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