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Category Archives: Tallinn 2011

September trip to Estonia in 2011

Swedish Clefs and Wartime Oompah

DAY FOUR – THURSDAY 15th SEPTEMBER – EVENING

I wasn’t joking when I mentioned starting the evening with some light chamber music. I’d considered a night at the Opera – but frankly the Opera House is a bit of a trek across town. Plus the words would be in Japanese or whatever language they use for opera. I’m dead cultured, me.

So instead, it’s music without words – and two trios of musicians offering Mozart, Debussy, Chausson and Schubert in the lovely surroundings of the Swedish church. There are so many churches in Tallinn it’s easy to miss them – and this one is tucked away on one of the many side streets in the Old Town. From the back you can clearly see the traditional church structure, but from the front the entrance looks like just any other house. And the Swedes also have a church school here.

The music is beautiful, and a good antidote for what’s to come. I decide to visit Hell Hunt in Pikk Street – which, despite a notice saying “No Stag Parties” has at least two in it. They’re all good humoured though, and I also meet Jack, who’s with his mate on their first visit to Tallinn.

“Bulgaria – that’s where it’s at mate. We’ve been there several times. 45p a pint. Couldn’t believe it.”

At first, Jack doesn’t seem like the sort of man who would enjoy some light chamber music, but he’s certainly into sightseeing, however grim it might be.

“Warsaw – that’s another cheap place. We hired a taxi driver for £50 for the whole day. He took us to Auschwitz, got us out tickets, waited a couple of hours for us and then took us down a salt mine. Mind you, there’s not a lot of fanny there. Budapest – now THERE are the girls. Wouldn’t touch them myself – they’re all prostitutes.”

I leave Jack to his dark local beer and stumble across some more high culture – back at the Beer Haus.

Stick It Up Your Joompah

It must be getting close to the weekend, as the bar has laid on a live Oompah Band. And the tourists lap it up. One group spends the entire performance dancing and singing along – adding their own lyrics in between the songs. I’m happy to sample three of the local beers, each one stronger than the last.

 
All it all it’s got to be said that Tallin’s a great party city – if only the weather plays ball. Sights and sounds are best served up with sunshine in my opinion, so I might just have to come back during the summer. And the best thing about a midweek break? The Germans have only just arrived at the hotel – and I’m about to check out.
 
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Posted by on September 16, 2011 in Tallinn 2011, Travel Stuff

 

Stockmann, Aching and Waterman

DAY FOUR : Thursday 15th September

I’ve managed to wake up early today – and I’ve seen something incredible. Not long after sunrise, Tallinn actually had some sunshine. It looked like a perfect day for exploring a bit of Estonia’s coastline. And then it started raining again.

Fortunately, my Tour Bus ticket last for 24 hours, so I can grab the Red Route from just up the road which takes me out to Kadriorg, a leafy district with an extensive park. I’ve only got around half an hour here before I connect to another bus, and a brisk walk reveals some very nice landscaping.

The ornate surroundings of Kadriorg Park

The park is also home to the Presidential Palace. And a closer look at that lake suggests that Duck Houses weren’t confined to the UK’s parliamentary expenses scandal…

Wonder who paid for that then?

The Green Route for the City tour bus is aptly named. It heads off the coastal road and through thick set pine forests to Tallinn’s Botanical Gardens. It’s also one of the highest points in these parts and houses the city’s TV tower. I’d normally be a sucker for such attractions but it’s closed for now – and the construction work seems to suggest either a bigger tourist attraction being built on the site, or some reinforced foundations for the tower itself.

Then it’s back to the coast and the pretty harbour of Pirata.

 But the main problem here seems to be access. You can look at the expensive yachts from the bridge – or risk spending a small fortune in the Yacht Club. But fences around the harbour itself seem to suggest that this is only for the privileged few.

The only other attraction in Pirata is the local convent. But like Father Jack Hackett, I have an aversion to nuns. And before I had time to attend confession, I’d already committed a sin – by hopping on the regular local bus back into Tallinn – without paying.

I should say here that the payment system for public transport here is somewhat confusing. For starters, the drivers don’t appear to be taking cash from anyone. Nor does there seem to be a machine with which to stamp pre-paid tickets on board. There are signs warning of a 40 Euro fine for anyone without a ticket, but the large bendy bus is full of passengers, and I gamble that any inspector is unlikely to make it as far as me before the next stop. What’s more, I would have Definitely Paid Had There Been A Ticket Machine At The Stop. There – that’s in capitals, so I reckon that makes it legally binding. 

