Tallinn: day four & the bit at the airport

On Sunday, I was up quite early, down at Viru Gate by 9.05am, astonished that all the shops seemed to be open – including McDonald’s – even though I’d been struck by how little had been open at 10 on Saturday. Lisa had told me where to get the trolleybus and said that I could buy my ticket from the driver with the right change or I could buy it in the R Kiosk, and had marked said R Kiosk on my map. I found the R Kiosk, on the corner of Freedom Square, and enquired about tickets only to be told I had to buy it from the driver.

The buses come along every ten or fifteen minutes so I didn’t have long to wait, and we headed west out of the city (it turns out you don’t need exact change but it’s useful for getting rid of your 10c and 20c coins). The zoo is in Rocca al Mare, a suburb of Tallinn founded by an Italian, and I fell for the peculiar way announcements are made on Estonian buses and got off at the wrong one. I heard “Looga, järgmine peatus Zoo” and thought that meant that was the zoo stop just long enough to leap before I realised that means “This stop is Looga, the next stop is Zoo”. It was about a fifteen minute walk to the correct bus stop, in the sunshine, along the shore, alongside six lanes of traffic. You can’t get lost, it’s a trolleybus, just follow the wires and you’ll get to the next stop eventually.

Even though the zoo had been open for an hour by the time I arrived, it felt weirdly deserted. I still think the north gate, where I came in, is the main gate but the evidence suggests otherwise. I wasn’t even entirely sure I was at the zoo. It took a while to get to the animals and I wasn’t sure about it even then. Smallish enclosures, with dusty outside areas, where assorted exotic sheep and goats were separated from visitors by a fence and six feet of shrubbery before you even got to their own fencing. However, it seems these are just holding pens – out near the west gate, there were big grassy enclosures full of the very same exotic sheep and goats.

My favourite bit was the petty zoo, where pygmy goats roamed free, perfectly happy for small children to climb all over them and maul them. It probably helped that they had a few more fenced-off areas where they could escape when they’d had enough of it. There were three teeny-tiny baby goatses keeping out of the way, where I could just about stroke their little heads with my fingertips but where they were safe from children. They had a log to climb on and when I sat on it to play with them, they climbed on me. There was a machine of goat food but it wasn’t working very well. The goats didn’t care, they shoved me out of the way to climb up and lick the spout.

I saw exotic goats and sheep, elephants, rhinos, a gigantic crocodile, chimps, tamarins, wallabies (complete with a baby in the pouch), lions and a young polar bear, showing off, throwing her toys around and climbing up the fence to look scary. The polar bear and leopard enclosures are very out of date and the zoo knows it, there’s a sign up at each end, saying they’re moving to better homes “soonest” but judging by the state of the sign, it’s been a while. Still, the leopards were enjoying a sleep in the sun and the polar bears seemed happy enough.

The sun had really come out by the time I’d made my way all around the zoo and stopped for a picnic by the rhinos. I got the bus back to town and then jumped on tram 3 to Kadriorg, which is a big park to the east of the Old Town, built by Peter the Great for his mistress, later Empress, Catherine I – Kadriorg meaning Catherine’s Valley in Estonian. He built her a palace, Kadriorg Palace, which is now an art museum, and behind it is the Presidential Palace. Kadriorg is nice and green and open and full of trees and water features and cafes and ice creams and a very pleasant place to pass a few hours, even if you don’t go in the museums.

I took tram 1 back to Linnahall, which is my nearest tram stop, just below Fat Margaret, who sits more or less at the top of Uus, my street. I saw the word Uus all over the place, on everything from street names to fruit vans and research has revealed that it means new, which makes sense.

After walking around the zoo and Kadriorg, my feet were hurting so I went to the spa again, this time hiring a suit that actually fitted. I got changed in the correct changing room and wore my glasses and went to enjoy the hot tubs. This time I could move safely, I could see the clock, I could see where I was going and I could see the game of water football taking place in the deep end of the main pool. Nine of the ten lanes, again, were occupied but I didn’t desperately want to go in the deep cold water when there were warm hot tubs to sit in. With my glasses on, I could actually enjoy the view from the long window along the side and also the video on the big screen at the front of the pool – a month or two ago, they set up a giant swing above the pool and played the video in between adverts and movie trailers. I really didn’t want to get out when my time ran out.

