Sprinkled around Tallinn’s Old Town are wooden carts, from which pairs of young Estonians sell packets of sugared almonds. The merchants are dressed in medieval robes and gothic lettering on the awning above them reads ‘Gourmet Monk’. But below the hems of their garments I can see jeans, designer sneakers and Crocs, and they take calls on their mobile phones. Tallinn may flog its medieval credentials for tourism purposes, but this is a 21st century city.
Our group arrives in Tallinn late in the afternoon, leaving time for a pre-dinner stroll into the Old Town. The sun sparkles on church spires and the turrets of the city walls, bounces off ornate weather vanes above terracotta roofs and backlights the cobblestones on the steep narrow streets.
I haven’t seen a place this pretty since I last visited Bruges, but Tallinn is far less crowded, and locals have time to chat.
Silvi is a business management student, and though selling almonds to tourists brings in useful kroons, she mostly does it to practice her languages. French was her best subject at high school. It was mine too, but I keep quiet about that. If Silvi hears my French the reputation of Australian education will be in tatters. Her English is excellent and I bet her German and Russian are also passable.
On a temporary stage in the lovely square in front of the 14th century town hall, a band is doing a sound check for their performance in the ‘Old Town Days Festival’, while colourful street performers draw a crowd with a display of drumming and energetic flag waving. There’s no reason to think Estonia has ever been anything but settled, prosperous, open and fun-loving.
It is only when I learn more of the region’s turbulent and tragic history that I understand what an extraordinary change has come over Estonia since the break-up of the Soviet Union. In an introductory lecture organized for my Odyssey tour group, local historian Kristi tells how little Estonia (population 1.3million) was subjugated for centuries by Danes, Swedes, Teutonic knights and Tsars, before enjoying brief independence between the World Wars.
Then in came the Russians, the Nazis and the Russians again. ‘Who was worse?’ Kristi gives a wry smile. ’ You can’t choose between bubonic plague and smallpox.’ Between them they exterminated or deported a huge proportion of the population, including nearly all Jews and most educated, landed and business people.
Today relations between resident Russians and ethnic Estonians are sometimes strained, we’re told, with Russian reluctance to learn the Estonian language and the recent removal of a hated Soviet monument being bones of contention. Our Estonian guide Rita is quick to advise us against buying the babushka dolls we see in the window of every souvenir shop. ‘They are Russian, not Estonian, Russian! ‘ That yellow jewellery is not genuine Estonian produce either; it is Latvian or Lithuanian amber. So I buy a pretty scarf made from local linen. ‘We have our own factory here in Estonia,’ I’m proudly told.
We tourists also benefit from Tallinn’s new-found freedom. It seems that all young Estonians speak English as confidently as Scandinavians do. The coffee and focaccias are first rate. Prices are quoted in Estonian kroons, but also in euros, due to be introduced in 2011. IT is a boom industry here and travellers should be eternally grateful to the Estonian computer programmers who invented Skype.
At dinner time we’re returned to the Middle Ages, as Rita leads us to the ‘Olde Hansa’ Restaurant. The name refers to Tallinn’s past as a trade centre for prosperous Hanseatic League merchants. ‘Olde’ in my experience generally means ‘Newe’ and ‘Kitsche’, but to my surprise this is well done and very good fun. We’re served by waitpersons in medieval costume and entertained by minstrels playing viol, tambour and recorders. And gazooks, they’re good! So too is my juniper cheese, almond chicken, ginger turnip and dark herb beer.
The Olde Hansa is doing a roaring trade with crowds of young locals making merry at long tables. Estonians are proud of their past and optimistic about their future. A return to the true Dark Ages seems mercifully out of the question for them.
The writer was a guest of Odyssey Travel.
Staying there: Meriton Conference Hotel and Spa has two night packages from 2450 Estonian kroons (about US$210) per person. See grandhotel.ee
Eating there: Olde Hansa Restaurant offers feasts from EEK480 per person. See oldehansa.ee
Further information: Odyssey Travel runs guided tours to the Baltic States including three nights in Tallinn. See: odysseytravel.com.au
First published – Sun-Herald, Sydney