Tallinn - July-August 2011 

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As I get more and more into travelling to Eastern Europe, I find myself wanting to go there more and more. This includes visiting old places (such classics as Prague and St Petersburg are definitely on my wish-to-return-to list) as well as seeing new ones. Tallinn is for sure a new one, and it will be my second visit to the Baltics, which leaves Lithuania so far unvisited (but on the wish-list ;)

I spend some time on Tripadvisor searching for accommodation, and combine it with the also excellent website In Your Pocket in order to choose my hotel, and my choice is on the Meriton Grand Conference & Spa hotel. While not ranked among the very top on Tripadvisor, reading about it gives me a generally good impression, and it seems to have the facilities (and much more since I am not so into spa things) and has a good business style standard, which I tend to often go for when travelling. They have a fairly newly added wing, which is supposed to be the 'good one', so I request this in my booking of the room, and my wish is granted.

Thanks to the In Your Pocket guide, I am also able to go through a pretty extensive list of choices for where to eat during my stay. Since I want to vary my culinary experience (which I have more and more come to realise is almost half the experience when travelling, when done right) I search through the list several times and tick off my interesting choices, and actually land on making a somewhat open list for each day's lunch and dinner.

Day 1
Ryanair's planes have been nicknamed 'hot dog stands with wings' in one of my net-based travel information sources, and it may at times give this impression. However, they are efficient and extremely cheap. My trip back and forth including 15 kg checked baggage (and 10 kg hand luggage) is around 85 €, and I land earlier than planned at Tallinn airport (Tallinna Lennujaam), which lies only 4 km southeast of the old town. The air is very hot and humid, and I expect thunder or heavy rain before this day is over. Hansabuss, a local line, has fairly newly opened a convenient transport possibility - a bus which makes a roundtrip to the city centre, stopping at various strategic locations which are convenient for tourists. The trip is only 2 € and it takes me around half an hour to reach my hotel.

The bus stops at the 'wrong side' of the hotel, so I have to navigate through its length to find the reception, but check-in is very efficient and I find out I have been granted a room on the top floor - excellent!

 

My room is not particularly large, but is more than sufficient for just one person. I have a double bed, a ceiling-to-floor window which overlooks a construction site - not a particularly sexy view, but I am not here to sit on my popka and look out the window anyway..hopefully! I find out that the airconditioning is excellent - the individual control lets you set it as low as 14°C or so, and the sound insulation is great, so sleeping well should be no problem at all!
There is a minibar which I won't be using, and a 'tempting' bottle of water at 5 € outside it - daylight robbery even here, as you can find the same bottle in any shop at a fifth of the price.
The bathroom door creaks a bit, and there is a bathtub here *sigh* but otherwise the bathroom is ok.

As I am well ahead of schedule, I head out to my lunch place and hope it isn't completely full, as I have heard it is very popular. I navigate up the Toompea Hill and walk back down to the freedom monument, then head into the old town area and seek out my choice - Von Krahli Aed (Von Krahl's Garden) which lies on the street called Rataskaevu. On my way I pass several restaurants I remember from my previous research, and even a couple of hotels - it almost feels as if I have already been here.


I had emailed the restaurant beforehand, asking if they would recommend reserving a seat, and they suggested me to do so just in case. However, I decided not to, as I would have no idea when I would be able to arrive due to possible plane delays, waiting for luggage, traffic problems etc. But I am on the 'good end' of my most optimistic schedule, and fortunately there is a table available for me.
The restaurant isn't large (many in old town are actually quite small) but is very cozy inside as you get the 'old medieval building' feeling, with thick stone walls and ceiling beams. They play some slightly alternative music, which is fine anyway, and it reminds me that they also run a theatre and bar with music entertainment next door.
While they have lunch menu options at very low prices (4.50 € at the time of visiting), I decide to go for a proper dinner dish and no starter. I try the 'roasted chicken breast with fresh salad, coconut milk and lemon grass sauce' - my mouth waters at writing it down again, as it did when it arrived on my table. It was really nicely presented, the chicken was perfectly tender, and adding the warm lemongrass sauce to it..ahh! Together with my ecological glass of white wine (actually the wine was ecological, not the glass...) - what a great culinary start! And to top it off, my (definitely after this trip) favourite dessert - crème brûlée with strawberry salad, which in my eyes (read: mouth) is absolutely heavenly :)
The sign outside the restaurant reads 'embassy of pure food' and it seems they have a big focus on healthy servings (not size, but lifestyle-related). That dessert was just..hmm, well, it was very good! :)


