Beer hunting and sight-seeing in Tallinn

Back in February 2009, I enjoyed a well-earned break in the Estonian capital, Tallinn, a city I had wanted to visit for a long time. In fact I had wanted to travel to one or more of the Baltic States ever since they gained their independence back in 1991, following 50 years of occupation and oppression by the former Soviet Union. Although most tourists visit Tallinn during the Spring or Summer, the idea of a late winter break in this unspoiled former Hanseatic trading port seemed to fit the bill perfectly, with the prospect of snow on the ground only adding to the appeal. I duly found a reasonably priced hotel, booked my flights and waited with eager anticipation for the last week in February to arrive.

The 7am Sunday morning Easy Jet flight from Stanstead saw me touching down in the Estonian capital three hours later. The pilot advised us before landing, that the outside temperature was a cool minus 4 Celsius, so he hoped we had brought some warm clothing with us! It certainly felt cold whilst waiting for the bus into town. After locating my hotel and checking in, I set off to explore Tallinn old town. Without too much trouble I found the Beer House, just off the the main square in front of the Old Town Hall. I had read about this German-style brew-pub beforehand, and had looked at their web-site a couple of times. I found the place relatively quiet for a Sunday afternoon, and was soon seated at one of the wooden benches with a half-litre glass of their home-brewed Dunkel in front of me.

We swapped tales and tried another beer each; this time it was the Marzen for me. Both beers were pleasantly drinkable, but I have to say that having sampled the entire range over the course of my visit, the Dunkel shone head and shoulders above the rest. All the beers are unfiltered, which perhaps gives them a more natural taste, but then they are brewed according to the German Rheinheitsgebot which is another big point in their favour. With some of the best beer in Tallinn on tap it is a shame that the Beer House is somewhat of a fake designed to appeal to the tourist market. However, it is not a bad fake and is in fact a reasonable attempt at creating the surroundings and atmosphere of a typical Bavarian Bier Keller. My main gripe would have to be the piped "Bavarian/Tyrolean musak" from which there is no escape; it even follows one out onto the street outside, which is how I found the place in the first instance! 

I decided it was high time I ate something - the Full English Breakfast I'd had at 5.45am in Wetherspoons at Stanstead airport by now seemed a distant memory. As the cut-price "Happy Hour" at the Beer House was over by now, I departed and made my way to a bar called "Kompressor" where I had read they served the traditional Estonian dish of pancakes (both savoury or sweet). I had little difficulty in locating this establishment and after ordering a ham and cheese pancake at the bar, was soon settled down at a table enjoying the cosy warm atmosphere of the Kompressor whilst waiting for my meal to arrive. I tried a half litre of A. Le Coq's Premium lager, which was pleasant enough but nothing particularly special.  

A. Le Coq are Estonia's second largest brewery and are based in the country's second largest city, Tartu. They brew a renowned Porter, which I had sampled before in bottled form, along with a wide range of other beers. My pancake arrived and I duly tucked in. It was huge, and I had difficulty finishing it. I could see why the place was popular with students, as it offered excellent value. I was probably the oldest person there, but no-one seemed to bat an eyelid, and I was able to admire, from a distance, a number of rather attractive Estonian women.

Having eaten and drank my fill, I returned to my hotel to change and freshen up. Later on I hit the town again and this time found what became my favourite pub in Tallinn whilst I was there. The pub was called "Hell Hunt" and describes itself as "The First Estonian Pub". I was very impressed by its relaxed, comfortable and easy going atmosphere, and by its friendly, attractive waitresses. As well as a range of international beers, Hell Hunt offers two beers of its own; one light (Hele) and one dark (Tume). Both are brewed for the pub by the Puls Brewery in Parnu - Estonia's summer-time party capital, which overlooks the Gulf of Riga. Both beers were good, and reasonably priced at EEK 40 (roughly £2.35 at the time of my visit). The food was also good value and tasty to boot, as I discovered on subsequent visits to Hell Hunt.

I'd had a very early start in order to get to the airport, and by now was starting to feel rather tired. I therefore decided to call it a day. I returned to my hotel noticing en route, from a display outside one of the shopping centres, that the temperature had fallen to minus 6 Celsius. It had been a good introduction to Tallinn and I felt I was going to enjoy the rest of my stay there. 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 lady brewer (brewster for the uninitiated) 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.

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. Brauerei 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 inquiries 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 08.00 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 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 unspoiled old town centre it takes some beating. Another plus is that I saw precious little of the British stag party idiots 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!

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