Saturday, 10 December 2011

ESTONIA'S GOT TALLINN — AND BOY, CAN THEY SING

HOT SPOT: Old Town Square and Town Hall in summer
COLD COMFORT: Snowy Square in the dead of winter

THERE are several ways to meet your maker prematurely in Tallinn’s Old Town in winter. You can wander along the pavement and get your skull skewered by a giant icicle falling from a roof, though it’s a rare occurrence. Rarer still, you can be flattened by a rock from outer space — Estonia is the most meteorite-cratered place on Earth. Or you can be killed by kindness.
Walk in the middle of the narrow sidestreets where cars are few and far between and you’ll avoid the icicles (with meteorites you’ve had it), but you can’t avoid the warmth and hospitality extended to visitors.
On a freezing cold February evening, the welcoming smile from waitress Jaana in the Olde Hansa Restaurant (Vana Turg 1, Old Town) where 12 of us sat down to a candlelit banquet would have melted Antarctica. I could have listened all night as she described each piled platter in perfect, singy-songy English which was music to my ears. If she ever decides to release a CD of her simply reading the menu — everything is prepared and cooked following centuries-old recipes — I’ll buy a pile of them as Christmas presents.
For three hours, 11 of us shared 18 delectable dishes featuring game sausages, juniper ripened beef, marinated bear, salmon, roast rabbit, wild boar and several birds which may well have included a partridge in a pear tree while the sole vegetarian pushed some ginger turnip around her plate. All this was accompanied by countless mugs of ice-cold lager, honey beer and shots of schnapps, and when the bill arrived it was delectable too, at €40 a head.

BELLES OF THE BANQUET: Waitresses at Olde Hansa
Food and drink are, on the whole, reasonably priced. A generous three-course dinner in a decent restaurant costs an average €20 a head, a fast food meal is about €2 and a pint of lager can be had for €2.50. I was amazed to find a pint of Guinness for €4.40. In my experience it’s always a lot more expensive outside of Ireland. Take the ferry to Helsinki, just 80km north of Tallinn, and you’ll pay up to €9. Smoking’s banned in bars and restaurants throughout Estonia, so you’ll have to light up outside or in the ventilated rooms provided (a packet of Marlboro Gold costs €3).
Traditional dishes are big on fish — umpteen variations of herring and salmon are favourites — and meat. Lots of meat, much of it preserved in jelly, reflecting the cuisine’s peasant origins. The Estonians, who’ve galloped into the 21st century and embraced it in a bear hug, generally can’t stomach spicy food, but they’re masters at concocting herb-rich sauces, so it’s by no means the land that thyme forgot. It would be wise, though, to keep in mind that the last person publicly executed in the main square was a guy who complained about a bad omelette, so think twice before sending anything back to the kitchen.

CURE-IOSITY: Lunchtime outside Town Hall Pharmacy
I skipped breakfast following my night in Olde Hansa and, more out of necessity than curiosity, popped into the historic Town Hall Pharmacy in the square where they’ve been dispensing hangover cures since 1422 (it’s the oldest apothecary in the world). Among the remedies on display in jars in its mini museum are sun-bleached dog turds, a deer penis, a mummified human hand and a toilet brush that turned out to be a hedgehog when I put my glasses on. Fortunately for me, they also stock Alka-Seltzer, but unfortunately for the 15th century Brotherhood of Blackheads, a local guild of unmarried merchants (no wonder with a name like that), Clearasil didn’t reach the pharmacy until independence in 1991.
Not one drop of blood was spilled during the four-year campaign that led to Estonia’s break from the Soviet Union and became known as the Singing Revolution. It began in 1987 when, instead of holding secret meetings and breaking into weapons stores, the Estonians held hands and broke into song during spontaneous demonstrations. The protests reached a crescendo on September 11, 1988, when more than 300,000 people — a quarter of the then population — came together in Tallinn’s Song Festival Grounds and sang every banned patriotic hymn in the book.
The country’s political leaders could no longer ignore the wishes of the people, so they added their voices to the snowballing independence movement and on August 20, 1991, nearly two years after the Berlin Wall came down, Estonia was finally free, though it was another two years before the last Red Army troops went home.

