Andy Carvin's Waste of Bandwidth

August 1, 2006

Catching Up on Some Old Photo Albums

Filed under: Albania,Estonia,India,Travel,Turkey — Andy Carvin @ 6:00 pm

Since yesterday was the last day of the month, I decided to max out the remaining bandwidth in my two-gigs-a-month allotment from Flickr by uploading some photos from my previous travels. Before switching to a digital camera, I used to have my 35mm photos burned to a CD when I got them developed, leaving me with a batch of CDs just asking to be uploaded. So I’ve uploaded three new sets to Flickr:

alt="Indian kids, Jaipur"> href="">Rajasthan 2001: Our second trip to India, including Jaipur, Jodhpur, Jaisalmer, the Pushkar Camel Fair, Udaipur and Chittorgarh.
Gjirokastra houses Albania, Greece and Istanbul: Includes photos from Athens, Meteora, Metsovo, Thessaloniki, Gjirokastra and Istanbul.
alt="Onion Domes, St Basil's Cathedral"> href="">Russia & Estonia: My February 2002 trip to Moscow, St. Petersburg and Tallinn.

This brings my Flickr collection to 10,364 photos. Wonder how long it’ll take me to reach 20,000. -andy

November 18, 2004

Free Time in Tallinn

Filed under: Estonia — Andy Carvin @ 8:55 am

Once my work wrapped up on Wednesday, I found myself with some free time to join up with Susanne and explore Tallinn. Tomorrow we’d fly to Berlin, so this might be my only chance of seeing the old town in daylight.

We stepped outside as a soft snow fell on us. It had been snowing since early that morning, and several inches of snow now coated the ground, transforming the old town into the magical place I’d visited nearly three years ago. We started our walk by crossing through Raekoja Plats, the town hall square, which was now jammed with those wooden kiosks. There were no signs of life in any of the kiosks, organized in tight rows throughout the town square. The chances of their Christmas fair opening before we left tomorrow seemed even slimmer now.

Squeezing past the kiosks, we crossed to the other side of the square, under an archway down Saia Kang (Whitebread Passage) until we reached Puhavaimu Kirik, or Holy Spirit Church, a 13th century Lutheran church. On the façade of the church, a beautiful 17th century clock loomed just overhead. Inside, we found a small, subdued sanctuary, with dark wood panels painted with biblical imagery.

Backtracking across the town square, we headed up Niguliste Tee, past the church, until reaching Short Leg, the steep stone path up towards Toompea. Treading slowly through the slick snow, we climbed the stairs, through the gate until we reached the fortified plaza we’d visited last night. Everything that was hidden in darkness yesterday evening was now glowing white with a fresh layer of untrampled snow. I could feel the snow crunching and compacting under my feet as we walked across the plaza, peering back at Niguliste Kirik and its newly whitened spire.

Around the corner, Nevsky Cathedral looked particularly stunning in the snow, its onion domes half-covered because of the wind blowing the snow in one direction. We crossed the parking lot in front of the cathedral, towards the entrance of Toompea Castle and parliament, in order to find a good spot to photograph the snow-covered cathedral. We then went inside for a brief period to warm ourselves — my hands, in particular, were quite chilled from having to remove my gloves so I could take those pictures. There was another service going on, though this one seemed quieter, more subdued.

Back outside, Susanne led me to Toomkirik, which had been one of her favorite places during her walk yesterday. The bells began to tell, reminding us it was early afternoon. Inside, we paid the entrance fee to a rather unfriendly woman who seemed as if she’d rather be elsewhere. Despite the cold welcome, the church itself was quite impressive. Its high walls were covered with dozens of wooden shields and crests, all ornately carved. Along the sides of the altar sat several large stone sarcophagi. One of them marked the resting place of a Swedish general who died battling the Russians during the siege of Narva, to the east along the modern Estonian-Russian frontier. Another tomb housed the remains of Samuel Greigh, a Scotsman who served as an admiral in Russia’s naval campaigns against the Turks.

Eventually, a large tour group entered the church, so we took this as our cue to leave. We paid a brief visit to a park behind the church, which was covered in a fresh layer of snow. The park offered a fine view of the church, perhaps the only view that wasn’t obstructed by cars in the foreground. From there, we passed the church and returned to the scenic overlook on Kohtu Street. The entire city was awash in white; again I flashed back to my visit in 2002, when another snowstorm had pummeled the city in half a meter of snow. We snapped numerous pictures of the view, studiously avoiding a fat pigeon walking along the stone ledge, convinced that our cameras were actually some kind of breadcrumb dispenser.

After backtracking on Kohtu we soon reached Pikk Jalg, the long leg that sloped down to the lower town. Along the way we stopped at one of my favorite art galleries in the world. The gallery was the home base of Navitrolla, an Estonian artist who specializes in whimsical cartoons of animals. (At home we have a Navitrolla litho of a charming little bear leaning into the picture frame, pointing at a country church, saying in Estonian, “This is my favorite church.” We wandered around the gallery, exploring the artist’s work, one litho at a time. Many of the frames contained two contrasting lithos; one work, labeled Good Guys, Bad Guys, showed a group portrait of a dozen mischievous animals, while the other litho showed a smiling, more innocent-looking bunch. In another litho pair, you could see a cat peering through a hole in a long wooden fence. The caption below it said, “What’s on the other side of the fence?” The next panel showed the fence from the other side, with the cat’s curious eyes peering through it. “A cat,” the caption explained rather absurdly.

