Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Welcome to Tallinn!

Sometimes simply riding into a town gives me an immediate impression of the place that I just entered, which quite often is the right impression too. Tallinn is not one of those easy to understand places. It presented so many mixed images and gave so many mixed or even conflicting impressions that it was a hard place to understand. I had no idea what to expect from Tallinn, or Estonia for that matter, as I had never been to any of the Baltic countries before. Maybe Russian influences, maybe grey nondescript buildings, quite possibly poverty… It wasn't any of that at all, we were in for quite a shock.

Tallinn is a bustling city, which didn't look anywhere near a nondescript Russian town. Entering the harbour on the ferry had already taken care of that assumption. It's a continuous coming and going of ferries, big ferries. There wouldn't be that many ferries if it was a nondescript town where nobody wants to go to. It seemed more like a western metropolis. Leaving the ferry and riding into Tallinn, we were in for another shock: the Tallinn traffic! It is seriously mad… I'm not quite sure what I had expected to find here but it definitely wasn't this! Since Estonia had managed to re-independence itself from Russia in 1991, I wasn't expecting streets full of old Ladas. But streets full of Mercedes, Audis, BMWs, Porches, Ferraris and even quite a few Lamborghini…? Yet that is what we found in Tallinn. Don't be fooled into thinking that Estonia is the part of Europe where old cars come to die… what we saw were brand spanking new and top of the range luxury cars.

Where the money for all this comes from is a mystery. I've tried to find the answer but haven't been able to. The average wage is not extremely high, there is no evidence of any form of big industry and yet the money that rides around here is amazing. There were more Porsche Cayennes on the road here than anywhere else in the world. 

Mind you there wasn't much time to think about all this when we entered Tallinn as the traffic is bizarre. Not only are there many expensive and fast cars, they drive them very aggressively too. Like maniacs really. Speed limits don't seem to exist, brakes are applied at the last moment and dangerous overtaking seems the norm. It looks more like a go-kart race with big limousines than anything else. Where else in the world can you see Audi R8s driven on the rev limiter in the city? Riding here, fresh from the ferry, you need eyes in the back of your head.

We had already opted to take a campground in Tallinn, which meant we only had to ride 7 km from the ferry, as Tallinn is a special place for another reason too: the Old part of Town. If you want to see it then staying at the Pirita Marina campground isn't a bad option. It gave us the chance to see another way the Tallinn-ians spend their money as well: on boats! Luxury yachts, speedboats, jet skies, sailing yachts… it's all here. We were there too, camping in a tent next to millions of dollars of boats. Again, where all this money comes from? We have no idea. Although we did notice two new black painted luxury yachts being delivered to a man in a big Cadillac…

Seeing Old Tallinn can be done in various ways. You can spend a small fortune and go into a balloon to see it from the air. But you can also spend a little and climb the tower of the St. Olav church. There are luxury bus tours and many cruise ships dock in Tallinn as well and give guided tours for their passengers. The latter is a bit of a pathetic display really, the tour guides are walking around holding up a piece of paper with a number on it, to prevent the passengers getting lost… We walked around the Old Town and saw it from up close and from several higher situated view points as well. We spend a whole day in the old part of Tallinn. 

Tallinns international grandeur is present in the Old Part too. There are many exclusive restaurants offering food from every corner of the globe. From Russian to Italian, American to French and even as far away as Australia! Tallinn is definitely trying to be the Paris of the north-east, complete with all the splendour, the pretence and the atmosphere that goes with it. It's a playground for the rich and famous, for wealthy woman to parade through and show off. Tallinn hosts a wide range of festivals each year and is home to many grand, mostly German, manor houses too.

As you can see in the photos there is quite a bit of history here. A lot of different building styles too. The old part of Tallinn dates from the Hanse period. It's a charming town with cobblestone streets, closely built together houses, big churches and all enclosed by a big city wall and guard towers. Today it's a huge tourist attraction with more restaurants than anything else. Most buildings date from 1300-1600, when the town was known as Reval. It's so unique and well preserved that Tallinn Old Town, as it is now known, is on the Unesco Heritage List.

The town square is particularly charming, as are the many narrow streets leading to it. We noticed that the faces had changed a lot from the Scandinavian faces we had seen over the past weeks. We also noticed that women in Estonia like to colour their hair and wear pretty wacky outfits. So much so that Mike started taking some pictures of some of the strangely or strangely dressed Estonian women… which will be our next post :-)

As Tallinn dates back to the Middle Ages, there are also a couple of restaurants in the Middle Ages theme. Quite tastefully done as well. We can't say anything about the quality of the food as we kept our lunch simple. The church is well represented too. A huge Russian church is well known in Tallinn. We weren't allowed to photograph inside the church and saw typical Russian secret service type bodyguards react when they noticed someone did take a photo. We made photos too…

As Estonia has 'belonged' to Russia for such a long time, we expected many Russian influences. We also expected a lot of Russians living in Tallinn, yet the Russian population is only 24 percent of all Estonians. The whole of Estonia is home to 1.3 million, of which 400,000 are in Tallinn. The Estonian language is as incomprehensible as Finnish, which is hardly surprising as Estonian belongs to the same Finnish-Hungarian group of languages. The Russian occupation caused a unique situation too. Estonia proclaimed it's independence twice in one century, the first time in 1918 and again in 1991.

Communicating in English is generally no problem in Tallinn. It seems that virtually everyone speaks English. Tallinn certainly isn't a former Russian federation town that is left behind. It's quite advanced in a lot of respects, free Wifi throughout the whole town for example (like it should be world-wide). A public transport system that seems to work fine, with quite modern busses too.

Getting something to eat from the supermarket wasn't that easy though. Although everyone speaks fluent English, the packaging is of course in Estonian and Estonian is a language which doesn't look anywhere near familiar. The ingredients were printed in 4 languages, very thoughtful but as they were all unreadable to us… it didn't help much. Jeanette thought she had bought chicken… she had but it was mostly chicken bones! I thought I had potato salad… it had potato in it but wasn't a potato salad :-)

At the end of the day the rain set in and big too. We had taken the bus into town and rather than getting soaked while walking back to the tent, we decided to sit it out in the bus shelter. We sat there for well over an hour… and all it did was rain, rain and rain. We were gobsmacked that the Estonians kept on driving as mad as they had done before. The roads were partially flooded and yet they kept on flying past. No wonder then that ambulances and police had to tend multiple accidents.

Tallinn, Old Tallinn, is very much worth a visit. Not only for the history but also for the riches showing off, the atmosphere, the many old buildings, the cobblestone streets, etc.