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Tallinn has the misfortune of sitting in a strategically useful position between the Scandinavians, the Germans and the Russians. As a result of countless invasions, migrations, trade settlements and the general turmoil which is European history, it’s a weird, lovely overlap of all three: the people have pale skin, pale hair and round Finnic faces, speak Russian almost as much as Estonian, and live in a city whose architecture is pure Hanseatic League. One of the very few European capitals which has never burned, it basked below us in a bright Baltic sun and the current unusual, aberrant state of peace.
Ryanair only operate Boeing 737-800s, because when your business model is pouring as many humanoids as possible into flying boxes for the lowest possible overhead there are major benefits to standardising said boxes. I despise everything about them: the ugly, exploitative nickel-and-dime-you-to-death business model (if Rog hadn’t reminded me to check in online they’d have charged me £35 to print off my boarding pass), the naked tackiness of the wipe-vom-clean plastic seats (safety cards glued to the back), whittled as thin as possible in order to cram an extra row of punters into the most knee-bashingly tiny space allowed by the Geneva Convention. The only thing I will ever say for the airline is that they got Rog and I to Estonia for astonishingly little money.* A stag party in custom t-shirts exchanged bants a few rows in front of us.
Tallinn Airport has joined Emerald on my very short list of airports that don’t feel like every other airport in the world; it feels like an eco-lodge, or an Ikea showroom, all shiny roofs, blonde wood and fast free wifi. We got a #2 bus into town and located our AirBNB flat, in a huge shiny block on “Liivalaia”, the main ring road – but we were two hours early and didn’t want to be impolite, so found a cafe which did us little open-faced pork-cutlet-and bun things, and tea (you can get proper black tea with milk in Estonia; a civilised nation). I tried to be cultural by ordering a bowl of pink stuff, which came cold and tasted of beetroot and fish. Refuelled and still with time to kill, we located a park on a map and strolled down past the US embassy to sit on a shady bench, where it rained spiky chestnuts with every gust, and a tractor with mower attachment giving the place a long-overdue trim rammed our bench and tried to kill us.
We linked up with Misha, moved into the very nicely appointed little flat, and then it was into town (past the US embassy, again; past a “Sex Box” and a number of interestingly named lawyers), in the blazing sun. At the edge of the city walls, a huge crucifix made of glass stands over a square, representing one of Estonia’s independence struggles against the Russians. Past it, climbing over an immense bastion, we came to Maiden Tower and the “Kiek in de Kök” (“Peek in the Kitchen” – me neither), a fairytale tower home to a small and enjoyable museum of Tallinn, complete with a floor map covered in tiny watchtowers, a small but excellent armoury, and props – swords, pikes, replica muskets – you could actually play with. The guide’s Russian was better than her English, so Misha translated the story of why a group of German noblemen had taken a black man’s head** as their symbol and emblazoned it on centuries of collected livery, military equipment and crockery. Beyond the museum, a stroll along part of the city wall took us through an empty cafe full of replica helmets, and into a tiny museum of confectionery, with lovely old packaging and an exciting range of marzipan moulds.
The Old Town is a pristine Hanseatic maze of white walls and red roofs, double-wrapped with medieval curtain walls and Renaissance trace-italienne fortifications; overlooking it is the even older “Toompea”, a fortified plateau containing a tiny town of its own, full of winding cobbled alleys, amber shops and viewpoints crowded with loud, attractive Russian tourists. Some walls boasted vaguely countercultural graffiti in English; one had a bronze bas-relief honouring Boris Yeltsin. At one end of the Toompea, nestled in the walls of an ancient castle, was the least imposing parliament building I’ve ever seen, a little pink mansion with an Estonian flag flopping vaguely under the deep blue sky. Opposite it stood the Cathedral of Alexander Nevsky, a surprisingly restrained but extremely Orthodox pile which we immediately dubbed “the onion house”. The views across the deep-blue Baltic, with strands of low green peninsula framing the gaudy cruise ships as they came and went, were beautiful.
Descending to the Old Town, down a long cobbled passage lined with painters both producing and selling their works (two gunports from a casemated battery at the top are now AC grills for a bistro), we came to a central square lined with restaurants. Under the sign of the “Draakon”, a carved wooden shield advertised a “DECENT BOWL OF ELK SOUP” for €2, and the dark building within gave a wonderfully medieval experience – simple meaty snacks served brusquely by authentically sarky waitresses in period dress, big rough earthenware bowls, a barrel of spear-your-own pickles, animal skins on the wooden benches. We had some decent bowls of elk soup, and some sausages and little pastries beside.
The Old Town is milking its history for all it’s worth, with people in medieval clothes selling roast almonds from stalls or handing out vouchers for restaurants with Hanseatic stylings – lots of tourists, lots of Russian overheard, lots of short sundresses and long white legs. But even with the odd awful British stag party, it manages to be charming rather than aggressive, and after our moosey supper we wandered the narrow cobbled streets for a while, and ended up back up in the Toompea as a long, slow dusk set in. On a summer evening here, it never really gets dark. “White nights”, they call them: the angle of the world is such in summer that these northern latitudes don’t get proper nights, and we stood at a viewpoint in the half-dusk, watching the light dip and change colour, but never quite die.
* I don’t know if the grim, Ikea-like wipe-clean plastic interior is standard, but I’d bet good money on the absurdly tiny seats being so. They would then charge me a £5 card fee, £5 transaction fee and £10 “because we say so” surcharge against my winnings.
** Not severed or anything. Just a head. They liked St Maurice a lot.