Monday, June 2, 2008

Fintics #4 - From Finland, to Talllinn and Haapsalu, Estonia

May 30 - June 2, 2008

Our hotel in Oulu had a nice buffet breakfast, which we enjoyed at some frightfully early hour. We then took the bus to the airport for a flight back to Helsinki. By now experts in Helsinki public transit, we took the bus back downtown, did some tag-team lunch shopping in Stockmann for sandwiches, pastries, juice, etc. (this time I knew which kind of "yogourt" and juice not to get), almost took the tram in the wrong direction (oops, did I say I was an expert? sleep deprivation has its effects), eventually caught the right tram in the right direction, found the ferry terminal, arrived just as it was leaving, bought our tickets, ran aboard as the last passengers.... and set sail!

Helsinki is separated from Tallinn by just 80 km of water. There are many ferry connections; my timetable shows 30 ferries from Helsinki to Tallinn; not all of those run every day, but there were 19 choices on the Friday that we left, both high-speed catamaran ferries and regular ferries, as fast as 1hr 40 min, or a leisurely 3 hour crossing. Tallinn is a popular destination for Finns (and also other northern Europeans) for vodka tourism (the restaurants and bars are cheap by Finnish standards) and also for cultural tourism (tickets to concerts, opera, ballet, etc. are also relatively cheap). Our Friday ferry departing 11:30 seemed to have a fair number of younger vodka tourists, who were evidently intent on getting an early start to a weekend of drinking.

The ferry crossing offers wonderful harbour views; both Helsinki and Tallinn are as beautiful from the sea as from the land. Approaching Tallinn, you see the many spires and towers of the medieval city. After disembarking, we caught a taxi. I'd read about Tallinn taxi drivers being rather dishonest, and there were large signs on the taxi dashboard explaining (in English too!) what rates you should expect to pay; Estonia seems to be working very hard to make Tallinn a tourist destination. Our taxi took us to the inside of the walled medieval city, to the apartment rental office, in the shadows of St Nicholas Church, one of the larger and older churches, dating back to the 13th C. This particular church was almost completely destroyed in WWII; reconstruction began in 1953 and it reopened in 1984 as a museum and concert hall; it is once again a church in the post-Soviet era. The inside is gothic in architecture (pointed arches, groins and vaults) but fairly modern and bright in decoration.

Most Tallinn buildings (at least in the more touristy sections) underwent a very thorough and impressive restoration in recent years. Buildings are not the only thing undergoing reconstruction in Estonia. There is quite a bit of infrastructure work going on throughout the country. Within Tallinn's medieval walls, they seemed to be working on the plumbing: in some places, if you looked at the cobble-stone roads (NB - irregular round STONES for the most part, for genuine medieval charm, not regular granite paving blocks), you could see a line where the stones had been lifted and replaced. In other places, you could see or smell them working on sewer excavations. I had been in struck in Helsinki by the number of municipal workers keeping the city beautiful; in Tallinn (and Latvia), what I noticed was the scale of renovation and infrastructure, especially in the most touristy places [off the beaten track is not as well-tended; not everyone is sharing in progress; but to say that only the nicest parts are getting spruced up would be an exaggeration]. So Finland can devote energy to maintaining its beauty, while Estonia (and Latvia) are working very hard to catch up.

We walked a few blocks further, past the impressive town square (town hall, another high spire), past a smaller baroque church, past countless cafés and restaurants, past many embassies. Our rented apartment (on Pikk street) was beautiful and located off a quiet courtyard.

(As an aside: there had been some misunderstanding about our arrival date. Our apartment rental company thought we were coming the day before. The woman said she'd wanted to call us when we didn't show up, except that travelling Canadians never have cell-phones. That's because the vast majority of Canadian carriers use old cell-phone technology rather than the newer GSM technology that is standard in Europe and many/most other parts of the world. We could have rented a cell-phone in Finland, but a rental kind wouldn't have worked in Estonia or Latvia.)

That evening, we went to see a ballet (Don Quixote) in the Estonian National Opera. The tickets were quite affordable so Mom had bought us box tickets. It was strange to think that we were sitting in seats that once would have been reserved for the Communist party elite, while Mom herself was a 1956 refugee from the communism of Hungary. In fact, we looked up at the concert hall's frescoed ceiling, and saw a fine example of Soviet art, showing the unity of soldiers, factory workers, and farmers. The opera building had been damaged in the war and rebuilt early in the post-WWII Soviet era.