Once again, I was tempted to buy a litho, but making up our minds would be difficult. There were at least four or five pictures that we liked; besides, we were running short on wall space at home. Rather than rush into a decision, we decided to sleep on it; there’d be time to come by first thing tomorrow morning before heading to the airport.

Returning to the lower town, we found Kehrwieder , a charming basement café along the perimeter of Raekoja Plats, facing the old town hall. I ordered a small chicken sandwich and a cappuccino while Susanne had one of her café au laits. The café was dark and intimate, with low vaulted ceilings and corridors through which you had to crouch in order to pass. You could almost picture a small cabal of Hanseatic merchants conspiring to take over a local guild.

Finishing our snack, we headed towards Vene Street, where Susanne was eager to show me the alley called Catherine’s Passage. Down the street, a group of kids were engaged in a good-natured snowball fight. Apparently there was a school along the street, and students were spending their breaks throwing snowballs at each other. I managed to take a quick little video of some of them before a teacher came out, apparently reminding them it was time to return to class. Next to the school, we stopped briefly inside St. Catherine’s Church, a modest orthodox church. It was very small, particularly when compared with the Nevsky Cathedral, but its beautiful decorations and collection of icons made it worth a short visit.

We backtracked a few doors up Vene to reach Catherine’s Passage. This arched alleyway was lined with artisan shops selling a range of crafts, including hand-blown glass, stained-glass windows and wood carvings. I poked my head inside the glass-blower’s shop — Susanne had seen him at work yesterday — but unfortunately he was taking a break, sorting his long blowing tubes into different bins. Opposite the shops, the walls were lined with huge slabs of carved stone, mounted upright like an outdoor art exhibit. Some of them appeared to be enormous gravemarkers, but it was hard to make out the Latin, which was written in an indecipherable gothic script.

The passage soon deposited us on Muurivahe, a street hugged by the city’s medieval city walls on the left side. Below the walls, Russian woman sold an array of souvenirs, mostly sweaters and other woolen goods. I’d bought a sweater here in 2002 but rarely wore it; the wool was too coarse for comfort. Passing the stalls, we soon arrived at Old Town Tallinn’s main gate, a busy intersection known for its high stone towers and its popular McDonald’s, which we visited for a brief pit stop.

It was getting late in the day; the sun would probably set within the next 45 minutes. Since we’d had a good walk through the old town, I suggested we try something new; a couple of kilometers east of town was Kadriorg Park, home to Peter the Great’s Baltic palace, as well as a small cabin he lived in from time to time. I’d wanted to visit them since reading his epic biography a couple of years ago. It also appeared the skies were clearing, so it might be a pretty spot to watch the sun set.

We hailed a taxi not far from the McDonald’s and got inside. As we drove off I saw a small sign in the front of the taxi that said that flag fall started at 50 EEK — more than twice what taxis normally charged in Tallinn. But we were on our way so it was too late to protest, but I made a mental note to check the next time before closing the door from the inside.

A few minutes (and almost $10) later, we arrived at the southern end of the palace. The palace was surrounded by acres of park land, all covered in half a foot of snow. We walked around to the front of the palace, which looked rather small and somewhat disappointing. Inside the palace was an art museum, but now that it was sunny outside, we decided it would be more fun to hike around the palace and deeper into the park.

Susanne and I followed a snow-covered path up the far left side of the palace. Soon she wandered off the path, trotting across virgin snow in search of the perfect photograph. Meanwhile, I continued to hike along the palace’s northern perimeter. For a few moments I lost sight of Susanne; it was just me, the endless grove of trees, and the snow. Suddenly the staccato violins of Arvo Part’s Fratres began echoing through my head. It never ceases to amaze me how the landscapes of Estonia can be heard in his music, can evoke his music with little provocation.

A man’s voice snapped me out of it; he was walking his dog along a path, towards an intersection where I saw Susanne taking pictures of the bare trees. To my right, I reached a low wall, over which I could see the back of the palace. More striking than its front, the rear of the palace featured an enormous garden. The red and yellow of the palace stood in contrast to the white expansiveness of the garden, broken up by geometric manicured shrubs. Circles, squares, arches, even fleur-de-lis patterns were visible in the snow, broken up by several round ponds. In the distance, the sun began to sink towards the horizon, surrounded by heavy-set clouds.

Susanne and I met along one of the snowy paths and continued beyond the palace gardens to a second palace, now the Estonian presidential mansion. Out front, a pair of guards marched ceremoniously, back and forth. We continued along the path until we spotted another building, much smaller and certainly more modest. We’d found Peter the Great’s cabin, a small, spartan house that he had purchased not long after conquering Estonia.

Never quite comfortable with palatial surroundings, Peter was more at ease in his cabin, where he could entertain his friends over long nights of festive drinking. Perhaps the most famous jack-of-all-trades in history, he spent much of his time renovating the cabin; he’d even laid bricks and overseen the construction of the palace, which he used on more formal occasions. Inside the cabin, we found a small museum. The rooms were decorated with period furniture, including pieces built by Peter himself. There were also many portraits and a small cannon, which I could picture him firing off for sport in his backyard.

