Mike MacEacheran | Tales of the unexpected in Tallinn, South China Morning Post
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Tales of the unexpected in Tallinn, South China Morning Post

There is something about the mischievous grin on the waiter’s face that unnerves me.  Thrusting a broad tray onto the oak table I sit at, my host Erik proceeds to place plate after plate of extraordinary foodstuffs and meats in front of me.

Juniper ripened smoked beef and Livonian pickled cucumbers precede pork legs and blood sausage; grilled elk and wild boar pie follow game sausages made from bear.

“Are you ready to feast?” he says banging an earthenware pitcher of cinnamon flavoured beer onto the table. Above his head, medieval pendants hang from the walls proclaiming hanseatic treaties and North European alliances. “This is where the old merchants of Tallinn used to eat my good lord – so don’t disappoint them!” It feels like a culinary joust, yet all I had originally wanted was a sandwich for lunch.

Like hundreds of tourists before me, I have been sucked into the candle-lit hall and jovial atmosphere of Olde Hansa. Flanking one side of Tallinn’s Raekoja Plats (Town Hall Square), the restaurant has built a name for itself as one of Europe’s most unusual dining experiences.  Sure, it’s kitsch and you are more likely to find groups of Swedish, German or Russian tourists joking with the corseted maids than any die-hard locals, but it is the perfect introduction to Tallinn, this quirkiest of European capitals.

The Estonians have never had it easy. As a quiet feudal village, Tallinn was first taken over by Danish King Valdemar II in 1219. But the country soon fell into the hands of the Germans – due to the Danish King having a lack of cash-flow – before being fought over for centuries by one after another of its northern neighbours. First it was ruled by the Swedish, then the Russians, Poles, Germans. Then the Danes decided they wanted it back again.

It certainly makes for a confusing story, but it’s a legacy that built on Tallinn’s unsurpassed location on the Baltic Sea. Today, this makes the city the perfect getaway for cruise liners carrying passengers across the Baltic, city breakers from across Europe, and curious travellers from further afield who, if they are anything like me, will be the first to admit that before flying in, they had great difficulty locating Estonia on a map.

Despite this complex mix of trade, commerce and people passing through the city, Tallinn remains tiny. Unlike Stockholm or Copenhagen, which have blossomed into major European metropolises, Tallinn is still very much a low-key destination: on the first day of my visit, I feel like I can direct lost tourists.

It takes no more than ten minutes to cross its Old Town from east to west, but within this pocket-size jumble of slanting towers, spires, steeples, and dog-leg cobbled streets, hides a number of quirky attractions. Skype was invented here (developed by chief Estonian architect Ahti Heinla)as was marzipan. In the Rotermann Quarter, the modern architectural gem in the centre of the city, local artists even make a living out of painting the sweet.

There are museums dedicated to puppets, rusty trams and the Soviet KGB. Russian Tsar Peter the Great kept a summer cottage with Catherine I in the city and the Old Town square is the original home of the Christmas tree tradition; thanks in part to the Monty Python sounding troop of local merchants the Brotherhood of Blackheads, who first erected a tree for the holidays. Their odd looking house, on nearby street Pikk near the town square, gives an insight into how Tallinn used to be in the 1500s.

Overlooking this medieval maze from a rather grand limestone perch is the Estonian parliament. It is housed in an old castle atop Toompea Hill and beneath it run miles of underground tunnels – many of which have yet to be remapped following years of neglect. It is here that I join a group tour and descend into the depths of the city to learn more about the city’s bohemian past.

“People used to hold illegal raves in these tunnels as recently as four or five years ago,” the local tour guide tells us. “Before that it was used by the Russians during World War 2 as a bomb shelter, so it’s had its mix of strange days. We even had colonies of tramps living here for a while.”

A cross between a series of nuclear bunkers and the engine room of Star Trek’s Starship Enterprise, the tunnels fan out underneath Toompea Hill and were built in the 1600s as a defence system during the time of Swedish rule. As attack from invaders was a constant worry, city planners constructed the high bastion walls so they could safely move soldiers and ammunition to where they were needed most. The irony is, according to the city’s archives, that they weren’t properly finished excavating the tunnels by the time of the first attack.

Sitting on top of the entrance to all this is a 38m-high cannon tower, affectionately known as the Kiek in de Kok. Literally meaning “Peek into the Kitchen” – and looking like a medieval space rocket – the tower is so high, that when first built, its guards joked they could see right down the chimneys and into the kitchens of the houses below.

Back on street level, the sun is setting as I leave the tunnels behind. It is only 3pm but as Tallinn is one of the world’s most northerly capital cities, the days are short in winter and spring – but thankfully, the nights are longer. This has turned Tallinn into one of Europe’s most happening places after dark: as the sun disappears to the west, dozens of candle-lit cafes and taverns flicker to life.

First, I make my way to Kehrweider Chocolaterie, a justifiably popular cavern-turned-café, for homemade cake and coffee, and then pass by Balthasar (the city’s dedicated garlic restaurant), on my way to Beer House and Valli Baar. “It’s impossible not to get to know the quirkiest people in town there,” says local resident Eva-Kristiina Ponomarjov. “It’s the first and most legendary bar in town.” Located on Müürivahe 14, across from the monumental Kino Sõprus building – now partly an art-house cinema, but also hosting two nightclubs, Kapp and Hollywood – it draws an friendly local crowd and serves up a sample of traditional Estonian brews.

Sometime later – Tallinn has that kind of effect on people during the dark winter season – I find myself sitting on an elevated medieval wooden terrace, which has been built into a watchtower overlooking the city. I am with a group of new friends drinking mulled wine sweetened with honey and eating cherry cake. It feels strange, but it is entirely in keeping with Tallinn’s quirky, bohemian character. And it’s just the way the locals like it.