What’s behind Door No. 3?

One thing that consistently amazes me about Tallinn Old Town is the complete lack of relationship between the outward appearance of a building, and what lies inside. Many of the buildings are protected, and so nothing has been done to alter the exterior of these places, with their flaking paint and crumbling walls. Many of them look like nothing more than a rather dismal, sad, run-down old house.

Then you step inside and find restaurants that can take your breath away with their unexpected size and beauty. I’ve seen a huge, contemporary restaurant, buzzing with people and atmosphere, behind a set of creaky, dirty stable doors. An elegant, sophisticated Italian place at the back of what appeared to be a standard street café. A cosy, intimate restaurant in a dark alleyway, down a dubious set of steps into what appears to be a basement.

I would never have thought to venture into some of these places, being accustomed to a lot of advertising and eye-catching signs to reassure me that somewhere is worth investigating. It has taught me my first major travel lesson: always explore, because nothing is quite as you’ll expect it to be.

On the subjects of restaurants that don’t quite match the buildings that house them, though… I think we have a winner with this one:

Summer Drummers (in a non-Northern-Irish culture)

Tonight, I dined at the Embassy of Pure Food. The restaurant’s real name is Aed, which translates as ‘garden’, but I much prefer the impressive description on the menu. It was a delightfully weird sort of meal. Really, really good food, but in the most bizarre combinations. My duck (cooked to perfection) came with cauliflower mousse, for example. And the sauce was not only something I’ve never heard of, but also a flavour of ice-cream on the dessert menu. Riho’s fish was served with foam. Honestly, foam. In a jug. It was all a little confusing, but delicious nonetheless.

The restaurant experience itself was, as the name suggests, rather like eating outside. Rustic, I suppose you’d call it, with an odd array of plants in a window box by our table. Riho seemed a bit distracted. “I’m a little frightened by the art,” he confessed in a low voice, looking nervously over my shoulder. I glanced round and saw the paintings on the walls. The were, in fact, plasma screens. And the ‘art’ was moving. Sort of like the photos in the Harry Potter stories.

Feeling a need to return to the Real World, we skipped dessert and stepped out on to the street. I looked at Riho, unable to disguise my alarm at the loud wailing noises that greeted us. “I think the world might be ending,” I said fearfully. “Don’t be silly,” said Riho, “It’s obviously just an air raid.” It really did sound like an air raid siren, and it became louder and scarier the closer we got to the Town Square.

And so it was that, as I walked home tonight from my meal at the Embassy of Pure Food (in a barn), I stumbled upon a concert by Stroj Machine, a group of about 10 dreadlocked drummers with several varieties of airhorn, performing in Tallinn Old Town in an apparent act of celebration of the Slovenian EU Presidency.

Erm. What?!

Particularly impressive was the spraying of sparks over the audience. “Oh, look,” remarked Riho, taking the whole thing in his stride, “live welding!”

The crowd loved it. The were going mental, and I couldn’t help joining in with a bit of dancing around. I couldn’t compete with the guy in red on the left of my photograph, however. Despite having his foot in plaster, he danced like no one I’ve ever seen before, occasionally waving his crutches in the air. At one point he then had to remove a layer of clothing, clearly over-heating, and his girlfriend held his crutches as he balanced on one foot and de-jumpered. It was at this point that the group did something that clearly entranced him, for he launched into an enthralling dance on one foot, with no crutches, as I watched in awed wonder.

Having grown up in Harryville, I can’t claim that it’s a culture shock to be wandering through the town and find myself in the midst of a large crowd of locals jumping around and cheering as some men blatter away on big drums. You’ll forgive me, though, when I confess to getting a great deal more pleasure from the Baltic version…

The Road Less Travelled

“Let’s go this way,” says Riho, trotting off along a little sidestreet we haven’t seen before.

We are spending the evening exploring the Old Town. I am, by now, quite used to this type of excursion involving a weird feeling of having travelled back in time, but nothing could have prepared me for the gradual departure from reality that seems to have followed my companion’s seemingly harmless suggestion. One narrow, eerily quiet street leads to another, each with more abandoned, dilapidated buildings than the previous one. It’s strangely disconcerting, walking through this sort of place. I’m always heavily aware of the lingering presence of the past; my mind naturally craves stories and explanations. There are none. I remain silent, listening to the echo of our footsteps as we stumble along the uneven streets.