After touring the cabin, we began backtracking through the woods, until reaching the path leading back to the palace entrance. Rather than hailing another cab, I suggested we try to find the local tram station, which was supposed to be somewhere along the northwest corner of the park. We hiked across the park, exposing tall grass below the snow with each foot step. A middle-aged man wearing nothing but a pair of shorts and jogging shoes ran past us at a furious clip; not exactly my vision of exercise, but more power to him nonetheless. We then reached a row of large wooden cabins surrounded by posh yards and tennis courts, undoubtedly a prime spot for the homes of Estonia’s elite.

On the far side of the houses we spotted Narva Road, which led back towards the old town. A few doors down, a tram sat outside a small station. I couldn’t tell if it was coming from Tallinn or going to it. Just before it closed its doors, I ran up to it and yelled through the window, “Vana Tallinn?” The woman driving the tram nodded her head and opened the door. “Fifteen,” she continued, which I assumed she meant kroons. As I pulled out my money, the tram lurched forward. I sat down so I wouldn’t fall over, then found exact change. An old man in the seat behind us pointed to a small slot in the door leading to the driver’s seat. I got up, grabbed hold of a railing, then shoved my money through the slot. It quickly disappeared as the driver took the cash, then waved her hand in acknowledgment.

The tram made only a few stops as it left suburban Tallinn and reached the heart of the new town; I wasn’t sure exactly where the stop, so I watched carefully to see if we were approaching any landmarks I recognized. A few minutes later we passed the two towers marking the main entrance to Old Town; we jumped off at the next stop, which happened to be only a block from our hotel.

Returning to our room for a while, I took a quick shower and journaled while Susanne napped. We were thinking about going to a choral concert at the St. Charles Church, about a 10-minute walk from the hotel in the new town. After that, I suggested we finally take a crack at some Estonian food, but offered a compromise: in the old town there was a popular restaurant called Olde Hansa that styled itself as a 15th century feast in a merchant’s mansion. The wait staff all dressed in period costumes, and the recipes were all hundreds of years old. It looked like a real hoot, and their menu was extensive enough that we’d both find something we’d like — hopefully.

Just before 6:30pm, we left the hotel and walked down Karli Puistee towards the church. The closer we got to the church, the more deserted it looked, which we both took as a bad sign. Finally, after walking clockwise around the church to its main entrance, we discovered the doors were locked. No signs of life whatsoever. The concert listing I’d read on the Tallinn This Week website was incorrect — or I’d totally misread it. Either way, there was no point of lingering there.

Rather than heading back the way we came, we made a left up Toom Kooli, the steep road that connected Toompea to the western end of the new town. I lost my footing a couple of times on the slick, snowy pavement, but managed to avoid falling each time. One Estonian heading downhill wasn’t as fortunate; he took a bit of a tumble but shook it off with a brave face.

Uphill, we reached the outer wall of Toompea; Nevsky Cathedral was just uphill from us. A blanket of snow still covered the onion domes, causing them to glow brightly in the moonlight. I’d brought along my mini tripod tonight, so I set it up at a few different locations around the cathedral, taking pictures of it and the blur of cars whizzing by it. A few blocks away on Kohtu Tee, I did the same from the scenic overlook, snapping photos of the church spires and the high-rise hotels in the distance.

After hiking around the upper town, my camera holding fast to my tripod, we put away our equipment and walked down Long Leg towards the lower town, until we reached the Olde Hansa Restaurant. We managed to get the last open table; all three floors of the restaurant were packed with merry diners, eating medieval cuisine and listening to live troubadours. Our waiter, dressed somewhat like a squire, took our drink order: I tried their honey beer while Susanne stuck with her trusty cider. The honey beer arrived in a large earthenware mug that was so cold to the touch it probably would have kept the beer chilled indefinitely. The beer had a strong cinnamon test, the honey being much less prominent.

Meanwhile, we were somewhat perplexed by what to order. Their extensive menu offered us everything from bear steak to Arab beef in fig sauce to quail eggs — definitely not our typical dinner fare. Eventually, I settled for their Bergen Fish Stew, which the waiter described as being “a salmon stew with other assorted fish and things.” Susanne, nominally a vegetarian but willing to eat chicken and fish when the mood struck her, nonetheless went for their “assortment of vegetable delicacies,” despite the fact that the waiter had trouble illustrating exactly what delicacies she’d receive.

Susanne and I enjoyed our ancient drinks and soaked up the atmosphere as we waited for our meals. This was the first restaurant we’d visited in Tallinn that was actually busy — not a surprise since it’s the low season for tourists — but this place was absolutely packed. At least 15 people were standing around the entrance waiting for tables to open up; on the second and third floor, groups of 20 or 30 people occupied long benches and stuffed themselves with multi-course feasts. Even if the food turned out to be mediocre, this place was a real hoot.

Our dinners arrived on large earthenware plates, packed with an assortment of food. My stew didn’t look like any kind of stew I’d had before; it was more like a saucy stir-fry of fish, cabbage, carrots and other vegetables, accompanied by unhulled barley, juniper berries, and enormous lima beans in a sour cream sauce. Susanne’s plate was a hodge-podge of vegetarian dishes: barley, spicy lentils, olives, toasted hazelnuts, sauerkraut and a potato bread that reminded me of a samosa without the heavy spices. It was an enormous amount of food; the fiber content alone was enough to satisfy a constipated warhorse. I had a hard time identifying the fish contained in my stew; it had simmered for so long the flavors had mingled, giving everything a rich salmon flavor.