While the church and concert hall I mentioned previously had suffered in WWII, overall, Tallinn didn't seem to have suffered the annihilation of, say, Rotterdam or Dresden. Over the centuries, the immense fortified walls had encouraged the construction of many beautiful buildings within Tallinn's walls. Except for some Art Deco/Art Nouveau, there are very few truly modern buildings (inside the walls) and the old ones have almost all been restored to top shape as embassies, restaurants, high-end offices, high-end apartments and houses, or high-end shops.

The Orthodox cathedral on Toompea Hill, overlooking the city, was built in the early years of the 20th century (when Estonia came into the Russian empire?) to compete with the city's other big churches (mostly Lutheran, some Catholic or other denominations). Almost all of Tallinn's churches are impressive. M., Mom, and I visited St. Olaf's (Evangelical Lutheran?) on Saturday; M. and I climbed the spire (a seemingly-endless spiral stone staircase) and at the top of the tower we walked outside, protected by some metal cage-railings, for a 360-degree panorama of the city and harbour. This church claims that its spire and its nave were, at one point, Europe's tallest. That feature made it useful during the Soviet era, as the spire was used as a radio/communications tower. I don't recall if it was this church or another that the Russians used to spy on the city, but the tower of St Olaf's has a great number of small windows with strategic views of the city and harbour. Some of the steps on the sprial staircase are slightly wider - these are the steps next to windows - suggesting that "here is where you should sit down with your binoculars and gun for surveillance of the city and harbour". Probably that defensive construction predates the Soviet era. I guess it marks me as a naive North American, but it's so strange to think of a church as a place of belligerence. Oh well, as the great Lutheran hymn opens, "A mighty fortress is our God..."

On Saturday evening, we explored Toompea Hill (with the aforementioned Orthodox cathedral). As we were contemplating the city, a man walked up and started chatting with us. He was peddling music: he had a backpack full of Estonian CDs and a discman so you could try before you buy. At first I was worried about his intentions and later I realised he was what he seemed to be, a street peddler, and he and I talked quite a bit. Although not a musician himself, he knew a lot about Estonian composers, conductors, concerts, etc. I ended up buying two CDs from him, one about a composer I knew (Cyrillus Kreek, whose works I'd sung last year in my chamber choir), one from a new-to-me composer (Hugo Lepnurm). What an unusual (and difficult?) way to earn some money. That it was worthwhile for him to do this, though, suggests that there must be a fair number of culture-tourists in Tallinn, and that it's not all vodka-tourists; and perhaps that some Estonians have to be very creative to find a way to earn a living.

Tallinn's beauty is part of the reason I took around 1400 pictures on the trip. After much agony, I managed to eliminate a mere 371 of them. In Tallinn, there are so many beautiful buildings everywhere you look.

On Sunday morning, when Mom and M. went on their own, I went back to St. Olaf's for the church service (as this was going to be my only occasion to hear choral music on the trip); the service was slightly evangelical and rather long (about 2 hours), but the music was good. An interesting experience, and it was fun to try to practice my Estonian when it came time to sing hymns. I was surprised by the atmosphere though. There were elders at the door, but they didn't greet me or offer anything like a hymnbook. The congregants, mainly senior citizens, didn't look that friendly either; one woman came in a bit late, and it was a long time before anyone moved to make space for here in the pews. In fact, what really struck me was the minister, because he smiled and radiated positivity (even though I couldn't understand a word he said); he was probably the first Estonian whom I'd seen who genuinely looked happy.

After church, I spent some time checking out a building across from the church. It looked kind of Art Deco; I had a hard time figuring out what the terra-cotta decorations on the outside walls signified, with busts of doctors and engineers in classical garb; perhaps it had once been an academy of sorts. Presently it houses the Estonian "Siseministerium" (I have no idea what "sise" is). Then I got a hint of one of the building's previous functions when I found a plaque, only in Estonian, where the words "repressiviorgani" and "okupatsiooni" hinted at the building's role in the Soviet era. The lower windows in the building had been bricked over, presumably to prevent any shouts or cries inside from being heard outside. At that point a woman came up to me with very broken English to try to explain the building - I understood Siberian deportations, but didn't know if she was trying to tell me that she herself had been deported from that very building.

That was then, this is now; and a minute later, I bumped into Mom and M. in the French-style pastry shop next door. One of the pastries they had ordered featured a cabbage filling within buttery pastry (quite literally a cabbage roll, as it were).