One of the boarded-up doors has been forced open, and I peer interestedly through the crack. “If you push it, it’ll open,” says Riho, close to my ear. I jump nervously and glare at him. “Shhh!” I hiss. Tentatively, I push the door. It creaks loudly, and I freeze. I am a product of Generation Teen Horror Movie, and I know that I should run away right about now, but I can feel Riho’s disbelieving stare boring into the back of my head. I give the door a firm shove. Crrreeeeeeaaak, it goes, falling slowly open. My heart racing, I step inside, and as my eyes adjust to the darkness, I realise…

…it is just an old, run-down house. Well, what did you expect? This isn’t the Famous Five, you know.

Having said that, we do seem to see more bizarre things in the space of a few hours than I’ve seen over the course of my life. Rhio is particularly bemused, as he has never seen this area before, despite being fairly well acquainted with the Old Town. His incredulity mounts as we see:

  • A Ukranian Greek Catholic Church (complete with prayer letter-box outside, for prayers to the Blessed Virgin with Three Hands)
  • A number of unidentifiable ‘secret’ doors into the thick stone walls, including one which seems to be a theatre inside the wall
  • St. Michael’s Cheese Restaurant, where everything on the menu is made from cheese (or just served with unnecessary whacks of cheese, so that it fits)
  • A series of Genuinely Odd posters, including one that is apparently for a film called Nazis & Blondes (not a comparison I’m overly familiar with), with the tagline “Acting evil was their destiny”
  • A little courtyard* tucked away down an alleyway, in what looks like the back yard of a house that is literally falling down and being supported by wooden scaffolding, where there is a bar, a chocolaterie, a ceramics shop, and an assortment of randomly distributed and utterly bizarre accoutrements with no explanation whatsoever.

“100 Contemporary Teapots of what now?!” exclaims Riho finally, when a casual glance through a window reveals the winning sight of the evening. His voice has taken on an almost hysterical tone, and I find myself being hoisted up in an attempt to see the end of the Oddest Title Ever. We are none the wiser, but greatly entertained nonetheless.

And is that a giant cigarette next to the random teapot poster, or have I reached the Desperate And Hallucinating stage of nicotine withdrawal?

What a very strange night. Forget your monuments, scenery and natural wonders: this is tourism at its finest!

* This courtyard was my personal favourite sight so far, and I intend to return very soon. My official reason is that it deserves to be written about in much more detail, but really I just want to experience the delights of a French chocolaterie in Estonia…

Tallinn: beachin’!

I really am beginning to feel that Tallinn has everything.

Go to the Old Town and you can experience the whimsical delights of a place that is steeped in history, culture and architectural beauty. Into the city itself, and you’ve got a contemporary, bustling, busy, fast-paced lifestyle that instantly hooks you and drags you in. Wander into an area of parkland and you could be miles out into the countryside, enjoying peace, quiet, and soothing scenery. Or take a 20-minute bus journey and you’ll find yourself on the beach at Pirita, which, to be perfectly honest, might as well be a sun-drenched holiday hotspot on a Greek island. It is, in a word, beautiful.

I’m really only acquainted with beaches of the Northern Irish variety. I’m a big fan of the Northern Irish coast, as you know – I’ve spent many a happy day on the Strand at Portrush, wandering along the seafront in Newcastle, clambering over rocks at the Causeway, and body-boarding/dodging glaciers at Benone.

The Estonian beach experience is a little different, however. For a start, you don’t have to bother about bringing your own entertainment. Pirita’s beach is set out like a play park for all the family. There are swings and see-saws, exercise bars, climbing frames and volleyball nets. For refreshments, there’s a bar. There’s internet access (or so I imagine, as there’s internet access everywhere here, and I saw some boys using laptops on the beach). There are even little cubicles dotted around for the benefit of those who are self-conscious about changing in public.

