This week I’ve returned for a solo trip (long story about clashing annual leave dates) to Tallinn in Estonia. I lived here for my gap year in 1999/2000. Back then Estonia was a bright new country forging its way ahead, desperate to shake off its Soviet shackles. Now it’s a confident place, fully in the EU and eurozone and feels affluent and buzzy.
Things that are different :
– Bigger and new buildings in the new Town including the very upmarket Solaris centre which has a Whole Foods-style supermarket, a lovely big bookshop and a multiplex cinema
– It’s far more expensive! I expect joining the euro put prices up but has brought the country in line with its Scandinavian neighbours (which is where it’s always placed itself). Having said that, a pint is about €3.
– There are a lot more tourists and tourist attractions and the churches have sensibly started charging a modest entry fee (I can remember climbing up the Oleviste church tower with some students and swinging on the bell ropes in 1999 – wouldn’t get away with that now!)
Things that are the same:
– The Estonian people! Still have excellent English. They can still come across as a little surly although I had some lovely chats in broken Estonian with shop keepers.
– A few of my old haunts are still there: Kloostri Ait, Hell Hunt bar etc
– Kadriorg Park is still fab – in fact even better
Here’s what I got up to:
I spent the morning exploring the old town, it truly is a medieval wonder and that it’s survived this intact is a miracle. It was lovely to return to Holy Ghost church where I worshipped when I was here, I think the painted panels have been restored – I remember we fundraised for that in 1999.
In the afternoon I went to Kadriorg Park and to the new (well, it opened in 2006) KUMU art museum. This is a great building designed by a Finnish architect and fits perfectly into the park setting. It has a couple of permanent exhibitions of Estonian art and other changing ones. It was superb, just the right size to get something out of it without being overwhelmed.
– For the transport system get an ühiskaart (like oyster card) from a kiosk. They all speak English, you can top it up for 24 hours for €3. It’s quite hard to find bus stops, you just have to persevere! Make sure you validate your card by swiping it when you get on any transport.
I spent most of Wednesday visiting the Open Air Museum which is a half an hour bus ride up the coast. This is one of my favourite museums in the world! It has houses from all over Estonia moved piece by piece and rebuilt in a beautiful setting by the sea. I hired a bike there to ride around the grounds. It took me quite a while to get used to the bike as it had no brakes! Lunch in the old barn was just as good and authentic as I’d had there before.
In the afternoon I went to vespers at the cathedral on Toompea. I was very impressed that the service was in English and Estonian!
After that I got dinner at Olde Hansa, the medieval restaurant that was here 16 years ago. It’s still great, slightly hammy waitresses in medieval (but authentic) costumes and medieval style food – not a potato in sight! I would still recommend it.
I met with an old friend Regina and we went together to the new museum of the occupations of Estonia. This is an important place that tells the story of the oppression experienced by the Estonian people in the 20th century. It was a privilege to go with Regina as her grandparents were exiled to Siberia by Stalin’s regime. The horrors experienced by the people are unimaginable.
My only criticism of the museum is that it would have benefitted from more personal stories – Regina was able to tell me her family’s. The impact of history, I think, can only truly be felt if you can connect with the human side to tragedy. The museum had a lot of artefacts and old reel footage but not many individual stories – I think it needs more of those so that this dark period of Estonian history is not forgotten.
After that I had a nostalgic wander to my old halls of residence and a favourite cafe called Kohvik Narva that has been on Narva Maantee since 1947 and the interior certainly hasn’t changed since I was there in 1999! It still boasts an amazing array of delicious pastries and is still very cheap (was about €3 for coffee and a big piece of cake). Worth a 10 minute walk from the old town if you’re visiting!
Later in the afternoon I watched the England vs Wales match in Hell Hunt bar (where I am currently writing this blog post!)
Today I went for a bus ride to the TV tower. It was built for the Moscow Olympics in 1980 (rather cunningly really as it improved communications no end across the country). I went there with my then boyfriend (now husband) in 1999 when the tower had a revolving restaurant at the top! It was very Soviet and a bit bleak back then. A decision was made, after it had become unsafe, to revamp it and it reopened in 2012. It now has a great exhibition both about the role the tower played in Estonian independence in 1991 (foiling a coup – 4 men defended the tower from Soviet troops by sticking a matchbox in the lift to stop it working!) and the contribution Estonians are making now in the world – eg. Skype is an Estonian invention! There is a nice bistro where I had a light lunch and you can also walk around the edge and get views of Tallinn and the surrounding countryside. There is the opportunity to do an ‘edge walk’ for €20. You walk right on the edge of the lip of the top of the tower all the way around attached by ropes. I was tempted but decided that it was something to do with others that you dare each other to do! That’s my lame excuse!
It’s been great to be back here and find the old and familiar and be surprised and impressed by the new. Estonia is really a country on the up. You can see the positive impact being a member of the EU has had.
As someone in my church here said to me back in 2000 – you will always carry a bit of Estonia with you – he was right, I will!
Highly recommended for a delightful holiday break.
Here are some photos from my trip in a slightly mixed up order!