Pre-train ticket fiasco I’d already been in touch with a lovely sounding CS host in Tallinn so it seemed churlish to refuse. What’s more, if you’re going to work through the Baltic States on your way back to the UK, you’re as well to start at the top and work down. Bloody Russians…
Anyway, all’s well that ends well so after an extra day with my lovely Latvian hosts, I hopped a glamorous Ecolines bus to Tallinn. I arrived at the bus station to meet my host with the instruction ‘meet me by No.1 bus sign. I’ll be wearing a hat and will have a black bike’. I in turn had told Rein to look out for red socks and the tell-tale backpack.
“Erm, are you the English couchsurfer?” a nice fella asked me as I squinted into the daylight looking for any sign that might represent the No. 1 bus sign (which, FYI, doesn’t exist).
Well, what luck to have not one but three members of the welcome committee! Our host Rein and my fellow couchsurfers Pol-Ewen and Will greeted me and plonked me on a tram bound for home, pedalling off with the wind in their respective beards to meet me there. Except Will and Pol got hungry and stopped off for a feed in the Old Town instead.
Rein and his two housemates live in a lovely apartment in the artistic/bohemian district of Kalamaja. (There’s quite a nice webpage regarding the different neighbourhoods of Tallinn here.) Remarkably for students (or not in Estonia, as it turns out) they are all deft cooks. Rein likes to bake rye bread at least once a week and will turn his hand to most other dishes in your average cookbook. Not that he needs a cookbook. The others too, so much so that we freeloaders inventively dubbed the house ‘the deli’.
Now. To teach you a little about Tallinn before I treat you to tales of ‘what I did on my holiday’.
The city is a medieval stronghold that somehow survived the ravages of war. The walls and watch towers remain largely in tact, if scarred by several hundred years of human politics. In the Central Square by the town stands the Town Hall, Europe’s only intact Gothic town hall. A queer but valid claim to fame. On the same square stands the oldest running pharmacy in Europe that used to sell dried frogs legs, worm skin and the blood of black cats but now sells more conventional stuff, like vitamins, pregnancy tests and sudafed. St Olav’s church with its 159m spire was from 1549 to 1625 the tallest building in the world…but then it got struck by lightening and burned down. When they rebuilt it, they capped the spire at 124m. It’s still pretty tall and a good viewpoint for illicit beers. The powers that be have taken the medieval theme and run with it so in the streets you’ll find jester creatures and serving girls hawking sugared cashews and almonds, amongst other things. Occasionally, they have a jousting festival.
They also stick unflinchingly to their own language, distinct from both Latvian and Lithuanian, nothing like Russian and a little like Finnish if you listen hard. There are 1.1million people in Estonia speaking it, plus a handful overseas. Quite an exclusive club. By no means everyone speaks English; many can only speak the local lingo. Product labels and instructions are legally obliged to print in Estonian but you’ll also find some Russia for the large alien population living here. In Narva, right on the border, 93% are native Russian speakers*, most don’t bother with Estonian at all and yet all the road signs and whatnot are resolutely Eesti. For me, it’s mad that a language unique to such a small population can be the genuine mother tongue, especially when they fight so hard to keep languages like Welsh alive. (I should add that I’ve been impressing my new friends with my Welsh sentences and words.) But it is in large part a reaction to the Soviet occupation that also encompassed Latvia (remember the Occupation Museum?). Estonians determinedly clung to their language and to their folk songs in an effort to retain their national identity.
That’s enough from teacher for now.
On my first night in the city, we went to Hell Hunt, one of the city’s great pubs with good, cheap grub, for a pint before a wander through the Old Town to Kolmas Draakon, a medieval-style tavern replete with gobby, buxom serving wench where everything is €1 or €2, pies are plentiful and pickles are complimentary. A promising start. We then picked up a bottle of Vana Tallinn – about a billion times better than the toxic Riga Balsam – went to the city’s viewing platforms and drank it admiring the sunset.
This was to set the theme for the week.
Rein and his friends a a cultural, musical, creative bunch. I can’t tell you what he actually does for a job as he skivved for two of the three work days that I was there. As befits such a group, they invest a fair amount of their time partying and for the time that I was there, I joined them and checked out a little of Tallinn’s music and nightlife scene. Tis very good.
This culminated in the others going for a swim in the Baltic one bitingly cold morning. I’ve learnt over the years that I really don’t like being cold and wet so I stayed on shore in my capacity as chief photographer and supped beer. Nevertheless, I doff my cap at the brave.
By day, we explored the city on bikes or on foot. I recommend the flea market behind the train station for brilliant Soviet bric-a-brac. I yearned for the Lenin clock but my backpack said no. Also in this area is a jazzy redeveloped warehouse complex – F-hoone – with cafe, sprawling junk shop, ethno-tat shop and some sculpture. Kumu art museum is a spectacular building with a great collection and good music venues, plus it’s set in the delicious Kadriorg Park, established by Peter the Great (him again) for his missus, Catherine.
Talvi, one of the housemates, invited us to join her on a trip to her family home in the countryside. Her name translates as ‘Winter Wolf’ which is alone enough justification for me so we mounted the bikes one bleary-eyed morning and set off on the train for the little town of Keila from where it was a short 10km pedal to her homestead.
You have never seen so many mosquitoes. The game of swatting them was so easy with the sheer volume that it almost – almost – became tiresome. But I never weary of killing mosquitoes, especially when I saw what they had done to my back. Really, what role do they play in the ecosystem that is so vital we can’t just wipe them out? Answers on a postcard.
We came to enjoy the greenery but also to forage for freshly-reaped food. Strawberries, cherries, rhubarb, lettuce, tomatoes, herbs, radishes, beans, peas, apples and everything else besides is grown at Talvi’s house, and most other gardens in the country, it seems. Yummy yummy.
A lovely day wound up with a lot of beers and banter back in the city.
“You know,” started Rein as we hung out of the window smoking liquorice rollies, “you really can’t judge people by the cover. The longer you spend with them, the more pages you read.” I took this as a thinly veiled reference to myself, seeing how I’m a stubborn nut to crack, but as a compliment at the same time. “Yes!” agreed his girlfriend, Judith. “And don’t you hate it when you know someone’s reading you all wrong and there’s nothing you can do about it?”
My but they’re ruminative, these Baltic folks.
With my liver beginning to ache and the haunted look of too many late nights, I bid Tallinn a sad farewell and went in search of wholesome goodness on the island of Saaremaa. It’s famous for being idyllically rural and I was bound for a little eco-farm where I could absolve my sins through virtuous hard labour. Or at least, that was the plan.
* I should mention that Narva’s population is, ahem, coarse. Here they have a fairly big problem with the evil drug, Krokodil, a derivative of morphine that steadily rots the user’s skin. I believe it functions as a social indicator.