I find myself downtown – which is American for the Rough Area of the city. Outside of the Old Town, much of Tallinn looks uninviting. But there are remnants of history – with bits of the City Wall on display in the middle of the street.

 A handy stopoff is the Stockmann Center – a large department store on five floors. Since I’ve only brought hand luggage there’s no room for souvenirs. But there’s always room for a buffet lunch, without the pushy sales patter of the Old Town waiting staff.

Wherever I go on holiday I always make contact with the radio in some way, shape or form. I just can’t stay away from it. Though sometimes it turns up in the most unexpected of places, in this case the museum of Occupations.

Moscow calling - or perhaps Berlin?

Note the plural there. This museum concentrates on the two major occupations of Estonia from the 1930s to the early 1990s by the Soviets and the Germans. I visited a similar museum in Riga, and it’s fair to say these are pretty sobering places.That said, they also end up with a heartening tale of independence, and Estonia is no different.
 
OK, final night. I think it’s time to start this off with a touch of light chamber music.
 
What? I’m serious. (And I have no idea why the typeface is all centred either)
 
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Posted by on September 16, 2011 in Tallinn 2011, Travel Stuff

 

Time Warp Tallinn

DAY THREE : Wednesday 14th September

There are worse things to have named after you than a park. Much worse things, I reckon. After a lifetime of service to your country, the last thing you want to remembered for is having your name on something too small, like a memorial stone that dogs pee all over – or something too large, like a shopping mall.

Both of these extremities exist in Tallinn, but there’s also a humble park, named after Johan Pilka, a military commander during Estonia’s War of Independence.

Johan Pilkin. Didn’t this guy once sell cigarettes?

One of the things I love about the Eastern Eurpeans is that they certainly know how to do “imposing”, in this case casting a bronze bust with a stunning stainless steel background. Pilka’s park almost marks a handy alternative route from the hotel back to Freedom Square, and an apparent tribute to Alan Partridge… 

Knowing me, knowing you...

 Once again, Freedom Square is pretty much deserted, though that’s probably down to the frequent showers still bothering the city. Though in the bits of sunshine in between, it looks quite impressive.

There’s much more to Tallinn than the quaint Old Town, and I venture beyond Viru Square into the wider city. It’s a strange mix of old Communist-style buildings (some functional, some incredibly ornate) and new glass towers, as shopping malls and big business comes to town.

According to the commentary on the City Tour bus, Skype was invented in Estonia. And who am I to argue? The mixture of faux American and speech-impedement English on the headset has all the authority of Anyone Called Louis On Any Talent Show. (What? I’m avoiding the lawyers, OK? Could easily be Louis Spence).

The Tour Bus weaves its way around the outskirts of Tallinn, taking us past the traditional Estonian Open Air Museum (which with its high wire fences looks like some kind of correctional facility) and Estionia’s biggest out of town shopping mall (which brings ti ind similarly unpleasant images).

Time for beer, I think, and where better to do it than the Beer Haus?

That’s a large beer, then?

Distinctly more Bavarian than Baltic, the Beer Haus recreates the historic atmosphere of a German drinking hall. And although the staff flit about the tables in their leiderhosen and moustaches (the men do this too), the bar itself only dates back to 2002. But hey, who cares about history when they brew about six different beers right on the premises?

 
Now, I told you about this place already… the Depeche Mode bar…
 

Now you might have thought that there was little call in Estonia for a whole bar dedicated to Eighties miserabilists Depeche Mode. And you’d be right. I have no pictures of the inside because it was dead and I felt too embarrassed to buy a beer.

So it’s back to downtown in the Old Town, and down being the operative word. The heaviest of the rain fell this evening and it wasn’t pleasant. In bar Nimeta (The Pub With No Name – and no personality) a gruff American sounding owner told several customers that if they weren’t drinking they should leave, as he wanted to reserve seats for people watching the football. Nice.

So thank goodness for my old haunt Drink. the bar just for drinking. Cheers.

 
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Posted by on September 15, 2011 in Tallinn 2011, Travel Stuff

 

Your Lux In

NIGHT TWO – TUESDAY 13th SEPTEMBER

“Serge Gainsbourg – you might know him… he’s a famous French composer?”

Greg Lami’s got a tough crowd tonight, at least when it comes to their musical knowledge. I think I’m the only customer in the Von Krahl bar who knows who Serge Gainsbourg is. Then again, I only really know him for his duet J’Taime with Jane Birkin.