Incidentally, these cubicles are unnecessary further along the beach, where, if you were taking a leisurely stroll along the sand, you might suddenly notice an absence of clothing on the sunbathers around you. As you aren’t yet fluent in Estonian, you were unable to read the sign that presumably announced the start of the nudist section. It is difficult to know where to look in this sort of situation. Stare pointedly at the sea, or your feet, and it becomes obvious that you are uncomfortable with nudity. Not cool. Very British. However, gaze freely around, and there’s every chance you could find yourself gawking uncontrollably at sights you’re really not used to seeing. Equally not cool. Very pervy.

And of course, your other option is to take the if you can’t beat them, join them approach, especially if you’ve spent the duration of the walk wishing you’d brought your swimwear so that you could have a dip. What would be to stop you glancing around, realising that nobody cares what anyone else looks like, remembering that nobody knows you, and, in a moment of liberating recklessness, stripping off and running gleefully into the sea? Not that a timid, prudish, shy and self-conscious Ballymena girl would ever do such a thing, of course, unless a few weeks in a vastly different culture had completely altered her attitude to life. I imagine that skinny-dipping in the Baltic Sea would be something of a shock to the system, anyway, most likely leaving you shivering and gasping for breath.

Plus it would take at least half an hour to warm up and dry off in the sunshine afterwards, particularly when you realise that you have no towel…

Why did the chicken cross the road?

Probably because he had a very strong death wish, if he was in Estonia at the time.

Crossing the road is one of those little things that I’ve generally taken for granted, and it’s never caused me a great deal of difficulty. Look right, look left, look right again. The wise words of the immortal Tufty, and they’ve never let me down. However, a large part of this seems to have been dependent upon a population of non-insane drivers. Crossing the road in Estonia fills me with dread on so many levels, and now my road-crossing endeavours consist of something like this:

  • Find designated pedestrian crossing point.     
  • Look right.
  • Upon seeing no traffic, recall yet again that they drive on the other side of the road here.
  • Look left.
  • Recoil in horror as maniac driver flies past at twice the speed of light.
  • Breathe deeply, unintentionally flattened against lamppost or wall in instinctive act of self defence.
  • Tentatively step out on to crossing, seeing next approaching vehicle some considerable distance away.
  • A few seconds later, begin to panic as said vehicle continues to approach rather speedily, showing no signs of slowing down to account for the fact that you are in its path.
  • Begin to run. Screaming is optional at this point. Although maniac driver cannot hear you, sometimes it’s good to express your feelings.
  • Gulp shakily as maniac driver skids to a dramatic halt at crossing.
  • Try to complete journey to centre of road in most dignified manner possible, despite ghostly-white complexion and trembling hands.
  • Repeat entire terrifying process from centre of road to other side, remembering to adjust ‘look left’ to ‘look right’.

That’s not even mentioning the bizarre, complicated road junctions where it is utterly impossible to tell where traffic might come from, or where the traffic in question intends to go, and indeed when it might conceivably be even vaguely ‘safe’ to cross.

And I can’t even begin to express my horrified amusement (or amused horror – I can’t quite decide which) concerning the rather poorly planned tram stop near here, where the trams just stop where they are (i.e. on the tram line, in the centre of the road, between the lanes of traffic) and throw you out, trundling off again and leaving you to either (a) duck and dodge your way through a stream of cars driven by apparently very impatient people, or (b) erm, die.

Mind you, at least it’s not snowing. I don’t think my nerves would survive a winter road-crossing experience.

Delightfully Odd Sights

1. Whilst walking along beside the harbour, feeling quite chirpy and upbeat about life, my world suddenly exploded in a burst of cheerful music. The Monkees, to be precise. I started to dance, just a little bit, causing a nearby drunk to pause from gazing despondently at his own relection in the water to stare curiously at me. I turned around a few times in an attempt to figure out the source of this musical treat, but to no avail. Other than the drunk, a man on a bike, and a couple of pedestrians, there was nothing in the immediate area. I shrugged, and continued to skip along, singing I’m A Believer. The man on the bike overtook me, and rang his bell at me, grinning with unusual cheeriness.