We lingered at the restaurant for almost an hour after dinner, debating whether we were foolish enough to order dessert. Eventually, we decided to get dessert elsewhere, returning to Café Kehrwieder, just off the town square. The cavernous café was buzzing with hip young Estonians, sipping their coffees and munching on cakes. We ordered a slice of raspberry tort and some hoogvein; the tort was a little sour and had lots of raspberry seeds in it, but the hoogvein warmed me from the inside out. The café was unapologetically cozy and relaxing; it was a fitting way to wrap up our last evening in Tallinn…. -andy

November 16, 2004

Taking Care of Business

Filed under: Estonia — Andy Carvin @ 8:56 am

Tuesday morning, Tallinn. Susanne and I grabbed a quick breakfast just before 8:30am; I’d hoped to get up earlier but the noise from the casino combined with a sudden return of jetlag had kept me tossing and turning until after 3am. I now had a series of meetings scheduled around town with various government officials and educators, so Susanne would have today and part of tomorrow for herself. We quickly went over a map of the Old Town, and I suggested a few highlights for her to hit. As it turned out, the hotel rented out audio guides, so Susanne planned to pick one up and explore the city.

My meetings around Tallinn ended just after 4pm. At some point during the day, the winds and rain had ended, but clouds were forming again. Perhaps there’d be snow tonight; it had been forecast for Wednesday.

I returned to the hotel and spotted Susanne sitting downstairs having some coffee. She called up to me, so I went to the basement café, where I found her sitting with her café au lait, a big smile brimming on her face. Apparently she’d had a good day touring Tallinn.

“So’d ya have fun today?” I asked.

“Tallinn is wonderful!” she exclaimed. “I had a great time.” Susanne had rented an audio guide and followed it around the Old Town for about six hours, exploring every nook and cranny of the city. She recounted her day, describing the great churches and overlooks and alleys she’d visited.

“Tomorrow when I’m done with work you’ll have to be my tour guide,” I said.

Eventually I changed out of my suit and bundled up in more casual clothes so we could go out for the evening. This time, when we went outside, Susanne led the way; she apparently had the entire Old Town imprinted in her head. We walked up to Niguliste Church and then over to the town square, where we discovered dozens of wooden kiosks being unloaded from several trucks. Just beyond the trucks, a large fir tree had been decorated with Christmas lights, though it wasn’t lit yet.

“Oh, it’d be wonderful if we were hear for the Christmas market!” Susanne said.

“Yeah, it would,” I said, “but I have a feeling they won’t be ready til this weekend, once we’re long gone and in Berlin.”

I then suggested we swing by my favorite haunt, the Hell Hunt, for a round of hoogvein, but Susanne was still too excited from her day exploring the town; she wanted to go for an extended walk instead. We walked uphill from the square past a new beer hall that hadn’t been there in early 2002; the sign in front of the hall said it had opened later that year. Inside, we could see enormous metal fermentation bins; apparently it was a brewpub. I suggested we stop there for a drink at some point.

I followed Susanne as she led me through town, giving me tidbits of trivia along the way. “And there’s the house where they say the devil got married,” she said. “This town would be great for a Ghost and Goblins tour.”

Soon we reached Luhike Jalg, or “short leg,” a steep stone stairway that serves as a shortcut to Toompea, Old Tallinn’s upper town. I held onto the metal rail as we climbed the wet stairs; they were still quite wet from this morning’s downpours. Passing through a giant gate, we then reached a small plaza protected by medieval stone turrets. An Estonian couple kissed on a wet park bench while a small group of British tourists were told about the plaza by their guide. To our left, I could see Niguliste Church from above, its massive spire parallel with our elevation. We experimented with my camera, trying to take some pictures of it at night, but the plaza wasn’t wide enough to let me back up the necessary distance to capture it well.

Walking through another stone gate, we arrived at the foot of Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. Constructed by the Russians at the turn of the 19th century, the cathedral sat just meters from Toompea Castle, and served as an ever-present reminder of Russia’s dominance over Estonia over the course of two centuries. From the back of the cathedral, I spotted a light through one of its giant windows, so I suggested we walk around and see if the cathedral was still open.

“It’s probably closed by now,” Susanne wondered aloud.

“Maybe, but it’s not even 6pm,” I said. “The Baltic winter darkness is playing tricks on our inner clocks.”

The cathedral was indeed open; in fact, a small service was under way. Entering the cathedral, I immediately noticed the smell of frankincense wafting through the giant hall, floating in the air along with the voice of a Russian choir. To the right of the altar, a group of several dozen Russians, mostly older women in headscarves, were standing in prayer, as a priest went back and forth behind a giant screen. The choir was performing from somewhere behind the screen, but I guessed there were about a dozen singers, dominated by male baritones and basses. Another priest then stepped out from behind the screen and began reciting prayers in a deep Russian monotone. To the left, a young woman wearing a white fur coat, white dress and white high-heel shoes walked slowly from icon to icon, kneeling to the ground, kissing each icon, and praying. In the center, a blonde man in his late 20s also walked from icon to icon, giving each a reverent kiss.

Susanne and I observed the service for about 20 minutes, eventually retreating to the adjacent gift shop as the main hall became more crowded. Susanne bought a packet of postcards showing the interior of the cathedral, since you weren’t supposed to take pictures inside the cathedral; I grimaced, somewhat embarrassed, having done just that, though as discretely as possible.

