Travels in Europe

Finding the soul of Tallinn

When I decided to travel to Tallinn which was a very spontanious idea, I was sure to do something somehow unusual. I could not imagine that it would tempt many people to this Eastern corner of Europe. Tallinn had a great appeal for me though – or maybe even because it seemed so uncharted to me. 

I wanted to see the capital of a country with a young democracy which developed extremely quickly within a short time. A country where politics are (also) made by young people. A country at the border of EU und Russia. A country with complex social and lingo-political challenges. A country where a former occupying power is still so present. I wanted to see the small country at the edge of Europe which is so pro-European, so pro-EU. Long story short, I was thrilled to fly to Tallinn.

Prior to my departure I was surprised: Anyone whom I told about my travel plans had already been to Tallinn, or an aunt or a neighbour at least. Everyone was amazed and praised the city to high heaven. This only confirmed my anticipation.

I arrived at a mild Monday evening, it was surprisingly light outside and the sky shone blue without showing any clouds. The air smelled of the sea and the wind brought a breeze, fresher and finer than at home.

Outside it was slowly getting dark, when I – full of expectations – begun to make my way to the lauded old town. The old town of Tallinn, since 1997 on the List of UNESCO world heritage sites, impresses with medieval structures and an almost completely preserved city town including gates and towers built and expanded continuously over several centuries.

I climbed up a street made of rough cobble stones, to my left in salmon pink coat the parliament building, to my right the Alexander-Nevsky-Cathedral in rosé and with adorable, black onion domes. The cobble stone streets of Tallinn are all framed by pastel-coloured buildings with ornately coloured doors and have the most adorable names, at least for German eyes and ears.

Above the picturesque, fairytale-like-seeming old town rose an almost full moon, people of all nations wandered through the alleyways, lingered for a while and took pictures of the colourful and shining splendour. I felt like I was in a movie with a fantastic setting, from restaurants came a calm and swinging soundtrack and waiters invited me smilingly to have a drink on their terraces without being obtrusive or to break in on my admiring astonishment.

Tallinn is one of a kind which is obvious considering the old town which survived so many centuries and especially the last one full of wars, occupations and repressions of the Estonian society and nation. Since it made it on the UNESCO-list, the old town is installed like an enormous, flawless and unique open air museum. To walk through it seemed at times almost unreal to me, because everything appears to be simply perfect. I felt reminded of the knight’s castle by Playmobil I used to play with as a child. Old Hanseatic buildings with derricks under the gabled roofs awoke memories of home, but as well resemblance to other (North-) Eastern-European countries can be found. I gazed and marvelled one night at the magnificence. Then I got bored. I was searching for the Estonian life in the city and could not find it. The restaurants were expensive for a student like me. The stores selling local handicraft products all offered the same products. The only Estonians I noticed were those serving me in cafés or offering a tour with the bike taxi. It looked to me as if the entire old city centre only follows the purpose to satisfy touristic need to see a medieval idyll. The tourists did not float in the Tallinn daily life, but the old town life was entirely oriented to serve the tourists.

I was looking for authenticity and vividness, I wanted to see breaks in the cityscape. Everything seemed perfect, but therefore as well fake, not more than empty facades. I was wondering where the Tallinn soul was hiding.

I have to admit that my judgement was quite unfair, also over-hasty. With other cities I am used to get a sense – or at least the illusion of a sense – where the heart of the city and the city’s culture lies within hours upon arrival. I felt unsatisfied in Tallinn, because there was so much to see, but without a feeling to it. The city was like a city which creates beautiful pictures in your head, but where nothing really happens. I was unsatisfied, because I felt that my harsh judgement was unfair and wrong, but with my impatience I could not find access. I left the restored paths of the old town and was happy about houses with crumbling rendering and graffiti. Young people enjoyed some drinks in the park at night and I enjoyed this sight, but I could not get rid of the thought that Tallinn was hiding a huge part – the essential part. Everything looked arranged, suitably placed, conformist.

 

Wednesday night I decided to mix with the people. At day I had driven along the coast out of the town, passing grand villas with tennis courts and modern apartment blocks until I had arrived at the old Regatta building in Pirita. The building which was built for the summer Olympics in 1980 is huge, but in its imposing structure also sad. It speaks for the anticipation to welcome the world during Russian occupation. And it also shares an impression about how upset the people must have been when the games were boycotted by the majority of Western countries. I sat for a while at the stones at the shore and watched fairies on their way from and to Finland, until it begun to first spit, then to drizzle and then finally to rain.