I do a small walk around the old town on my way back and take in a few sights and try to learn the street layout, which is a bit confusing at first. From Town Hall square, narrow roads go in every direction, but some curve into other directions, sending you to places you didn't want to go in the first place...or?
The Town Hall is pretty impressive by the way. It is the oldest one intact in northern Europe, from around 1400, and while not overly decorated (which was normal for medieval times), it is very well preserved and makes a good sight along with the rest of the buildings around the square. Most of these are, during season, outside summer restaurants, and the square is indeed filled with restaurants, tables, and a few 'recruiters' here and there. It is often said that the more centrally located you are, the higher the price is and the poorer the food is. I do not try any of the restaurants in the exact centre, but instead opt for ones nearby, or on a couple of occasions, somewhat outside the old town.


The day goes by pretty fast and before I know it, it is time for another highlight - dinner! This evening I go to Klafira (Клафира), and while I have the option to sit outside, I choose to go inside, where the decoration takes you back to the tsar era, with heavy, colourful tablecloths and even waiters/waitresses decked out in costumes! My main waitress has sharp blue eyes and is quite friendly - in fact it turns out I receive the warmest service on my trip here. We exchange some enthusiasm about DSLRs and she gives me a couple of suggestions for sightseeing as she asks about my plans.


I remember reading on their website about a tasting menu named 'Pearls of the Russian cuisine', and this is what I will want to have. The first bit is 'game meat borshch' which is pretty good, although not the best I have tried. The second is pelmeni - Siberian dumplings, which are really excellent and taste much better than they look :) The waitress told me they have them delivered fresh every morning from a local woman who makes them. Third - beef stroganoff, a fairly small portion but it is very good, along with fried slices of potatoes. And finally - sweet blini with honey and jam, very very tasty ones indeed!
There is live entertainment in the evenings - on three occasions, some dancers come in and perform a small classic music/dance show, quite loudly so, but entertaining indeed (for tourists).

It is friday evening and the rain is pouring down as I leave the restaurant. Thankfully I have my umbrella with me but the cobbled streets turn into rivers, and my low-soled shoes get wet :(
I head to a place called Kompressor, which normally is famous for their pancakes, but at the time I arrive, the kitchen is closed so I order a drink - and try the local liqueur known as Vana Tallinn. It is quite good but very strong, especially straight up as the girl at the counter suggests for a..virgin.
I go towards Viru Gate and search for a possible bar visit - the name is 'Butterfly Lounge' and is supposed to be good according to my guidebook. It turns out that it probably is, as it is packed with people and there are no tables available. Nearby, there is another but smaller bar/lounge named 'Rumours'. I decide to try my luck in there. Beside the bar, there is a small round pedestal where a small but perfectly fit young lady is dancing. She has piercing blue eyes and gives you a look which suggests you will want to stay there. Unfortunately the area with 'view' is filled up so I find a table in the back and sip away at my drink..Long Island Iced Tea (for a change?)
And as I expect when travelling to Eastern Europe, there are lots of models on high heels around :)

It is quite late as I head to bed, a bit too late, as I am not quite yet adapted to..something, and wake up with a stretched neck.

Day 2
Breakfast is small for me, but I notice also that while the area they use for serving it is quite large, it is almost chaotically busy, and the variety offered isn't as much as I had expected. Everything seems to have been cloned, so you get a sense of dejá vu when you walk around, trying to get an overview over what's on offer. I get at least some cereals, bread, meat, juice and tea. They have some warm offerings as well but that is not really up my alley.

The weather today is not good! It is raining, and it doesn't just seem to be showers, since everything is dark grey. I decide to lie down and relax in my hotel room for a while instead.

The hotel is almost as close as you can get to an all-inclusive place, with 4 restaurants: Spanish Tapas Bar, Balalaika - Russian restaurant, Asian Wok & Grill and Bistro Mary - the latter two both being used for serving breakfast, as well as Café Mademoiselle, with seemingly mouth-watering cakes and the Lobby and Piano bars. There's even a hairdresser here...

Zzzzz..