And I’d certainly never heard of Greg Lami before this evening, but I was determined to at least experience a little culture on this trip, rather than struggling to remember any of it through a haze of beer. Greg is one of a trio of jazz musicians entertaining us this evening, assisted by Paulo Simoes on guitar and Marc Demuth on bass. It’s the kind of laid back set that really requires a roll neck sweater and a large cigar to be properly appreciated. But I’ve never really looked good in a roll neck.

Greg Lami (right) with Marc Demuth on bass and Paulo Simoes on guitar

It’s useful that Greg’s band are from Luxembourg, because they announce each song in English, making the whole set easier to understand, for me at least.

 
After the performance I discover that Paulo is quite a fan of Serge Gainsbourg. “The guy was so f***ed up – he was crazy, man. Did you know, he bought the rights to the Marseilles just so he could do a reggae version? The establishment – they didn’t like that!”
 
I’m sure they didn’t. But Paulo’s got more. “And then, in the Eighties, he was on a French chat show the first time that Whitney Houston appeared. The host asked him what he thought of Whitney – meaning her singing – but he just said he’d like to f**k her.she didn’t even know what he’d said, because she didn’t speak French.”
 
Who says you don’t learn stuff from a music gig?
 
It was a good way to end the evening, and at last the rain had stopped. My journey to Von Krahl has basically involved a new form of walking, which was akin to swimming. Seriously, Tallin’s Rainy Season is really starting to annoy me. The route was only brightened up by the discovery of Kompressor – a roomy bar in an old building full of students and extremely cheap and filling pancakes. And I also passed DM Bar, making a careful note of its location.
 
It’s an entire bar dedicated to Depeche Mode. I kid you not. More of that to follow….
 
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Posted by on September 14, 2011 in Tallinn 2011, Travel Stuff

 

Too Wet To Woo

DAY TWO – TUESDAY 13th SEPTEMBER

I’m not really the suspicious type. When it comes to numbers I don’t really associate 13 with being unlucky. But it’s the 13th of the month, and I appear to have landed in Tallinn during the little-known Baltic Monsoon season. The weather today has gone from bright and sunny at Toompea Castle…

Toompea Castle - the jewel in Tallin's crown

… to a downright downpour in Raekda Plats, the Town Hall Square…

Raekda Plats - Estonia's newest water feature

Raekda Plats - Estonia's newest water feature

Though in this weather, people watching gets a whole lot more fun. Not long before this picture was taken, I was tucking in to a rather nice lunch at one of the many restaurants around the square. Even in the pouring rain, the parasols and heaters provide a great refuge from the elements, and a good vantage points to see tourists being led round by increasingly soggy guides, attempting to sound enthusiastic.

During the infrequent sunny spells, one thing that quickly strikes me is that there’s no dominant language being spoken among the visitors. I’m not great at identifying words at the best of times – but perhaps unsurprisingly there seems to be a lot of Scandinavian – a friendly and polite tone in cafes and shops.

Which is more than might be said for the Spanish. As around a dozen of us duck for cover during another shower, a rude and noisy man walks out of the rain, refusing to acknowledge that he can lower his umbrella. he’s also more than happy to make a loud phone call whilst shaking said umbrella over the rest of us, and then proceeding to have a loud conversation with one of his countrymen right through my face. Bastardo.

Yet despite the rain, Tallinn is an exceptionally beautiful city, especially within the walls of the Old Town.

That should keep the Spanish out...

Although some of the walls need a lot of TLC.

Yeah, I can fix it - but it's gonna cost you...

Lunch was good, but one thing you always need on a city break is more calories, so I head outside of the Old Town to a small shopping mall for supplies. I don’t mind paying for four star comfort in a hotel but there’s no point splashing out on a the minbar when there’s a perfectly good supermarket on hand. That said, nothing matches the Old Town charm of this historic pharmacy, which also stocks modern day supplies:

Something for the weekend sir?

And there’s nothing more charming than a nicely painted post office. Can you imagine this in the UK?

Tonight I’m planning to soak in some jazz as well as the beer at the Von Krahl bar, though on the way back to the hotel I spot another potential venue…

Welcome to hell!

This could be heaven or this could be hell. Time to head back to the Hotel California.

 
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Posted by on September 14, 2011 in Tallinn 2011, Travel Stuff

 

A Taste of Home

MONDAY 12th SEPTEMBER – NIGHT

“You know, I don’t care much for real ale. I can’t stand beer that’s served warm.”

It’s the kind of line that might well land a punch from me. Or at least a glare. And I’m very good at glaring.

But I could forgive Bobby, as (a) it’s the first night of my holiday and (b) he’s Canadian. Brought up on diet of Labatts and maple syrup, it’s easy to see how his palate has been irretrievably damaged, and therefore incapable of knowing good beer when he tastes it.

