in tact, along with 20 of the original 40 defensive towers. The size and scope of these fortifications are indicated by towers like the Kiek in de Kök, a 36m monster built in the 1470s to house cannon. Kiek in de Kök by the way means “peek in the kitchen” and from its windows, that’s exactly what medieval voyeurs could do to nearby private homes. And there’s the Town Hall, northern Europe’s oldest, which recently celebrated its 600th birthday. The place has undergone years of restoration and whilst mastering the medieval milieu has involved a certain degree of guesswork, a beautiful job of renovation has been done by all involved. I particularly liked the touch of guides a la mode du Moyen Age. Ours was a very elegant blond in a flowing green cape who looked as if she could have taken on a Eurovision final singlehanded. The Town Hall gets a “neuf point” from yours truly but isn’t always open to the public. When it is, entry costs around €2.
Another rennovative triumph is the Barrons Hotel, also in the Old Town. Tallinn isn’t as famous as Riga for its Jungenstil architecture – that’s the German take on Art Nouveau – but the Barrons is a beautiful 1912 example. Don’t expect all-out contemporary cosseting. The lift remains resolutely of the period but there’s no denying the staff are helpful, the building brilliantly situated and the décor enough to keep you Llewellyn-Bowen types happy.
A total contrast is to be found in what’s rapidly becoming the city’s modern downtown just to the south east of the Old Town centre. For modern read tower blocks. And a very flashy branch of the Finnish department store Stockmann. Here you’ll find what’s currently Tallinn’s tallest building, the Radisson SAS. THIS is where you’ll get your 21st century pampering. The rooms are beautifully designed and spacious. There’s a gym, and a roof terrace that’s open during August with great views acros the Old Town. The décor in the lobby’s a bit too upbeat Scandy for my taste but that’s my only complaint. The restaurants in the hotel, the Madissoni Bar and Grill, and the Seasons are good but unexceptional.
But paradise is at hand. Gloria sings the chorus and on entering the restaurant of the same name in the Old Town walls all I can do is bleat a feint refrain. It takes a lot to wind me. Fabulous was invented to describe places like this, and camp would have no meaning as a decorative term without them. Opened in 1937, this is Moulin Rouge meets Art Nouveau bordello but definitely positioned the right side of tasteful. A place where Politburo members and their molls would retire to a curtained booth to discuss “party” policy. Under the chandeliers, caviar, foie gras, salmon and duck squabble for attention on the menu but even at €90 a head including wine, I’d gladly nail my underused genitals to the Kiek in de Kök for a return visit.
My privies are much safer when it comes to the Olde Hansa, the Old Town’s main medieval-themed noshery. The old warehouse in which it’s situated is genuine, all dark and atmospheric though stuffed with tourists. The staff go-period with a gusto and it’s that really which keeps you playing along. The food is also authentic but the likes of warm cheese, berry jam, hazelnut bread and Livonian pickled cucumber aren’t going to suffice my evolved palette. But fun is what this place is about. You can arrange a serious chowdown for six people with prices starting from €20 a head for the Grand Merchant’s Feast.
In my opinion, souvenir shopping around the Old Town is only slightly more pleasurable that searing your prostate with hot coals, but be assured I’m in the minority. Hundreds oggle at the local wares; amber necklaces to throttle your loved ones with, bobble hats, amber sculpture, Orthodox icons, amber reduced to kit parts for a model ship, and woollens that would delight a Fisherman’s Friend whilst leaving the poor sheep distraught. Vodka’s a good buy. The local Monopol comes in at €8 a litre; drink it or use it to run your car. The local liqueur, Vana Tallinn, is just over five euros and is definitely an acquired taste. Imagine a liquid Werther’s Original with a splash of Monopol to provide the kick. You have to really dislike someone to give them this.
On the other hand our guide at the Kadriorg Palace a couple of kilometres to the east of the Old Town could have done with a good guzzle. Never was a woman more in need of inspiration. The Palace, built as a country retreat by Russian super-Czar Peter the Great in 1718, houses the Museum of Foreign Art. It’s a collection as underwhelming as the building itself. At one point the guide stopped, took a deep breath and drawled “Let us now go upstairs to Russian art” as if she was about to put up with some really bad sex. And I just knew it wasn’t the first time. Entry to the Museum is about €3.
Genteel she may seem but believe me, Tallinn’s a broad who knocks back a bottle of vodka every weekend and runs down the street naked. On Friday nights the city Jekylls to Hyde as western stag parties take to the streets – be reassured, the kind arranged by boys from orfly neis families – and the cosy cardi brigade are kept at bay by the serious clubbing set. Prices are pitched right. €2 for a local voddie and coke, and €2,50 for the imported stuff, and licenses at some clubs run through to 8am. By the end of it, I couldn’t have directed you to the Kiek in de Kök, but I’d just about manage a big thumbs up for Tallinn.
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Gareth has been with TRAVEL CHANNEL since its launch in 1994. He has produced and presented on TRAVEL LIVE and THE TRAVEL BUG, produced ESSENTIAL... and reports on TRAVEL TODAY. He is a regular contributor to the website. In 2010 he produced the hit series THE HOLIDAY SHOW which he also co-presented with Ginny Buckley. Gareth’s passions are history, culture, food & drink.