Wednesday, June 08, 2016

Tallinn


"Enormous portions" is what got my attention. A cheap-looking food place, not so far from the old town square, ragged looking tables, a television up on the opposite wall mutely playing what clearly seemed like a soap-opera, and an almost empty bar counter at this odd, 5 pm hour: I had almost walked past Kompressor, a legendary pancake pub in Tallinn Old Town, my first gastronomical delight in the Baltics. Flying into Tallinn in the afternoon via Moscow, my first impressions of the town were of a quintessential European city with a strict, Russsian demeanour of its people. The Gothic charm of Europe, replete with its cobbled streets, cathedrals, and cafes is seamlessly juxtaposed here with the sternness of Russia (or at least how it seemed to me). The lady at the Kompressor service counter took my request for a smoked-salmon and cheese-filled pancake with characteristic nonchalance, as I mentally prepared myself to devour what was claimed as enormous.

One-third of entire Estonia lives in Tallinn, a port city of the erstwhile Hanseatic League (Bergen is another city on the map of Hanseatic merchants I wrote about earlier). With just about half a million people, it still isn't one of those crowded places, but does attract the highest number of tourists in the Baltics. The history of Estonia is that of a damsel in distress that has undergone so many occupations and change of names over the last several centuries that it is tough to remember. Russians have been here the longest, and have evidently left the most influence. One of Tallinn's rulers built a wall around the city in the 13th century, a common fortification strategy of medieval times, and large portions of the wall and its subsequent reinforcements are still preserved. I chose to pay a small price to climb up the Munkadetagune Tower and stroll on a section of the old wall very near to the Viru Gate, one of the eight or so gates that were part of the original wall. The entire area inside the walls is what forms the Old Town of Tallinn: a postcard-perfect UNESCO World Heritage zone of old houses, churches, and cafes. Outside of the wall lies contemporary Tallinn, a bustling modern city with glass buildings that made it Europe's silicon valley: a city with the highest number of startups per capita. One shouldn't be surprised at the quirky signs near the airport such as "You might not need to struggle for armrest space today, jus' saying" posted by Skype, a company whose hometown is Tallinn.

Exploring the entire Old Town on foot is easy with a map available almost anywhere; I picked up mine from the Red Emperor Hostel, my abode for two days in Tallinn old town that happens to be as funky a place as any dormitory in major European cities. Google Maps, unfortunately, doesn't allow saving the city limits through its Offline Areas feature, though relying on printed maps often does a better job of identifying landmarks. The labyrinthine streets are a delight to explore, and churches and cathedrals pop up after every few turns; most being Orthodox or Lutheran from years of German and Prussian occupation instead of Roman Catholic. Eastern Orthodox churches do not believe in papacy and consider all bishops as equals. Lutherans are also a class of Protestants who reject papal supremacy and emphasize the priesthood of all believers. I visited the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, Tallinn's largest Orthodox Cathedral during its evening prayers, and walked out with no clue of the prayers except a sweet peaceful sound reverberating in the mind. Since prayers must be followed by food, I continued my hunt for authentic places away from the rather touristy Town Hall Square. A larger-than-life sample of the smallest pizza on the menu of Pizza Grande on Väike-Karja street convinced me that Estonians are generous with food everywhere, and love their pork and beer.

A major attraction outside of the old town is the Lennusadam Seaplane Harbour museum that easily takes about half a day to explore. It contains several wooden and motorized boats from different centuries, ice yachts, dinghies, buoys, sea mines, a seaplane, air defence systems from the Soviet Era, the original 60 mts long submarine 'Lembit', and one of the most powerful 1914-made icebreaker Suur Tõll anchored at the quay. Walking inside the 1936-made Lembit and exploring its torpedoes, staff quarters, control rooms, and engines is an enigmatic experience, and is worth the €14 entry ticket to Lennusadam. I also tried the keefir at the museum's café Maru in addition to sumptuous chicken skewers on orzotto bed. Turns out, keefir is to Estonia what plain lassi is to India. Adjacent to the Seaplane museum is the Patarei Merekindlus, a Soviet era prison that's now converted into a museum and interestingly, houses a quaint graffiti-painted bar by the beach: a gem of a secluded place that's away from the hustle-bustle of the old town.

Tallinn has been an alluring entry point to rest of the destinations in the Baltics on my radar. A land of summer sunshine where the light refuses to part with the sky even at midnight, Estonia elevates itself to mystical proportions.

About that enormous pancake meal at Kompressor? No, I couldn't finish even half of it!


1 comment:

ColorOfLife said...

Oh seriously Vivek! Have I missed so much ??:)
Must be having sleepless midnight..aren't you...all geared up for the Adventure :)