Good morning! Let's go somewhere! How about the Solaris centre? According to Google maps it should be...there, very close to Freedom Square. But it doesn't seem to be..so I ask in a nearby shop, where I get a much better map along with directions, and find the centre - which is quite new - at least a city block off my expected position. The centre is quite nice, with lots of shops, and as usual most are clothing related. There is also a cinema here, in fact 7 rooms, 6 of which are 3D enabled. They seem to have a lot of new movies showing even at daytime, so I try to adjust my schedule and plan for a visit later in the afternoon.

First, I go for lunch and my choice today is Vapiano - a local chain serving Italian food. In fact it is sort of a fast food chain, although with quite a bit of difference. As you head in, you are given an electronic card. When you get to the seating area you bring the menu with you, choose your dish, then head to the proper counter (pizza - pasta - salad - dessert etc) and order your food, which is then freshly prepared in front of you! As you get the meal, you swipe your card at the same place, and return to eat. So if you want more to eat, you repeat the procedure. And when you are finished and head out, you are charged the amount due on your card. Quite a good solution, although at times the queue takes some time, since every meal is prepared separately. I have a tempting pasta dish which isn't on the regular menu. You can choose which kind of pasta you would like - spaghetti, tagliatelle, penne etc. and also if your dish includes garlic, you may opt out of it (thanks!)
And one more (and highly important) thing - the food is very good! Now if only Autogrill in Italy could even remotely reach a standard such as this!?

As a meal in-between I go to Kompressor (no website) to try one of their pancakes. I have a sweet one - with apple and vanilla sauce. Getting it takes ages, and I am thinking it shouldn't be a problem devouring it all, even though the reviews on Tripadvisor suggest otherwise. I must admit I almost never leave something on my plate, but this time something just went 'boom' in my tummy and I had to leave a third of it :( It does taste very good though, and at 2.50 € it is a steal for filling your tummy.

In the afternoon I head back to the centre for a visit to the cinema - Pirates of The Caribbean in its fourth installment and in glorious 3D. It is enjoyable enough, with the added comedy parts which I expect from the series.

Since I have been crossing over this hill many times already, I should comment a bit on the sights along the route:

Toompea Hill, where the castle stands, is the seat of power for the Republic of Estonia and is home to the Parliament. Right next to it is the Russian orthodox Alexander Nevsky cathedral, built late in the 19th century. After Estonia was 'liberated' from Russia there was a wish to tear it down, but it wasn't done, and now it is under refurbishment and looks splendid (and to our western eyes, exotic).
Down the hill on the western side of the old town is the oddly named tower 'Kiek in de Kök' which means 'peek into the kitchen'. To me, the native name sounds more Dutch than Estonian, but anyway it is one of the many remaining and well-preserved towers of the old town walls.
Just below this one and at the bottom of the hill stands the Freedom Monument, raised during their first independence in 1918-20. Here, you are at the edge between the old town and the more modern part.

After the movie, it is definitely time to have dinner. I head for my choice of the evening - Sisalik which means lizard. I have the chicken breast with chanterelles and creamy brandy-apple sauce, which is very good, but the side dish - mushroom risotto, is not quite to my liking. A glass of white wine is a perfect match. For dessert I have a warm chocolate cake which is veeeeeeeery sweet..a bit too much. The cellar is cozy as well, and the atmosphere is quiet - nice for a romantic dinner if you have company, I am sure!

It It is saturday evening and quite lively down at the Viru Gate area. As I take some pictures of the old gates, a couple of young ladies want to be added to my eh..collection as well. As I show them the result, I hear the word 'horosho' so I understand they are Russian speaking, and I am able to add a couple of words myself just to impress..a little.
I head over to "my" Rumours bar again as Butterfly is still packed, but the interesting dancer isn't there tonight..that sucks a little. I stay in the bar and have a drink, then head back home.


Day 3
Sunday - the weather seems to be getting better now - at least it isn't raining. It is cloudy but the forecast suggests they will disappear during the day. I head out for my roundtrip in the old town, and take in as many of the sights as I was hoping to do, including partly a walk around the outside of the walls along some of the towers. Tallinn is European capital of culture in 2011, so it is neatly decorated, and there are several events taking place during this summer. Behind the town hall square is the well known restaurant/shop known as Olde Hansa. They say you haven't been to Tallinn if you haven't visited it, but it is not on my restaurant list. Instead I have Peppersack, very close by, as an option. The medieval music coming from inside some of the houses sets an extra nice mood, although to a native, I am sure it would feel very touristy.


