Tallinn for the first-timer
If you like harmless ghosts, you should visit Tallinn.
It takes about ten minutes to scale up the steep, medieval stairs. Pass through a stooping mini tunnel to reach this flat, cobbled plot — only to be greeted by statues of three faceless monks. They resemble one executed black monk whose aatma still roams in the gardens.
The Russian orthodox cathedral with ‘onion’ domes is still some fifty meters away. The sturdy Short Leg Gate Tower insulates the upper town or Toompea from the hullabaloo of Tallinn’s more popular Lower Town, as it did during the times of Danish kings.
There are very few cities in the world where official plaques announce that “this is one of the most haunted places in Tallinn” and “in recent years, a male voice has been heard singing yet the tower has always turned out to be empty.” The staff of the nearby café in the tower even “credits” the spirits for “helping them to keep the place in order” (whatever it means).
I am afraid of ghosts and adult cockroaches (the flying ones can give me heart attack). But in this sun-scrubbed afternoon after a week-long flux of dodgy clouds, and three monks ready to entertain any wandering spirit, I feel safe!
As if to wipe away any further feeling of eeriness, the cathedral’s pipe organ bursts into sonorous tunes. We peep inside. Russian women in pretty headscarves and men sing with the liturgy to praise the Lord. The otherwise glittering interior complete with an iconostasis, turns into a misty world of worship where visitors can slip in, albeit silently.
But old-timer Estonians won’t be so amused. The Russians built this huge cathedral to face Estonia’s traditional seat of power (now it’s the Parliament building). The imposing cathedral threatens to dwarf the Parliament house.
From here, a network of narrow, cobbled roads spreads deep inside Toompea. The simple, white-washed Dome church, stands in a leafy corner to welcome guests who want to discover more. The area is a mini version of Chanakyapuri. Splendid old buildings house different embassies. If you venture out more, two bylanes reward enthusiasts with breath-taking views of the lower city.
Another afternoon rolls towards the evening. Toompea sinks in solitude and the lower Town unpacks itself to more vibrance and beauty.
We have a reservation for an early dinner (when in Estonia, do as the Estonians do) at Restaurant Leib. It’s away from the touristy heart of the old town where waiters dressed in traditional attire lure guests towards expensive eateries. It’s a short walk from the town’s arterial street Pikk to Leib.
This is one of those rare places where every street has a beautiful story to tell. I don’t need any history book to describe why Tallinn is one of the best-preserved medieval towns in Europe. Once a trading port of Hanseatic Germans, it is dotted with alluring, small houses. So pretty that they can lift your mood.
The old town of Tallinn looks like an artist’s palate. We, however, go beyond this old-world charm to an obscure corner of a road. A small gate leads to a garden that makes the perfect setting for a quiet meal at Leib Restoran.
Before we take a table and the staff lays sheep’s wool coats on the wrought iron chairs, I notice Sir Sean Connery’s bust in the garden.
“The property is owned by a Scottish gentlemen’s club. When we took it on rent, they made just one request: please keep all the busts. The Sean Connery bust is a big attraction here,” chuckles the manager.
But one doesn’t really need a James Bond to decide what to eat here. Good Estonian restaurants don’t have an elaborate menu. They focus on beer. And all have another thing in common: a pork and potato dish. It’s the staple here and every restaurant will have its own version of pork and potato.
I try a steak with vegetables. Ruchira orders for duck with sun-dried tomatoes. The chill in the air starts settling in the garden for the night in a stark reminder that Tallinn ranks fourth among national capitals closest to North Pole.
Evening is also the time to sit and people-watch at Raekoja plats—the centre of Tallinn. The square is surrounded by colourful medieval merchant houses, most of them turned into restaurants. In the middle, the Town hall stands alone, overseeing the bustling world around the square.
The town looks happy. Restaurants are brimming with customers. Souvenir shops are open for longer hours. It’s a Friday evening. The cruise ships might have left the dock, Finns have come in thousands from Helsinki in search of cheaper alcohol. Their party will go on till the wee hours.
I almost decide to label Tallinn as the Brugge of the Baltics. It doesn’t have those lovely canals like Brugge. But the mood, the architecture and the ambiance make the Estonian capital a perfect match for the quaint Belgian town.
Next day, when I stand at the higher end of a vast, sliding field carpeted with lush green grass, I realise this is not the usual beach-and-beer destination. The white gallery at the far end of the downhill remind visitors of 1988. That fateful year, almost 300,000 Estonians gathered here to sing patriotic songs—to protest against the oppressing Soviet rule. Music lies in the heart of every Estonian. And for years, music has also been this small country’s greatest weapon to fight against the mighty Soviet Union’s occupation.
The other thing that binds Estonians is marathon. Near an old tower, lovingly called as Fat Margaret, I am happily clicking photos when suddenly the roads are blocked and we are trapped between the mediaeval walls and millennial marathoners. Given that Estonia is slightly bigger than Haryana, the sight of thousands of people running happily—mostly for the sake of participation — speaks volumes about national pride.
In many houses, Russian flags are still fluttering. Matryoshka dolls are a rage. There are dedicated Russian restaurants. But while Tallinn receives tourists from all across Europe, there’s no travel agency that ferries the locals across their eastern border in Russia.
And near a pretty park, we even see a bas-relief of late Russian president Boris Yeltsin (a rare sight indeed) engraved in a wall just below a popular viewpoint. He is a hero here because he respected Estonian freedom.
This year, the proud little land of Estonia is celebrating its 100 years of independence. It’s time to be a part of their celebrations.
And don’t worry about the ghosts. They too, are ready to welcome you to this Baltics’ beauty.
From HT Brunch, October 28, 2018
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