ScandiBaltics Diary #3: The Time I Went To Tallinn And Ended Up On A Cider-Fuelled, Bad-Karaoke-Involving Rampage With A Paralytic Australian (Estonia)

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23rd April, 20:22 (BST+2)
Mount Everest restaurant, Helsinki
Thus far I have liked, but not loved, Vilnius and had mixed feelings about Riga. I had preemptively begun to idly wonder if I’d love any of the cities on my route, and then I got to Tallinn – which, despite an inauspicious start, I can safely say I grew to love.
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It’s not like I hadn’t been warned it was beautiful, but when you’ve been to lots of lovely cities in Europe you start to doubt whether anything will live up to the hype. But it did! It’s fairytale-beautiful; all winding streets and pretty churches, faux medieval restaurants and charming window displays. One cafe had a Ferris wheel in the window, except there weren’t miniature people going around on it but delicate china teacups. It’s also less crammed with tourists than Riga – I’d expected them to be equally busy, but it was a welcome discovery.
Cute lampshade by the Maritime Museum.

Cute lampshade by the Maritime Museum.

 

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.

 

Charming graffiti part 2

Charming graffiti part 2

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.

 

A Stitch, abandoned on the building opposite the hostel.

A Stitch, abandoned on the building opposite the hostel.

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).

The hilariously named Kiek in de Kok.

The hilariously named Kiek in de Kok.

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.

 

Ye olde alleyway.

Ye olde alleyway.

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.

 

Toompea; the Estonian Parliament building.

Toompea; the Estonian Parliament building.

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.

 

City Hall.

City Hall.

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.

 

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I paid Myri €10 for the tour – more than usual seeing as she had been such an entertaining host – and went to find a chocolaterie I’d been recommended called Chocolats du Pierre. The Pierre’s Hot Chocolate Special – with cream, ice cream, chocolate sauce and ginger – was divine. Mmm, calories. The shop was situated down a cute artisan hideaway with cobbled streets and workshops tucked into the city walls, just off one of the main roads, while the cafe itself had been styled in a quirky antique shop manner.
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Dinner had been on my agenda, but Victor, along with an Australian and a Canadian hostellee, had different ideas. We went to Koht, a bar so expertly hidden that I doubt I could find it even if it were marked on a map, and home to over 600 beers and ciders, many of which were on display and a great many more squirrelled away. I tried 3 new ciders; Henney’s dry cider (alright), Burrow Hill cider (tasted weirdly like bacon), and Estonia’s only draught cider, Humalaga Siider (lovely). Growing steadily more intoxicated, we went to pick up more partiers from the hostel, via a quick game of table football with the Australian – a closely fought contest that I eventually lost.
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Koht bar.

Joined by a Canadian girl and Diego, another Spaniard who worked at the hostel, we went to our sister hostel The Monk’s Bunk, and played Ring of Fire. Due to constantly being screwed over on the Waterfall rule, this added another three ciders to my tally for the evening, albeit all the same brand – an overly sweet yet diluted rip-off of Rekorderlig (the best drink of all time) called Kiss. Finally primed for karaoke, we hit the road to the Red Emperor hostel.
Ohhh dear. I’ve never done karaoke before and based on this, I will never do it again. Despite being six ciders to the good, I still decided it was a great idea to have a bottle of the dreaded synthetic Somersby cider to give me Dutch courage on behalf of the whole group. For reference, Dutch courage = requesting Barbie Girl for all of us to sing. It was our turn after a group of excited Swedes, who in rampaging onto the stage to sing their song of choice (I Follow Rivers – Lykke Li) had trapped me up there, and – knowing the song – I ended up joining in, much to their confusion. However, my absolute conviction that I knew all the words to Barbie Girl were misplaced, as I somehow forgot some of the lyrics to the second verse. We’ll blame the cider. We’ll also blame it for me basically yelling the whole song into the microphone – not that the others were much better – and then for deciding to do my classic drunken disappearing act, slinking off to the hostel without telling anyone, or indeed thinking to tell anyone.
Humalaga Siider.

Humalaga Siider.

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.

Australian Guy stumbled through the door about 10 minutes later and, finding the floor his room was on, proceeded to lay on the floor in the hallway and repeatedly say in his strong Ozzie brogue, “I’m a piece of shit.”
“No you’re not,” I reassured him.
“Yes I am,” he slurred, “Don’t know what I’m doing.”
“Me neither,” I sighed, deciding not to confide in him as he started sliding his legs to and fro and gurgling about snow angels.
“I’m a piece of shit,” he drawled again, before adding that I could go to bed if I wanted.
“Are you sure you’re not going to die?” I asked, concerned that he would choke on his own vomit.
“I won’t die,” he said firmly, still making imaginary snow angels with his legs.
Freedom Monument by night.

Freedom Monument by night.

Satisfied I’d done my good deed for the day, I hopped up the stairs to my room. As I entered, the guy in the bed next to the door fell out of it, naked as the day he was born, butt cheek shining in the shards of moonlight that peeked between the curtains. He sleepily gathered his sheets together and clambered back into the bed, flaccid member dangling freely. No sooner had I judged his poor life decision (who sleeps naked in a mixed-sex dorm?!) than I entered my contribution for Hypocrite of the Year 2015; inadvertently showing your wang to strangers is one level of poor etiquette, but puking in a top bunk while someone is sleeping in the bottom bed is quite another, let alone being so tired and inebriated that sleeping in the mess seems a reasonable idea. Two French girls left the room in disgust, which sobered me up enough that I decided it was probably best to try and clean up. Fortunately my genius plan of chundering into a chocolate wrapper, while ultimately failing in its goal to keep mess to a minimum, did at least succeed in keeping it to the bedsheets and off the floor/girl in the bottom bunk, so all I had to worry about was my hair, clothes, bed linen and undersheet. And get rid of that chocolate wrapper.
Hangover cure.

Hangover cure.

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.

 

Linnahall

Linnahall

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.

 

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For dinner I went to Drakken III, a medieval-themed restaurant located in the Town Hall that takes method dining to the extreme – there was no electricity, just candlelight, and no cutlery. However in the candelight I could not see if I had enough Euros to get even a 2-euro bowl of elk soup, so I had to go to an ATM, and by the time I’d found one, I got sidetracked by pizza… oops.
Drakken III.

Drakken III.

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…

Signing off,
Jen

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