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Monday, 23 March 2009

When in Tallinn, Eat Cake!

Written by Belinda Hogan
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When in Tallinn, Eat Cake!, Baltics, Estonia, travel Estonia, Old Town, Vanalinn, Oleviste Church, Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, Kalma Sauna, travel Tallinn, Toompea Hill, Helsinki, Belinda HoganThe Baltics are just waiting for a tourist avalanche. Estonia, one of the three countries that make up this small and flat region, (the others being Latvia and Lithuania), is now not just known for its weightlifters, but for its beauty, friendly people, quaint pubs and delectable cakes. Situated in the Eastern part of Europe and to the north, Tallinn the capital is, I think, best in winter.

 

Fronting a bay that overlooks the Gulf of Finland, Tallinn is a mixture of old and new.

 

One of the best ways to get there is to fly from London to Helsinki, catch a hydrofoil across The Gulf, which will drop you one kilometer from the Old Town, otherwise known as Vanalinn to the locals. Strolling around the Old Town, which is encircled by medieval walls and snow-topped pastel-colored buildings, you can’t help but feel like Hansel or Gretel. The narrow streets are molded with caramel colored cobbled stones and in winter laced with icy snow, so wear good shoes and watch out for the chilly icicles that dislodge themselves from the buildings without any warning.

 

Tallin’s medieval beauty has remained well intact, earning itself a UNESCO Heritage Listing in 1997 and its buildings are an array of a mixed cultural past of Scandinavian, Russian, Germanic and Baltic architecture. All of this adds to the romantic feel of the city.

I am not a shopper, but I could not resist the temptation in Tallinn. The paved sidewalks lead to charming little shops that sell hand-painted Russian dolls, Estonian knit wear and intricate embroidered haberdashery. Eesti Kasitoo is a company that sells traditional handmade Estonian handicrafts and they have three shops in the Old Town. All products are made from natural materials and I bought a long red woolen shawl from the store in the main square. This came in handy, as it was snowing and I spent most of my time outside. The Russian dolls do come in their traditional costumes or you can choose a set that portrays anything from The Simpsons to the cast of Friends. After much deliberation, I settled on John, Paul, George and Ringo in their Sergeant Pepper gear!

As a person who loves anything old, the book and antique shops were alluring. I ended up buying a batch of worn Estonian women’s magazines depicting Soviet fashions, and a small chandelier, that was for all its exquisiteness, relatively cheap.


What is fantastic about Tallinn is that it nurtures local artists. There are so many art galleries to choose from, both in the old and new parts of town, and I could not go past without buying some pottery from Bogapott which also has a café. Make sure you visit The Katariina Passage, which has the best variety of artistic wares and where you can watch a blacksmith or potter at work.

 


 

You can also step into any of the bohemian cafes that are tucked in every nook, and develop a sweet tooth. The cakes are absolutely delicious. Pastries, stuffed pancakes, a rainbow of tarts and even sweet pizzas will certainly help you put on the pounds! My favorite was The Tristan and Isolde Café , situated underneath the Town Hall in the main square. It’s small but has a 15th century ambience, fresh roasted coffee from around the world, and is the site of the last independent Estonian brewery, selling unpasteurized beer. There are an abundance of bars, cafes and restaurants within the walls of The Old Town and its hard not to indulge yourself. Whether you fancy something authentic or from another land, it’s all there.

 

On your walk home late at night after eating, drinking and chatting with the fascinating locals, follow the smell of incense and the sound of angelic voices. I found myself in the middle of a midnight service, in the regal Oleviste Church. Once the tallest church in Medieval Europe, it’s an impressive sight with its steeple acting as a guardian angel of all those below. There are other beautiful churches in The Old Town but the When in Tallinn, Eat Cake!, Baltics, Estonia, travel Estonia, Old Town, Vanalinn, Oleviste Church, Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, Kalma Sauna, travel Tallinn, Toompea Hill, Helsinki, Belinda HoganAlexander Nevsky Cathedral is the most majestic. Sitting on top of Toompea Hill, the booming chimes of the Cathedral’s bells act as a reminder of Tallinn’s Tsarist past; one, I found out, hasn’t sat well with some of the locals since the collapse of the Iron Curtin.

 

When you leave the historic walls of the Old Town you discover that Tallinn is a town of diversity. The more modern city outside the walls boasts shops you would see in any western city, and there are more places to eat or party than the Old Town. The greatest thing about shopping in Tallinn is you can do it seven days a week because stores are open late. But when shopping gets a bit too much, you can escape to one of Tallinn’s saunas.

 

The Estonians are very much like their Finnish cousins to the north in sharing this very special ritual. Outside Estonian cities, having a sauna is still a big part of daily life, but in Tallinn, it’s often used as a warm up for a night on the town! In my case it was for a pair of very sore feet. I tried the Kalma Sauna, which is situated in the Kalmaja region. It was the first public sauna in Estonia and there is a historical air about the place. You can choose to go into the public sauna (they have male and female areas) or if you are traveling with friends, you can rent one to share. It has a swimming pool and like most sauna facilities has a bar and café for snacks afterwards. Most importantly, it’s clean and the staff are extremely friendly. This was rather important when I realized, to get the most out of my sauna, I would have to be naked. The staff made me forget my Australian bashfulness as I donned my birthday bathing suit. It is very much a part of the culture in Estonia and no one bats an eyelid. There are many other saunas and day spas worth trying, but a little more expensive. For a great view of Tallinn, the complex on top of Hotel Olumpia is a must to rest weary walking legs and soak it all up.

 

When in Tallinn, Eat Cake!, Baltics, Estonia, travel Estonia, Old Town, Vanalinn, Oleviste Church, Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, Kalma Sauna, travel Tallinn, Toompea Hill, Helsinki, Belinda HoganAlthough Tallinn is a great city for walking, its public transport system is easy to use and I recommend getting a Tallinn Card. Not only does this let you get on and off most transport, it also provides admission to over forty tourist sights. In regards to accommodation there are plenty of choices, whether you are traveling on a budget or wanting to stay somewhere more luxurious.

 

Tallinn has everything you want in a holiday and it in some ways reminds me of its Scandinavian relatives, but without the expense. So, if you are thinking of a trip to Eastern Europe, get there before the other tourists do; don’t miss it!  

©Belinda Hogan

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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