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Estonia: Chutney and Hare Krishna

Stunning women, delightful cafes and five minutes on the Prime Minister?s chair in Tallinn. Anjali Doshi shares her experience...

india Updated: Sep 16, 2006 03:19 IST

Walking around Old Town Tallinn is like revisiting a Hans Christian Andersen fairytale: winding cobblestone pathways, baroque-style buildings, red-tiled roofs, medieval cathedrals and beautiful women who could have been princesses in another era.

Tallinn, about 80 km south of Helsinki, is the capital of Estonia — a Baltic state that was once part of the Soviet Union. I took a 90-minute catamaran ride across the narrow Gulf of Finland from Helsinki; a flight from the Finnish capital takes all of 15 minutes, and walked into a city that must be among the prettiest in the world.

Founded in the 13th century, Tallinn used to be a northern European trading town on the crossroads of routes to the east and west. Today, Old Town (new Tallinn, like any modern city, is full of glossy glass buildings and formulaic malls) is an outstanding example of the medieval city that has preserved its old forts, castles and churches like a treasure chest. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Old Town retains the quaint charm that is now lost in most cities of its age.

The needle-sharp spire of St Olav’s Church is the highest point in the city's skyline. Like almost every building here — including the Russian Orthodox churches and the less ostentatious Lutheran cathedrals — it is an architectural marvel.

Exploring Old Town

Estonia must have some of the world’s most stunning women. Sitting at one of the many outdoor cafés in Old Town is like having a front row seat at the Valentino fall collection show: tall and slender Estonian women, in stylish clothing and stilettos, tick-tock past every few seconds, followed around by the aroma of cinnamon wafting seductively out of café kitchens.

Beautiful buildings and gorgeous women aside, Tallinn promises many unexpected and fortunate discoveries. Scouting around for souvenirs, I walked into a bar that was once a dungeon in a medieval castle. Minutes later, a raucous group of Iskcon devotees marched past, determinedly chanting Hare Rama Hare Krishna. There is no escaping the great Hindu pantheon, even in a city I had not even heard of before this visit.

But the India connection does not end there. The main Town Hall Square has three Indian restaurants — Tanduur, Elevant and Maharaja — that are quite a rage with the locals. I gave those a skip and stopped at the Olde Hansa — one of the most popular restaurant-cafes in Tallinn, and a tourist hotspot. A medieval-style eatery lit by hundreds of candles, the Olde Hansa has some delightful stuff like a light cinnamon-flavoured beer, an onion jam (a delicious chutney-like condiment), and an apple crumble famed to be among the best in the world. The food is fab, and the portions obscene — but most Estonians don’t bother with Olde Hansa-type joints. “We prefer simple food — potatoes, meat and bread,” says our tour guide Kaaja Kuusk.

Meet the Prime Minister

Stenbock House, the Estonian government building in Old Town, is a 200-year-old structure on Toompea Hill with an expansive, aerial view of the city. It is the seat of Estonia’s parliament — and almost anyone, after appropriate security checks, can go inside on a visit.

The Estonian government has 14 cabinet ministers. They meet in an understated room that has only a long mahogany table and 14 flat screen monitors. This is probably the only government in the world that is completely paperless. No thick files, no scrawling notes on paper. Every recommendation and notation is on the government website that allows a fair amount of public access.

I bumped into Andrus Ansip — the Estonian Prime Minister. A friendly, bespectacled gent, he casually waved a hello as I walked past, blissfully ignorant of his identity. In the room with the long table, I plonked myself at the head and asked, “So who sits here?” “The guy you just saw walking out of the office,” one of the officials responded dryly. “The Prime Minister of Estonia.”

A troubled past

But Tallinn isn’t just about the good times. The city has many reminders of Estonia's troubled past. Ruled by the Danes, Swedes, Germans and the Soviets for over 800 years — it has been just 15 years since the USSR broke up — the wounds are still raw in this country of roughly over a million inhabitants. Most Estonians speak openly and passionately about the torture they underwent at the hands of the Germans and Russians. “The Russians treated us worse than the Germans, if that’s possible,” says Kaaja. “We had absolutely no freedom.”

But while they deal with a difficult past, Estonians are extremely proud of their history — sites bombed during the Second World War lie untouched. And a cemetery in a forest full of pine, spruce and birch trees pays homage to many great Estonians persecuted by the Russians.

While Estonia has made much progress since independence in 1991, an undercurrent of tension between the Estonians and Russians (the ones who chose to stay on after independence) prevails. Kaaja, with 3,00,000 other Estonians, participated in the Singing Revolution (1998-90) that won Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania their independence. “Every night, we would gather in a park in Tallinn to sing national songs and hymns forbidden during the Soviet occupation," she recalls. Even as military tanks rolled past attempting to quash the rebellion.

The value Estonians place on their newfound freedom is apparent. “I tell my daughter about it every day,” says Kaaja, hoping that the generations to come never forget. “We now have the freedom to make choices. We can travel and see all these places we had only read about.”

Sombre thoughts, difficult memories. As dusk settles on Tallinn, I treat myself to some cinnamon-coated almonds and lager. I have just a few hours left to catch my Tallinn-Helsinki flight, and then on to Mumbai. Back to ramshackled buildings and potholed roads.

First Published: Sep 16, 2006 03:19 IST