Why Estonia? Helsinki or Oslo would have been a more typical end to my Nordic tour. But when I chatted with some Fulbrighters based in Finland, they recommended Tallinn as a cheaper and prettier destination. And I think it was a good choice.
Tallinn is an impressive city. Estonia has only been independent for 24 years, but it feels more like a Nordic country than an Eastern bloc country. The infrastructure is fabulous. There is free Wi-Fi almost everywhere, a secure and high-tech system that lets citizens do everything from voting to taxes to starting businesses online, and extensive public transit (which is free for city residents, though not for tourists). It’s not quite as inexpensive as, say, Budapest, but the prices still come as a relief after Stockholm and Copenhagen. Also, amusingly, Estonia’s president is rather infamous for starting Twitter wars with other countries. Just a fun fact.
Tallinn has one of the best-preserved medieval old towns in the world. It’s very small and cute, with lots of churches in various styles, a still-operating pharmacy dating back to at least 1422, and a mostly-intact wall. (Apparently, Estonia entered the wall in some sort of “additional wonders of the word” competition. It lost to the Great Wall of China. But that’s pretty stiff competition.) I took a free walking tour with a hilariously wry guide who told us lots of silly stories. For instance: one of the oldest churches was partially destroyed by Soviet bombs. When Estonia joined the USSR, they asked for money and permission to rebuild the church. Their proposal was repeatedly rejected, until they offered to make the space a museum of atheism. (What goes inside a museum of atheism? Who knows? The museum never actually happened.)
I spent a lot of time in this building. On Thursday night, I reviewed the premiere of the opera Cardillac, which was being performed for the first time ever in Estonia. I’ll post a link to my review as soon as it’s up on Bachtrack. On Friday night, I saw the ballet Onegin, which may be my favorite ballet I’ve seen. There was a tight focus on the story, without long stretches of pretty group dances that didn’t advance the plot. Also, what looked like very difficult choreography—especially for Tatyana and Onegin—was danced athletically and gracefully. It was all both beautiful and moving.
A terrifying Soviet prison
Too many pretty things! Time for some ugly and terrifying things! This is Patarei Tallinn Prison. It was used in the Soviet era… and was still in use in 2005. That’s difficult to believe when you see how run-down it is. It now hosts modern art, though sometimes it was unclear what was trash from the prison, what was trash from squatters, and what was an art exhibition. This place is also utterly terrifying to walk around alone. It is dark. There are gaping holes in some of the wooden floors. There are metal doors you are always convinced will shut behind you. If someone wants to stage a site-specific horror play (something along the lines of a grittier “Sleep No More”), this is the place to do it.
We can’t end with an ugly Soviet prison, so let’s end with Kadriorg instead. This is a park a little ways from Old Town that houses the old palace. It’s now a gorgeous green space with cafes, museums, and the office of the President. I went for the Mikkeli museum, which was hosting an exhibit of 17th-through-19th-century fans. They were definitely worth the trip, as was the park itself (and the cardamom buns in the cafe)!
A major highlight of my time in Tallinn was meeting new and old friends. Sometimes when I travel, I end up wandering around alone all day. That can be fun, but I don’t want to do it every day of a ten-day trip. In Tallinn, I didn’t have to. I lunched with Americans, Singaporeans, and Germans whom I met on the walking tour. (Hint: the mussels at Põrgu are delicious.) I dined with an Estonian whom I connected with on Couchsurfing. She’s a middle school teacher just outside Tallinn, and she gave me interesting insights into both Estonia (especially how it has changed since her childhood in the Soviet era) and the U.S.A. (she lived with rural families in Virginia for a while). On Saturday, I spent the day with an old friend who is now based in Tartu. We took in the views of the city from the top of Oleviste Church (supposedly the tallest building in the world about 500 years ago), stopped by a street fair in the hipster neighborhood of Kalamaja, and ate my most delicious (and suprisingingly cheap) meal of the trip at the restaurant Aed. (I highly recommend the pistachio risotto with zuchinni and squash. And the sea buckthorn berry cake for dessert.)
With that, I am travelled out for the moment. I’m mostly staying in Munich for a month now, except for a quick trip to Leipzig and Weimar. My next big vacation will take place in mid-June, when I will return to Cambridge for the madness that is May Week. (Yes, May Week is in June.) Time to sing some choir concerts and catch up on sleep!