On the way home, I popped into the supermarket, which is all of 200 metres away from the spa. It’s quite the novelty to be able to go into a supermarket and buy chocolate at 8pm on a Sunday. Back at my apartment, I packed.

It took a surprisingly long time to finish packing on Monday morning. I finished off my bread, washed all my glasses and departed, determined to come back next year. The bus left from the shopping centre next to the Viru Hotel and off we went to the airport, which is pretty much in town. There’s a main road running alongside the runway, far closer than I’ve ever seen. So close to town that I wasn’t convinced it really was the airport until everyone with a suitcase jumped off the bus.

Tallinn Airport is aiming to be the cosiest airport in the world and it’s doing well. My initial impression, from Thursday night, was reinforced when I got through security – it’s really cute! Several of the gates have novelty seats – beanbags at one, leather sofas at another, massage chairs at another – and the rest have seats covered in bright stripy fabric. There’s a fishtank and adorable little cafes and bars and even a library, which I didn’t find. The downside was the group of big ugly bald men, each with a big wheely suitcase, who’d clearly been drinking for the last three days, starting their day with another pint at the airport before getting their flight home. I sat on a stripy chair and looked around – not a soul in the airport except these drunk men. What a fun flight.

Actually, when we went through passport control – for I was departing Estonia on a non-Schengen flight, of course – there were more people and once we were on the plane, I didn’t see them again. We were allowed through the gate and went downstairs to wait in a sort of holding pen. I looked around. Something was wrong. No plane in sight. Were we really going to be bussed to the other end of the airport? No, our plane just hadn’t arrived yet. They could have left us at the gate, with seats, for another ten or twenty minutes, by the time they’d got the incoming passengers off and prepared it for the next lot. I saw the pilot, in his yellow jacket, inspect the plane, which I’ve never seen before but I’m glad they do do it. I saw a girl return to the plane and the baggage train eventually be brought back, to retrieve what I can only assume was her passport which had ended up in the hold, in front of an entire plane’s worth of witnesses. I sat right at the back, next to an Estonian woman who’s lived in Surrey for ten years, and a retired teacher called Alistair, who I came to hate. They talked most of the way back, which was fine, but Alistair, you are a horrible person.

We landed at South Terminal despite my boarding pass saying we were landing at North, and the inflight magazine being so happy that all of easyJet was now at North, so I got a ride on the shuttle back to the right terminal and then came the usual catastrophe, how to get from Gatwick to Billingshurst. The other way is fine, just follow the pictures of planes but Billingshurst isn’t signposted from Gatwick and I always, without fail, get lost around Crawley and have to resort to stopping outside a random pub/garage/residential street to turn the maps on on my phone. I have never yet gone back to Billingshurst the same way I went in the other direction, or got back in the same way twice. It’s a very pleasant drive once you get there but it’s the hardest place in the world to get to. So I’d been in the car for over four hours by the time I got home – and the last ten miles were crawling along behind a succession of tractors apparently determined to stop me ever getting home.

Tallinn: the pictures

Tallinn: day three

On Saturday, I set off for Toompea, via the street opposite my apartment, which I hadn’t explored, and discovered that there’s a blacksmith’s shop visible from my window. Fortunately, it was too early for it to be open so I was unable to buy the hugely tempting handmade coat of ringmail. I walked down to St Nicholas’s, the last major church that I hadn’t found yet, sat on a bench in the sunshine to watch the wagtails and consult my map and then set off for Toompea, via the steepest route possible.

Toompea – from the German Domberg, Cathedral Hill – is a limestone/sandstone hill in the southwest corner of the Old Town. It’s had a castle and a church on it for nearly a millennium and is now home to the Orthodox Church, as well as the seat of the Estonian government, which is a shocking shade of pink. The hill is only 25-30 metres high but it towers over the rest of the city, with views over the red roofs and spires only bettered by the view from St Olaf’s tower, except without the scary stone spiral staircase. Toompea is quieter than the city below, except around the viewpoints which are overrun with tour groups – didn’t really see them on the streets so I don’t know how they get from one viewpoint to the next. The viewpoints are also clustered with tourist shops.