We had declared Sunday to be our museum day, and since M. and Mom share a similar pace for museums which is quite different from mine, we split up again after the café. I made two stops for some brief shopping (one, some pottery I'd seen the day before and really liked; the other, small gifts for friends and colleagues, in a shop whose owner was the friendliest Estonian, and one of the nicest people generally, I've ever met; she was the second Estonian I met who smiled). Then I stopped in at another church (Swedish Lutheran) to check out the acoustics... just in case my choir ever comes this way... before heading to one of the towers of the city wall, where you can climb up and check out the city. This one was called "Kiek in de koek" (I may have the spelling wrong) which means "peep into the kitchen" for the excellent vantage points it gave of much of the old town. As with the spire of St. Olaf's church, it was boggling to imagine the work in lugging all that stone up such heights to create something so massive and solid.

Then, I made my way to the museum of the Soviet occupation. When I went to where I expected the glass building's entry to be, there was a door (emergency exit?) with a sign which said curtly something like "This is not the museum. Go back that way." Then on the sidestreet, I noticed a very low entry which I had just walked past minutes ago. I had to duck to get through and into a small courtyard, where I was dwarfed by trees and confronted with a very dark imposing door which decided to slide open to swallow me up - an unwelcoming opening to remind you of the past, I suppose. It was a physically small museum, and their main exhibit was a series of television monitors chronicling different periods of the 20th C, each video lasting 20-25 minutes. I found it interesting, but M. and Mom, whose visit to this museum partially overlapped with mine, found it too much to digest.

M. and Mom were astonished that on our museum day, I had only visited 2 museums (the city-wall-tower and the occoupation museum) while they had visited no less than 17. Well, I don't recall their exact number of museums visited, but it was impressive for one day. While I was still in church, they had already visited more museums than I'd see all day long. However, I'm sure I enjoyed my museums more than they did!

That evening, we had supper in a restaurant specialising in pork. M. and Mom shared the meat feast for "two" (or three or four). I had boar (I think) in a lovely juniper cream sauce, with potatoes, and mixed veggies with a surprise of tasty pumpkin strips. Here was where I first tried the dessert which is one of Estonia's "national" dishes, called Vama. It consisted of clabbered milk thickened with ground roasted stuff (peas, yes, peas of a sort, were one of the roasted things, along with grains) and garnished with berries. It sounds bizarre, but it was rather like a runny yogourt with muesli and berries. In this restaurant, it was on the light and tart side; I found it delicious, and very nice after a heavy pork meal.

(I later read on a food-blog that that name "vama" refers to the roasted ground grains, and that it can be served in many different ways, though the modern practice is as a dessert with a sour dairy product and with a berry jam or compote. If curious, see or )

We had bought Tallinn cards which, for a fixed cost, cover public transit, museum admission (but you can only go to a given place once; they swipe your card through a machine to check; they even do this in churches, outside of service-time!), and various other perks. One of the perks was free admission to various swimming pools / spas. On Sunday evening, when Mom and M. were pooped and I wasn't, I headed out. The spa was located on the outskirts of Tallinn. The card came with an excellent guidebook and a good map, except that the map was sketchy about these outskirts. I thought I had it figured out, so I hopped on a modern bus and got a nice view of the edge of the harbour (green and park-like; also smelly in spots, and I'd guess there are still many sewage-system improvements needed). The modern bus I was on had digital panels to announce the name of the next cross-street, which made navigation easy. Or so I thought! I got off at the street bearing the right name. I was a little surprised by what I saw. In the old city, there were all sorts of high-end cars and SUVs; I thought that might just be the foreigners and diplomats; but this neighbourhood was also filled with BMWs and Mercedes, big sedans and SUVs, even some gas-guzzling Hummers, which seemed eager to drag-race each other after a red-light. Set amid tall graceful pines were detached and semi-detached 2-storey modern villas and townhouses, safely protected behind gates (yes, I mean gated communities). I was looking for #11 but the street numbers went 4, 6, 8, followed by a long gap, then 24, 28, 32... I tried to ask a passing woman with pram for directions, but as soon as I smiled, her expression froze, and she looked down. When I then gestured to my map, and said something like "Excuse me," she scurried away. Very frustrated, I headed back to my bus-stop, and went back to Old Tallinn.

