Friday, 30 September 2011

A Holiday In Estonia

Sorry it's taken a while to get around to this, but I've been busy/coming painfully back online after the summer.

We decided to go to Estonia this summer for a few days by ourselves. We've been married twenty years (cripes!) and reckoned we deserved some 'us' time. Unusually, we didn't bother to research it or in any other way look into where we were going. We had the vague notion it would be something like Prague (a city we both love lots) and just, well, booked it.

One of Sarah's parents very kindly gave her a coffee table book on Estonia. We didn't even open the cover until we'd got back.

So you can see we richly deserved to end up somewhere awful. Instead, we ended up in a city we will always look back on with fondness and delight. Tallinn is truly, wonderfully, jaw-droppingly glorious.

Estonia was, of course, part of the Soviet Union, until the people took to the streets in 1991, held hands and sang. The 'singing revolution' ended up with an unbroken line of people stretching from Estonia through Latvia and Lithuania. The Soviets took one look at the whole crazy lot of them and threw up their hands, said 'sod this' and went back to Russia. One of Tallin's quaintest museum ideas (sadly quite badly executed, but still worth a wander) is 'The Museum to Soviet Uselesness'. It's a marvellous revenge

We stayed at the Telegraph Hotel in Tallinn's old town. The walled medieval city is a UNESCO Heritage Site liberally dotted with museums, craft shops, galleries and restaurants. The Telegraph is very funky indeed, although lacked a decent bar/lounge/guest area. That and the fact they hired out their garden to a corporate gig, which rather meant guests had nowhere to go that day but the restaurant or the scattered seats in the lobby that forms the only 'bar' area - I did find that an odd decision. The restaurant, the 'Tchaikovsky' is pricey by Estonian standards, (You'll pay about 160 Euro for two with drinks) but the food was tremendous.

Happily installed in our Shrine to Funkiness (well, apart from the awful plastic 'old fashioned' phones in the room), we set out on what would be four days of just walking around Old Tallinn, dropping into churches (the most secular nation in Europe, most of them have been deconsecrated. One of them is now an 'Irish' pub!), walking the medieval walls, shopping and mooching around museums.

We were left with the impression of Estonians as being a rather endearingly potty people. They seem fiercely individualistic and proud of their own quirkiness. Something like 60% of the country's population lives in Tallinn, the rest in a country that appears given over mostly to forest and agricultural land. The food we had was never less than excellent, whether we ate lunch in cafe bars on the street (Beer at a couple of Euro a pint. Brilliant. And Estonians don't know what a 'measure' is - I had some of the largest Martinis of my life there).

We also came across a business that had us both in awe from the first time we encountered it: Olde Hansa. This is a medieval eatery in the Old Town, a tourist trap with added tourist trap. It's tacky - medieval style dining with set menus of 'feasts' as well as an a la carte menu rendered almost indecipherable by the gaudy, medieval- style illumination. The staff are all decked out in medieval uniforms, there are no potatoes on offer and everything is spiced with cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and so on. They have stalls that make 'medieval style' coated almonds. They have their own honey or cinnamon flavoured beers. It's all as tacky you'd like, aimed directly at the thousands of tourists that throng to the old town (two million of 'em, last year).

We decided to go there for dinner.

A reservation is a must, the multi-storied restaurant is often packed out. It's got the big fireplaces, the long tables, the beams and all that. Again, the staff are all dressed in smocks and frocks, bringing drinks in heavy earthenware pots or roughly blown coloured glasses. The food was fine, oddly enough, big bold and hearty stuff and enjoyable for all that (you get spelt instead of spuds, all in keeping, see?). The service was cheerful and friendly. And the music was provided by players using medieval instruments and playing medieval airs. They're all music students, of course, but by golly they made a fantastic job of it. We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves without even one moment's guilty feeling. We ate in a tacky tourist trap and we loved it.

The Olde Hansa girls cooking, bagging and selling an awful lot of nuts.

Olde Hansa also operates a shop in the old town selling its glass, spice mixtures, calico things, soaps and the like. It's very well done indeed - and the way the business is managed and promoted had me taking off my proverbial hat. So much so that I was curious enough to take a gander at their website to find out about the people behind the business. Not a thing - the website's entirely 'in character'. When we opened our minifridge in the hotel to store some of the chocolates, elk sausage and other danties we'd picked up, the nuts were Olde Hansa nuts. It's a remarkable enterprise - and they even have an online shop (I highly recommend the soaps) to catch those tourists again once they get home!

The other two evenings, we ate at the restaurant next door to our hotel, Ribe.Less pricey than the Tchaikovsky (about 120 Euro for aperitifs, dinner, drinks and coffees for two), it offers fine dining that Dubai would find hard to match - and for a fragment of the cost. Here, take a gander at the menu. They delivered on this stuff, perfectly, consistently and with charm. If you ever find yourself in Estonia, eat here. You can thank me in the comments. Chatting to the waiter, we happened to mention Olde Hansa and how we admired the slickness of the operation. 'Yes,' he said cattily, 'but they use microwaves.' Oh, the horror!

The death-defying shot of the British Embassy...

I had decided to build an Estonian angle into the book I'm currently working on, something I'd dreamed up I think before we even made the decision to go. So this meant we had to walk across town to the British Embassy, just to 'case the joint'. Sarah has an odd aversion to letting me photograph embassies and military installations for research, but I got what I needed nonetheless. 


It's four hours from Beirut (Air Baltic flies there, I believe) and 40 minutes from Copenhagen (Emirates had just started flying there when we passed through). Even Ryan Air flies there (we flew on an Air Estonia Bombardier and that was fine) - Estonia has many a bar and more than a few dodgy-looking nightclub-cum-cathouses. One thing that amazed us was the thousands of purple-rinsed dears and their doddery parmours being trailed around Tallinn by brolly-wielding tour guides - the Baltic cruise business is big and Tallinn's a popular stop-off. One lot were even wearing stickers with their tour numbers on, presumably in case they wandered in their insenility. Sarah and I made a pact, if we ever get to the stage where we'd consider a cruise, we'll put each other out of our misery.

(And yes, the title of this post is indeed a play on the brilliant Dead Kennedys song and, yes, this was a holiday post and so, yes, I am going soft in the head.)


Phillipa said...

I am so jealous. A few days away from Australia usually means a few days somewhere else in Australia, or Fiji or New Zealand, or Mawson Base in the Antarctic.

Mich said...

Really enjoyed that... sounds delightful and worth considering. Wishing you and Sarah many, many more anniversaries before the cruise itch kicks in!!! Good to have you back though ;-)

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