HYMN AND HERS: Women's choir at the Song Festival
The Soviets have gone, but they’re far from forgotten. On the 23rd (top) floor ­— which didn’t officially exist — of Tallinn’s Hotel Viru, KGB operatives spent  20 years snooping on unsuspecting foreign guests via phone taps and listening devices in 60 of the 516 rooms and bugs in the restaurants, bars and other public areas. Today, the area behind the thick steel door is the KGB Museum (www.sokoshotels.fi), one of the quirkiest and most popular attractions in the city.
It’s not much to look at, just a few tatty rooms with desks, chairs and the wire-spewing remains of receivers, transmitters and tape recorders, but guide Jaana told a fascinating and entertaining tale of intrigue during the one-hour tour (€7). Opening a drawer, she took out a purse and showed the small explosive charge sewn into it — a nasty surprise for an unwitting thief, who would end up even more light-fingered. Then she pointed to an ashtray full of cigarette butts on a desk. “The KGB left in a hurry,” said Jaana. “Whatever equipment they could carry, they took away. Everything else was destroyed or ripped from the walls. Look at the mess. They didn’t even empty the ashtray on their way out!”
So secret was this spy base, which also monitored every phone call, telex and fax in and out of the hotel, that the lifts don't go beyond the 22nd floor, where there are great views of the Old Town and the Baltic from the balconies on three sides. Another photo opportunity, in the museum itself which recently won a well-deserved tourism award after just 10 months in operation, is the bright red telephone — the former hotline to the Kremlin. Tours are restricted to two dozen people at a time, so pre-booking is a must.

I SPY: The red hotline to the Kremlin
The Cold War’s over, but the cold winter weather is an inescapable feature of life in Tallinn. February, the driest and chilliest month, sees an average daily high of 30.7F/minus 1C and gets 17 days of snow. October is the wettest with an average monthly 83.4mm of rain, and July is the warmest (71.8F/22C).
While most overseas visitors descend on the city in the summer, snow turns it into a winter wonderland best viewed from a window seat in any of the quaint cafes with a mug of steaming hot chocolate and some marzipan nibbles. We can thank the Town Hall Pharmacy for marzipan. According to the Estonians, this staple ingredient of wedding cakes was invented there by a sweet-toothed apprentice 200 years ago, but confectioners in the German Baltic coast town of Lubeck beg to differ, insisting it was first produced in the local Niederegger marzipan works, also 200 years ago.
The bragging rights have for generations been the subject of a bitter, or rather, bitter-sweet dispute that came to a head in 2005 when Niederegger boss Willi Meier announced plans to celebrate his factory’s gift to the world with a series of festivities. “Oh, really?” said Otto Kubo, the founder of Tallinn’s marzipan museum. “We’ll see about that.” And he organised a big party as well. The argy-bargy is still going on, with no clear winner in sight, except perhaps for both town’s dentists.
What’s beyond dispute is that Estonian software engineers were the masterminds behind Skype, the computer application much loved by grannies that allows 663 million registered users worldwide to make free voice and video calls over the internet. Founded in 2003, it has kept loved ones often separated by continents in touch and, after changing hands a couple of times, was bought earlier this year by Microsoft for $8.5 billion.

