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Though I’m (quite obviously) not Estonian, I must admit to a lump in the throat on a cool, overcast morning as the gargantuan green-and-orange Tallink ferry pulled into this tiny Baltic country’s capital after a two-hour sea crossing from Helsinki.
It was July 2009, and I was embarking on my introduction to the shiny new Tallinn, 17 years after my last visit and 27 years after my first — as a student studying Russian in Leningrad, then as a travel writer visiting shortly after Estonia‘s independence. Even then, under layers of Soviet gloom and grime, I was seduced by the city’s medieval and neoclassical Kesklinn (Old Town). This time around, as you might expect, the transformations were both dazzling and incredibly moving.
Old Town was downright caffeinated, with both tourists and locals, all day and long into the night. The pioneering Maharajah Indian restaurant (which in ’92 I found served a not bad chicken tikka) has been joined by some 75 others, from the admittedly touristy, medieval-themed Olde Hansa to nouvelle Estonian and a plethora of world cuisines. The Hotel Viru, a high-rise ’70′s eyesore, has been refurbed, redubbed the Sokos Hotel Viru, and even tarted up with a flashy shopping mall (they’ve kept intact the KGB bugging room on the 23rd floor, but it’s not always open to the public). And my digs this time, the Telegraaf, is a Leading Small Hotels of the World member second to no other boutique digs I’ve ever experienced, and more affordably priced than many.
My local faves were still there, of course, including the city walls; the Kiek in de Kök (“Peep in the Kitchen,” a round 15th-century tower so named for its views over the Old Town); Peter the Great’s Kadriorg Palace; the Russian-built Alexander Nevsky Cathedral; the evocative ruins of the Pirita convent; and the Estonian Open-Air Museum, with buildings transplanted from villages throughout this country the size of New Jersey plus Massachusetts. Plus there’s tons more, both old and new. One wry new attraction is the “Soviet Tour,” conducted in a 1960′s bus with ratty seats and stinking of gasoline. Our guide was a youngish chap in a Soviet military getup (bottom left) who feigned drunkenness, kept demanding to see passports, and kept shouting, “Who you are working for?” Eventually he graduated to plying us with vodka; holding forth on the superiority of USSR to the decadent capitalist West whilst waving pictures of Leonid Brezhnev; trying to sign us up for “Communist Party membership”; and warbling a Red Army marching song or two (fortunately, it was an old warhorse called “Katyusha,” to which I just happened to know the words).
Beyond all this, these days a good chunk of Tallinn is also spit-shined to a sparkle, and boasts a kicky nightlife that has folks out on the cobblestones till 2 a.m. and beyond (see photo at right; this is in summer, of course, when the sun this far north barely sets — quite a different story during the dark winters, I suspect). Inevitably, there are a few less than classy aspects, too. On one visit to Raekojaplats (Town Hall Square, top right), I came face to face with a bunch of soused Finns; a noisily hopping gaggle of Hare Krishnas; and one of those cheesy tourist choo-choos. And speaking of soused Finns, the ferry port area is crammed full of liquor shops, since the stuff’s cheaper here than in Finland, and watching the Finns returning to Helsinki loaded down with booze was simultaneously astonishing and depressing.
So while it’s true that no rose is without its thorns, on the whole the revitalization of Tallinn has been truly inspiring to witness, and nowhere more so than in the area of theater, the arts, and especially music of all kinds. Tallinn’s bursting with all sorts of concerts and happenings, and during summertime, music festivals. If that’s the kind of thing that floats your boat, give a thought to coming over here this year, when it shifts into overdrive as Tallinn takes its turn as a European Capital of Culture.
By the way, Tallinn’s no longer particularly hard to get to. Besides that two-hour ferry ride it’s also reachable by air, connecting from the U.S. via Czech Airlines, Finnair, KLM, and Lufthansa, also from Europe on easyJet and Estonian Air.
Anyway, summer 2009 was a big one for Estonia’s big national dance and song festivals, and as I sat in a stadium among 20,000 spectators of all ages watching 8,500 folk dancers (above left) from all over the country twirling their hearts out, it was apparent that despite the economic crisis, despite the bumps in joining the 21-century West, despite the fact that conditions in some other parts of the country aren’t quite as impressive as they are in the capital, Estonia’s national soul is finally flying free. And that was a beautiful, beautiful thing to behold.