Travel and a bit of shopping
First published in FairLady, April 2015
Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, is still largely undiscovered and utterly enchanting. Apart from a brief boom in the nineties as well as catering for Finns on day trips that were looking for a cheap alternative to Helsinki (this is no longer the case); these days Tallinn – specifically the Old Town – is the antithesis of bustling.
It has an unique atmosphere with ancient, uneven cobbled streets and the fact that it’s ever so slightly shabby in parts, adds to its underestimated charm. This bit of Baltic had us savouring every minute of our stay.
The older part of Tallinn is one of the best preserved medieval cities of Northern Europe. The historical town centre of Old Tallinn feels Hanseatic, looks Hanseatic. Tallinn boasts the stronghold of Toompea (Dome Hill); one of the most powerful town halls in medieval Northern Europe; tapering slender spires and an almost unchanged irregular network of streets.
In the 10th-11th century a market place was established at the foot of Toompea, the upper part of the Old Town. This quickly developed into an urban settlement of artisans and tradesmen. To this day quirky street names such as Lühike Jalg (Short Leg) and Pikk Jalg (Long Leg) exist. One of the cannon towers – twenty of the original forty-six have remained intact – is called Paks Margareeta (Fat Margaret). A watch tower goes by the name of Kiek in de Kok as it enabled the guards to see into the kitchens of the surrounding houses.
In the past seven centuries leading up to 1991 Estonia has enjoyed independence for barely two decades. But Estonians are stubborn and they have always remained fiercely nationalistic – even during outright occupation by the USSR. From 1939–1949 a third of Estonia’s population was executed, deported, sent to labour camps or simply disappeared.
Old Tallinn is a fairytale realm of shadows, winding streets and churches. The Russian Orthodox Alexander Nevsky Cathedral with its five onion-shaped cupolas is strikingly ornate. Its icons are breath-taking and its 15-ton bell was imported from St Petersburg.
The austere yet handsome St Charles’s Church is in stark contrast to the Nevsky. Much of the interior of the Dome Church (Toomkirik) was destroyed in a fire in 1684; it has coats of arms on its walls and tombstones on the floor. St Nicholas Church has secret exits to the city walls, and spectacular chandeliers and pictures. The Holy Ghost Church was the first church to hold sermons in Estonian and its spire dates from 1688, making it the oldest spire in Tallinn.
EATING ESTONIAN (AND RUSSIAN)
Get swept up in the candle-lit atmosphere of Olde Hansa (Vana Turg 1, +372 627 9020, http://www.oldehansa.ee). Olde Hansa, once the home of a rich merchant, has no electrical light at all. Game sausages are made from bear, wild boar, elk, figs and almonds; sauerkraut is served as a side-dish. Try the honey or cinnamon beer.
Equally impressive is Troika (Raekoja Plats 15, +372 627 6245, www.troika.ee), an authentic Russian restaurant where a life-size bear beckons you down the stairs, subtly lit by samovars that have been transformed into lights. The menu ranges from kaaviar to “stroganoff of bear meat – available upon successful hunt” as the menu states.
A highlight for any foodie is Balthasar Garlic Restaurant (Raekoja Plats 11, +372 627 2404, www.balthasar.ee) in a medieval building with a view over the Town Hall Square. Next door is an apothecary first mentioned in 1422. The garlic vodka is positively lethal; the mezze platter set the garlicky tone for the rest of the meal; main courses range from salmon to duck to lamb; they even have a garlic-infused crème brulee on their seasonal menu. There is something (with garlic) – from appetizers to desserts – for everyone at this sleek establishment.
Dine in the elegantly tapestried rooms of The Stenhus Restaurant (Pühavaimu 13/15, + 372 699 7777, www.stenhus.ee) and enjoy the best haute cuisine available in Tallinn. Stenhus has a varied menu including Thick Pea Soup with Smoked Pork, Old Witch’s Casserole, Blood Sausages and Pork or Lamb Ribs. This is French meets Estonian food in a cosy yet elegant setting.
Seventy five steps away from the Town Hall you will find Kuldse Notsu Korts (Dunkri 8, +372 628 6567, www.notsu.ee). It has tongue-in-cheek flower boxes in the shape of elongated pigs on the outside – the name translates to The Golden Piglet – and superb Estonian cuisine on the inside. Herring is served with sour cream and boiled potatoes or with strawberries, onions and cream; other appetizers include “crispy pig ears” or a Mermaid’s Fish Platter for Two.
Not very far away – but then again, nothing is far away in Tallinn – is Le Bonaparte (Pikk 45, +372 64 64 444, www.bonaparte.ee) with austere yet impressive inter-leading dining rooms. It has subdued décor in fairly minimalist grey and muted blues that evoke images of a stormy day at sea. Le Bonaparte’s menu is based on classical French cuisine and everything they serve is prepared on the premises.
In 2000 Restoran Gloria (Müürivahe 2, +372 555 15 736, www.gloria.ee) was voted one of the top 100 restaurant establishments in the world by Conde Nast Traveler. Gloria Veinikelder is its more laidback sister. Both of these are located on the fringe of Old Tallinn, literally within the ancient city walls.