KEEP IN TOUCH: Free wifi everywhere
Estonia is internet-mad. Voting in parliamentary elections is done online, as are 98 per cent of bank transactions and 92 per cent of tax declarations. And free wifi, financed by the state, is available everywhere in Tallinn, including shops, bars, restaurants, parks and on buses. The government views it as a fundamental right, though it doesn’t half kill conversation with so many people tapping away at their iPhones and Blackberries. I thought the Perfect Silence Festival held every February might have had something to do with Facebook fanatics getting together for a couple of days of mute messaging, but it’s actually a packed programme of classical music concerts.
The Estonian language, most closely related to Finnish with some Hungarian influence, is fiendishly difficult for foreigners to learn, but it does throw up some comic combinations if your sense of humour is of the sniggering schoolboy variety. For example, one of the historical attractions on the Tallinn tourist trail is a formidable artillery tower dating from 1475 with enemy cannonballs still embedded in its four-metre-thick walls. It’s called Kiek in de Kok (tee-hee!), meaning “peek in the kitchen”, though the name does have its roots in old German. The 38-metre high tower stands on a series of massive earth bastions riddled with long, deep tunnels that have been used over the centuries as storerooms for munitions, air raid shelters and, until they were opened to visitors, a hangout for the homeless and punk rockers. It’s rumoured that the world hide-and-seek champion is still down there somewhere, praying to be found.

WHAT'S IN A NAME: The historic Kiek in de Kok Tower
Talking to God isn’t high on the pragmatic Estonians’ priority lists. Only 14 per cent of the 1.35 million population (412,000 live in Tallinn) profess religious beliefs, and they’re mainly Lutherans. That said, the capital's full of splendid churches reflecting 800 years of influence by various faiths. The 12th century Saint Olav’s was, for 76 years from 1549, the tallest church in the world at 159 metres, but a lightning strike and ensuing fire in 1625 destroyed the spire, which the Soviets used as a surveillance point and radio mast for blocking broadcasts from Finland from 1964 until 1991. After several rebuildings and remodellings it now stands at a still impressive 124 metres and is the tallest building in Estonia, with a 360-degree viewing platform near the top.
There’s only a couple of famous Estonians known beyond the country’s shores. Model Carmen Kass, the former face of Dior’s J’adore and a chess whiz, is from Tallinn. Her hero, grandmaster Paul Keres, who was born in Narva in 1916 and died in Helsinki in 1975, was honoured with a state funeral attended by 100,000 people, and in 2000 was named Estonian Sportsman of the Century. His portrait appeared on the 5 krooni banknote, and just about every household kept one when the euro became the sole legal tender last January.
The lack of notable names on the world stage in no way demeans fiercely proud Estonia’s reputation. A stroll through the Old Town will quickly show why Tallinn is known as Europe’s most beautiful medieval capital. If that’s not something to sing about, I don’t know what is.

HIGH CHURCH: Saint Olav's soars above the Old Town
TALLINN FACT FILE
FLY: See www.ryanair.com for flights to Tallinn from Dublin. Estonian Air (www.estonian-air.com) flies from Heathrow and Gatwick.
STAY: The Merchant’s House Hotel (www.merchantshousehotel.com) is in the heart of the Old Town at Dunkri 4/6, just off the main square. Rooms cost from €89 a night including hot and cold buffet breakfast and use of the sauna.
EAT: Kuldse Notsu Korts (The Golden Piglet Inn), next door to the Merchant’s House, serves traditional dishes with the emphasis on pork. Hell Hunt (The Gentle Wolf, Pikk 39), where a big plate of fish and chips costs only €5, has a sign on the wall that reads: “Large groups and stag parties are not welcome. Management reserve the right to evict disturbing customers.” Now, that’s my kind of pub/restaurant, and it brews its own lager and dark beer which are great. NEH Padaste Manor Seasonal Kitchen in the City (Lootsi 4) offers a two-course lunch for €13 and three-course dinner for €22, and the walls are given over to exhibits of Estonian artists’ work. MEKK (Suur-Karja 17-19, Old Town) sources most of the produce used in the kitchen from Estonian organic suppliers, and three courses cost €30. Restaurant Tchaikovsky in the 5-star Telegraaf Hotel (Vene 8, Old Town) is very posh, which is reflected in the prices, so it’s more of a special treat venue. The cuisine is a fusion of Russian and French, and it’s one of those places where diners photograph each dish to show off to their friends.