Tallinn's Charm Offensive

Never trust a travel writer
Wallowing in wintry Tallinn reveals a city on the cusp of change. Come for moody medieval battlements and Baltic charm. Stay for the contemporary buzz, the eccentric museums and Modern Estonian eateries, along with the Soviet throwbacks and hipster hangouts.
– summary

We’re standing in the brooding bastions wondering where all the people went. Katrin Roomet, our guide, half-whispers in the darkness: “Tallinn is a split personality, from our sleepy winters made for dreaming by candlelight to our crazy summers with twenty-one hours of daylight.”

Welcome to wintry Tallinn, where a thaw is underway. We’re wallowing in the Cold War trail but being won over by mulled wine on a medieval marketplace. The drab KGB Museum was expected but the warm Estonian welcome was not. Beyond the fairy-tale Old Town, the Soviet imprint is fading fast. In its place is a Baltic buzz and an eccentric blend of medieval battlements and earnest museums. Off-season, the buzz is muted, making the Old Town more beguiling for history buffs.

Tallinn in midwinter means mulled wine and marzipan in cafes with steamed up windows. Parts of the upper town are deserted, framed by a stark skyline of steeples and skyscrapers. The Old Town is marooned in the Middle Ages once more, with its spooky passageways, moody turrets and Baltic merchants’ houses. There’s no sign of a stag party or a boisterous bunch of Finns. Clearly, winter has banished the Finnish booze cruises, leaving the city free for more sober dreamers.

Baltic merchant mansion © Lisa Gerard-Sharp
Baltic merchant mansion © Lisa Gerard-Sharp

Off-season, the Baltic buzz is muted, making the Old Town more beguiling for history buffs

Life seeps back in Town Hall Square (Raekoja plats), the medieval heart of Tallinn, built with Teutonic solidity, reflecting the city’s Baltic German heritage. Dominated by the Gothic town hall and ringed by pastel townhouses and quaint cafes, the square calls for sprinklings of snow. We wander through the winter market, tasting mulled wine and gingerbread and chatting to Estonian Russian craftsmen. It’s odd to buy hand-crafted cuddly bears from someone sounding like an ex-KGB agent.

In wintry Tallinn, it is not too fanciful to conjure up double agents and dead-letter drops in shady backstreets or lurking behind bleak Soviet blocks. Sandwiched between Russia and the West, Tallinn was the shady home of Cold War espionage and still leaves the slippery trail of a city once seething with spies. With its weaponry trained on NATO countries, Tallinn was a closed city for fifteen years after the Second World War. Even if Sovietisation is not a proud period in Estonian history, echoes of Russian espionage provide vicarious thrills for visitors steeped in John Le Carré spy novels.

It’s odd to buy hand-crafted cuddly bears from someone sounding like an ex-KGB agent

The Soviets used St Olaf’s Church spire, the city’s highest point, as their main radio and tv-jamming centre. This fine vantage point, bristling with battlements and baroque palaces, is a view freighted with fear as well as affection. Now a popular spot with patriotic citizens, it once symbolised Soviet power, much as the onion-domed Alexander Nevsky Cathedral symbolised Tsarist power in Tallinn. As night falls, we stand on the viewing platform, shivering, all memories of mulled wine in the market square erased.

Tallinn Art Nouveau © Lisa Gerard-Sharp
Tallinn Art Nouveau © Lisa Gerard-Sharp

After independence in August 1991, Tallinners tore down most hated Soviet symbols, from statuary to hammers and sickles, but certain grotesque relics remain. Even my cosy bedroom in the Nordic Hotel Forum overlooks a bleak Soviet block and former spy centre. The KGB Museum in Hotel Viru is a testament to treacherous times. Back in the Soviet ‘Seventies, this was both Estonia’s first skyscraper and a convenient spy centre. As foreign tourists were obliged to stay here, the KGB kept tabs on them from their secret eyrie on the 23rd floor. Now saved for posterity, the 23rd floor was officially never there but this secret spy centre shows that surveillance was a way of life. A drab, Soviet-style office and time-warp bugging centre exude a musty Soviet smell of yellowing lino, metallic blinds and sweaty operatives. The tour is even led by a chambermaid who worked there during the Occupation, if we can believe her, that is. 

