[Previously: Bristol, Camden, Newcastle, Birmingham, Shoreditch, Aberdeen, Manchester, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Kungsholmen, Leeds, Shepherd's Bush, Nottingham, Sheffield, Dog Tap, Tate Modern†, Clapham Junction, Roppongi, Liverpool, Dundee, Bologna, Florence, Brighton, DED Angel†, Brussels, Soho, Cardiff, Barcelona, Clerkenwell, DogHouse Glasgow, Rome, Castlegate, Leicester, Oslo, Gothenburg, Södermalm, Turku†, Helsinki, Gray's Inn Road†, Stirling, Norwich, Southampton, Homerton†, Berlin, Warsaw†, Leeds North Street, York, Hong Kong†, Oxford, Seven Dials, Reading, Malmo]
March 30th - April 2nd 2018
Having started in Denmark, trekked through Sweden and made our way across the water to Finland, there's one more country to go before this Nordic Expedition is complete. To be honest, up until recently my mental image of Estonia has been shaped by two things: the old Film Unlimited trope of the Estonian Butler Movie as the archetype of esoteric cinema, and the former sumo wrestler Baruto. (A couple of years ago, I managed to combine the two for an April Fool's gag.) But last time we were in Finland, we heard that the city of Tallinn had become a new hub for craft beer brewing: there were even Finnish brewers who'd moved over there for the tax breaks.
That isn't as dramatic a move as it sounds, as Tallinn is ridiculously close to Helsinki: just half an hour by plane, or two hours by boat. We take the latter option to travel to Estonia, using the Tallink Megastar ferry. It's Good Friday morning, so the West Harbour Terminal in Helsinki is full of Finns making the same journey for the Easter weekend, all being addressed over the PA as ‘dear darling passengers’. Our window seat on the Megastar turns out to be a good choice, despite the fantastically rude kids who barge in front of us every so often for a look: the voyage isn't as spectacular as our one into Finland, but approaching Tallinn through a layer of ice is still pretty impressive.
Our first visit is at lunchtime on Good Friday, so we're slightly prepared for disappointment, and we get it: along with the bar being a bit quiet, it’s also a bit lacking in food. As they don't have a kitchen, they usually allow you to order flammkuchen (an Alsatian pizza-style flatbread dish) from Flamm next door: but as Flamm is closed for the holidays, they have to fall back on the alternative of getting hot dogs from Taptap on the other side. None of their hot dogs are meat-free, which leaves The Belated Birthday Girl with a problem, albeit one that's easily solved: we have a pint in the bar, make our apologies, go to the nearby Carmen Café for paninis and coffee, come back and have another pint.
In total, we'll visit the bar four times over the space of two days (they close on Sundays). And it strikes me that the Beer Visa scheme has certain advantages when you use it internationally - it marks you out as a visitor, and gets the bar staff chatting to you as they stamp it, asking you awkward questions about which bars you've visited and which one is the best. Hey, we've only just arrived, we can't say it's you yet! Mind you, Tallinn would come fairly high on our list on this evidence. As a possible consequence of this being the holiday season, the same people are behind the bar for each one of our four visits, and by our final appearance on Saturday night we're being greeted like we're Norm from Cheers. They give us handy advice about unfamiliar beers worth trying: on the Friday afternoon we take advantage of a recent tap takeover by Sweden's O/O Brewing, while for our two late-night visits we go for local crazy imperial stouts from Pühaste (Dekadents) and Käbliku (Penumbra). And after our initial concerns about how quiet the place was on Good Friday lunchtime, it's pleasing to see it get more packed with each return, reaching a peak on the Saturday night. All this with the sort of friendly service that makes the bars in Finland stand out so much. Maybe it's a Baltic thing.
Our hotel for these three days is a few minutes walk away from the bar, and – rather like the climax of Nordic Expedition I – the lure of a room with its own private sauna is too strong to resist. So for a little above our usual maximum rate, we’ve booked into the Hotel Bern's Double Deluxe suite, a large loft area with a sauna and jacuzzi located in the bathroom. We spend the entire weekend trying to work out how best to use them: our Friday night post-pub attempt at operating the jacuzzi results in one of its jets going rogue and spraying an entire wall of the bathroom. The sauna is much better behaved, and we go through various combinations of late night, pre-breakfast and post-breakfast sweaty sessions, before ultimately deciding that pre-breakfast is best.