The first viewpoint was the most southerly. I could see trains down below and I could also see an athletics field, complete with people learning to throw the hammer. At the third viewpoint, there was a man trying to get to the front of the crowd, saying over and over again “Excuse me! Do you mind if I blow bubbles?” It was a really good idea! The bubbles look so pretty sparkling in the sunshine over the roofs and spires of the Old Town. I also enjoyed a big puffy pigeon trying and failing to impress a potential girlfriend. I went in the tourist shops and looked at matryoshka dolls and replica Faberge eggs and pretty paintings and amber and finally found a suitable bracelet and necklace.

It doesn’t sound like I did much on Toompea but it takes time to wander around all the cobbled streets and enjoy all the views. I walked down to the town centre, back to the Town Square, so different in the sunshine, took surreptitious photos of Superman on a Segway, and then spied the land train. So I went for a ride on it, in the open carriage at the back. We went through the square and up Pikk and round St Olaf’s, through the walls, round the bottom of Toompea and back round to the Town Square, a trip of about twenty minutes around most of the streets of Tallinn, dodging pavement cafes and badly-parked vans with concerned owners watching us squeeze past and then two English boys on Segways who alternately chased the train and showed off for it, a display crowned by one of them falling off. However, Tallinn’s interesting weather means it’s really hot in the sun but freezing cold in the shade, and the roof of the open carriage means it was really really cold on the ride.

I went home for lunch, because the novelty of having an apartment with a kitchen in the town centre doesn’t wear off.

I intended to spend the afternoon exploring the walls in the north of the town, as recommended by Lisa, but it turns out that only two sections of wall are open, which is about 200 metres, and two towers, one of which contains nothing but two small stone pigeon-befouled rooms and the other two large but empty guard rooms. It’s nice to prowl around on top of the walls but there’s only so long you can stretch it out so I came back down and walked through the back streets to St Nicholas and then on to Freedom Square, a big modern airy plaza marking the southern limits of the Old Town. I didn’t realise there’s an underground shopping centre there but I did spot the big glass cross marking the 1918-20 Estonian War of Independence. From there I walked up to Kiek in de Kök, the last major sight I hadn’t seen, a tower in the original walls now housing a military museum. Kiek in de Kök means something along the lines of “a peek in the kitchen” because you could see into the parlours of Estonian houses from it. What caught my eye was the Tallinn Archery School in the grounds around it and after stopping to watch for a while, I decided I wanted to have a go.

It’s run by an English man who spent ten years working as a programmer in a windowless office and now teaches archery in Tallinn. Well, I say “teach”. I watched in befuddlement as he let the big Russians shooting alongside me, who had never touched a bow before, nock their arrows the wrong way round.

I’m not entirely sure what I was shooting with. It definitely wasn’t a compound bow, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t a recurve and as I was only introduced to three types of bows, I must conclude it was a longbow of some kind I haven’t encountered before. 23lbs, with a nice wrapped string so it didn’t hurt to draw, and it felt really light. I was trained on an 18lb recurve and struggled with a 24lb recurve but I’m pretty sure a 28lb longbow felt quite comfortable. I had ten arrows to practice with, shooting downhill, getting used to a new bow and a weird shooting angle and I scored 55 (beating the big Russians hollow!) but when we did the ten competition arrows, I failed dismally – 26 points and one arrow missed completely. I think part of the problem was that my supervisor had more contradictory and/or nonsensical advice and instructions after every shot. “Don’t think about aiming” was immediately followed by “Just concentrate on the middle of the target”, “don’t think” was followed by “you have to think about everything” and I couldn’t make any sense of “remember the balance”.

Once I’d shot my twenty arrows, I went up to Toompea, since the shooting was happening in the shadow of the Orthodox Church, and it didn’t seem like nearly as much of an effort to climb up there from Kiek in de Kök as from wherever I’d gone up in the morning. I walked back down Pikk and took the long route back home for cheese on toast.

Tallinn: day two (finally in Tallinn)

After having arrived at nearly midnight, I was up at an appropriate hour the next morning and my first job was to go to the supermarket for breakfast. The nearest supermarket, spied from the taxi the night before, is approximately a five minute walk from my apartment and I stocked up on bread, butter, cheese, juice and chocolate. The apartment had a toaster so I had toast for breakfast before packing up and heading out. I started by going out towards the main road, via a small area of parkland opposite the supermarket and the spa – oh, you’ll meet the spa later.