Sovietologists or masochists can head to The Museum of Occupations for more chilling reminders of Soviet surveillance, from false walls and fish-eyed lenses to self-destructing briefcases. Instead, we resist the Spooks for a spooky wander through recent Estonian history via the Bastion Tunnels. Buried deep below the Old Town fortifications, these Swedish-built, 17th-century tunnels were repurposed for modern times. We burrow through passageways that acted as Soviet nuclear shelters, air-raid shelters during Soviet bombardment, haunts for the homeless, and a hiding place for Punk Rockers and protesters. A retro telephone connects us to Olga and Natasha, the mythical Soviet spies. In short, the Bastion Tunnels museum is earnest, intense and slightly bonkers, an utterly Estonian experience.

A drab, Soviet-style office and time-warp bugging centre exude a musty Soviet smell of yellowing lino, metallic blinds and sweaty operatives

Tallinn is full of weird and wonderful museums that seem unpromising but slowly work their spell. The Seaplane Harbour, housed in the cavernous, century-old seaplane hangar, formed part of the naval defences to protect St Petersburg. Today it’s Estonia’s most popular museum and home to seaplanes, submarines and a century-old ice-breaker. The shipyard’s most curious exhibit is the earliest Estonian submarine, made of wood. Called Lembit, it was commissioned from a British shipyard in Barrow-in-Furness in 1934. After clambering into the chief officer’s cabin, I note that it comes complete with a vodka drinks cabinet, more Baltics than Barrow-in-Furness.

Presumably, standards also had to be maintained in the mammoth, steam-powered ice-breaker moored in the harbour, which displays a grand piano in the officers’ mess. Lest we think that these waters are now calm, Hermann, our guide, tells us that minesweepers are still in action, searching for around 11,000 mines that remain undetected. And with Baltic sovereignty once more under threat from the Russian Bear over the border, Estonian waters remain a minefield.

Seaplane Harbour Museum © Lisa Gerard-Sharp
Seaplane Harbour Museum © Lisa Gerard-Sharp

For a change of tone, we hop on a tram to Kadriorg, a gracious, gentrified district encompassing a picturesque park, the Presidential Palace and St Peter the Great’s Baltic summer palace. Set on a limestone bluff in this leafy museum district is the capital’s showcase art museum. Futuristic and Finnish-designed, KUMU is a mecca for modern Estonian art. According to local expert Neil Taylor, “The most striking art is from the interwar period, the first period of Estonian independence, and also from the Soviet period.” But the art isn’t just propaganda, all Stalinist fists and workers’ rights. As leading conductor Paavo Jarvi says: “In a country that has only 1.5 million people, art and culture acquire an entirely different political dimension.” Estonia punches above its weight, in art and music, with the best-known Estonian “a composer, Arvo Part, not an athlete, not a rock star.”

Curiously, the museum is also a marker of intent, presenting a country no longer languishing in the Cold War and kowtowing to the Russians. This is more cool Tallinn than Cold-War Tallinn. The contemporary design, a blend of limestone blocks, bold copper and transparent glass, makes it feel like an Estonian mission statement. The implicit message is: we, too, are bold but transparent, aligned to our Baltic landscape. Estonia is resurgent, not a relic of Sovietisation.

