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.

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