I followed the main road up towards the end of the city walls and then spotted some stairs leading up to what looked like it might be a good viewpoint, taking note of the church spire and chimney that more or less marked my way back to my apartment. Those stairs went up like a concrete ziggurat and then back down the other side, where there was a helipad. The thing is, there’s clearly a large concrete structure, more or less underground, and it’s very clearly abandoned, crumbling, covered in graffiti, and starting to feel a bit threatening. This place transpired to be the Linnahall, a “sports and concert venue” built for the 1980 Olympics, which were held in Moscow – Moscow not having much in the way of coastline, the sailing events happened in Tallinn, which was occupied by the USSR at the time.

While I’m at it, a very quick history of Estonia, as far as I understand. Tallinn was founded in about the twelfth century by the Danes – Tallinn meaning “Danish fort”, and yet Tallinn was called Reval until 1918. Over the next seven hundred years, Estonia was variously occupied by Sweden, Germany and Russia. It has, in fact, only been an independent Estonia for 30ish of those 700 years and 24 of those have been the last 24. The other thing that surprised me – surprised? well, maybe – was that people generally don’t speak much English. Most places in western Europe communicate in English, because what other language do you use to communicate with tourists from France, Japan and everything in between? But in Estonia, the majority of tourists are Russian and of course, Russian was one of the languages spoken when it was a Soviet state. Those signs that are bilingual are in Estonian and Russian; English is occasionally added as a third language if necessary.

Anyway. I stood on top of the Linnahall and looked out at the Baltic, bright blue under a bright blue sky. Estonia’s weather this week has been nice – very hot sun but a real bite in the breeze. Too hot to wear a jumper but too cold on your arms not to. From my spot on the Linnahall, I spied a nice little birch-covered headland which looked like a nice place to amble. I hopped down the Linnahall – by now mentally renamed the Slaughterhouse – and walked towards the headland. Up closer, it felt further from civilisation than I’d expected, much more isolated and there were cars parked here and there in the trees and I began to feel that I’d rather not be there. I headed back to the main road at my best brisk pace.

I crossed the tramlines and walked up the hill to Fat Margaret, a stout tower now housing the Maritime Museum, and went through the Great Sea Gate into the Old Town. It felt a bit like walking into the Kremlin, an impression added to by the Russian flag flying from their Embassy. Not far up, I found my first tourist shop, which sold me the only flag badge for my camp blanket that I saw in the entire city, and then stopped outside a church because I heard singing from inside.

That church turned out to be St Olaf’s Church, the spire of which is visible from my apartment. At one point, it was said to be the highest spire in the world because Estonia wanted to attract passing trade from the Baltic. However, it burned down eight times within two hundred years. It’s named after Olaf II of Norway – not the Olaf from the subheader of this blog, that was Olaf I, Olafur Tryggvason. Olaf II is Olaf Haraldsson, Rex Perpetuus Norvegiae. I wandered around the church and was innocently taking photos of the ceiling when a man started talking at me in Estonian, demanded my camera and started taking photos of me with it, ordering me to move this way, that way, step back, stand in front of this and then handed it back with a grin. I’m quite happy to ask strangers to take photos of me but I’ve never before had a stranger insist that I have photos of myself.

When I was done with the church, I went up the famous tower. It’s all narrow, winding stone stairs, not designed for two-way traffic and definitely not designed for tour groups. So many people coming down as I went up. I squished myself against the wall on the the way up and left them to get past me on the narrow parts of the steps in the middle of the spiral. It wasn’t a comfortable climb, not when I’m clinging to the hand rope while thirty-odd tourists push past me. At the top was a steep flight of stairs more like a ladder and then you’re out on top of the tower, where the spire meets the tower. There was a narrow duckboard going round and a railing and a one-way system being utterly ignored and you’ll never guess who I met! That’s right, my friend from the church who insisted I have some photos of myself on top of the tower.

Tallinn from above is very pretty, all those red roofs and medieval buildings and the blue Baltic behind it all. I could see my apartment building from there – of course I could, I could see the tower from my window. Beyond the medieval town I could see the modern town, a few glass towers. Cold up there, though. That Baltic breeze is very breezy at the top and it was starting to threaten rain. I descended.