As if to prove it, in the presidential palace in the park, Estonia’s first female president is beavering away. Technocratic Kersti Kaljulaid, also the country’s youngest ever head of state, is presumably planning Estonian’s assumption of the EU Presidency later this year. Hers is the forward-looking, tech-savvy face that Estonia seeks to project to the world. The country actively rebranded itself this year, presenting the boldest Baltic State as an open, smart, active, can-do country. Even the term `Baltic State’ is open to question in the new geopolitics. Toomas Hendrik Ilves, Estonia’s American-bred former President, goes so far as to liken the nation to a Nordic country, not a Baltic State. More accurately, Estonia feels neither soulless nor sanitised but an intriguing mix of buzzing Baltic and sophisticated Scandinavian, with the faintest Soviet imprint.

Tallinn entrepeneur Jaanus Juss © Lisa Gerard-Sharp
Tallinn entrepeneur Jaanus Juss © Lisa Gerard-Sharp

As a pawn in international power games, Tallinn does justice to its chequered past. It’s all still there, from the fairy-tale walled city founded by Danes to the Hanseatic trading history represented by the Baltic German mansions. Then there’s the Nevky Cathedral, symbol of Tsarist supremacy prior to Sovietisation and Stalinist tower blocks. Yet for every throwback to the Soviet era there is a regenerated neighbourhood or a reminder of an emergent Estonian culture.  Cultural tourism has pushed the saunas, striptease and stag parties into sleazier corners, leaving the best of Tallinn on full display. Modest though most Estonians are, their pride in the resurgent capital is clear.

There is an underlying earnestness to Estonia but it’s diluted by Old Town Tallinn charm and the warmth of snug cafes, soul food and sophisticated company. Almond-y aromas lure us into the Kalev Marzipan Room in the Old Town. We fail to resist the kitsch figurines made of marzipan, a sugary concoction that once served as medicine in the Middle Ages. As our guide Katrin points out, “Five hundred years ago marzipan was the happy drug of choice.”

Today’s happy drug is probably black bread, as homely and unpretentious as the people themselves. According to chef Janno Lepik, “Estonians don’t like pretentious food, stuffy service or overpriced menus but treasure creativity, food that is classy but casual.” His restaurant, Leib, meaning “bread,” lives upto his credo, with dishes rooted in tradition. Set in a secret garden in the Old Town, this laidback, Modern Estonian eatery delivers fresh, unfussy food, as genuine as the restaurant’s addictive rye bread. We tuck into butter-baked pumpkin, Estonian beef fillet and celeriac sauce.

Black bread in Leib © Lisa Gerard-Sharp
Black bread in Leib © Lisa Gerard-Sharp

“Five hundred years ago marzipan was the happy drug of choice - today's happy drug is probably black bread”

Dinner at MEKK is even more beguiling, its charms hidden behind stained-glass windows in the Old Town. This romantic restaurant serves Modern Estonian cuisine in a cosy yet stylish setting that is effortlessly Estonian. It’s all about seasonality, from autumnal mushrooms, sea-buckthorn, cloudberries and wild game to spring salads of spinach, nettle and sorrel. The chef describes his style as “full of contrasts but calm and harmonious by nature, just like the Estonian people.” Not that calmness abounds in the city. Tallinn’s youthful population has quietly spawned a clutch of hipster eateries, along with a cool coffee and craft beer scene.

Tallinn’s charm offensive is led by high-tech entrepreneurs and hipsters living in Shoreditch-style lofts and dining in industrial chic warehouses. But it’s a Baltic Shoreditch, at once more modest and more subversive. In spring, British Airways launches direct flights to cool Tallinn so catch the city on the cusp - before it undergoes yet another bewildering transformation.

For more on Estonia:

Visit Tallinn: www.visittallinn.ee/eng

KUMU, the national art gallery www.kumu.ekm.ee/en

KGB Museum: www.sokoshotels.fi

Estonia by Neil Taylor, Bradt Travel Guides: www.bradtguides.com

Copyright © Lisa Gerard-Sharp. All rights reserved.
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1 Comment

  1. Valery Collins13/03/17

    I have visited Tallinn 3 times over the last few years and it never ceases to delight me - so many diverse experiences relating to its interesting history, beautifully presented in a variety of museums and a cuisine that would be the envy of many other capital cities.

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