Baltic Beginnings: Estonia

Bidding Scandinavia farewell, I caught the fast ferry to Tallinn and less than two hours later I was stepping onto the concrete monstrosity that is Linnehall to scramble my way over soviet ‘splendour’ to Tallinn’s picturesque old town. After checking into my hostel I headed off in search of dance. Unfortunately, despite the event starting at 7:30, when I arrived at 8:30 there was still no one there but the DJ, so I wandered back out into the old town to hunt down some grub. I found a €2 bowl of beef soup made in an electricity free medieval restaurant in the old town hall. No light, no spoons, no glamour, and lots of kitsch, but you know what? It was one of the best bowls of soup I’ve had in a long time and it was wonderfully filling too! I do not miss Scandinavian food prices, not even one tiny little bit.

Once fed, I wandered a bit more, met some local drunks, was reminded why we don’t sit in parks in the evening in former Soviet countries, and eventually made my way back to dance. It was a quiet night of dance but the people were lovely and it was a much needed salsa and bachata fix after a very dance-less stay in Finland.

My second day in Tallinn dawned clear and bright and full of more reasons to love the Baltics, namely, a delicious latte and a rich creamy cheese filled pastry all for around €3.

After breakfast I headed to the hostel where I was to meet my tour guide for an adventure out into the Estonian wilderness. While waiting in the lobby I met an American who looked more Irish than the Irish, and a lanky Kiwi who was still sticky from boozing the night before. Both were chatty and friendly and kept me entertained until my tour took off, but their appearance also made me very glad that I was staying at the other hostel, the one without the nightly pub crawl.

Once we were all piled into the van with our German tour guide at the helm, we set off through a forest of old soviet concrete flats on our way to the Lahemaa national park via a selection of historical and natural sights. The group was composed of two young Swiss travellers (one of whom is headed to Canada at the end of the summer), a Swede from Göteborg, an adventurous Dutchman, a friendly fellow from Spain, and a charming Australian. We were quite the motley crew.

Our first stop was a collection of circular stone graves which reminded me strongly of the grave sites in Lindholm, Denmark. Unlike the sparsely placed rocks in Denmark however, these graves were neatly stacked walls of slate with a round outer wall and a smaller circular wall built inside. Some were filled in between the walls but many lay open. Of course being in former Soviet territory, there was also an interesting story to be told about how the graves got to their current location. It seems that the Russians wanted to build a highway. The graves got in the way. Undeterred the Russians just picked up the graves and moved them a few hundred meters to the side. Given that story, I can’t help but wonder how authentically reassembled the graves actually are, but they were neat nonetheless.

After our bit of ancient history we stopped by the Jägala waterfall. In wet years it is a horseshoe shaped waterfall with a certain resemblance to a miniature Niagara. Unfortunately it was a rather warm and snowless winter so the highest waterfall in the Baltics was rather less spectacular than usual. It was nonetheless a pretty little stop for sunshine and fresh air before we headed on to a deliciously ruined manor house.

I probably have an unhealthy fondness for ruined glory but it served me well in Estonia. Our stop at Kolga Manor House yielded ruined outbuildings, a crumbling main house, and even a few (possibly out of bounds) ruins which lacked doors, windows, and most of a roof. There is something so beautiful about watching entropy and mother nature take back carefully assembled wood and stone.

Following our manor adventures, we entered the heart of the park to take a boardwalk through the bogs. It resembled the boardwalk to Liard hot springs but with more open areas, fewer moose, and a lot more sun than I ever remember up in the Canadian North. We marched along through the marshland at an unprecedented pace and soon were back out on the other end hunting for our tour guide. We found him in relatively short order but not before I fell victim to the call of perfect little wild red roadside strawberries. My fellow traveler initially didn’t quite believe that I wasn’t trying to poison them, but soon gave in to my urging and tried a few. I could have spent all day picking and eating, but we had a schedule to keep to we hopped back in the van and headed for lunch.