There weren’t as many people as I was coming down but there was one man who lost his footing squeezing past me and only avoided falling straight down the middle of the stairs by hanging onto the rope that hangs down the centre. By the time I got to the bottom, I’d decided I’m not a big fan of narrow spiral staircases.

I walked down through town and stumbled upon the town square, where there were people with placards. “Uh-oh,” thought I, “a protest”. I could see Latvian flags but when I got closer, I could see that a lot of the placards had countries on and a sign on the corner of the square indicated that it was Tallinn Day and this was the gathering of the Chimney Sweeps’ Parade. But before they set off, there was a National Orchestra of some kind – the kind that consists mostly of a small jazz-like band. I watched them for a few minutes and then the heavens opened.

Clearly the locals were anticipating this. The square turned into a riot of umbrellas, but it had been blue sky and sunshine when I went out, so I hadn’t brought anything for bad weather. I took shelter under an overhanging corner of one of those giant umbrella things over one of the pavement cafes, which was ok for a while but when the rain got heavier, it started leaking on me. I decided I had two choices: wait there until the rain stopped, by which point I’d probably be soaked and hypothermic, or trust Lisa’s pronouncement of the square being three to five minutes by foot from my apartment and run back for waterproofs.

I think it’s a big more than three to five minutes but then I did have to stop on every corner to check my map and I did turn the wrong way at Viru Gate. In fact, the rain was lessening a little bit by the time I got back to the apartment. So I stopped for some toast because that’s the great thing about having an apartment – you come home for extra clothes and while you’re at it, you can go into the kitchen and make some food and sit and read the guidebook while you eat to find out what the Slaughterhouse really is. And then you can hear a noise outside and throw open the window and sit on the windowsill to the watch the Chimney Sweeps’ Parade of Nations go past at the top of the street.

I went back down into town. The rain had stopped and the cobbles were already drying, except for huge puddles here and there. Tallinn does not appear to be a town built with good drainage – five minutes of rain and every single drainpipe in the city was gushing water like I was at Splashdown. The sea of umbrellas had gone, the sun was out and people were enjoying the pavement cafes rather than using them for protection. I made my way through the Old Town and back down to Viru Gate, onto the main road. Lisa had told me about the spa, a two-minute walk from my apartment, and where I could get a swimsuit if I decided I wanted to go there, so I ventured into the modern town. Past the Hotel Viru, which was where the KGB spied on tourists in the Soviet days. You can do a guided tour of the spying bit which apparently consists of two rooms full of spy equipment and a staircase lined with photos illustrating the hotel’s history. I get the impression that the Viru was the only hotel that foreigners were allowed to stay in back in those days, where they could be watched. It’s something that feels completely at odds with everything else about Tallinn. I went into the big shiny modern shopping centre and bought what I wanted, having more or less navigated the difficulties in labelling and went back into and around the Old Town for a while, wandering mazes of cobbled streets until my feet hurt and I was hungry again.

That evening I set off for the Kalev Spa. This place does have English signs but they’re confusing. I followed “ladies dressing room” until I found a changing room. I thought it was a bit small but what do I know? I got changed, I cursed the thing I’d bought for being at least three inches too short which made it incredibly uncomfortable and then went to look for the pool, leaving my glasses in the locker, which is where they belong at the pool. I walked the corridors in confusion and then discovered the changing room. There are two and I’d gone in the wrong one, in the one meant only for the lane-training pool. Never mind. The lockers use the same electronic bracelet system as the Blue Lagoon, so once you’ve registered it to a locker, you can’t go changing it, although the bracelets themselves are lovely sturdy silicone, not crumbling plastic. I made my way through the correct changing room and to the pool.