On Monday morning, we went on part of a bus tour to cover some of the Tallinn sights we'd missed, then went for a daytrip. We had an inexpensive and tasty (but salty) lunch in the definitely-not-intended-for-foreigners local market outside the city walls near the bus station and then hopped on a bus to Haapsalu on the western coast of Estonia. Haapsalu had been a fashionable spa at one point, and the train station (now the bus station, as Haapsalu is no longer served by passenger trains) features an immense, grand platform - apparently it was the longest covered platform in the Russian empire. In the Soviet period, Haapsalu and vicinity were militarised and civilian access was highly restricted (we saw some ruined buildings that looked like ex-barracks). Haapsalu was also hometown to Cyrillus Kreek, the composer whose works I'd sung and whose CD I'd bought the day before. There were advertisements for some excellent-looking concerts of his music, one the day before our visit, one a few days later. (This seemed to be a pattern on this trip: I frequently missed interesting concerts by a day or two.) As for the Baltic coast itself, the shore was a little bit disappointing; what we saw was reedy and had lots of flotsam. We passed some grand old buildings and a small old Orthodox church that hadn't yet been fully fixed up (in a few years I suppose it will be up to... Tallinn standards?) as well as a 17th (?) century Lutheran (?) church. Haapsalu has amazing ruins of a medieval episcopal (meaning, bishop's?) palace. Some of the church is still standing or has been restored (closed when we were there) but most of it is now a beautiful park. If you like castles and ruins, Finland and the Baltic states are great places to visit!

The highway between Tallinn and Haapsalu took us past a lot of small and medium-sized farms. Every now and then we would see the abandoned ruined buildings of a collective farm. In fact, I don't recall any of the large collective-farm buildings appearing to be still in use. Not to express any nostalgia for collectivization, but all the same, it's sad that those farm buildings aren't serving any purpose whatsoever any more.

We had a bizarre tram-moment in Tallinn when we were trying to get to the market near the bus station. I thought we stepped into a movie set because the tram was loaded with police officers all standing together, plus a video-cameraman. It turns out it was Police Day. I guess they were doing PR work. As far as I could figure, they seemed to have two rather different aims: First, to make the police seem friendlier to the general public, they were handing out candy. Second, to recruit new police officers, they were handing out stickers, depicting a dark and stormy street, a busty female officer at front holding a radio receiver, a male officer behind her pointing a revolver, a sports car racing down the street, and behind that, two agents with helmets and machine guns aiming at some unseen threat. Obviously if you want a career filled with excitement, and a career as a movie stuntman/stuntwoman doesn't work out, you should sign up for the Estonian police force!

Something else that struck me as strange was that in the group of perhaps 8 PR police officers, there were only 1 or 2 male officers, huddled at the back, and the rest were women.

When we got out, we saw that the tram was painted in different colours for the occasion. It was somewhat surreal, but the police were friendly, and a little bit helpful in helping us realise that we were going in the wrong direction and in figuring out what tram we should take to get to the market.

Something that struck me in Tallinn was the social place of Russians. Like much of the Baltics, Tallinn underwent a period of Russification in the Soviet era, but in the post-Soviet era, the Russians no longer sit at the top of the heap. Russian and Estonian sound very different, so even for an English speaker, it isn't too hard to tell who is who, or at least, to tell who is not Estonian. (It's not nearly as easy to tell the difference between Latvian and Russian.) We had a Russian cab driver; the security agent / doorwoman in the building where we went to pick up the apartment key was Russian; when we went to the definitely-not-for-foreigners local market outside the city walls near the bus station, many of the vendors were Russian. In the modern shopping mall where we did some grocery shopping, I didn't notice any Russian; within the old town, I didn't notice any Russian staff in the cafés, restaurants, museums, or shops. Ordinary Russian people seem to occupy a low rung in post-Soviet Estonia, yet there are a few Russian cultural institutions (a small Orthodox church in Tallinn's lower old town, the large Orthodox church in upper town, two theatres just outside the walls) which are very well maintained. I can't help but wonder where the money is coming; is mother Russia providing funding to maintain a good face in the Baltics?

The Finns and Estonians have a reputation for not saying much, but of meaning what they do say. In a modern western-style grocery store in Tallinn, or was this (also?) in Helsinki and maybe Riga too, I observed client-cashier interactions that occurred without a single word being exchanged. In Tallinn one evening, I was caught off guard because the cashier (a young woman) greeted me first. This was somewhat unusual, and I answered back, "Hello, how are you?" which is a perfectly natural thing for a Canadian to say. She looked at me, intrigued and amused and almost stunned. I don't remember if or how she answered; it was the reaction of surprise which caught me, and I immediately realised the unusual nature of my question: why would a perfect stranger, one who was obviously passing through, ask her how she was doing?

1 comment:

Pille said...

Thanks for linking to my KAMA posts - it's a lovely ingredient indeed and I'm happy that at least some foreigners dare to taste it :)