 

In Tallinn, like in every tourist city in Europe, a pub crawl. I went with the hope to meet at least one or two Estonians during the night to ask them about the soul of Tallinn. I had more luck than I could have dreamt of. Pub crawls have a very ambivalent reputation. Some love them, others cannot stand them as a matter of principle. The concept is indeed questionable, because overall it is all about travelers getting wasted in different bars around town, until everyone is crawling home. But a tour always depends in the people and it is an incomparable opportunity to get to know both people and the nightlife in an unknown city.  

 

Wednesday night was cold and wet and apart from me only two English friends joined the crawl. The one works for a member of the European parliament in the same political group as one of my professors. We got along instantly, because we could talk about our mutual acquaintance who is neither in the one nor in the other field very outstanding. Our small group was enriched by four Estonians and quickly we decided not to go the classic Pub crawl tour. I was happy, because I was surrounded by Estonians in a small bar who felt sorry that I haven’t really warm to Tallinn. They promised to help me discover more.

It was this night that I slowly begun to understand Tallinn. The city seems to be a great representation of the Estonian mentality. The Estonians are kind and lovely people, but a bit reserved. Maybe that is because of the long history of occupation and foreign domination or maybe because of long, dark winters which lead to a calm, quiet and rather introvert soul. I do not know too many Estonians, but I instantly felt great around those I met. I have never heard them boast and they only talked about themselves when being asked. It is similar with Tallinn: Only if one starts to take the initiative and look deeper, one can break out the world created for tourists.

„I want to see more than the old town“, I said at night, a tasty cider in my hand. “Tallinn is neither big nor pretty outside old town”, was the reply.“Not much to see.”

But I did not care about beauty. I did not want to walk through restored remnants of long gone history, but I wanted to wander on paths showing traces of the young history. Where I could feel how it might be to live as a young person in Tallinn.

For a moment we went to a bar designed in neon lights and filled with young travellers where alcohol was mixed with more alcohol and gaudy coulours and downed hastily. The bar could have been in any European city and we did not stay for long. The next bar was hidden in the corner of a backyard, the walls were refurbished with graffiti art and young people played pool and table soccer. Live music from a jam session brought a good mood and everybody met somebody they knew. Estonia is not a very big country and with only few more than 1.3 million inhabitants everyone knows everyone at least indirectly.  

 

I sat happily at the bar and chitchatted with different people about the life, travelling, not about god but much about the world. The Estonians seem to be down-to-earth and realistic, but filled with joy about life, curiousity and openness.  

 

I travel a lot and I like travelling. Over the years I got into the habit of quickly mingle with at least one local. I will never have the same experience and develop the same feeling for a place when travelling all by myself, maybe with the company of my Lonely Planet. I said goodbye to the group late at night, or rather early in the morning, because I wanted to eat. When I was sitting in the cold night eating a kebab – I could have done that in any other city as well – I still had the feeling to be closer to the Estonian soul than before. That was inevitably connected with the fact that I was sitting next to a smart student from Tallinn with fascinating eyes on a flower pot. I ate my kebab and he argued enthusiastically with a young member of the Estonian parliament who was undercover out and about to enjoy the Tallinn nightlife just like we did.

 

We ambled through the now empty town at dawn, until we could look upon the red tiled roofs and the pointed towers of seldom used churches. At the horizone sparked a yellow strip, the sun was rising and announced a new day, above us screamed sea gulls and some metres to our left stood a lost young men with a snack stand waiting patiently for customers. The houses around us had gotten a new paint some years ago and the colours were fading now and peeling off. I thought it was awesome and he thought it was awesome and anyhow everything was awesome and fantastic, only my shin bone started to hurt a bit. My North German legs are not used to constant up- and downhill walks.  

 

Regardless of where one is, the morning always holds a special fascination. If one escapes from party areas and still is up before the arrival of the first eager tourists, all those picturesque places become a new meaning at the crack of dawn. The silence of the first light gives clarity, the freshness creates new thoughts. I sat on a big wall, dangled my feet and enjoyed the normality against the background of this amazing city panorama in good company.   

