Tallinn - getting medieval on my ass

Trip Start Jun 29, 2005
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Trip End Nov 30, 2009


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Thursday, January 12, 2006

It was with a little sadness that I packed my bags and departed St Petersburg early one drizzly and dreary morning.

Despite the hard work I'd enjoyed my time in Russia and was leaving some great places, beautiful women and new friends behind. All I will have for the time being is fond memories and a few invitations to return, which will come in handy whenever I want to visit again without the expense and restriction of formal tours - a handy thing indeed.






At least the bus ride to Estonia was far more interesting than most in my recent travels. The large fort at Ivangorod/Narva border post reminded me that this has been a long-defined boundary between two parent-child related nations (if you chose to believe the Soviet's line back then). The multitude of vapour trails streaking across the sky overhead as the sun set was evidence that this is a more important route than most give it credit for, even if the travel utilises airspace only. A number of large and intriguing hillocks dotting the landscape also caught my eye. It's a long-shot but I'd hazard a guess that they may be burial mounds, suggesting a richer and more complex local history than expected at first glance from the frozen expanse.



Tallinn was the main prize however. Eventually the slowest bus in the world did make it, covering 300km in seven hours and wasting a whole day (cheers Eurolines) but in the end it was well worth the wait. Because this is a magnificent little city, home to half a million educated and urbane residents (Estonia has a population of 1.5 million) and some stunning medieval cityscapes that blew my mind as I walked around town. I don't know the exact age of the place, but it is old, and it has the feel that apart from a few paint-jobs and a recent infusion of high technology, it hasn't changed much in all this time. There's goes my expectations out the window again...



Main attractions around the 'old town' are the town square, fortification walls, the churches and a variety of museums. A number of significant sections of defensive wall are still in place, the most extensive and accessible being those on the northern border (near a groovily-named lane called the 'Laboratorium'). For a small fee you can climb up onto the ramparts and into the conical towers guard towers, poke your head out of arrow slits and generally imagine yourself as a defender looking out over the barren land on the other side of the wall. Watch out that you don't come too close to the local pigeon population, they leave deposits everywhere as my leather glove can attest. On the other side of town the wall houses a market of wool stalls where some decent deals for very warm clothing can be found.



The churches are pretty noteworthy too. They seem to be based on a randomly diverse set of styles and designs, dating from 1410 onwards. The city takes a lot of pride in these structures, meticulously maintaining them despite the fact that I don't think I ever saw anyone actually enter one. They are scattered all over the town and each is worth a ponder as you pass on by.



St Olaf's was the tallest building in the world for a period of a hundred or so years to the mid 17th century. Another has a funky clock built into the side of it which may conspire to help parishioners of an opposing church miss their service, because it always shows the wrong time. Most are more gothic in appearance than the Russian orthodox churches further east and all feature complicated but beautiful stained glass windows which still seems to be a speciality of craftsmen in the town.



Other sights near the square include St Catherines walk, an enclosed walkway that leads by a Dominican monastery, and Europe's oldest working pharmacy. The Raeapleek was first mentioned in writings of 1422 and displays everything from old mortar and pestles to equally old ointment vials and cash registers. Oh well, beats an abacus and a dose of the plague.



The thing I most like about this place is the little details as you walk around town. Cobblestones but few cars on every windy street. Arched wooden doors with strange geometric patterns adorning them, vibrantly painted buildings, the liberal use of consonants and vowels in Estonian words and place names. All very north European and Scandinavian. Couple this with fine food, more beautiful women and a progressive 'move on from the recent past' attitude and you have a great little place for both work, rest and play. Come summer and the place would be awash with tourists I'd say.



Night descends early in winter and like many places the town lights up, leaving locals and visitors alike to ponder the architecture from new angles and find haven in their favourite restaurants and watering holes. I stayed at a hostel called Old Town which despite a strange layout and some very slipshod management seems to attract a reasonably hip young crowd of travellers at any time of the year. I was a little concerned that I'd get here and there would be no-one about, but I needn't have worried, there was plenty of people to enjoy the nightlife with.



Karen (another Sydneysider from the cultural group on the Trans-Mongolian rail journey) were amazed to find probably the world's first and only bar ('baar' in Estonian - I love these words) dedicated solely to the band Depeche Mode. Bit of a shocker for the barman having to listen to the same music every night and was no wonder the place was empty - more than a drink or two and it grates on you as well. Another night a bunch of young and zany Lithuanian psychology student joined us for a a few drinks around town which meant German beer-houses, hookah pipes (practicing for Egypt) and breakbeats at Popular Cafe and the strangely-named but great value Hell Hunt bar.

In the end, it is a small place so four days may be a little long for those with short attention spans or an aversion to history and architecture. I had no problem with it though, as it was a lovely (even if a little expensive) place to rest up before the storm that promises to be Sweden comes my way. Despite frigid conditions we even managed to get out of town for a day, so check the next entry for a short write up on the Estonian countryside. Until then, keep trekkin!

Next entry -> Ice panic in Haapsalu

Now that's service!

I'm quite sure they have this system elsewhere, but in all my travels free Wifi hasn't been as widespread or easily accessible as it has been in Tallinn, even in supposed technology hubs such as Singapore and now Stockholm. Many bars and cafes around town sport a sign like this, indicating where you can take your laptop and surf free over an excellent broadband while having a munch or a drink.



Absolutely brilliant for a technotrekker like me, just make sure you have a personal firewall running.
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