Lunch was traditional Estonian food of the meat and potatoes variety. I scarfed down a full plate of roast potatoes, pickled salad, and pork schnitzel all covered in glorious creamy sauce. I also indulged and grabbed a bowl of a tomato based, sausage filled soup that incidentally also included cucumbers. It was a strange but tasty combination. Most of the way into a food coma, we then headed off to another manor. This time the manor was restored which I must admit made it significantly less appealing to me. We spent a few minutes sitting in a lakeside pavilion chatting before the life of leisure lost it’s thrill and we headed off again to visit the captain’s village Käsmu and it’s nearby boulder filled bays. The village was quaint and the boulders were impressively large but the best bit was sitting atop the boulders in the sun whilst our Dutch companion braved the rather chilly sea. One never feels quite so warm and dry as when one is watching someone else be cold and wet.

And then after a full day of adventures, it was time to head back to the city. It wasn’t a terribly long drive but we were all asleep for at least a little of it. Leaving the rest of the tour-takers at their hostel, I wandered off in search of dinner. The highly recommended pancake place unfortunately came fully equipped with full tables and Soviet customer service (which is to say none) so I took myself to the grocery store to find friendly and faster food.

Soon fed and restyled for dance, I headed out to a dance evening on the terrace of a bar just at the edge of the old town. The terrace was a fairly nice wooden floor, sheltered by trees and the music was distinctly Cuban. I danced with all manner of folks including a few from the first night as well as plenty of new faces including an Estonian On2 dancer and Dublin’s Azael. I may have been a bit conspicuous in my favouritism to the On2 options but I have no regrets, I had excellent mambos and bachatas and that’s what counts.

Around 10 we moved indoors and it was a fortunate choice as the weather soon turned and the terrace became a lake filled by torrential downpours. I feel like this is the summer of rain, just especially for me. Thank goodness I’ve been living in Ireland for the last two years so a bit of rain is hardly unmanageable or surprising.

The following day began under grey skies with a humble breakfast of Nutella on toast. I had intended to spend the day in the old town but after a few hours of wandering down the narrow cobbled streets past churches and souvenir shops, the crowds began to thicken. As I reached the city walls and some of the more impressive cathedrals, the sheer number of tourists and tour groups clogging the streets had me nearly ready to snap. Crowds are fine. Crowds of slow moving, gawking tourists, fumbling around blindly with cameras plastered to their faces are not. This is why I am avoiding Paris, Rome, and all those other lovely tourist cities until I get a chance to travel during the off season. Either way, by the time I’d passed the parliament and the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral I was one tour group away from a nervous breakdown so I fled the old town for clearer air and more authentic Estonian environs.

Within five minutes I was safely beyond the hordes at the Balti Jaam (train station) market. I bought two pancakes filled with jam and custard for about €1.10 and wandered around through vegetable stalls, little clothing shops, and tables covered in socks, underwear, and accessories. There were authentic looking elderly ladies, who had the weary, wary expressions of soviet survival and few if any tourists, but the socks were still more expensive than they are at Penney’s in Dublin! As is so often the case, all of my socks currently have holes so I am trying to stock up again and I was so sure that the local market which has been around since the very beginnings of the capitalist resurgence in Soviet Estonia would have nice cheap, nearly disposable socks. I was mistaken.

After my adventure in the marketplace I trotted off through the city headed for the Old Soviet Prison at the sea shore. I was delighted to find that outside of the old town, Tallinn is still full of deliciously aging wooden houses with all the best little detailing and ornamentation clinging to peeling paint and rusting ironwork. In perfect honesty, I probably enjoyed what I found outside of the old town far more than what I found within.

When I finally reached the prison, I had no idea what I was in for. All I knew was that it cost three quid and it was meant to be rather macabre. It was all that and more. Beginning on the outside I encountered reams of graffiti, overgrown yards, a barbed wire wrapped beach, and what can only be described as a vehicular graveyard. As I slipped inside I was met with dark foreboding spaces that seemed as if they had been abandoned only yesterday. There were shards of bedding and clothing, books and papers scattered everywhere, and furniture left as if it had only just ceased to support the human form. Between the thrill of pitch black spaces which I could explore by feel alone and the weight of human experience still heavy on the place, I was in awe. There were administration rooms, cells of all varieties from massive bunk rooms to tiny brigs, and dismal walking cells. There was also an operating room filled with medical equipment in various states of disrepair and a very unnerving space featuring little other than a desk, a chair, a hole in the floor, and a label: the hanging room. On the top floor the larger airier rooms (presumably for staff) had been converted to a modern art space with each room hosting an artist’s unique approach to contemporary topics within the dilapidated and suffering stained confines of the prison. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the entire thing was the openness with which it was presented to the public. There ere tours available but I just bought a ticket and explored on my own. There was nothing to stop you digging through the piles of debris, nor from slipping or falling on the slowly declining infrastructure. There were some locked doors but not many and overall there was a prevailing feeling of fresh discovery as if I was the first to set foot in the place after the entire Soviet machine broke down and fled the country. I would absolutely recommend it to anyone visiting Tallinn.