Leaving the cathedral, we again attempted to take some nighttime pictures, but having left my mini-tripod at the hotel, weren’t having much success. I suggested we try again tomorrow night with the tripod; we’d just have to hope for semi-decent weather. Meanwhile, Susanne suggested we visit the scenic outlook on Kohtu Tee, just passed the Finnish embassy and the EU mission. I followed her up Toom Kooli until we reached Toomkirik, the dome church, which gives Toompea its name. Unlike the Orthodox cathedral, Toomkirik was closed for the evening, so we took a right on Kohtu, following along the slippery cobblestone past the old mansion that now serves as home to the Finnish embassy. Across the street we past a row of amber shops; amber jewelry was a particular specialty of Estonia and the other Baltic countries.

A couple blocks later, we reached the scenic outlook, which I recognized the moment we arrived. A small plaza, lined with shops to the left and right, featured a spectacular view of Old Tallinn. We walked to the far end of the plaza and gazed out at the city. To the left stood Oleviste Kirik, which was the tallest building in the world for much of the 15th and 16th centuries. In the center, you could make out Raekoja Plats because of the spire of the town hall soaring above it. Behind it, New Tallinn loomed in the distance, with its modern skyscrapers and hotels mixing somewhat incongruously with the gothic forefront. And to our right stood Niguliste Kirik, the church by our hotel that we knew so well.

I spent a few moments trying to snap some long-exposure photos of the vista. The stone wall along the edge of the plaza served as an excellent impromptu tripod. Unfortunately, the camera’s batteries would not cooperate, and after a couple of photos the camera promptly died. Though disappointing, it didn’t stop us from trying to commit the view to memory. In fact, I still remembered it surprisingly well from the last time I was here, the only difference being that the buildings were all coated in a fine sheath of snow.

Retreating down Kohtu Tee, we hung a quick left until reaching Pikk Jalg (“long leg”), the sloping stone path to the lower town. The street’s cobblestones were perilously slippery, but fortunately there was a thin strip of flat pavement on the far right of the path, allowing us a somewhat safer trip downward. If memory serves me, I fell on this street the last time I went down it, so I took my time the whole way.

Eventually, we reached the foot of the slope, in the heart of the lower town. I couldn’t remember exactly which way was the best way to head towards the town square, so at first we walked in the wrong direction for about half a block before realizing the correct way. I suggested we stop for another visit to Hell Hunt, where I enjoyed yet another hot serving of hoogvein while Susanne accidentally opted for pear cider, thinking she was ordering apple cider. The pear cider wasn’t bad, per se; it just wasn’t what either of us were used to. We didn’t stay terribly long this time; the bar’s stereo was playing a particularly annoying Frank Zappa disc that started to rub me the wrong way after 40 minutes or so.

Finishing my drink and abandoning Susanne’s, we left Hell Hunt in search of dinner. Once again, Susanne was determined to hold out and avoid Estonian food for a little while longer, so I suggested we try something ethnic. Our guidebook recommended a pair of Indian restaurants just east of the square on Vene Tee; a few blocks south, I knew of a Georgian restaurant that sounded intriguing. I’d lived on Georgian and Armenian food on my 2002 trip to Russia, prior to coming to Tallinn, and was eager to try it again.

First, we stopped outside Elevant, one of the two Indian restaurants. They had a large menu of classic Indian curries with some interesting twists, such as boar vindaloo and moose tikka masala. It sounded good to both of us, but just for comparison’s sake, we walked a few blocks to Sauna Tee to check out the Georgian restaurant. A dark, deserted alley with bricked-up windows, Sauna seemed like a rather creepy street. Unfortunately, the creepiness took its toll on the Georgian joint, which was utterly deserted. The lonely atmosphere didn’t seem very welcoming, so we retreated to Vene Tee to try Elevant instead.

Opening an enormous door, we found a wrought-iron spiral staircase, winding around three times before depositing us at the upstairs restaurant. From the moment we entered, we could tell that Elevant was engineered to inspired hipness. Mood lighting and acid jazz set the tone, as we sat in oversized wicker seats below eerie, life-like portraits of animals. Just above my head, a head-on portrait of a smirking peacock seemed to look down at us. “Ubiquitous gaze,” Susanne joked.

We spent dinner lounging in the cool restaurant with several other couples scattered around the room, quietly chatting and eating excellent Indian food. We both started with a soup — I had a lamb soup while Susanne had their vegetable soup — before moving on to a chana masala and a chicken vindaloo. The chicken was a little dry, but the sauce was wonderful, and Susanne’s chana had a fascinating aroma to it. Cinnamon and cardamom perhaps? With all the other smells wafting around the room it was hard to tell.

After dinner, we decided to pay a visit to Beer House, the giant beer hall just a couple blocks up from the town square. The Estonian brauhaus was busy, but not too chaotic, except for the waitstaff, who ran around with many liters of beer at a time. Susanne ordered a cider — an apple cider, she clarified — while I tried their martzen, which tasted fresh and a little smoky. At a long bench in front of us, a large group of Estonians feasted on a variety of sausages with liters of dark ale to wash them down; to their right, a waiter tripped and dropped a half-liter of beer, nearly slipping and falling, which would have showered at least another four liters of beer, glass and all, on top of him if he hadn’t caught his footing at the last moment.