In summer, I learnt, the locals indeed leave the city, they spend their time on the surrounding islands or elsewhere non vacation. The young people staying in Tallinn, meet in the evenings in abandoned buildings looking at the width of the Baltic sea where weed grows from cracks in the concrete. They drink coffee at day and beer and cider at night in areas which are not very pretty, but still are coming in. And every now and then they mingle with the international community in the old town, but in the own, unobtrusive way. They give buildings, a deserted and overgrown reminder of the repression and the soviet Russian rule, a new meaning and a new life, sometimes in a grotesque, post-apokalyptic environment.  

The next day I realized that it sometimes is enough to see a city through the eyes of a local to become open to things which lie outside of tourist spheres. It is enough to listen to the stories a young person tells whose entire life has happened within and around the thick city walls of a town which has only a short time been such a touristic hot spot.

Cities can be remarkable for magnificence and charm. As repeated steadily, Tallinn’s old town is extremely pretty, as well as the gardens and parks around. But the rest is only a joy for lovers of real-socialist architecture and there are not many of those. Old buildings were neglected and newer were built too quickly, they are functional and nothing else. Contrasting to this, modern, asymmetric and glazed high rise buildings seem to be out of place. Still, Tallinn has some charm, once you found it.

It is wonderfully relaxing to sit on an old, unused and with graffiti decorated event hall while looking on the sea and the harbor, leaving the thoughts free time to flow. It is fantastically unexciting to walk through not very impressing, but still vivid streets, side by side with locals. I got a feeling about the life’s reality of the last century when looking through the dark windows of a decayed high-security prison which had been closed in order to be accepted into the EU. The fact that nowadays rave parties are organized in those scary walls is both amusing and amazing. I felt the sense of new beginnings and the mood of awakenings of the Estonians not only in the direct exchange, but as well in the modern buildings outside the old town.

 

Even the tensed Estonian- Russian relation I could see a bit, when stumbling into a group of demonstrators in front of the Russian embassy. About ten angry men screamed anti-Russian paroles and called Putin a murderer. Tourists stayed for a while, took some pictures and went on to have a cake in the oldest café of Tallinn. Still, the depths of the social challenged I could not see. I was not in villages in the border regions of Estonia where over 90% Russians live and the clock at the market square runs in Moscow time. I am not in the shoes of those who decide to live as stateless citizen rather than to decide for one passport. I do not live in constant skepticism and fear towards a Russian invasion, fired by propagandistic messages of the media. I can only read that Amnesty International criticizes the Estonian language politics, but still I learn in Tallinn that plenty of young people with Russian ancestors naturally decide to identify as Estonians and to live in the Estonian language. “Everyone is welcome in Tallinn”, explained the charming student at dawn who taught me a whole lot about Tallinn and Estonia. “But they have to be willing to integrate into the country. It is not a part of Russia.” I was admittedly surprised to hear that all parties in Estonia are unanimously pro-European. Not even the Russian population supported a pro-Russian party which tried to gain some popularity.

My last day in Tallinn was both sunny and rainy. I scouted out cozy backyards I entered through low archways. In little stores everything here was indeed packed with original handicrafts and art. I entered the workshop of a jeweler who only looked up for some seconds to the sound of the doorbell without trying to sell his art pieces to me. I found small museums in every corner and even smaller shops and galleries and learnt with info boards and a smartphone app about every building in the historic streets. Finally, I sat down in a café in the basement of a building at the main market square. The smell of freshly roasted coffee was floating through the air as I was drinking a spicy coffee with honey. The music was soft and light and through a half window shone some sun into the room with unplastered walls and low ceilings. The waiters sprinted trough a small hallway to serve the majority of guests who were sitting outside. Someone played on an old piano with a tinny echo and in front of another window sat a few students cross-legged on fur carpets and studying in the sun.

I am happy about the opportunity to meet the people I met. It is easy to create vivid memories about a city if the memories are connected with people, with laughter, with quiet and with crazy moments. It is easy to learn how to love a city where this love is communicated by young people who grew up in the city walls. Tallinn is a special city, exactly because there are so many levels to it to value it.

Before I flew back to Germany I asked a young Estonian what he treasures Tallinn for. He shrugged his shoulders and grinned a half-smile.

“What a strange question. It is just such a feeling. I simply feels good.“

 

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