Leaving the prison I took a quick stroll around the float plane harbour to clear my head and plan my next move. I ended up dropping by the mass of concrete terraces and staircases that is Tallinn’s Linnahall. It’s a strange adventure in grand parade grounds, but it is now mostly just covered in graffiti and overgrown weeds. There is a caretaker, but his role seems only to be shooing the tourists out of the interior spaces which seem to have, at some point, housed any number of shops and amenities.

By that point I’d had quite enough of large imposing concrete edifices so I headed towards Kadriorg park which houses palaces and rose gardens and all manner of dainty pretty things. As it was mid afternoon, it was also time to find coffee so I stopped in at Gourmet Coffee which I had been promised would provide for all my hipster coffee needs. After a bit of linguistic difficulty, they did. I had a Kenyan filter which developed substantially in complexity and acidity as it cooled.

An hour later with rested feet and a caffeinated blood stream I made it to the park. The palaces were very pretty with bright colours and elegant gardens, and the rose garden sported a profusion of blooms in every shade of yellow, pink, red, orange, and white. I may have spent an impressive amount of time sitting on a wall over looking the roses and scribbling aimlessly in my notebook.

In order to make up for my expensive coffee adventure, I had planned to make a stop at Aldi to find food and hopefully cheap socks. Unfortunately my Google maps did a bit of fibbing and I never did find the promised Aldi, but I did find a Rimi where I bought food and absurdly overpriced (though actually large enough for my clodhoppery feet) socks. Once fed and changed, I took off for another night of dance, this time a Mambo night at a local latin bar called Cubanita. It was great fun with a lot more On2 but perhaps on account of my tiredness, or maybe because my feet were a bit sore, or even perhaps because I’d been dancing with a lot of the same people for three nights in a row, I found myself forcing a smile around midnight and so I wandered off home.

My last full day in Tallinn started warm and dry but with promises of rain later in the day. Those promises would be delivered upon quite magnificently but not until after my morning’s adventures. I began with a walk down to Uus Maailm which was described as Tallinn’s hippie district. It was mostly residential and to be honest it didn’t seem all that “hippie” but I suppose I’m biased from four years of Victoria. There were big concrete apartment blocks, little old wooden houses, a few sex shops, a few cafes, and a massive demolition project. I wandered around aimlessly until I ran out of streets and then turned towards the bus station in the interests of ensuring that Google maps was not lying again before I found myself hunting frantically while missing my coach to Riga or something.

Before reaching the bus station I came across a rather large green space on my map which looked far more appealing than the mix of concrete and construction which I had been walking through. When I found the entrance I discovered that it was actually an extensive cemetery. Like the cemetery in Copenhagen, it was old and irregular. There were trees and plantings and the graves were placed where they fit amongst the scenery rather than in neat rows across an empty field. Amongst the graves I encountered a number of older women tending family graves as well as a typically blunt Estonian woman who spoke to me first in Estonian and then, when I explained that I did not understand simply said in English “Oh, then you will not know anyway.” and strode off. The Danes were so much more optimistic about my local knowledge…

After a bit of reading on a bench beneath the trees, I left the graveyard, found the bus station, and headed back towards the city centre. By a pleasing twist of fate, I soon found myself in a local market, even more authentic feeling than the train station market I’d visited the day before. As I appeared to be the only non-local present I decided against taking pictures but it was an excellent mix of vegetables, meat, cheese, clothing, shoe, accessories, housewares, and all manner of second hand goods. For the most part the prices were average but the second hand things were insanely cheap with prices ranging from €0.50-€2.00 for an average garment. I was in no mood to shop but I enjoyed the diversion before continuing on my way towards town.