I was a little confused, certain that he couldn’t have enjoyed my dancing quite that much. Then I saw it. This guy was not just riding a bike, he was riding some breed of Super Bike. This bike had an in-built stereo system, with huge great speakers on the handlebars. And it was pumping out some thumpin’ Monkees tunes. I cannot express my pleasure at this invention. It made me smile for the rest of my walk.

2. They are very into their recycling over here, causing all manner of confusion when it comes to putting out the rubbish. In the supermarkets, bottled drinks have an extra fee tacked on to their usual price, money which is returned to you when you bring back the bottles. As I waited in line for the ATM at the shopping centre yesterday, I was momentarily bemused to see a small boy pushing a trolley that was filled to the brim with empty bottles. Even when I remembered the recycling/return your bottles thing, it still struck me as quite amusing that every single one of those bottles (and there were at least 70) was once home to an alcoholic beverage of some description. Unperturbed, the 7-year-old carefully pushed his precious cargo onwards, amidst much clinking, towards his destination.

3. Strolling along the riverwalk yesterday evening, we saw that old woman from Home Alone:

She had two bin liners full of scavenged junk, and was surrounded by adoring pigeons, ducks and the like as she threw what I assume was bread at them. She did not like us stopping to watch, and in fact gathered up her garbage and moved a few feet further along the path before resuming her crooning to the birds. I had to pretend not to be interested as we walked past, but really, it was like stepping straight into a very familiar scene from a movie.

So many random and obscure moments like these. They are what make life so much fun!

The Dangers of Eating Out

The sun is shining.

I am sitting cross-legged on a bench next to a pretty flower bed outside a shopping centre, having just come from an invigorating walk down by the docks. There is music playing on the centre’s tannoy system: it’s a lot of hippy-dippy sixties stuff, and I am happily singing along as I share my warm, cheese-bread roll with some friendly sparrows. I am at one with nature, and with delicious savoury leivapood (bakery) products.

A couple of hungry pigeons join the friendly sparrows, and I hesitate before giving them, too, a little bit of my freshly-baked bread. I am non-discriminating in my generosity. Even against feathered rats.

A less generous woman eating a bun on a nearby bench looks on interestedly as approximately 2 million pigeons descend from the heavens and strategically position themselves around me. Nervously, I continue to eat, pretending not to be intimidated by the increased pigeon density of the area, and dropping a sneaky crumb here and there to the little sparrows under my bench. Suddenly, however, there is a hurricane.

It turns out not to be an actual hurricane, but rather a gust of wind caused by the wing-flapping of the Biggest Seagull Of All Time, which has flown in from the beach upon hearing a rumour about the Generous Bread Woman.

Giant Seagull does not seem at all interested in the food. He stands there, loftily, staring at us (the pigeons, the sparrows and me) with his freakishly pink-rimmed eyes. His bill is longer than my fingers. I suspect that he wants to kill me, and I am alarmed because I do not know how to cry for help in Estonian. A foolhardy pigeon sidles up to Giant Seagull, perhaps to ask him if he’s heard about all the free bread around here. Giant Seagull stabs him suddenly and violently with his dagger-like beak. Feathers fly through the air, and I jump with fright. “Oh!” I cry helplessly, as Injured Pigeon retreats to inspect his remaining feathers. Giant Seagull goes back to standing there, motionless and staring. The other birds have all retreated to a safe distance. I am alone, and at the mercy of Giant Seagull. My pleasant picnic lunch is ruined.

I am relieved when Giant Seagull suddenly starts walking away from me in a very purposeful manner, towards a man at a bench behind me. I watch suspiciously to ensure that he’s not just trying to lull me into a false sense of security, and then heave a sigh of relief. My smaller feathered friends return, and everyone relaxes. Except, of course, for the unfortunate man on the distant bench, from whom there comes an angry and frightened holler.

I look around. Giant Seagull has stolen a paper bag containing Bench Man’s lunch, and is dragging it determinedly across the grass as Bench Man looks on in a helpless manner with which I can completely identify. His cries alert a passing middle-aged woman, who instantly removes a baguette from her shopping trolley and begins to chase Giant Seagull, beating him around the head with the baguette when she gets close enough. I couldn’t make it up.

Travel lessons learned today: Estonian wildlife is dangerous. Estonian housewives, doubly so.