Now, I daresay it’s lovely. In a swimsuit two sizes too small and unable to see properly, this was the least fun trip to a pool ever. The ten-lane Olympic pool was 9/10 occupied by amateur swimming and anyway, the water is freezing and it’s four or five metres deep at the deep end. I really don’t like swimming in deep water, it’s scary. So I took to the hot tubs. Kalev Spa has two of them, both very large, more like small hot pools than tubs. The trouble is that they’re not hot, they’re pleasantly warm. Hot tubs should start at 38° for the coolest and these were only 35° and for some mad reason, they had a “pearl bath”. That’s a hot tub that’s cold, although their website says it’s 35° as well. I can only conclude that it was broken when I went there. It’s hard to enjoy a lukewarm hot tub while worrying that your stuff is in the wrong pool, wearing a suit that’s too small and unable to see the time when you pay for a set amount of time, and indeed, the changing room I’d used was locked when I got back. I had to find a lady in a staff-only cupboard and explain the problem to her. I don’t know how much English she understood because she led me back down the corridor but she talked at me in Estonian the whole time. She unlocked the room and I meekly fetched my stuff and scuttled back to the main changing room with it all.

And that’s about everything I did on Friday, except that I finished the day making use of my kitchen to make cheese on toast.

Tallinn: day one (not actually in Tallinn)

It’s incredibly hard to write on this keyboard with these nails – without autocorrect, you’d never work out what I’m trying to say.

I arrived at Gatwick at about 9.30 last night, took the bus to North Terminal and then went to see about transfer to my ‘lodge’. I was told there was no bus, I’d have to book a taxi, which would be £17. I’d been told £10 when I booked the lodge and it turned out to be £11.50 and much further away than expected. The lodge was attached to a hotel and on reception, I was told apologetically that my room was in the main hotel, not the lodge. I didn’t mind. I did mind that I spotted a transfer bus timetable on the counter after I’d been told there was no bus but to be fair, the last bus of the evening is at 7.45pm.

There’s not much in the way of signage and directions at the Europa. I only found the lift because I followed someone else and I found my room by method of walking all the way down every corridor until I spotted it. It smelled of chlorine outside my room – there’s a spa somewhere and I suspect it was close.

My room had four beds and a bath, much better than expected but the pillows were like concrete slabs and the fountain outside made it sound like it was raining heavily all night.

In the morning, I got the bus, which went through towns and industrial estates instead of just whizzing down the motorway as expected but it arrived at about the advertised time, which gave me time for toast & apple juice before an unremarkable flight to Riga, during which we passed right over Ystad.

We arrived (early, at 2.35 local time) in the Schengen area of Riga airport, which meant I had to come out of the security area, which meant I ended up sitting outside in the sun, enjoying the meadows literally right outside the airport and watching the planes take off. Actually, driving past that door eight hours later on my way to my next plane, I spied the transfer signs I’d missed earlier. Never mind. I got to sit in the sun.

At 5, I thought it was time to go in. Got through security with no problems for the second time in one day only to find, on the first information board I found, that my flight was delayed for 3 hours. We were given refreshment vouchers – a free meal in Lido or TGI Friday being no use to me, I used it in the kiosk for snacks and drinks. €2.13. Three hours delay for a €2.13 voucher. Not good, airBaltic. To be fair, I’d been told this was the worst of the deals on offer but it was the only one that would get me anything I could eat. Fortunately, Lisa can still meet me at my apartment for key delivery but I now incur a late arrival fee. Some homework must be done on the subject later. Meanwhile, we Tallinn refugees are waiting patiently and silently at our gate – another hour to go – and shamelessly helping ourselves to any sockets we see to charge phones that shouldn’t need an extra 3 hours use – but unlimited free wifi, well done Riga airport.

As I went through the gate, my boarding card flashed up red. In approximately half a second, my passport had been checked and a new boarding pass was being scanned and passed to me. For some reason, my seat had been changed.

We squeezed onto the aforementioned bus, which travelled about 100 yards and then stopped for ten minutes, then drove us halfway around the airport (cue comment from the back “Now they’re taking us to Tallinn by bus!” repeated when no one laughed). At last we stood shivering on the steps, waiting for everyone to stop faffing with their too much luggage and let the rest of us on. My new seat worked out ok – I was still by the window, although on the wrong side of the plane, and the middle seat was unoccupied.

It was a very quick and painless flight. In the dark, you could even make out the lights of Helsinki in the distance. I got a taxi, the driver eventually worked out what I meant by my attempts to pronounce Uus, my street, and Lisa and Trevor were waiting to welcome me and show me around on a map. And now it is late and I’ve had a long day.