Despite this, the thing that impresses us most after a week touring four countries is that Estonia is the first one to trust us with our own kettle in the room. The service is perfectly standard in all other aspects. The breakfast buffet at the Bern is decent enough, but apparently it's not enough for some people: one morning, we watch in fascination as the couple on one table grabs a dozen or so croissants and surreptitiously wraps them up in a napkin for a picnic later on. I'm not quite sure why you'd do that, as there are plenty of perfectly decent places to eat and drink in Tallinn.
Restaurants in the city cover the gamut from ancient to modern. At the traditional end you have the old-style beer hall Porgu, which serves hearty meals for very little money (obviously, I'm still comparing prices with Helsinki the night before), and has a beer selection ranging from trendy craft (Tanker's Sauna Session) to an IPA brewed on the premises (Porgu Populism). The Tanker brewery is also represented at the Russian restaurant Moon, which I'd picked out on a map purely because it was convenient for where we needed to be later that day, only to discover that it's one of the most highly regarded in town. The aim of Moon is to serve high quality but simple Russian food, and our chosen dishes seem like a laundry list of Russian culinary cliches: blinis, stuffed peppers, rainbow trout and chicken Kiev. They're all beautifully done, and work well with more Estonian beer: Hopster's Frida Wit, and Tanker's Reloaded IPA.
There's much more beer and food to be had in the trendy Kalamaja district, where more old factories and railway buildings have become hipster bars and restaurants. F-Hoone is another decent restaurant with a great local beer list, and the perfect place for a Saturday night dinner – we have a selection of bruschetti, goat's cheese, a black bread burger and veg pasta, accompanied by Purtse pale ale and the restaurant's own lingonberry IPA (brewed in collaboration with Pohjala), all adding up to a little over thirty quid in total. Nearby in the same complex is the more traditional craft bar Pudel, which is friendly enough apart from one punter who gets all suspicious when The BBG starts taking photos: we stay local with Pühaste's Hazy Delight and Õllenaut's Simko Eil. We also track down Pohjala's own brewery bar Speakeasy, although as the name implies it may take some effort to locate it (especially if your GPS tells as many lies as mine does). Eventually we discover a delightful little candlelit drinking den, where we have their Uus Maailm session IPA and Mets black IPA.
Tallinn's a new city to us, and we need to orient ourselves on our first day. Usually, in this situation, we consult our guide book to see if there's a recommended walking route we should take, and that's what we do here. To make things that little bit more awkward, the Tallinn Old Town walk mapped in our Lonely Planet Estonia, Latvia & Lithuania guide has its start and finish points totally at odds with both our current position and where we want to end up for dinner. So we take it in reverse, beginning at Viru Gate and trying to reverse all the directions in our heads as we go. (If you want to try it for yourself, download the Estonia chapter of the book and the walk's on pages 58-59.) It's a messy exercise, and it breaks down a little towards the end, but we just about pull it off, seeing most of the city's best architecture on the way: the guild halls, the old KGB headquarters, the city walls, and the two big cathedrals (Orthodox and Lutheran).
Having got the walking out of our system on day one, the next day we find a kiosk that will sell us three-day travelcards, and use them to explore a bit further afield. (We later find out we didn't need to - it's possible to download QR travelcards directly to your phone, though if you don't scan the code properly when you get on a bus or tram the inspectors will yell at you.) One of the best out-of-town attractions is Lennusadam Seaplane Harbour, a massive hangar originally constructed to house seaplanes, but now operating as a maritime museum stuffed full of nautical delights. These include our second submarine of the week (the Lembit, which we get to wander round inside) and an excellent history of 100 years of Estonian shipping, where the narrative text is written out on giant paper boats. Outside the hangar there's a harbour with even more to explore, notably the icebreaker Suur Tõll, which presumably feels right at home given the frozen water it's sitting in. There are several other ships moored there, most of which are only opened to the public part time – one of them is regularly hired out as an escape room.
The Estonian Open Air Museum is even better, particularly as it has a special programme of events scheduled for Easter Sunday. It's a huge open area filled with examples of traditional farm buildings, and it's at this point that we finally discover where the snow and ice we've been threatened with all week has gathered: it's all here. Luckily, we have our Magic Spikers (currently available at half price from branches of Ellis Brigham), and with those strapped to our shoes we get around just fine. It does seem, though, that the weather has reduced the number of people coming here today – we'd expected it to be rammed, but frequently we're the only people in sight. One of the main selling points of the museum was that they have the giant swings that people traditionally spend time on over the Easter holiday, but when we get there we literally have them all to ourselves. Tellingly, someone's built a snowman next to them. Happy Easter!