Around 9:30pm, we left the beer hall, cutting through the town square before continuing towards our hotel. I was having a great time just being out and about in the city, since I knew I wouldn’t have as much time as Susanne would playing tourist there. Rather than going back to the hotel, I suggested we stop at one more place. We walked around trying to find another interesting bar or café, but several decent options appeared to have closed early. In the end we stopped at an Irish pub that served un-spiced hoogvein and flat beer. It was a bit of an anti-climax to what was otherwise an immensely enjoyable evening…. -andy

November 15, 2004

Estonian Monsoon

Filed under: Estonia — Andy Carvin @ 8:56 am

The ferry arrived a few minutes before 4pm; still running late, but not as late as one might have guessed considering the terrible weather. We left the ferry and wandered the terminal briefly to find an ATM machine. Estonia was now in the EU but the Euro hadn’t reached here yet, so we’d have to get cash in Estonian kroons (EEK), which was running around 12 EEK per US dollar. A large group of show dogs crowded the terminal waiting area as we got our cash: several greyhounds, a borzoi, a Pomeranian and a Rhodesian ridgeback, amongst others I couldn’t recognize.

We stepped outside, shivering under the overhang waiting for a taxi to arrive. It was now raining in sheets, with a significant amount of water rushing into the drainage gutters. My small umbrella was no match for these conditions; I could feel the front of my legs getting wet as rain blew in from the street. Despite the fact that a large ferry had just arrived, there were very few taxis around — who’d want to drive in this weather? — so we finally had to grab an unlicensed, unmetered taxi that charged us 100 EEK ($8) to get to the hotel. It was probably twice of what we should have paid in a metered taxi, but with this weather we had little choice.

“First time in Eh-STO-nyah?,” the cabbie asked us in halting English.

“For my wife, yes,” I said, “but it’s my second time.”

“Second for you? When you last here?”

“About three years ago,” I said.

“Much different now,” he continued. “More tourists, many tourists, though not now in winter. Things good now; more things, more three. In seventies, in eighties, very bad, Soviet times. Nowthings free, very good.”

The cabbie continued extolling the wonders of freedom for the rest of our short drive into town. It was very interesting hearing this speech, given the fact that Estonia’s been free for about 12 years now. Clearly this taxi driver wasn’t taking it for granted.

In a few more minutes we reached the southwest side of Vana Tallinn, or Old Tallinn. Our hotel, the Domina City Hotel, was just inside the old city, across the street from an enormous Stalinist-era cinema, now housing a casino. The hotel doors opened automatically, filling us with a rush of warm, dry air. I felt like we were leaving a trail of water as we walked up the steps to the check-in desk; fortunately, no one tripped in my drippy wake.

After getting our room keys, we went upstairs to the third floor and over to our room, passing a series of pastels with a unicorn theme. Our room was pleasantly large, especially compared to the room we had in Helsinki, with its on flat-panel computer and a shiny new bathroom. We also had a view of the casino outside; hopefully the street noise would be bearable at night.

By the time we left the hotel just after 4:30pm, it was pitch black outside, and the rain continued to soak the streets. Bundled up and hiding under our umbrellas, we walked a block north to Kullassepa Tee, a cobblestone street leading to the town square. To our left, we passed the marvelous Niguliste Kirik, or St. Nicholas Church, which dated to the 11th century.

In just another block, we reached Raekoja Plats, the town square, one of my favorite places in all of Europe. Susanne marveled at the medieval facades of the buildings on the east side of the square until I told her to look behind her. She turned around and saw Tallinn’s town hall, a marvelous gothic building that happened to be celebrating its 600th anniversary this year. From the wonderful expression on her face, I could already tell that Susanne was going to like this city.

As much as I would have loved to stare at the town hall, the rain was picking up again, so I suggested we take a short walk east on Pikk Street, where I remembered there was a dark little bar that I’d visited in 2002. We walked carefully up the street, on guard for large puddles and the inevitable splashes launched by passing cars. To our right, we passed the Guild of the Blackheads, a gothic German guild house that served as a fraternity for unmarried merchantmen. The guild house was generally closed to the public, though in 2002 I’d managed to see a live performance of Estonian classical music hosted by BBC Radio.

We walked a little further up the street in the bone-drenching rain as I began to wonder if my memory was serving me well. There didn’t seem to be much going on along this strip of Pikk Street, and several storefronts were clearly under renovation. Perhaps this phantom bar of mine had closed?

“Let’s give it one more block,” I suggested. “We can always retreat to one of the cafes on the square.”

Our perseverance paid off; half-way down the next block we found the entrance to Hell Hunt (The Hellhound), the bar I’d visited in 2002. Though the name was still the same, the interior had changed — at least from what I’d remembered of it. Rather than being dark and mysterious, the bar now seemed almost swank: strategic lighting creating dramatic effects on colorful walls, medieval wood panels suspended like tables overhead, barbed wire chandeliers and the Sun Ra Orchestra on the stereo system. I ordered us a couple of glasses of hoogwein — mulled red wine served with a shot of brandy — to warm us from the inside out. The hoogwein was served in tall glass mugs, with a spoonful of raisins, toasted hazelnuts and a lemon twist. Susanne and I lurched back as we breathed in a noseful of evaporating brandy; after a couple of minutes, though, the hoogvein had cooled off enough for us to sip without passing out from the fumes.