Most of the towers have names, but the northernmost stands out on its own in a literal way - Fat Margaret. It was built in the early 16th century, is 25 metres in diameter, 20 metres tall and the walls are up to 5 metres in thickness. Southwestward from here, several towers in a row are worth strolling along, as much of the outer wall has gardens or parks nearby.


My visit to Von Krahli Aed was so successful that I go there for lunch a second time. On this occasion, I have a fresh salad with oven-baked chicken, which is very good value at 4.50 €. Then I decide to try a slightly more adventurous dish - rabbit fillet with vegetable pillow and "Põltsamaa Tõmmu" wine sauce. The rabbit itself has little taste although it is tender, but the vegetables are slightly spicy and make the dish overall better. It wasn't as good as my chicken, but all is good as I go for another crème brûlée for dessert. I should probably head to a gym soon...

 In fact, I brought my gym clothes and shoes with me, as my hotel has a very big fitness department alongside the spa and pool area. I attend one Body Pump class, and notice that the instructor uses a combination program, but most of the songs are quite old to me, as I am used to the most recent versions. Still, it is fun and enjoyable and I definitely get a good workout.

I was originally planning to set aside half a day for a possible visit by ferry to Helsinki, but as my saturday got lost in the rain, I will have to use that extra day for out-of-town sightseeing. So I continue to cover the old town for the remainder of the day, and relax a bit before heading out for dinner, which is more off the beaten track - in fact I head a bit south of the old town to find Restaurant Kathmandu Hill.



After studying their website menu, I decide to go for a starter named 'Chicken Tikka - tender pieces of chicken marinated with herbs and spices, cooked in tandoor. Served on hot plate with mint sauce'. And what a dish it is! It is more or less the best one of any cuisine I have ever tried. The girl serving is friendly but somewhat shy, which is fine by me, as I am not there to pinch her popka anyway.
For main course I choose the Kathmandu chicken - in creamy tomato cashew nut sauce...tasty but not nearly as heavenly as my starter. A glass of rosé wine goes well with both these dishes, but for my dessert - fried banana with ice cream (which are ok but not super) a glass of plum wine fits perfectly.
As I leave the place, well fed and happy, I know I have to return just to have that starter again!


It is sunday evening and the town is much less lively, so my evening is shorter this time. Instead, I use the cover of darkness to go for a walk with my tripod and take some shots of illuminated buildings..including the parliament, Freedom Square, Town Hall square, Kiek in de Kök and Toompea Castle, the latter being lit up like a castle from a ghost story (with extra effect from the thick leaves of the nearby trees). As I walk down the final part of the hill to return to my hotel, I pass an english couple, and I don't know how I did it, but the woman nearly jumps up above the treeline as I come up on their side. I don't know if she had time to see that I was carrying my tripod and decide to mistake it for a machine gun or medieval torture instrument, but in the end, all of us are still alive.


Day 4

Today the weather seems to be near perfect, so I decide to go for my out-of-town experience. First of all, I walk to the Baalti Jam railway station and try to find somewhere to buy a day ticket for public transportation. I find a kiosk and after a bit of hand signage manage to get the right ticket. This was in fact my first and only experience with having difficulties getting around using english. I take tram no. 1 (Kopli - Kadriorg) and get off at the second last station, then head into the park. It is very nice, beautifully planted, and I stroll around for a little before heading towards the main palace, built during the tsar area as a small and rather modest cabin (compared to the palaces of St Petersburg). Unfortunately, refurbishing is going on..surprise, surprise! Opposite the palace stands a newer palace in a similar style, which is now the official seat for the President of Estonia.


I head to the end of the tram line before it turns back towards the city centre, and wait for bus no. 8. Although I am sure many others cover my destination, at least this is the one suggested to me on the public travel transport website of Tallinn. It takes a bit of waiting, but the ride is less than 15 minutes, and as we reach the coastal area, I notice that the road follows the coastline closely, and there is a walking/cycling path next to it! Perfect for my return home, I think. At the stop 'Pirita', I jump off (after the bus has stopped) and head towards a local sight - the ruins of an old monastery. It is quite well kept and neat, but will not take much time unless you want to dig around on your own. Entrance was 2 € if I remember correctly...