Several of the farm buildings have special activities going on today. At Kuie Schoolhouse we're taught a series of old songs to sing while we're on the swings, mostly in a call-and-response structure: at Harjapea Farm they're cooking eggs and baking Easter dishes. It's slightly creepy that the actors working in these places have obviously been told to pretend that the visitors aren't there: it's more irritating when it means you don’t get offered any of their food. The most interactive session of the day comes at the Kolu Inn, where we have a lunch consisting of herring, bacon mash, wine and the local beer (which I subsequently discover clocks in at 8.3%). While we're eating, the Pubar children’s folklore theatre entertain us with songs, dances and games, handing out instruments to us at the end so we can all join in. The trickiest bit of the day is finding some toilets that actually work and aren't just ornamental replicas, but we find some eventually.
Long term readers will be aware that we have an Easter tradition, first documented here: spending part of Easter Sunday watching a film made in the place where we're staying. We tried this year, honestly we did. We searched for movies relating to Tallinn, and the best we could manage was a 1999 Swedish made-for-TV comedy Torsk på Tallinn (Screwed In Tallinn). A year ago it would have had some historical interest, because you could sell it as being "from Tomas Alfredson, visionary director of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy." Nowadays, it would be "from Tomas Alfredson, the director who made a complete bollocks of The Snowman." Either way, this is a crudely-made comedy about Swedish guys travelling to Tallinn for the purposes of sex tourism, though I have no idea if they succeed because we both fall asleep halfway through it.
Luckily, the day before that we get to see an actual new Estonian film at the pictures: a first for both of us, though as movies are routinely subtitled in Russian and English it's not quite that big a deal. The Little Comrade was specially filmed for the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Estonian republic, and feels like a historical piece made specifically for people who already know the history: it's not until a good twenty minutes in that it's made clear in dialogue that we're in the early fifties. It's told from the point of view of little girl Leelo, the daughter of two dangerously radical schoolteachers. When Leelo's mum is taken away by the usual men in black coats, she's worried that it's somehow her fault. Actually, Leelo is a terrible kid, who really is the cause of most of the bad things that happen to her and her family in the movie: her dad and relatives do everything they can to protect her from the truth of what's going on, but she ignores all of their advice and just makes things worse. Still, it's an enjoyable enough story if you look past that, and accept the inevitable deus ex machina ending which is the only way that this tale can stop. Plus, there are a few scenes that have obviously been filmed in Tallinn, which is a happy bonus for our Easter movie.
Having watched our first Estonian film, attending our first Estonian gig - at the Kultuurikatel, aka Tallinn Creative Hub - seems like the logical next step. From the little research we'd done before booking, we'd assumed that headline act Noëp would be a guy in a room with a laptop performing to a few dozen chinstrokers. Boy, were we wrong. This is an arena-shaped show squashed into a mid-sized venue: there are multiple cameras filming it for later use (including a jib crane that comes close to decapitating audience members once or twice), and a video projection rig that extends beyond the stage into the actual auditorium. The biggest screen is at the back, and would be responsible for the biggest coup of the night if it hadn't already been announced on the ticket: half an hour in, it's raised up to reveal the youth orchestra ÜENSO hiding behind it.
Musically, it's a bit odd. There's no denying that Noëp knows how to construct a banging pop chorus, and there are some terrific songs here that drill into your head after a single listen. However, I think that the experiment with the orchestra doesn't quite come off. On record, the songs are a little bland, and he takes the opportunity on stage to fill out the arrangements with heavy bass and drums. So heavy, in fact, that they obliterate any physical impact that adding an orchestra should give you: all too often, they're just a minor element in the sonic palatte, rather than being front and centre. Still, it's a very entertaining night out for all that.
Noëp's gig is the big finish to our final night (technically, it's followed by us falling asleep during Torsk på Tallinn, but let's ignore that). We wake up the next morning to find that the snow from the Open Air Museum has finally made it out to central Tallinn, covering everything. We were worried this was going to happen last night and mess up our journey back from the gig: but no, it's just going to mess up our journey to the airport instead. Still, the trip back is surprisingly painless: a bus to the airport that gets us there twenty minutes before check-in opens, a thirty-minute flight back to Helsinki, and another couple of hours back to a snow-free London. The biggest surprise is Tallinn airport itself: it initially looks like no more than a tram and bus stop outside a small portakabin, except once you get past security you find a full-sized, well-appointed airport behind it. There's a shop with a full selection of Arvo Pärt CDs, and even sleep capsules you can take a nap inside. Well, at least now I have some new stereotypes I can associate with Estonia. Being a monkey, and all.