We spent a couple of hours hanging out at Hell Hunt, sipping our warm hoogvein and watching groups of Estonians, young and old alike, enjoying themselves along the bar or near the fireplace. Approaching 7pm, the rain began to thin out, so we suited up in our layers of coats, scarves and hats to brave the three-block walk back to town hall square. At some point I was hoping Susanne would want to try traditional Estonian food — if we could only find some that didn’t contain pork or other unsavory meat — but for now we wanted our own comfort food. So on the north side of the square we found Café Fellini, a posh second-floor Italian restaurant that I recalled had good lasagna. The restaurant was deserted when we arrived — Estonians were smart enough not to go out in such terrible weather — but as time went by, several more couples arrived as well. I ordered the lasagna, which was a good as I’d remembered, while Susanne had a small, but delicious pizza.

After dinner, we strolled back to the hotel, taking our time now that the rain had mellowed to a light drizzle. We had the streets to ourselves as we left the square and passed Niguliste Kirik, which seemed to have an eerie halo around it, caused by the misty rain passing through floodlights aimed at the church’s tower.

We got back to the hotel around 10pm; hopefully I’d get a good night sleep because I had a long day of meetings ahead of me tomorrow…. -ac

Ferries Fraught with Frustration

Filed under: Estonia — Andy Carvin @ 7:57 am

This morning I woke up and had breakfast at the hotel while Susanne slept in for an extra hour. The two of us were catching a 12pm express ferry that would get us to Tallinn in less than two hours. The breakfast room had the same morning smorgasbord as yesterday, though the charming 1940s Finnish music had been replaced by Freddie Mercury singing “Who Wants to Live Forever” from the soundtrack to the movie Highlander. After breakfast I jumped in the shower — no bubble debacle this time. Susanne and I then packed our bags, checked out of the hotel and called a taxi for the 10-minute ride to Helsinki’s west ferry terminal. As we left the hotel, I noticed that flag fall for the taxi was five euros — glad we didn’t have to take too many short taxi trips in this town.

Soon enough we arrived at the west ferry terminal, where an enormous Tallink ferry was waiting in port. The terminal was surprisingly quiet, which didn’t register with us until we approached the check-in desk.

“The ferry is canceled,” the woman behind the counter said rather tersely.

“Cancelled?” I asked.

“Yes, due to the weather.”

Outside, it was very cloudy; we’d gotten some rain during the night as well. But otherwise the conditions didn’t seem too bad.

“When is the next ferry?” I asked, getting worried.

“Tonight, perhaps,” she said noncommittally.

“Are there any other ferry lines to Tallinn that haven’t been cancelled?”

“Yes, the Silja line,” she said. “It is a bigger ship, so it will not be cancelled. You must hurry because it leaves at 12pm.” Fifty minutes from now.

“Are you sure it is not cancelled?” I asked, somewhat incredulous.

“It will not be cancelled. You should go now, to the east ferry terminal in the central harbor.”

The central harbor was only five minutes past our hotel, so we’d get there in less than 15 minutes. So we walked outside to hail a taxi, only to discover that the taxi stand was empty. (In retrospect, I suppose it shouldn’t have been a surprise, given that they’d have no customers arriving at the terminal to pick up that day.) Now I began to get nervous. With Susanne waiting outside just in case a taxi arrived, I ran inside the terminal and up the stairs with all of my bags in tow, begging the ticket agent to call a taxi for us. Trying to catch my breath, I began to walk more easily towards the taxi stand, only to see Susanne waving at me from outside the door, mouthing the words, “A taxi is here!”

I ran down the two flights of stairs and outside, where I found Susanne seated in the back of a taxi van, with a smiling middle-aged man getting into the driver’s seat.

“Hello,” he greeted me in English. “Where exactly would you like to go?”

“We were told to go to the eastern terminal along the central harbor, for the Silja ferry to Tallinn,” I replied, still trying to catch my breath.

“Silja to Tallinn?” he said, somewhat surprised. “No, the Silja ferry to Tallinn would be on the western side of the harbor. The eastern side is for Stockholm.”

“The Tallink ticket agent told us we needed to go to the eastern terminal,” I replied, exasperated but trying not to get frustrated with him, since he was clearly trying to be helpful.

“No, that cannot be the case,” he insisted. “She is wrong. I will bring you to the main Silja terminal instead.”

11:20am. Only 50 minutes left.

I didn’t want to argue with him; I hoped that a taxi driver would know more than one of Silja’s competitors would, especially since the Tallink ticket agent seemed to have no interest in helping us in the first place.

“Okay, so we’ll try it his way,” I said to Susanne. “We should get there by 11:30. I’ll haul ass inside and find the first ticket agent I can to see if there’s a ferry or not. If it turns out it’s on the eastern side as the Tallink woman had insisted, at least it’s less than a five-minute drive from here.”

The taxi pulled over in front of the Silja terminal; Susanne waited to get her backpack while I ran inside with my luggage. Once again, the ticket booths were devoid of customers. 11:32.

Two ticket windows were still open for business. I spoke to the first person who made eye contact with me.

“Has your ferry to Tallinn been cancelled?” I asked, again having to catch my breath.

“Yes, due to inclement weather,” she replied.

“When is the next ferry?”

“We have no other ferries today, but next door you may find that their ferry will depart some time this evening if the weather improves.”