Reaching the glass and steel centre of the city I found my way to a tiny little old wooden church nestled beneath the skyscrapers and tucked between exotic dancer clubs. It was not open to the public, but a bit of nosey peeking in windows suggested that it’s an austere little place in perfect contrast to it’s surroundings. Enjoying the contrast of little old things amidst the massive new things, I then turned into the Maakri district where I found old mills converted into everything from office buildings to hair salons to art galleries. I stepped into one such art gallery to find a floor covered in a good four to six inches of sand and walls covered in modern art. I was too shy to chat with the staff but it seemed like it would either be an amazing work place (on the beach all day every day!) or a horrible torture of sand in everything forever. I walked through Maakri to some generic urban area which led me through parks and over streets to the Rotermanni district which is another region of converted factories, these tending more towards bars and restaurants than offices and galleries. Interestingly, in all of these converted areas it seems that the standard practice is to knock down huge swaths of buildings to create massive parking lots and then restore whatever is left. I suppose it saves the locals from exorbitant parking prices.

Having pounded the pavement for most of the day, I headed back to the hostel which I found full of cacophonous French teenagers on some sort of summer camp experience so I quickly fled to the “artistic” cafe which the hostel receptionist had said I just couldn’t miss. It’s called Must Puudel which translates to the Black Poodle and it’s lovely! I ate pecan chocolate cheesecake and drank a mocha (served with a straw?) while puttering away on my laptop planning the next legs of my trip, booking hostels, and otherwise catching up on all the administrative aspects of my life. I would say the staff are not used to their cafe being used as a workspace though because despite the fact that there were still plenty of free tables they kept lurking back over to check on me and see if I wanted anything else in my little oasis by the window. Finally deciding to take the hint, I packed up my gear and headed back out into the rain. I grabbed a €2 dinner of Estonian dumplings, which are best described as little pockets of fried greasy heaven in flavours of pork, turkey, and potato, and headed back to the hostel to pack a few things and have a nap.

On account of the continuing cacophony, the nap did not happen so I retreated to the common room to write my blog. That’s where I am now although unlike when I arrived and it was just me and my laptop with the outlets and the sound of the rain, I am not completely trapped in my corner with the noisy teens eating dinner on all sides. As a side effect of the table arrangement, I literally cannot escape. I am taking deep breaths and counting the minutes until they leave.

By some combination of careful self-regulation and the application of headphones, I survived the teenaged onslaught and, once they had headed back to the kitchen to clean up, was able to escape to quieter places. I headed first to my dorm where a chatty Latvian was eager to pick up on our conversation from the prior evening but in my rather frazzled state of mind, all I wanted was quiet so I soon took off for a walk through the dimming evening. It’s always amazing the things you find while aimlessly wandering. I traced along the walls and through the old town until I found a park. Drifting along the paths I soon found myself in the midst of an International Flower Festival, or at least all the little garden entries.

Because of course I had intended to do no sightseeing on my walk, I had only my pathetic little mobile phone camera but I can assure you that the gardens ranged energetically from wild to wonderful. There were carefully manicured shapes, minimalist rockeries, traditional English gardens, and even recreations of natural landscapes. The best bit, however, was the scent that caught my attention some three or four gardens in. It has been years since I last smelled the intoxicating fragrance of evening scented stocks and here was an entire garden of them. In an instant I was back to my childhood, smelling the faint wafting perfume through the windows and as we walked into the house from whatever summer evening adventure had kept us out until dusk light. I’ve never been particularly sentimental about Fort St. John, but in that instant I was overflowing with nostalgia for the beautiful country house I grew up in. Strange how travelling always, somehow, brings us home.

Leaving the gardens I passed a pleasingly alternative outdoor theatre tucked between old weathered stone buildings before returning to the now quiet common room to read my book before the crackling popping fire. It was perfection.

My last morning in Tallinn, after very little sleep on account of being flanked on both sides by enthusiastic snorers, I crawled out of bed, packed my backpack, scarfed some porridge and headed for the bus station. About half an hour later finds me here, scribbling away while I wait for my bus onwards to Latvia. Estonia has been most excellent to me.

Sleepy but serene,
The Canadian

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