For a somewhat late lunch I go to the 'Winners Sports Lounge' which is situated right next to the bridge crossing the river. It has great views and seems quite popular, as all the outdoor tables are busy (naturally in this great weather), so I have a seat inside and have a Caesar Salad with chicken (which is quite good) and a pasta with salmon (which is also good but not great). I finish off with an ice cold strawberry daiquiri *hic* but it feels a bit too cold so my taste buds turn numb :(

I head out towards the end of the pier and spot the beach at Pirita and some windsurfers trying their luck. Out here is also the 'old' arena for sailing during the 1980 Moscow Olympics, when Estonia was part of the Soviet Union. It is a bit windy, so I head back to the road and follow the coastline towards the city. As the spires of the old town and the tall buildings of the modern part of the city slowly come closer into view, I realise I have spent most of my afternoon out here as well, which suits well with my plans anyway. The walking path, which is separate from the cycling path, consists partly of somewhat rugged concrete, which feels a bit strange. At least I get a nice tan from it all, and I guess you can't get that everywhere when visiting big cities! Now I can only imagine what Odessa or Sevastopol would be!

I was originally planning to visit a Body Combat class today as well, but due to too few people signing up, it is cancelled. So after a rest I go back to my Kathmandu Hill and order the Chicken Tikka starter twice - as I said to the guy serving - it was THAT good. He is a bit colder than the girl though...but I only go there for the starter(s). For the 'main course' I head back to my favourite again - Von Krahli Aed and order the chicken breast and the usual dessert...mmm!

I go 'out on town' in the evening and this time the Butterfly lounge has available seats. In fact, it is almost empty, making my Long Island Iced Tea somewhat less enjoyable.


Day 5
I have one half day left and will only spend it walking a little more in the old town - I head up the tower of the Town Hall, 34 metres above the ground. It is a very narrow and winding staircase where the steps are up to 40 cm tall at the most - definitely not one for wheelchairs, I would say. My main aim is to reach the northern part of the old town for lunch, and head for a place which opens only today - Kohvik Moon. After reading very nice reviews of it, I am tempted to try it out, as they also have some quite Russian inspired cuisine. I decide to go for a 3-course lunch - my starter being the very familiar borshch (which is good but not the best I have tried, again), then a salmon dish which is very tasty, and to round it off..my usual dessert. Shhh! By the way the place is a little bit hidden so I would advise anyone going there to mark it well on the map beforehand. It lies just past and downwards from the Domina Inn Ilmarine - a prison converted into a hotel (!) - at Võrgu 3.


I asked at the hotel for a later check-out, and I am granted one at some additional cost, until 3 in the afternoon. I head down well before that and hope to catch the 15:25 bus back to the airport, but checking out takes ages as there are lots of people checking in at the same time, and for some reason only 2 people to man the desk - out of 4 possible stations. After half an hour I am finished and still have a to wait a bit for my bus. Getting back is more of a breeze, so that's Tallinn for me for now!

Would I go back there? Yes I think so - the entire old town is really medieval, and they have done a great job at preserving it, and not introducing too many modern elements, so it all has an 'old' feel to it.


Useful tips:

- To get from the airport to the city, use the new bus route 90K, it circumvents the entire old town area, making for easy transportation from the airport to your hotel, and only costs 2 €. Alternatively, a taxi should cost less than 10 €.

- A 24 h day card for public transportation costs 4 € and covers buses, trams and trolleybuses. Similarly, they have 3 and 5 day cards which cost 6 and 7 € respectively. You can find maps, routes and timetables here.

- People over 65 travel for free on public transportation. This includes foreigners!

- As a curiosity, if you have been persecuted during the Soviet days, you are also entitled to free transport.

- Don't miss Katarina Käik (St. Catherine's Passage) between Vene street and Müürivahe!

- Don't miss Kadriorg and a stroll out at Pirita if the weather permits it!

- It is possible to visit Helsinki by ferry - Linda Line Express is the fastest one, taking 90 minutes each way. A day return ticket costs much less than an ordinary return ticket.



UNESCO sites visited:

Historic Centre (Old Town) of Tallinn


 

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