This was looking like serious trouble. My first meeting in Tallinn was 10am Tuesday. Where would we spend the night tonight? Would there be an early-morning ferry that could get us there in time? 11:33.

“What about the eastern terminal?” I asked, almost begging for any piece of positive news I could get.

“Oh yes, of course, the Viking Line,” she said. “They will have a ferry at 12:30pm, so you have time to spare.”

“But how do you know they won’t cancel as well?” I asked. There’s no way I could handle striking out for a third time.

“It is the Viking Line,” she said, in a way that sounded like I should know something about the Scandinavian ferry industry. “They will not cancel.”

Unlike the woman I’d dealt with at Tallink, the Silja ticket agent seemed like she knew what she was talking about, and appeared to be sympathetic to our plight. I thanked her and met Susanne before walking back outside for our third taxi in 20 minutes. Five euros a flag fall, I thought to myself. I hoped I had enough cash on hand, since we’d been living mostly on credit cards.

We grabbed a taxi outside and made the brief drive clockwise around the harbor until we arrived at the Viking terminal. Adjacent to the terminal was the Viking ship, as it were; you couldn’t miss it. The ferry was primarily an auto transport, and its size was somewhere between a container ship and an oceanic cruise ship. Simply enormous. So that’s why Viking never cancels, I thought.

The entrance to the terminal was teeming with travelers, mostly exiting in what appeared to be a good mood. They must have just arrived there. If the conditions had been good enough to get to Helsinki, hopefully they’d be good enough to leave it as well. At the ticket booths, half a dozen people stood in line, passing cash and credit cards to the agents. Transactions must equal transportation, so hopefully the third time would be a charm. When the next agent became available, he confirmed that their auto ferry would be leaving at 12:30pm, but that it was “the slower ferry.” This meant we’d cross the Gulf of Finland over a period of three hours rather than an hour and a half. Slower journey, but hopefully safer as well. And to top it off, the tickets were half the cost of what we would have paid for the Tallink ferry. But I guess that’s fair since we’d be traveling at half-speed as well.

We took our beautiful, hope-inspiring tickets and went upstairs to the departure lounge, where we waited for about 30 minutes before the crowd began to assembled around the exit doors. Eventually the doors opened, and we saw that we’d then have to go through immigration — a surprise, since Finland and Estonia are both in the EU, but Estonia’s recent membership must have meant that the more typical, smoother, intra-EU process would not be in place yet. Perhaps that meant we wouldn’t be using the euro in Estonia as well? That hadn’t even occurred to me.

Immigration was quite painless, as could be expected from Finland, and we joined the queue to board the ship. We followed the ramp to the port entrance, abaft the midship about the stern. (Or, back and to the right; I’ve been reading Patrick O’Brien’s Master and Commander books so nautical terms are just oozing out of my brain, accurately or otherwise.) At first we tried to store our bags in coin-operated lockers, but the machines would take only one-euro coins, rendering our two-euros coins and 50 cent pieces impotent. Our next idea was to stow them in the public luggage room, but it was almost deserted; perhaps the local Finns and Estonians knew a robbery trap when they saw one. So we tucked them in a corner, hoping they wouldn’t be noticed, and then went to the closest passenger room. We grabbed a pair of seats and sat down, only to notice a small row of luggage shelves on the left-hand wall. Better to stow our belongings as nearby as possible, we figured, so I ran around the corner to the luggage room and shlepped our things back with me, sliding them onto a shelf.

The ship departed a few minutes late, its motors humming as a flock of seagulls dive-bombed the fish stirred up in the ferry’s wake. We chugged slowly out of the harbor past Soumenlinna and a handful of other islands before reaching open sea — or open gulf, to put it more accurately. Either way, there was nothing but water as far as the eye could see.

The seas picked up within 15 minutes of our departures; swells of 15 or 20 feet battered the starboard side, occasionally spraying mist to our window on the fifth floor of the ferry. Conditions worsened as time past; every few minutes we’d hear a loud crash emanating from the port side, then a few moments later a cascade of water and foam would come downward the starboard side. The waves must have been so powerful to the left of the ferry that they were actually sending plumes of water more than 100 feet into the air, over the ship, then back down to the see for me to watch with a mix of amazement and horror. A couple of times the captain spoke to the passengers in Finnish; each time I worried that he was going to say that we were turning around due to the weather. But Susanne had said prior to boarding the ship, “The longer they talk, the less important it probably is,” and that seemed to be the case, since he wasn’t bothering to translate his monologues into Estonian or English.

Just past the half-way point, still in rough seas, the captain came over the PA system again. This time, his Finnish was brief, and he then spoke in English.

“Hello from the captain,” he began. “Due to the current weather conditions….” Pause. “… we will be approximately 30 minutes late into Tallinn. I would like to apologize in advance for any inconvenience this might cause you.”

Thirty minutes late. Could be worse, I guess. Thankfully there was no sign the ship would turn around, but that’s because we were probably past the half-way point. The point of no return I thought, grimly.

Susanne wasn’t even slightly fazed by all of this. Even though she’s more prone to seasickness than I am, she’s also a professional cat-napper, and went to sleep within several minutes of the ship’s departure from Helsinki. So while I tried to work on my journal and gingerly nibble on a granola bar — in fear of a full stomach — she shrugged it off unconsciously, literally going with the flow. In our case, the flow would be 20-30 foot seas, but who’s measuring? -andy

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