...because you thought Sweden was Switzerland!

Sunday, August 01, 2010

The medieval and ultra-modern roll into one in Tallinn

Our first trip together abroad as a married couple was not to the beaten paths of honeymoon-cities such as Paris or New York (though I would gladly go there some other time), but to Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. Exotic as Estonia sounds to my ears – I've only been living in the northern part of the globe in the last 5 years and didn't even know where Estonia was located until recent years – it appears that it is not too off the beaten track after all. According to Estonian tourism statistics, the country accommodates something between 1.5 to 2 million tourists yearly. Cruise ferries from Finland and Sweden, flying on the Estonian flag, arrive to the capital Tallinn daily, carrying with them a year-round stream of day- and weekend- tourists. Norwegian and German tour companies also operate in the city, bringing more tourists by boat- and bus. This week, we were two in the crowd. The itinerary was two nights in a cruise ferry (one night to, and one night from Tallinn), and a night in a hotel.

The charm with Tallinn is it's old town, a medieval city on a hill, overlooking the Baltic. Like Visby in the Swedish island of Gotland, Tallinn was an important trade port in the 9th and 10th centuries. When parts of Visby got destroyed by the Danes in the 1300s, Tallinn's importance increased, becoming a part of the Hanseatic league in the 15th century. Many of the buildings that stand today are from that period (although some structures still stand from the 13th century). The town's St. Olaf's Church (above picture, to the right), was between 1549 and 1625, the tallest building in the world.

Walking around the old town really did feel like walking in a foreign destination. Imagine going back in time, to a city built 500 years ago and seeing, despite that, things so familiar from this decade: caffè lattes, video cameras, even tourists with belt bags. It's exotic on its own to experience this odd time warp, where something – either the people, the surroundings, or you – seem almost out of place, but the parts fit unproblematically together at the moment somehow.

What better way to live this time-place warp than to eat Tex-Mex burritos in a veranda of a medieval building? (We did). It might seem a bit odd, but all in all, the feeling was right.

The menu picture portraying a portal to Texas, and a burrito mix plate with chicken, beef, ribs, salad, pickles, onions and deep fried jalapeños (which was hotter than I could take! Yikes!)

Prices of food and drink in Tallinn are cheaper than either in Finland and Sweden, which makes it an ideal long-weekend tourist destination, where people from those two countries are concerned (An Estonian kroon is about 3 Philippine pesos, for those curious friends). For this reason, alcohol shops bloom by the port, where it is not unusual to see tourists rolling along strollers full of loot, namely a tower of beer boxes, behind them (they're about 20-30% cheaper than back home). Eating dinner out also costs about 30% cheaper than it does in Sweden, for meals that are big, filling, and well-made. As usual, we researched about places to eat. Most restaurants in the Old Town seem to have internet addresses and menus online. Marcus looked at these menus beforehand, and I also surfed around for cafés I remembered reading in others' blogs. We love Tex-Mex and Greek, so Texas Honky Tonk and Artemis Greek restaurant (both on Pikk street) were almost obvious choices. Both places have mix plates on offer that can be shared by two people. I love that idea, by the way. I like the feeling of sharing a meal rather than eating separate orders. Maybe it's because I'm used to that system in Chinese restaurants back in Manila.

We also spent a coffee break-turned-lunch at Pierre café and chocolaterie (addres: Vene 6, in the courtyard) where we had a super duper chocolate bomb of a meal consisting of a glass each of hot chocolate mixed with Gorgonzola cheese and grappa, a slice of chocolate cake spiced with caramel and chili, and a small cup of coffee. The hot chocolate with Gorgonzola wasn't at all bad. The saltiness of the cheese made sense in the dark melted chocolate and steamed milk (they don't use powdered cocoa, of course, as this is a chocolaterie)! I warmly recommend it, even if their prices are a bit expensive. They didn't seem like they scrimped on chocolate.

Taking sips of my chocolate and Gorgonzola drink in Chocolaterie Pierre's charming courtyard

For the hotel night, we stayed at the cruise company's hotel, Tallink Spa and Conference hotel, right between the port and the old town, and a walking distance to a grocery (where we bought water, as Estonian tap water is said not to be potable. We also bought some bottles of stronger stuff there. Hic!). The hotel room had a view of the large indoor pool below, which is free for guests. There was both a fun pool and a saltwater pool with a year-round outdoor pool, several types of saunas and a hamam. We had a lot of fun here, and I experienced first-hand the logic of dipping yourself into a pool of cold water after warming up in a steam sauna. After the cold shock, there's nothing that feels more natural!

Remember what I said about time warp? About the old and the new fitting together in a somewhat odd, but also natural way? It seemed to us that this wasn't just a character of the old town, but also of Tallin's modern city center. Just a few minutes' walk from the old town, you'll find a town with ultra-modern and experimental architecture – the kind of architecture that you'll never find within kilometers from Stockholm's old town, probably – mixing together unproblematically with buildings in classic style, and even older wooden structures.

A skyscraper with a wooden shack in the foreground, and a glass-and-steel mall smack in the old town, contrasting with the old city walls.

The old and the new were side by side in a kind of unplanned plan that looked kinda bizarre but also refreshing and unique. I wondered if this mix of old and new in the city didn't also reflect Estonia's history in some way. This young state is both a product of its Hanseatic past, a series of colonizations from its neighbors, unification with the USSR, and recent "Europeanization". Walking around Tallinn and seeing its buildings seems to be a reminder of this, and how a city can change (and change hands) and still remain itself.

Near our hotel, we found this structure that seemed to be a grand unfinished project, like a concrete ziggurat of sorts, with outdoor steps leading up to a platform, unseen from below. We climbed out of curiosity and found that, at the top, you had a pretty good view of the town on one side, and the sea on the other. It was an impressive structure though worn by the elements, and far from being empty, the locals seemed to know the secret of this place. There were groups sitting and reading, talking or resting on this abandoned building slash concrete park with a view. It was rather peaceful there. Joggers used the steps for stairs-training; the steps were uneven from wear and plants were growing between the cracks. Nobody seemed to mind the large graffiti or the collapsing walls. It was kind of urban and artsy, looking rough at the edges but still somehow feeling relaxed. We went down as the sun was setting and retired in the hotel. We still don't know what that building was supposed to be, but it was cool nonetheless.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

The old concrete building is called Linnahall and its an old Soviet Era venue. Im not sure if its in use anymore, but they still held some concerts and shows in there a while back. The whole area is going through a regeneration programme and there have been talks of restoring the building, even though it has often been described as an ugly soviet disaster and some would rather see it demolished.

10:45 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi! Great post about Tallinn!
The last building you're talking about is Linnahall. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Linnahall
There's a concert hall in there (4200 seats) and an ice ring. It was built for the 1980 Olympics.
It's going to be renovated, which is why it was closed last year.

11:05 AM

Blogger Ahoy! said...

Oh wow, thanks Anonymous and Anonymous! Would be kind of a pity to demolish it, I think. The view of the sea from there was great! At the same time, if they do renovate it, I wish that it would still be open for the public to hang out in. I liked the way that the locals kind of claimed the place for themselves.

2:30 PM


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