That said, he’s doing very well on the Munchen, a dark cold beer, which despite its name is actually Estonian. And we’re in the best place to taste it – a bar simply called Drink. I like simple – though the selection of drink is so vast it comes on a clipboard. And they’ve got the menu about right too. A big fat chip butty to soak up the booze. I could be in a Wetherspoons.

Bobby and his mate are on a tour of northern Europe, which seems to consist of Warsaw, Tallinn and Amsterdam. Tomorrow, they tell me, they’re going to a museum of Russian submarines. That’s if they get up. It’s their second day in town and today breakfast was at 3pm in MacDonald’s. I like these guys.

“Nanu nanu – greetings,” says the next guy to walk into the bar, followed by a detailed explanation to the young waitress of the supposed comic reference to Mork and Mindy. Neither are old enough to have been born when that was on TV, so I can only assume he’s quite drunk.

Which is the right answer. I have no idea what he name is, but he says he’s from Finland and has been drinking for three days. I get the impression that he’s been abandoned by whatver friends he found along the way, not least when he asks for his lager to be served in a plastic glass. does he not know he’s in a bar called Drink?

Tallinn - one monumental drinking hole?
Tallinn – one monumental drinking hole?

Tallinn is pretty quiet on a Monday night, and the intermittent rain isn’t helping to draw in business. The cobblestoned streets are almost deserted and only a few bars seem to be doing anything in the way of trade.

One of them is Valli. My guidebook says “when the elderly regulars start swinging to the live accordion music, the atmosphere moves into the realms of the surreal”.

And it’s not wrong either. I perch myself on a corner bar stool, to be told by a woman from Mansfield that the seat belongs to Fred, and when he comes back I’ll have to give it up for him. At first, I assume that Fred is one of their travelling companions. And when a drunk man staggers towards us, I have no reason to think otherwise. Until he almost trips over me and says in “sorry” in a slurred local accent. Estonian is very different from Nottinghamshire.

It turns out that the couple from Mansfield were on the same flight as me today. “I normally drink mild,” says the woman. I notice she and her husband are sharing a large bottle of very dark local beer, with an ABV of 6.8%.

“You do know that that’s a bit stronger than mild don’t you?”

“Oh yeah – it’s lovely though isn’t it? Fred, it’s NICE isn’t it?”

Fred shakes his head and tries to find the door.

In the meantime, I try to get into the gents, a much harder task than I’d anticipated. The door’s locked, so a large local with a long beard advises me to knock, in case the occupant has fallen asleep. I knock and get a gruff reply, followed by a glare as hard as mine when the guy walks out. Brian Blessed falls about laughing. Toilet humour, it would seem, is alive and well in Tallinn.

 
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Posted by on September 13, 2011 in Tallinn 2011, Travel Stuff

 

Tallin’s Got Britons

MONDAY 12th SEPTEMBER – EVENING

OK, I’m probably going to run out of puns about Tallinn before this blog ends, so I thought I may as well get them out of the way sooner rather than later.

Tallin’s airport terminal looks like a giant Toblerone with two shoe boxes at either end, which is apt – as nowhere else would you ordinarily buy a huge triangular bar of chocolate. Actually, that description is doing it a dis-service. The building is modern, functional and the staff are highly efficient. There’s no queue at passport control and the driver is proudly displaying a card with my name on it.

The flight’s arrived a little early, and the driver neatly weaves his way in and out of Tallin’s rush hour traffic to drop me off at the Von Stackelberg Hotel. I have to admit, when I booked it sounded more like the kind of place that should be in Vienna or Salzburg – and its Germanic courtyard made me wonder if I’d landed in the right country.

But the VSB (as I’ll abbreviate it to from here on) is full of surprises. It mixes classic European architecture with a modernistic and clean interior. The room’s not as big as those on its website – but how many are? After reading that rather pessimistic review earlier, I was happy to be staying in the same building.

The Von Stackelberg – Modern Chic

And not bad it is either. My view from the window isn’t quite as good, but I reckon my hotel’s got more character than the one across the road.

 
Rooms with a view

And it’s pretty high tech too. Along with an enormous LCD TV on the wall, each room at the VSB comes with its own personal computer terminal, although I end up having to crawl under the desk to get the internet cable into my laptop (the wireless requires a keycode).

All in all, though, the VSB shows promise. Which is more than can be said for the weather – it’s raining on and off. But with the Old Town just a few steps away up the hill, I’m not going to let that dampen my spirits tonight.

 
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Posted by on September 12, 2011 in Tallinn 2011, Travel Stuff