Saturday, 7 March 2009
More Beery and Other Thoughts From Tallinn
I spent most of my first full day in the Estonian capital sightseeing, exploring the quaint cobbled streets, looking at the castle, towers, cathedrals and churches of old town Tallinn. It turned out to be the coldest day of my trip, but it was bright and sunny and I was wrapped up warm against the cold. I was glad of the fur-lined boots I had brought with me, not only for their warmth, but for the good grip they gave on the icy cobbled streets.
I viewed all the sights of the area known as Toompea, including the castle with its impressive walls and watch-towers. I saw the parliament building, the cathedral of St Mary the Virgin, plus the imposing, brick-built Russian Orthodox cathedral, complete with its distinctive onion-shaped domes. There are a couple of viewing platforms from where one is rewarded with a superb view over the roofs of lower part of the old town, and for me this was the highlight of the morning.
Later on I found myself in a park at the base of the ramparts. The snow sculptures dotted around the place were equally impressive and served as reminder of just how cold it was. I visited the tourist office to buy a guide book, plus some postcards, then adjourned to the Beer House in order to thaw out, have something to eat and drink and also to write out my postcards. The Beer House operates a "Happy Hour" between midday and 2pm, where the beers are a third cheaper along with the "sausage selection" on the menu. In between writing my cards I enjoyed two more of the unfiltered house beers - Pilsner Gold (4.5%) and Vana Viini Dark Lager (4.9%), along with a substantial midday snack of bratwurst, served with roasted parsnips and sauerkraut in a mustard sauce. The meal was good, as were the beers. The distinct smell of mashing pervaded the bar, and I watched as the brewster (lady brewer for the un- initiated) went about her work finishing off from the day's brewing session.The place wasn't exactly heaving, but there was still a good atmosphere inside - if only they would turn off the wretched piped, Bavarian music!
I spent the afternoon shopping for presents and souvenirs and then spent a somewhat fruitless couple of hours looking for bars recommended in the European Beer Guide. After deciding the bars had either closed or had been converted for other purposes I gave up on this quest and found myself back in the old town. Hell Hunt seemed a good bet for something to eat but when I arrived it was heaving and I couldn't get a seat. I ended up in a very nice and cosy restaurant fronting on to the old town square. I had a good meal of pesto spaghetti with chicken fillets washed down by a couple of glasses of Saku Original - supposedly Estonia's top selling beer.
It was extremely cold by the time I left the restaurant and I was left wising I had put my long-johns on. Back at the hotel I polished off a bottle of A.Le Coq Porter that I had bought earlier. It was pleasant enough, but a bit on the sweet side for my liking. Compared to my favourite Larkins Porter it was rather disappointing, but then you can't have everything!
Tuesday 24th February was National Independence Day in Estonia. This anniversary celebrates the country's first, and rather short-lived independence from foreign occupation which was achieved in 1920. Although it was a public holiday, the majority of the shops were open, as were most of the restaurants and bars.I spent this day much as I had the previous one. Unfortunately the sky had clouded over and a biting wind was keeping the temperature well down. I visited a Bavarian-style bier keller in the basement of an up-market hotel. Baierei Kelder sold Paulaner beers imported from Munich. The Bavarian style menu was also very good.
Earlier that morning I had wandered down to the port area, and after making some enquiries had booked a ferry trip to Helsinki for the following day. The return ticket was cheap at EEK 200 (just under £12), but the catch was I had to catch the 8am sailing and the wait for the return from Helsinki at 21.30. This would mean not getting back to Tallinn until midnight. The chap I had met from Finland, when I first arrived in Estonia, had told me that "booze cruises" to Tallinn were very popular amongst Finns. This is hardly surprising given the prohibitively high price of alcohol in Finland. I witnessed this for myself when after booking my ticket, I saw dozens of people pouring off a newly arrived ferry. There were also a number of Finnish coaches parked up whilst their passengers loaded up on cheap(er) booze. There is a large shopping complex next to the port, and I spent an interesting hour or so wandering around it. It did not take much to work out that because I would be going "against the flow", so to speak, this was the reason for the low price of my ticket.
I intend to write about Helsinki in another post, so I will end this one by saying that I spent the evening of my second full day in the Hell Hunt pub. I once again enjoyed the two beers brewed for the pub and had an excellent salmon fish pie. The presidential dinner, held to mark Independence Day and taking place a short distance away, was being shown on the pub's TV. Most of the clientele were young and were taking little notice of the evening's broadcast which indicated to me either the apathy of a younger generation, or supreme confidence in their country's relatively recent independence.
Less than a generation ago people could not have possibly imagined they would be sitting in such a place, watching their president welcoming his guests to an independence dinner. They would not have been citizens of a proud and fully independent sovereign country, let alone members of the European Union and NATO; they would certainly not have been allowed to fly their own flag proudly, as they were doing on this day. I would not have been able to visit Tallinn without elaborate formalities and visa preparations, and would have found a drab, dreary and grey place with precious little in the shops and precious little to do apart from sightseeing. Instead I had been able to hop on a plane at Stanstead, and in just over three hours arrive in a country confident of its new found place in Europe, with its people warm and welcoming; its bright new shops stacked full of the latest fashions and consumer goods, and an array of foods that would have been unimaginable less than 20 years ago.
As I sat there enjoying my beer, watching the evening's events unfold with the above thoughts passing through my head, I couldn't help a wry smile escaping at the irony of it all. When you're young, you have the world at your feet; you care little for politics, history or other great events that may have shaped your country's destiny. Good luck then to the people of Estonia, both young and old. After decades of occupation and often brutal repression they thoroughly deserve their new found freedom!
Do visit Tallinn if you get the chance. It is not the greatest city in the world for beer drinking, but as a vibrant and lively capital, with the added attraction of an historic and unspoilt old town centre it takes some beating. Another plus is that I saw precious little of the British stag party morons who have perhaps slightly tarnished its reputation in recent years; in fact I overheard some people saying on the return flight home that Tallinn has now become too expensive for this type of visitor. If that is the case then I'll raise my glass to that!