Mount Everest restaurant, Helsinki
So, that inauspicious start. I have a list of directions to all of my hostels on the trip, mostly taken from the hostels’ websites, and this was no exception. Except that the primary step to getting there involved getting a tram, and I did not know until 20 minutes of wandering and waiting and seeing not a single tram going in either direction that trams near the bus station are undergoing renovation and the tram lines there are, therefore, not running for the foreseeable future. Now mapless and tramless, I decided I’d try and walk there guided by intuition.
My intuition was less powerful however than the strain of my rucksack on my back, and so after 10 minutes of grumpy ambling I got fed up and flagged down a taxi. Fortunately this taxi driver was a fount of Estonian wisdom; happy to chat in English, he was also happy to supply snippets of trivia about the country, among them an apparently true story about how the Old Town remained mostly unscathed in World War II despite Soviet attempts to bomb it – apparently their pilots were given litres of vodka to calm their nerves, which obviously didn’t do much for their aim. He lived 40km outside of the city, in a house (a very big house) in the country, surrounded by forest with his nearest neighbours 1 1/2km away. The taxi ride was only €5 and it was worth it to have entertaining, informative company.
The hostel, Tallinn Backpackers, was manned by a real character called Victor, a Spanish travel writer whose blog makes money primarily due to his habit of living in a different foreign city for a year so he can write about integrating there as a foreigner. Since moving to Tallinn in January, turns of circumstance had seen him end up in charge of the hostel, which had effectively led to him abandoning writing for drinking, a large part of his life. Despite this, he was friendly, relaxed and helpful, and full of tips on where to eat, drink and party. Definitely one of the coolest hostel owners I’ve met (on a par with the legendary guy in Ohrid who I bonded with over football).
Following the previous night’s excess, I stayed in, moving only from my phone and charger on the sofa to play some games of table football with Victor and some of the hostellees – which I definitively sucked at – and briefly going outside to peruse the dining options at 9pm on a Sunday which, unfortunately for my unhappy stomach, were non-existent. An early night beckoned so I could go on the – you guessed it! – free walking tour at 12 the next day.
The guide, Myri, was one of the best tour guides I’ve come across – her year studying abroad in Ireland had given her a strange Estonian/Irish hybrid accent when she spoke English, but she was very funny, dry and self-deprecating and, of course, knowledgeable about the city. Over the course of the tour I grew more aware of why I felt Tallinn was disparate from Vilnius and Riga, despite being superficially similar. The language difference is huge and, despite the number of churches in the Old Town, the population was apparently largely agnostic or atheistic, unlike the other Baltic states; additionally, while Latvia and Lithuania are still undergoing modernisation, Estonia is so tech-savvy that it has earned the nickname E-stonia due to its reputation as a hub for internet start ups, the most successful among them being Skype, and having implemented online voting already.
During the two hours we passed the main sights of the Freedom Monument (nowhere near as nice as Riga’s and a bit of a disaster zone, with panels falling off and malfunctions at every turn); the hilariously named old tower Kiek in de Kok (sadly not an Estonian phrase meaning ‘A Well-Timed Foot To A Man’s Genitals’, but an old German one meaning ‘peek in the kitchen’ due to the high windows allowing soldiers to see through the wide chimneys of the old houses and into residents’ kitchens); the dainty Russian Orthodox persuasion Alexander Nevsky cathedral (nicer than the one in Sofia); the pink parliament building Toompea opposite; the top of the Old Town, from where you had a vantage point across the whole area and out to the sea; and the Gothic style Town Hall in the central square, with imposing spires and small, kitschy dragons’ heads adorning the top of the walls.
The sights were good, but my love of learning other countries’ histories was what was really being satiated, particularly with regards to how this small country of 1.3 million people freed itself from the USSR. There was some overlap between the other Baltic nations, but uniquely – not merely to the Baltic states, but across all the former Soviet nations – there was no blood spilt in asserting independence. It was known as the Singing Revolution, as after Gorbachev relaxed freedom of expression laws, the people began holding gatherings where they would sing Estonian nationalist songs, one of which ended up being partaken in by 200,000 people. That’s over 1/7 of the current population, which is pretty damn impressive.
Craftily, the Estonians also had a better idea of what was going on outside the hermetic bubble of the USSR than most: being just 80km from Helsinki, the people of Tallinn could pick up Finnish TV signals and peek behind the Iron Curtain. Myri recalled how the night that Emmanuelle, a French erotic film, was broadcast on TV in Finland for the first time, Estonians from across the country drove to visit friends and family in the capital so they could have a gander at ACTUAL FEMALE BREASTS on their TV. Reportedly, the birth rate spiked 9 months after the screening.
Despite not knowing where I was, my intuition guided me back to the right road and I knew it, so why wasn’t the hostel door opening? “Come onnn,” I whined plaintively at a piece of wood, “I know you’re the right door, opennn,” wrestling with the key. It only took 10 minutes for me to realise I was struggling with the wrong door, and my hostel was actually further up the road. Key in the right lock, it opened first time! Nailed it.
Needless to say I was ashamed of myself and have since sworn off drinking since. The state of fragility the next morning meant that watching Masterchef, reading, and doing the laundry were the only things I felt up to in the morning, although eventually hunger pangs set in and I tried proper Estonian cuisine at Kompressor, a restaurant near the Town Hall, which specialised in giant savoury pancakes. Victor had warned me that they were so filling you could never eat more than one in a sitting and, while I only ordered one, I was still surprised at just how much I struggled to finish it – over the course of the meal my feelings shifted from “Mmm, I must make this at home” to “I WILL EXPLODE FROM FULLNESS BEFORE I EVER MAKE IT HOME”. It was good if rather dry, but the moral of the story is: never underestimate a folded pancake.
Spoiler alert: I didn’t explode from fullness, and spent the rest of the day exploring the Old Town some more and even – gulp! – leaving it to see Linnahall, the neglected concrete beast built by the Russians for the 1980 Olympics to host the sailing events. (Moscow is landlocked.) It’s now covered in graffiti, splinters of glass vie for space with moss and weeds on the ground, and the only signs of life I saw were a couple using it as a bleak make-out spot and a thoroughly derelict nightclub called Poseidon. [Photoblog imminent.] It was nearish the port that I was to leave from the next day for Helsinki, so I wandered there for reference, but found nothing of note along the way.
Finally, if you choose to travel between Tallinn and Helsinki in either direction, read your ticket first so you know to be there 75 minutes before departure. Luckily I’d set my alarm for 9 so had plenty of leeway, but if I hadn’t – who knows…