A slightly hidden gem by the name of Controvento (Vene 12, +372 644 0470, http://www.controvento.ee) is to be found in Katariina Kaik (St Catherine’s Passage), the prettiest alleyway in all of Tallinn. Although it does not have the ambience of many of the other restaurants, it serves outstanding Italian food in a relaxed and vibey atmosphere.
NEVER TRUST A (WO)MAN WHO DOESN’T DRINK
In the bottom left hand corner of the Town Hall a sign proclaiming Põdra Supp Uhke Maitsega (Proud to be an elk-flavoured soup) leads you to the entrance of Tristan ja Isolde (Raekoja Plats 1, +372 645 7919). In this tiny dungeon-like tavern they serve elk soup and traditional pies as well as pepper schnapps in typical medieval style and they pride themselves on their cheeky service. There’s no charge for the salty pickled gherkins provided you spear them from a giant vat yourself. A trident fork stands at the ready.
Maiasmokk (Pikk 16, + 372 64 64 079, www.kalev.eu/en/maiasmokk-cafe/cafe) is the oldest operational café in all of Estonia. The interior of Maiasmokk (Sweet Tooth) has remained unchanged for nearly a century. Back in 2000 people – through force of habit – queued for their coffee whether required to or not; these days this old-fashioned café still serves the same marzipan and wonderful cakes that it has been doing since 1864.
If for any reason you feel like a traditional Irish pub whilst you are visiting the Baltics, Molly Malone’s (Mundi 2, +372 631 3016, http://www.mollymalones.ee) is the place to go. They even serve “fresh and fruity” Two Oceans “from South Africa” as their house wine at three euro per glass. It’s a firm favourite amongst Estonian youngsters and on most nights traditional Irish music can be heard.
Enter the boudoir of Café Josephine (Vene 16, +372 641 8292, www.pierre.ee/est/cafe-josephine/ )to indulge in their potent Irish Coffees or their patisserie francaise.
If everything else is closing down because it is really getting late you can rely on the friendly staff of Munga Kelder (Vene 12, +372 644 4614, www.mungakelder.ee) to serve you your last drink. This Monk’s Cellar is the perfect place to end off your evening with a glass of Vana Tallinn, the traditional Estonian liqueur. A very extensive menu is also available.
PUT YOUR HEAD DOWN
For a boutique hotel experience second to none you can’t go wrong with the Schlössle hotel (Pühavaimu 13/15, +372 699 77 00, www.schlossle-hotels.com). It’s in the heart of the Old Town. Prince Charles, George Soros and Sting have slept here. The hotel has massive wooden beams, vaulted ceilings, an arched medieval cellar, and a restaurant where white-gloved waiters attend to you. After your meal you can relax in the Reading Room or in the Cigar Lounge.
St Petersbourg Hotel (Rataskaevu 7, +372 628 6500, http://www.hotelstpetersbourg.com) also belongs to the Schlössle group. This carefully restored boutique hotel reflects the style of the Russian merchant who first owned the building.
Taanilinna Hotel (Uus 6, +372 640 6700, www.tallinnhotels.ee) has exceptionally friendly staff who are keen to interact with their guests.
WHAT TO BRING BACK HOME
Don’t leave Tallinn without going to Helina Tilk (Lühike jalg 5, +372 671 0930, http://www.helinatilk.com). Helina makes functional ceramic kitchenware depicting the distinctive architecture of Old Tallinn. Other designs include naively drawn flowers as well as cartoon animals for the little ones.
Imagine our surprise when an extensive Carol Boyes display greeted us when we walked into Sepa Ari (Olevimägi 11, +372 6800 971, www.ross.ee). Apart from pewter, a wide range of forged metal objets from Estonian blacksmiths are on offer as well as flavoured teas from all over the globe.
At Bestwine (Harju 1, +372 622 8976, www.bestwine.ee) a wide range of international wines is available although no English is spoken; their website is in Estonian as well.
Draakoni Art Gallery (Pikk 18, +327 646 4110) is a small contemporary art gallery in a beautiful old building that is well worth a visit.
Just off Viru, the central pedestrian thoroughfare, you can’t help but notice the window display at Piret Kändler Ceramics (www.piretkandler.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org ). Expect to see whimsical tea pots and mugs that could have been used by Alice in Wonderland.
DON’T LEAVE WITHOUT
… imbibing glug, the Estonian version of mulled wine. Each establishment uses its own (secret) recipe that invariably includes some of the local Vaana Tallinn herbal liqueur as well as cinnamon, almonds, cardamom and ginger. A wedge of orange or lemon is optional.
… climbing to the top of Kiek in de Kok to look out over Tallinn.
… spending an afternoon people-watching at one of the many cafes on Raekoja Plats.
… visiting Alexander Nevsky Cathedral to have a look at its very ornate icons; try to time it in such a way that you will be able to attend a short prayer service – a very humbling experience.